Grey eminence

At 6am this morning Grey Advertising’s chief executive Steve Blamer was due to climb a ladder and spray-paint a large red R over the R on the Grey nameplate above the agency’s door in Great Portland Street. That, at least, was the plan.

R stands for “revolution not evolution”, according to Blamer. By folding in subsidiary agency Mellors Reay & Partners, Blamer believes he can make Grey in London a creative force to be reckoned with.

But adland is sceptical. Old-timers have seen all this before. Dream teams have come and gone and Grey has retained its reputation for being “Grey by name, grey by nature”.

Tim Mellors is seen as the creative white knight, who will bring sophistication and creative prowess to Grey. Blamer and Mellors are the latest “dream team” to try to awaken the “sleeping giant”, as they both call Grey in London.

As part of the shake-up Blamer climbs from managing director to chief executive officer, where he will continue to work with chairman Roger Edwards, and Clare Rossi, Grey’s head of planning becomes chief planning officer. Carol Reay, as deputy chairman, will oversee the initial agency restructure but her role after this is unclear.

Reay says that it was a condition of the merger that she will be made chairman in six months’ time. This is one of the titles held by Roger Edwards. But there is speculation that Reay has got a worse deal than Mellors.

Folding Mellors Reay into Grey has been on the agenda for over a year: at one time Reay was expected to get the top job, but that has been filled by Blamer.

The agency will be reorganised into four business units, which will operate like mini-agencies. Each will be managed by a triumvirate of group managing director, group creative director and group planning director.

All Mellors Reay business will be managed in one unit by its former managing director, Chris King, who becomes a group managing director in the merged organisation. The plan is to transfer the 50 Mellors Reay staff from Frith Street into Grey’s Portland Street office by January 1 1999 at the latest.

Three more group managing directors – Barry Cox, Jayne Barr and Steve Richards – will divide the Grey business between themselves. Cox will handle SmithKline Beecham

and Allied Dunbar; Barr will handle some Procter & Gamble business and a number of other accounts including Startrite shoes, and Richards

gets P&G laundry, Pedigree and Ben Sherman.

Blamer says: “Instead of organising the agency on a departmental basis it will be built around clients’ business on a group basis. By physically putting people together they will gain ownership and loyalty for the group of brands they work on. It will empower people to make their own decisions, but with that empowerment comes accountability.”

Grey’s executive creative director, Paul Smith, was culled immediately to make way for Mellors. Friends say Smith is still shell-shocked. He was told that the merger was officially going ahead and to collect his personal belongings and get out last Wednesday within half an hour.

Grey’s overall chairman, president and ceo Ed Meyer, says: “The possibility of bringing Tim Mellors into Grey London is a mouthwatering prospect because I am eager to support a more creative approach. The level of creativity is good, but it has been under-appreciated because it has not had a creative leader of sufficient charisma and authority to get that over.”

And it does look as though Grey is entering a purple patch. At the same time the merger was announced, Blamer told staff about 14m of new business – the 6m Sporting Life account and the 8m pan-European account for Allergan, the contact lens solution manufacturer. Grey fought off competition from M&C Saatchi and Saatchi & Saatchi for Sporting Life and the Saatchi & Saatchi healthcare division for Allergan.

Grey’s new business director Michael Richards was handed a hefty bonus cheque as a reward at the merger announcement meeting. Blamer says financial incentives will be used more in the future.

Staff cheered, according to Blamer. But those cheers of jubilation were shortlived for 20 staff who found themselves without a job at the start of this week. All were from Grey and mainly culled from administration and IT.

Creatives and planners, apart from Smith, are safe. “The creative department is a priority and Tim will hire three more creative teams,” says Blamer.

Client conflict between the two agencies is minimal. The main clash is Cadbury against Mars. Mellors Reay handles Cadbury’s Cakes and Mini Rolls and Grey has eight Mars Confectionery brands, including Galaxy and Caramel.

Mellors and Reay have been successful at achieving a high public profile, though some critics say the agency’s creative reputation is better than the reality. Grey has produced some good creative work in the past few years – the Fairy Liquid campaign in which children have to wait for an empty bottle to play with and the recent Ben Sherman campaign are applauded as some of the better work.

But Grey has been bad at its own public relations. One former Grey creative points out that Saatchi has just as much dull multinational work but puts forward charity accounts and small trendy clients for awards. This perpetuates the image of Saatchi as a creative force. “If Mellors can

do as good a PR job on Grey’s image as he has on his own, this new arrangement may stand a chance. If Mellors adds a few glossy bits into the shop window, he will have a good backbone built up under Paul Smith. People notice the glossy bits and award-winning campaigns.”

This merger also means that the Mellors Reay & Partners agency name will no longer exist. Mellors confesses that he is sad about that. “Mike Greenlees (president and chief executive of TBWA Worldwide) once said to me that after a year you won’t notice your name over the door but I’m still proud of it and I wanted

my kids to see my face and thumb prints on the front of the agency,” says Mellors.

Grey is perceived as a large faceless agency which swallows up potential high flyers who fall off the scene and are rarely heard from again. It pays above average, but then it

has to attract people of a decent calibre who forgo their chance to build a reputation on award-winning

campaigns.

A stream of senior managers and creatives have bailed out, frustrated that profits take priority over creativity. As a cog in a worldwide network Grey in London has to service multinational clients and deliver profits to the US chiefs.

Top of the tree is Meyer himself, who is reputedly the richest man in advertising. The tone of Grey is set by Meyer, but he denies Grey is simply earnings driven.

“Grey is a quasi-public agency and we pay less attention to stock price than certain agencies on the market, which are driven by complex financial arrangements and delivering to shareholders. I can take a far more casual attitude while the management team works to bring the London agency up to scratch.”

Meyer, who is 70, says he has no intention of retiring, though senior executives must be wondering who will be his eventual successor.

A multinational client list keeps profits up and creativity at bay. One former member of the creative department who left because he “got tired of trying to get things through”, says: “Big international clients like SmithKline Beecham, P&G and Mars research campaigns to death and have very little courage to try something different. There are a lot of before

and afters which should be the other way round.”

Blamer claims he has been given a clean sheet to revolutionise Grey in London. Some say Mellors will be able to add a gloss that has been missing in the past, but will be forced to compromise with large multinational clients. Grey may be the dullest colour in the spectrum but Blamer and Mellors are out to prove otherwise.v

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