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    Greys Five Year Plan

    In its 100th anniversary year, Grey's new CEO Michael Houston has a vision to 'open the aperture on creativity' 

    October 25, 2017

    In his sophomore year studying Advertising at University of Kansas, Michael Houston wrote to his idol Jay Chiat, expressing his frustration at reading about the subject when he wanted to be practising it. To his complete surprise, Chiat picked up the phone and called him back. The funny part of the story, says Houston, is that “I had just had a tonsillectomy so I couldn’t actually speak, I was sitting there sucking ice cubes.” He did secure an internship with Chiat that was “everything I had hoped and dreamed it would be at the age of 19”, and which embarked him on a career that culminated in taking the reins as global CEO of Grey earlier this year.

    On the face of it, now is not the most auspicious time to become leader of a major agency network, when clients are cutting back and the agency model is being thrown into question as never before. But Houston is having none of it. “I’m not the least bit depressed by it, I’m energized by it”, he says. Figuring out what comes next is an exciting prospect, says Houston. “Our goal is to crack the code on the indispensability of our agency in clients’ minds. That’s a huge challenge and if it’s not exciting for someone then they’re not cut out for this business.”

    There will be some continuity, of course. Jim Heekin, CEO for the last 10 years, is staying on as executive chairman. And it’s remarkable that in the year of the agency’s 100th anniversary Houston is only the fifth CEO of Grey. He’s carried out his own shrewd analysis of that history: “In the first 50 years, the founders were focused on building a stellar marketing communications company. The next 40 years, under Ed Meyer, were phenomenal years of growth when Grey became a global company. When Jim Heekin joined, he put his sight very squarely on the need to re-invent Grey on the basis of creativity. If we could marry that with the strong strategic foundation that already existed, it could be a powerful combination. That’s when Jim and Tor (former CCO Tor Myhren) and a group of us came up with “Famously Effective’, which for the last 10 years has been our north star, at the heart of our driving principles and mission.”

    But the disruptive impact of technology and the changing needs of clients now present new challenges and dictate that a new approach is needed, says Houston. Among the challenges, he puts speed and agility at the top of the list, together with a recognition that change is perpetual, not a one-off. “Like tech companies, we have to become much more iterative, we cannot be paralysed by perfection,” says Houston. “A lot of people want to wait until they’re 100 percent perfect before putting an idea out there, but I think 80 percent today is better than 100 percent tomorrow.”

    And he identifies connectivity as another key challenge. “The definition of what a network agency is has to evolve as well”. A network of agencies acting independently is not efficient, says Houston; they need to be strongly connected by a common culture, a recognition that specialist expertise will reside in certain places, and a belief that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.

    Central to Houston’s vision of the next five years is the belief that “we need to expand our definition of creativity.” That involved not just exploring new forms beyond advertising and the 30-second TVC, but creativity that is driven by data and closely connected to media.

    He’s already undertaken two tangible measures in support of that vision. The first was to hire John Patroulis as Grey’s CCO and his creative partner. “We weren’t looking o replace Tor, we were looking to find the leader that would play in that five-year period, opening the aperture on creativity,” says Houston. “We had a very clear objective in the type we were looking for. John has a proven track record of producing work that is idea-based rather than campaign or execution based, and he’s an amazing leader”.

    Secondly, Houston came up last year with the Brand Experience Group. “It’s not a new division it’s a way of focusing our attention internally, through a collection of specialists who think about how to take these platform ideas for clients and ensure they are brought to life in as many ways a possible,” he explains.

    He’s also keen on fostering partnerships with other WPP companies such as GroupM and Kantar, as well as digital agencies. Grey has a joint venture with POSSIBLE and has also been working with AKQA, but Houston is insistent: “Grey needs to be digital. Our digital evolution and transformation is on a super fast track, and the people we hire in future are going to have a much stronger digital orientation. So, we are not waiting for anyone else to give us the answer”.

    Some of the early work in Grey’s creative renaissance may have been for less famous brands, but now it is the likes of Procter & Gamble and GSK who are driving things, says Houston.

    The level of ideas on Gillette is “phenomenal” he says; there is great work coming on Febreze and P&G’s haircare brands; while GSK has made a bold proclamation on raising the bar on its creative work, and Grey has responded by assigning one of its top Latin America creatives to lead the business globally.

    Unusually, Houston says he knew from a very young age when he was at grade school that he wanted to work in advertising. “I loved the blend of art and commerce, and the art of persuasion and the psychology behind it.” He studied Advertising initially at the University of Kansas where his parents both worked – his mother as an administrator, his father as an Economics professor and then Associate Dean of the business school – before switching to liberal arts after his internship with Chiat Day. Houston says he was a “renegade” from early on, but joined Young & Rubicam after graduating to get a thorough grounding in a structured agency and to learn how the business is run.

    One of his best decisions, he says, was to focus on business development. “I like the challenge, I like the hunt, I like the competition, the fight. IN a new business scenario, we are not so tethered to history and client demands, it truly is blue sky thinking. I think an agency is at its best in a new business scenario because everyone has to be creative”.

    Houston is also one of the first ethnic minority candidates to become leader of a global agency network. And while he’s inclined to treat that as a matter of fact, he says: “I’m not dismissive at all of the significance that it has. It saddens me in 2017 that it needs to have some significance, that it is an anomaly or a breakthrough. I feel very fortunate to be the CEO of a great organisation, also very fortunate if my ethnic status gives values to others, around their opportunities to do things they didn’t believe they could”.

    And he adds: “This will sound trite, but I believe that diversity of all kinds is a business imperative for any organisation which plans to have creativity as its backbone. Business thinking is stronger when there are different voices at the table. We’re going to have to change – and we’ve got a long way to go, but that is definitely going to be a priority for me”. 

    Original article, by Alexander Garrett, appeared in WPP The Wire Q4 2017

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