James R. Heekin III, the adman who steered Grey through its impressive turn-around stage over the past decade-plus is hanging up his spurs after a 45-year career effective today.
Heekin led Grey Group, as Chairman and CEO from 2007 until August of 2017 when he was succeeded in the CEO slot by Michael Houston. He then took on the role of Executive Chairman to help ensure a smooth transition. That hand-off nearly two years ago came on the 100th Anniversary of the agency.
Heekin has been in Adland’s big leagues for most his career having served in leadership roles at Havas Group’s Euro RSCG, McCann and JWT prior to joining Grey. The ad biz is something of a family tradition—his dad was an executive at Ogilvy and DDB and a son (Jim IV) is also in the business.
In a recent note to company employees, he recalled that when he joined the company “It was a big, good, slightly stodgy agency with blue-chip clients competitors would die for. But it needed a jump start.”
And a jump start it got: During Heekin’s tenure the agency has won billions in new business, many hundreds of Cannes Lions and multiple Agency of the Year awards.
“Looking back, it all seems pretty logical,” Heekin wrote. “We'd put world-class talent in place. We'd stake out a compelling Grey brand positioning--"Grey Famously Effective Since 1917"--do work that resonates in pop culture, lends fame to our clients and builds their brands and business success. We'd craft a creative-first culture, one that prizes and rewards individual creativity and imagination, something Grey was not known for. We'd sharpen our intellectual edge in strategic planning and enhance the depth and breadth of our total integrated offering, embracing digital and data. The lifeblood of any agency is new business and we made growth from current clients and new clients a cultural imperative.”
And there it is, easy peasy!
Well, not exactly, Heekin noted. To make it work took “passion, guts, courage and vision. Our people in every country whole-heartedly accepted the challenge to build Grey into a creative powerhouse for all the world to see.”
He thanked the troops noting that he was “going to miss all the brilliant, talented, fearless, generous, iconoclastic, egomaniacal people and the clash of creative ideas coming from all sides.”
And he offered some advice about clients: “Always remember you have to re-win them, and win for them, each and every day.”