Executive From the Agency Grey New York Takes On a Larger Role
By Stuart Elliott
A LEADING agency is promoting an executive to a new, senior-level post where his responsibilities will include considering expansion through adding offices in more American cities.
The executive is Michael Houston, who since last year has been chief operating officer of Grey New York, part of the Grey North America division of Grey. (Grey, in turn, is a unit of the Grey Group, which is owned by WPP.) Mr. Houston, who turned 41 on Wednesday, is being promoted to chief executive of Grey North America while continuing to share the leadership duties at Grey New York with Tor Myhren, who is president and chief creative officer there.
Mr. Houston’s promotion makes him one of four regional chief executives at Grey, all reporting to James R. Heekin, chairman and chief executive of the Grey Group. Mr. Heekin most recently handled the Grey North America duties with his other responsibilities.
Mr. Houston, in assuming his new post, becomes one of the few African-Americans in the executive suites of the large, mainstream Madison Avenue agencies — even, perhaps, the most senior. No black person has been chief executive of such an agency since 2006, when Ann Fudge, chairwoman and chief executive at the Young & Rubicam Brands division of WPP, retired. “By no means do I define myself only by that,” Mr. Houston said in a telephone interview. Still, “I do think it’s unfortunate that my appointment potentially makes me the highest-ranking African-American,” he added. “It sends a signal there aren’t a lot of African-American people in the industry in the highest ranks.”
That is problematic, Mr. Houston said, because “we’re meant to appeal to, tap into, popular culture” on behalf of marketer clients, “and it’s hard to do that without diversity.”
“I do applaud the industry for trying to diversify,” he added, but “in our industry ‘diversity’ ought to mean diversity of thought, diversity of background, different ages, different approaches, different sexual orientations. We need to ensure we’re taking the broadest definition of diversity, really being able to appreciate, respect and value others’ points of view.”
Mr. Houston joined Grey New York in 2007 as executive vice president and director for marketing after working at agencies that included Chiat/Day, Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners and Y&R as well as at firms like And Partners, Elias Arts and Landor Associates. He was named global chief marketing officer of Grey in 2010 and managing director of Grey New York in 2011.
“I think a lot of Michael,” said Catherine Bension, chief executive at SelectResources International in Santa Monica, Calif., which helps marketers with agency searches.
“He’s a terrific person,” she added, “and one of the young new leaders of our industry.” (Last year, Mr. Houston was named one of the “40 Under 40” by Crain’s New York Business.)
“Michael has been at Grey New York since the start of its transformation or metamorphosis into a more future-facing, more contemporary agency,” Ms. Bension said, referring to Grey New York’s winning a skein of new accounts with billings estimated at more than $3 billion, among them DirecTV, E*Trade Financial, Gillette, Marriott Hotels and Resorts, RadioShack and Sargento Foods (although one, E*Trade, recently departed.) She praised Mr. Houston for being “a great partner to the creatives” at the agency.
Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, the world’s largest agency holding group in billings, also had nice words about Mr. Houston.
“I’m delighted for Michael,” Mr. Sorrell wrote in an e-mail, describing him as “a key member of the Grey management team.”
Mr. Houston has “done an outstanding job,” Mr. Sorrell said, “and thoroughly deserves this recognition for his success, which is based on an exceptional track record.”
Mr. Heekin, in a phone interview, said he would be turning to Mr. Houston for three primary tasks: prospecting for new business, expanding services like digital and working on “a smart, strategic approach to expanding our footprint in the U.S.”
Grey North America has, in addition to Grey New York, offices in San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver. It has no presence in other prominent American markets after closing offices in Atlanta, Los Angeles and other cities.
Among the markets Mr. Heekin listed as having potential were the Southwest and the Midwest, “whether it’s Chicago or Kansas City,” because “our footprint in the middle of the country is nonexistent.”
He said he would consider both starting offices and making acquisitions, and added that the latter was more likely, as he and Mr. Houston had already been talking to agencies that Grey might buy. In the meantime, Mr. Houston and Mr. Heekin are making changes in San Francisco, hiring Milan Martin as president of Grey San Francisco, succeeding Brad Fogel, who is leaving to pursue other interests, a spokesman said. Mr. Martin, 39, most recently was managing director and chief strategist at Anthem Worldwide in San Francisco, part of Schawk Inc.
“We’re getting things moving in San Francisco,” Mr. Houston said. “We’re excited about what we could do with the office if we can build on the history there and bring in some of the fervor we have in New York.” Clients of Grey San Francisco include Purolator, Reliant Energy and Symantec.
Mr. Houston’s new post includes other duties, among them overseeing Grey Activation and Public Relations. He will share the oversight of Wing, a multicultural agency with offices in New York and Miami, with Alain Groenendaal, who is president and chief executive of Wing and Grey Latin America.