Agency A-List

Grey Is No. 7 on the Ad Age Agency A-List

Strong Exec Leadership and Improved Digital Knack Change Shop's Image and Draw a Slew of Enviable New Business

By Published on .

The agency Jim Heekin walks into every morning is far different from the one he became head of in 2005. Then, Grey 's New York headquarters could have been mistaken for a typical insurance company there was so little excitement at the WPP shop.

That drove Mr. Heekin to pursue a radical transformation.

"Let's come together and create a culture around Grey ," was the mantra that Mr. Heekin, chairman-CEO for the global network, told staff. "I don't want a flash in the pan. I want a creative agency that endures."

One of Mr. Heekin's most important steps was bringing on Tor Myhren, a newcomer to the New York scene, as chief creative officer.

Within a few years, the company was producing high-profile work for clients such as E-Trade and the NFL, which helped it shift its image in the market. In 2009, Grey left midtown for a slick building downtown, and in December 2010, Mr. Heekin promoted Mr. Myhren to president -- the first time in the shop's history that a creative has taken the reins.

Mr. Myhren's influence on the creative product has been sizable. He has ushered in a series of initiatives, such as regular "Ads We Hate (Because We Didn't Do Them)" sessions, where staffers discuss why Tesco's Cannes Lion-winning workout of South Korea is so good and why Wieden was able to pull off its "Write the Future" campaign for Nike .

"Jealousy is a powerful motivator to creative people," said Mr. Myhren. "Complacency is death."

Perhaps the best punctuation on Grey 's conversion was nabbing the creative portion of Ally Financial's $200 million marketing account just three years after going for it and losing to Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

"We pitched them the same vision we had pitched three years ago," said Michael Houston, managing director and leader of new-business efforts. "Except this time, there was proof in the pudding. It sounds arrogant, but it isn't meant to be."

With an overall revenue increase of 16%, operating profit up 30% and a slew of new business, Grey may have earned the right to be a little arrogant. It has retained important accounts and crafted work with mass recognition, including E-Trade's talking baby and DirectTV's lap giraffes.

It's also won clients such as Darden Restaurants, which in late 2010 asked Grey to handle creative for Red Lobster. It's the third account -- after Olive Garden and Longhorn -- that Darden has handed Grey .

A less sexy but standout achievement has been Grey 's big win in the pharma space. It added Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline Dentures to its roster of Boehringer Ingelheim and Allergen, for combined billings in the category of more than $300 million.

One of the agency's major challenges has been integrating digital.

"We felt like we were playing catch-up when it came to digital," Mr. Heekin said. The agency has slowly but surely filled the gaps and now boasts 70 people solely on digital.

Canon, in particular, has seen the shop flex its digital muscle. The camera company's YouTube-based "Project Imagination" invited amateur photographers to submit pictures based on themes that would eventually be used as the inspiration for a short film by Ron Howard. The community campaign was heavily powered by digital promotion.

Jon Gieselman, senior VP-marketing at DirecTV, called Grey 's work over the past year "great pieces of creative." But he couldn't be faulted for being particularly proud of the "Don't just watch TV, DirecTV," a Lion-winning effort at Cannes.

The main goal is to get ideas flowing and out of the building, said Mr. Myhren.

"If [great work] dies in the hands of clients, I can accept that ," he said. "I cannot accept it dying before it gets there."

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