India has got to be Greys next famously effective agency,
Brand Equity caught up with Grey's CEO Jim Heekin on the sidelines of a regional meeting to see how he's transformed a stolid old school agency into a profitable, creatively driven global operation. And his plans for Grey's Indian outpost which spent most of the last couple of years playing to an entirely different script:
February 22, 2015
How did your clients react to the sluggish growth phase that India as a country went through? What's your prognosis?
India has been frustrating. Everyone sees the size and there's excitement around the opportunity. But by the same token, we've not seen the changes and reforms to make the business environment easier. But have clients pulled away?
No. Which leads us to the present time: there's a tremendous inflection point and a sense of transition and excitement about the leadership. Overall one can foresee a really solid GDP over the next decade. From an ad standpoint, there aren't too many markets where you get 10 per cent growth. India has got to be Grey's next 'famously effective' agency.
Hiring Sunil Lulla (as CEO) was a very big step and signals our ambition. We have great digital capability and have made quite a few acquisitions. We closed a big one in rural marketing with RCM and have two more that we hope to close by June: in CRM and digital. India is poised. Our key clients are here. It's a question of having the right leadership and continuing to invest in creative talent.
Prior to the arrival of new leadership, Grey India went through a rough patch, losing out on pitches.What sort of a revival strategy do you have in place?
The vision has been set for nine years. It starts with strong leadership with a modern view of the business and a focus on creativity. The ambition is to be one of the most creative agencies in the market.
We need to ask each other, every day, are we in the Top 3 or 4 and if not what are we doing about it? The third ingredient is to focus on multi-channel marketing. It's not about making commercials but about communication on the web, shopper marketing, events and all points of contact.Sunil has been like a wild man in terms of new business.
We've had more success in the past 6 months than in the previous. A lot of government business has come in and we've done pretty famous work like 'Save The Girl Child'. The work we did for Gillette around the cricket World Cup has 2.5 million hits. I think the turnaround has begun.
Where would you ideally want the agency to be?
We ought to be able to double in size in four years through just organic growth. Acquisitions are on top of that. From a more conceptual standpoint, creativity in India is at a critical juncture. I'd like Grey to be part of the leadership of the next direction in creativity. That sounds very ambitious.
Like maybe I am smoking some funny stuff.(Laughs). But it's no different from me saying nine years ago that we are going to be the most creative network agency in the world. I'd like people to say four years from now, 'Grey may not be the biggest but are the most forward thinking; the leadership brand in terms of where the business is going.'
How have the last few years been for Grey? You've received many positive notices from the trade press for client retention and growth.
The last 10 years have been the most satisfying of my career. Grey was in a challenging position a decade ago.While a venerable strong brand, it was perceived as behind the times with a weak creative product. I decided to emphasise creativity above and sometimes at the expense of everything else, across disciplines including digital.
A lot of time and effort went into acquiring and building digital. And we've seen the results: agency of the year according to Ad Age and Campaign. There's a recognition that Grey, among the big agencies, is performing uniquely well.
What's the current growth rate?
I can't give you the number but in 2014, our top-line growth was somewhere between 7 per cent and 10 per cent. Bottomline growth was double digit. That was the best performance inside of WPP. And we are projecting similar growth in 2015. It's being driven primarily by the US and Asia.
In an interview with BE a decade ago you said 'If there was only one thing I could have it would be brilliant creativity'. How has Grey fared on that front?
It's been very successful but with creativity there's no finish line. Every day, we need to find ways to attract more diverse talent, invest in them. And make tough decisions about people who don't meet our standards. We have radically changed the employee base at Grey over 7 or 8 years to get better people.
A lot of the new Grey creative notoriety is because of Tor or people he has hired. The more important contribution is to help change our culture. One of the reasons I made him president in North America is I want to see creativity living at the top of the company at equal status with the CEOs, be part of all decisions and literally help write the future. Tor and I work closely together every day. Others like Nils Leonard have been made chairman of Grey in London.
How does his approach differ from that of your former CCO, Tim Mellors?
They are both amazingly creative, capable of inspiring. But personality wise, very different. Tim fits the image of creative people: crazy, irresponsible, never on time, all of that. Tor is unusual; very good analytically. We agree on almost everything which is frightening since I have a different background. When it comes to decisions we always reach the same point. He thinks more like a CEO.
While scam has become a dirty word, agencies nevertheless find ways to exploit loopholes. What are your thoughts on such work?
We have avoided doing that sort of work. Most of our Lions are for current clients. But we are open to it if someone brings me or Tor an amazing idea that has some social value like the gun violence campaign ('Unload Your 401k' from Grey New York that won Titanium at Cannes 2014). That was not an existing client.
If it has merit from a human standpoint we will invest in it. But not in some gratuitous condom ad with little people running around. I look at our competition and they have literally set up departments that do scam with huge budgets.
Does it annoy you since that means it's not a level playing field?
It annoys the hell out of me but I am encouraged by the overall direction in which I see Cannes moving.It's moving closer to Effie and the Effie is moving closer to creativity. I don't think it helps the festival and the people who own it, to have it known for scam. They've made several changes that attempt to reward legitimate work. I see it in the number of clients attending. And in the new awards for data.
So how do you encourage clients to buy better work?
There are two things we do that are helpful. We have a film called 3 Minute Grey which explains the philosophy about 'famously effective.' We show that film to all of our clients and new business prospects and say this is what we are about.Clients whose work doesn't make it to the film immediately want to know why. And we say, "That's because it isn't good enough."
And that begins an important discussion. Why isn't the agency doing that sort of work for you? Is it the agency? Probably not since we are able to do it for other clients.The other way is to get our clients to come to Cannes, look at the work and its best if they have a creative person with them. It's like going to school.
Brands and agencies are increasingly styling themselves as creators of content and experiences. But some of these invariably leave brands vulnerable: like Gawker tweeting bits of Mein Kampf to a Coke Twitter promotion or people approached to be a part of McDonald's 'Pay with Lovin' campaign being actively annoyed by it. What's the best way of getting into this space?
Content means so many different things today, but one of the things is what I call disposable creativity, generated on a 24 hour cycle. It's not very strategy or brand driven nor well thought through. It's being generated by 23 year old kids and how you regulate that is a challenge.
The opportunity is for agencies like Grey to become more proficient and flexible enough to generate that content but still have it be strategically relevant and not embarrass the brands. Too many clients are outsourcing these to people who don't know what they are doing, frankly.
Do some brands and agencies appear to have an exaggerated sense of their place in a consumer's life?
Agencies have no role in a consumer's life. But brands occupy an amazingly powerful place. Where they can and do make mistakes is when they underestimate the consumer. Consumers today are incredibly demanding. They want to be entertained, want authenticity, truth and no bullshit. And so the way brands act and behave needs to conform to certain standards. Sometimes, if you'd really thought about it, you wouldn't run some work.