Meyer's Grey needs a future

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Clearly, there are too many shades of Grey. Patriarch Ed Meyer's failure to make known a clear succession plan has left his agency, an industry institution, with an indistinct and murky future. The best gift Mr. Meyer can give Grey and its people is a clear idea who will lead it and them in the years ahead.

Seldom in recent times have agencies on the scale of Grey been marked so indelibly with the stamp of an owner. At age 73, Mr. Meyer, Grey's chairman-president-CEO, owns approximately 70% of the agency's stock and is known for an unwillingness to relinquish any control. "It's Ed's ball," says an executive who has worked with Mr. Meyer. "If you won't play his way, he'll take it and go home."

Nevertheless, Grey must confront the top management succession issue. Other big agencies do so almost routinely. At Interpublic Group of Cos., Chairman-CEO Phil Geier groomed and then anointed John Dooner president-chief operating officer, and will turn over the CEO reins in 2001.

Not all work out smoothly, but strong institutions can survive upheaval. Consider Leo Burnett Co., which recently weathered an unprecedented top management revolution and embraced new leaders, who have led it into a new future as part of B Com3.

Grey could learn a lesson from Burnett, which still honors its strong-willed founder but now has managers who plainly steer their own course. Not only did Burnett undertake a mega-merger with fellow Procter & Gamble Co. agency MacManus Group, it allowed Japan's Dentsu to gain a stake, spun off its Starcom Worldwide media operation and will commit further heresy by going public.

Under Mr. Meyer, Grey has taken steps in the right direction -- it's got a strong global network and has diversified by taking equity in shops that extend its reach into fast-growing areas, such as kids marketing, entertainment and co-marketing. But it's been too late to the altar with other possible P&G agency partners and appears indecisive about the bridegrooms that remain: Saatchi & Saatchi and Havas Advertising. It's hesitated to spin off MediaCom. And while the agency reportedly is considering a name change, dropping the word "Advertising" from Grey Advertising is hardly a seismic shift.

It will take more than a new name to remake the agency. Nothing short of new blood, and a clearer vision of its future, will put some color back into Grey.

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