Meyer on why he sold, and what lies ahead

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Until the start of the auction for Grey Global Group, CEO Ed Meyer had been one of the industry's most sphinx-like characters. Following the announcement of WPP Group's winning bid, he spoke to Advertising Age reporter Lisa Sanders about the path to the deal-and the road ahead.

Advertising Age: Why did you decide to seek a buyer now?

Mr. Meyer: Because I reluctantly came to the conclusion that there were some merits and some assets in being part of a larger holding-company structure for someone who has spent most of his career advocating the simpler, single-line-of-communication enterprise, the way we were constructed.

The retailers whom our clients have to go to market through are consolidating at a rapid rate. The client base itself is consolidating. It just seemed to me that it was inevitable that their key suppliers, like their communication suppliers, would be consolidating to a greater aggregations.

I'd felt for many years we were better configured than others. Over the last couple of years, the doubts have been growing. And I came to the point of view earlier this year that for the long term-not for the short term, maybe not even for the immediate term, but the long term-it would be better for Grey to be part of a larger aggregation.

AA: So why did you and the board opt for WPP's offer? Obviously you had several.

Mr. Meyer: We opted for the very good reason that it was the best offer for the shareholders, which means it was the highest offer. Remember, we're a public company. Fortunately, WPP was, because [board members] also felt it was the best combination.

AA: When did you first meet [WPP Group Chief Executive] Martin Sorrell?

Mr. Meyer: I know it wasn't at the cricket fields in England.

AA: Did you know him when he was at Saatchi?

Mr. Meyer: I met him after he had emerged as a figure of some consequence in essentially his own company, just because we began meeting at industry conferences. We knew a lot of people in common, we share a client or two. P&G has big events to which they invite their big suppliers, like Formula One races and such. And I would run into Martin there.

I have a recollection of meeting him in Wimbledon. We all go to Wimbledon. Martin and I often go into a corner and whisper and whatnot. Obviously he's a very smart man, a charming man, and he's a very witty man.

AA: When you first met him, what was your impression?

Mr. Meyer: That he is an extremely hard-working man who will build a great business because, in addition to his work habits, he has a great grasp of the business world and a good sense of where he wants to go. I had great respect for him from the beginning, which made this process quite easy.

AA: If you were to characterize your relationship: was it friendly, was it rivals, was it friendly rivals?

Mr. Meyer: It was friendly rivals. When we weren't talking business we were very friendly (laughs). When we were talking business, we were sort of playing games.

AA: And how do you anticipate you'll feel now that you're in a different position?

Mr. Meyer: Someone once said to me, "How are you going to feel working for somebody for the first time in your life?" And I said, "You must be crazy. I've been married for 35 years." We'll have disagreements now and then. All people do. But so what?

AA: How about the highs and lows of the deal process?

Mr. Meyer: Well, the low was clearly the quality of the food served at the law firm (laughs). You know, I'm not a sandwich man.

AA: And how about the highs?

Mr. Meyer: The real high was finding out that the potential partner, who I felt would be best for the agency in the long run, turned out to be the high bidder. I knew going into this, the first obligation you must fulfill is to the shareholders. And that was a case where, what was best for the shareholders in the long run is going to be best for Grey and, more importantly, its people and its clients.

AA: You have in the past few years been focusing much more on emphasizing margins and profit.

Mr. Meyer: We've always focused on the client's business and we perhaps go over the top to be sure we were servicing the business in the best possible way, even if it was at the expense of margins. So we decided to prove to ourselves, and to the world, that we could raise the level of margin and the level of profit to that of our peer group. We were well on our way to doing this when this process got under way.

AA: Do you expect that, as WPP undertakes management, layoffs will occur?

Mr. Meyer: No, no, no. WPP made a presentation, which I was a part of, in which they laid out their overall objectives and I concurred totally with those. We're well on our way.

AA: Meaning that you don't anticipate that there will be layoffs?

Mr. Meyer: Not of the size that would be of interest to writers, to journalists (laughs). Look, can we make the place a little more efficient? Sure. Would there have been layoffs if we were still independent? Yes! Probably nothing extraordinary, because the margins on the business itself are improving rapidly.

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