Learning from ad legends: Ed Meyer

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In my previous job, I had the opportunity of meeting Ed Meyer, the erstwhile Chairman of Grey. I shook hands with him and considered not washing my hands for a week – at Grey, he was God.

Even though I did not work with him, I had come to admire him for his legendary status in the industry. He was known to rule Grey with an iron hand. He once famously said: When will I retire? To paraphrase Warren Buffet, five years after I die.” I admired him for his loyalty (he joined the agency in 1956 and retired in 2006!). He was known to be extremely knowledgeable about his clients business – he worked with P&G for 47 years! He became President of Grey in 1970 (14 years after joining them) and was also known to be ‘rich’ holding a huge amount of shares in Grey. According to a New York Times article he said: “I built my career and the agency on the belief clients come first, and the job of the guy at the head of the agency is to know their needs. Not what they like for dinner, but their advertising needs, better than anyone at the agency”.

When I read 10 lessons learned from Ed Meyer, it reminded me why he was held in such high regard. And everything that he believed in so true of the agency business even today. Here are the 10 lessons:

Perform with a sense of urgency. When a client has a request or a boss asks a question, respond quickly. No matter where in the world Ed was, he answered questions promptly, often within 15 minutes. If Ed could do it with all he had on his plate, why can’t we?

Acknowledge the good. A simple “Nice job” or “Well-written” can be so motivating and rewarding to your people and even to clients. Ed’s unique “green pen” acknowledgments over the years were like the gold stars I received in grade school.

There’s no such thing as a small client. Ed believed every client needed to be treated as an important client, even if their billings were modest. Small clients can grow to become big clients either at their current companies or elsewhere in the future. And they’ll never forget how you treated them.

Relationships are our most important asset. Businesses can go up and down. Sometimes you can help, but often the ultimate success or failure can be beyond your control. Relationships, however, can last forever. Nurture them and stay in touch. Ed never failed to stay in touch with clients.

Share the bad news early. While it’s natural to share your success with your boss, it’s even more important to share the potential failures. One of the early lessons I observed was when an associate was having difficulty with a major client and tried to “fix it” himself. When the client ultimately left, Ed was steamed — not by the departure but by being kept in the dark until it was too late.

Loyalty is long remembered. The most important time to support former clients may be when they are between jobs. When a client loses a job, be at the forefront to help him network. It’s not only the right thing to do, but your gesture will be greatly appreciated and long remembered.

There is no substitute for knowledge. Knowing the client’s business is step one. This is a prerequisite for any dialogue with a client, whether in a formal or informal setting. If Ed was to even shake hands with a client, he would make it his business to be fully briefed on the business.

Winning is a team effort. Grey has always had a collaborative spirit, which reflects Ed’s style. He used all the resources available to contribute to an effort and was never title-conscious. Ed CC’ed all parties as appropriate. When Grey won, we all won. When Grey lost, it would not be for silo or fiefdom reasons, whether that was geographical or subsidiary-based.

Recognize that business is a marathon, not a 100-yard dash. Focusing on the short-term victory shouldn’t obscure longer-term opportunities. With a little patience and time, I ultimately understood the wisdom of Ed’s sometimes puzzling decisions, which resulted in much greater long-term success.

Being proactive makes you stand out. When you take the extra step to anticipate clients’ needs and offer new perspectives they never asked for, you will win their respect. Ed would always encourage us to go beyond the brief and demonstrated, by his example, how to really add value to all assignments.



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