Grey London’s year so far has been dominated by the search for a new chief executive to replace Tamara Ingram, who was moved to run the network’s global Procter & Gamble business in January. For an agency that has attracted names like Steve Blamer, Martin Smith and Garry Lace in the past, the frenzied speculation in recent months was perhaps inevitable.
If the rumours are to be believed, Grey – which has long been dogged by the “Grey by name, grey by nature” tag – was having trouble attracting someone with a high enough profile. But it eventually got its man when it announced the appointment of Sony’s European marketing chief David Patton (MW last week).
Observers think Jim Heekin, the network’s worldwide chief executive, will have a clear manifesto mapped out for Patton’s rejuvenation of the London agency. Patton, who does not start until September, has an unenviable task. He will inherit an agency striving to find the right balance between servicing its global network clients such as P&G and GlaxoSmithKline, and convincing local clients that it can handle creatively-led domestic business.
Some observers question what is in it for Patton, who lacks any agency experience and moves from an organisation acclaimed for its advertising to an agency that has finished bottom of the Gunn creative excellence report.
His appointment at Grey took the industry by surprise, with many expecting him to succeed Lee Daley as chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi London. They say his ambitions would have been well served by Saatchi, which proved to be a springboard for the careers of Adam Crozier, who went onto run the Football Association and then Royal Mail, and Daley, who left to become commercial director of Manchester United. By comparison, the Grey London job is considered by many to be a “poisoned chalice”.
Although no longer under the dictatorial control of Ed Myer and now part of Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP empire, Grey London has failed to shed its “uninspiring” image. It is still desperately seeking to fill the gap left by the loss of the AOL account, and is about to lose the bulk of its Nokia business.
One industry source says: “Saatchi & Saatchi, even with its problems, remains an iconic agency, so a novice would have less to lose going to an agency like Grey, which does not have a creative reputation to protect. At Grey, the clever Patton can go only one way – and that’s up.”
But a WPP source says it is “unfair” to rate the agency solely on creativity: “Any agency which has held the likes of P&G for that long has to be in good shape. There is no shame is maintaining relationships with clients and servicing them till death. And creativity is not a lasting problem that cannot be fixed.”
Consultant Suki Thompson also jumps to the agency’s defence, saying: “It has been a steady ship under Tamara Ingram and Nicola Mendelsohn, and they have done well to put the agency on the new business map. The agency was a real contender with Mother on the Post Office pitch – an almost impossible achievement for Grey a few years ago.”
Not the agency it once was
However, Richard Pinder, the Publicis Worldwide chief operating officer who started his career at Grey in the mid-1980s during Roger Edwards’ stewardship, disagrees and says the agency lacks creative credibility: “I started as a graduate trainee at the agency and at the time chose Grey over Saatchi. Edwards took the agency from number 28 to number eight in the leagues list and coupled with that we had a great creative story to tell. I am very sad to see that the agency has almost the same clients but with creative work not half as good.” But like many, Pinder believes that Heekin has been looking to change the Grey culture and Patton’s appointment will form part of that plan. It is now up to Patton to try to boost Grey’s appeal.