By Josephine Chew
WHAT is a man who once vowed never to enter the world of advertising doing at the helm of marketing and communications firm Grey Group?
He 'likes working with crazy people', and proudly counts himself as one of them. Sitting in a conference room nursing his right arm in a sling, James Heekin III fairly quivers with obsessive zeal when talking about his chosen profession. It comes as no surprise when he confessed that he went back to work three days after a January shoulder surgery that usually requires several months of rest. And no, he still can't write, and can barely move his arm away from his body.null
The head of Grey, which has 432 offices in 96 countries with 10,000 employees, with a client list that includes Procter and Gamble, E-Trade and Canon, is unabashed about his love for the job.
And the 59-year-old has no patience for cynics who dismiss advertising as nothing but smoke and mirrors, and whose sole purpose is to manipulate the public into buying things they don't want and don't need. 'Look, we do go into the minds of consumers but we're giving people what they want. I'm basically a psychiatrist who happens to sell things.
'We're in the advocacy business - part of our job is to sell optimism, which ultimately makes both consumers and clients happy.'
Why then, the initial reluctance to enter the freewheeling world of 'advocacy'?
After all, it is family tradition. His father, James Heekin II, was president of Ogilvy and his son, James Heekin IV, is now also a foot soldier in the business of 'optimism-peddling' as well. The Williams College graduate in English and Psychology said that it was precisely his father who inspired his initial antipathy.
'He was always working so hard, so I made a deliberate choice not to go into it. But after two or three years . . . I realised that I was never going to be able to make enough for a living in teaching.'
Indeed, he seems to have committed himself to the industry wholeheartedly for the past three decades. His resume shows an unrelenting and meteoric rise to the top with pitstops at the likes of Euro RSCG and McCann Erickson.
Since taking over the helm of Grey as chairman and CEO in January 2007, he has been credited with revitalising an ageing, hulking beast which had the dubious honour of being named the agency with 2005's most boring creative reel by Adweek, to one that won nine Lions at the Cannes International Advertising Festival last year, the industry's equivalent of the Oscars.He will continue to have his work cut out for him, given the gloomy economic climate that has already seen massive layoffs at agencies such as Ogilvy, Crispin, Fallon and even Grey.
Asked about the industry's prospects, he's quick to underplay the problems, and instead waxes lyrical about what is to come.
'The future of advertising has never been better . . . We have other mediums (such as the Internet) that have been growing. There's no question this recession will end. I think we can look to the second half of 2009 to the return to the stability to financial markets in the US.
But he concedes that the short-term outlook for advertising is bleak, and that more job cuts may be on the horizon.
'Well . . . 2009 is very tough, it's going to be very tough particularly in the first six months. We're already seeing it . . . An awful lot of clients are pulling back in terms of their spending.'
Worse still, clients are looking to not just spend less, but also to revert to tried and tested marketing formulae - not a good omen for an agency that has been aggressively pushing for cutting edge ads after a decade of languishing in the wilderness of mediocre, though effective, campaigns.
'There's no question we're engaging more in short-term activation marketing programmes. That means we're more focused on sales today and tomorrow, and value-messages - versus building the brand values over time. So there's been a shift in our work in this time.'