Can Grey live down its name?

Grey has been very cunning in turning a near-disaster into a creative coup. Mellors Reay & Partners promised much, not least the impressive track record of its principal partners, but ended by delivering relatively little. Now, in an inspired cost-cutting move, that talent has been bought in to manage Grey’s London advertising agency, under the benevolent eye of group chairman Roger Edwards.

The move is inspired not so much on account of it saving money, but because, at long last, it puts some highly recognisable faces behind the counter at the UK shop. Paul Smith, Grey’s decent if low-profile executive creative director, has been summarily dispatched to make way for the bigger, more ebullient ego of Mellors. Once more, there is talk in the air of a creative renaissance at Grey, assiduously fanned by Edwards and Grey’s new chief executive, Steve Blamer.

The fact that Grey ever had a creative period may come as a surprise to some – but it did, under the stewardship of Roger Clayton and Scott Sherrard nearly a decade ago. The management team of that time seemingly squared a circle. They managed to persuade highly conservative service oriented clients – Mars, Procter and Beecham – which were, and are, the backbone of Grey internationally, that effective advertising is not necessarily incompatible with winning creative awards. Creative awards are, of course, extremely useful, not merely for cosseting internal morale, but as seductive window-dressing to entice local clients into the shop. Success can mean all the difference between being number eight and part of the magic circle as one of the UK’s top five agencies. No one has shown this to better effect than Saatchi & Saatchi (another network blessed with P&G as a core client).

Grey has remained a consistent and – so far as we can tell – highly profitable UK agency. But recapturing that creative high ground has, with a few notable exceptions, eluded subsequent management teams. Will the Mellors team be any more successful than its predecessors? Fundamentally, it’s a matter of commitment: Mellors’ own, but also that of Grey’s most senior executives.

The question for Mellors is whether he aims to remain in advertising long term. The question for Grey executives is what sort of agency they really want. The sort of culture instilled by Grey’s president, ceo and effective owner, Ed Meyer – which essentially puts service before creativity – has worked very well for him over the years. Why jeopardise it now? On the other hand Meyer is now 70 and succession must be on the agenda. His anointed successors may well take the view that a changing world requires a modified strategy.

For now, however, there seems little reason to jettison that old cliché, “Grey by name, Grey by nature.”

Cover Story, page 18

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