It isn’t every day that an ad agency rises from the dead.
In November 2020, when WPP announced it was merging Grey and AKQA into a new “global creative solutions network” dubbed AKQA Group. The assumption was that the legacy Grey brand would be no more. The Ad Age article regarding the move showed a gravestone etched with the words: “Here lies Grey. Survived by AKQA.”
But Grey’s demise was greatly exaggerated. And, in fact, that tombstone became the motivator for the 104-year-old agency’s Lazarus-like return. “It became a rallying point,” said Michael Houston, Grey Group’s worldwide CEO. “We had already been having conversations about diversity and racial tension when all of that was piled onto the pandemic. So in many ways I feel—whether it was by design or by default or by luck—we were poised for the pandemic and for having a common nemesis, which was that of facing our own death.”
Grey rallied to the tune of $88 million in new business, raising its revenue to $258 million as it racked up accounts including MassMutual, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Modelo, IHG Hotels and Georgia-Pacific’s Angel Soft. Grey’s health and wellness practice thrived with wins for Eli Lilly, Genetech and Johnson & Johnson. Grey was a lynchpin in WPP’s score of the massive Coca-Cola account consolidation; its Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Javier Campopiano was a point person on that review. On the creative front, the agency scored accolades for its provocative dialogue about race, “Widen the Screen,” a continuing collaboration for Procter & Gamble with Grey-backed Cartwright. The agency broke taboos by featuring animated singing pubic hairs for Gillette’s Venus.
Grey also seized on country singer Walker Hayes’ tribute to Applebee’s by amplifying his “Fancy Like” TikTok dance, resulting in 60 million online views—and a doubling of the chain’s U.S. sales for the three-month period ended June 30.
Grey created a virtual fake flavor, Pringles CryptoCrisp, and sold it as an NFT. The push notched 92 million impressions in 24 hours.
“Our strategic approach, bringing data and strategy together, started to build our momentum,” said Houston. “We just started winning one after another after another, and that’s when our confidence really started to build.”
Among those wins was MassMutual in April. “Everything about how they served our first meeting to the way they worked through the process of hiring them highlighted one key thing—they listen,” said Lindsey Slaby, the consultant at Sunday Dinner who handled the review. She also cited Grey’s flexibility as a huge factor. “Contrary to maybe even what I may have thought, they are super flexible in how they work and structure,” she said. “Grey demonstrates that it is client-first.”
The agency said this is possible because it has broken down barriers that hinder collaboration—as John Patroulis, global creative chairman, puts it, “We are not an agency network, we are a networked agency.” “We don’t worry so much about what it's called or where the money goes because God knows we've got enough finance people to figure that out,” said Houston.
“We really focus on what the clients need and how we're going to get there. If we can strip away the politics and the bureaucracy, smart people want to work with smart people and do good work.”
Which brings us back to that tombstone. “It almost became this thing that helped us, in New York especially, to think about ‘What really matters is talent—in the business, in the work, and the culture,’” said New York Chief Creative Officer Justine Armour. “It helped us really focus on what kind of company we want to be going forward.”
“We've got so much we want to do. We're nowhere near where we want to be,” said Houston. The Comeback Agency of the Year Award “has given us a new rallying cry for this year. We're glad we've made it here. We're ready to go even further.”
Featured in Ad Age Agency A-List.