Edward H. Meyer, Who Built an Advertising Empire, Dies at 96

Edward H. Meyer, an empire-building chief executive who, using an iron-willed management style and a laser focus on even the smallest details, transformed a midsize New York advertising agency into the global power known as Grey Group, died on Tuesday at his apartment in Manhattan. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by a Grey spokeswoman.

Mr. Meyer joined Grey Advertising, as it was then known, as an account-services executive in 1956, when the agency was billing about $34 million a year.

He was named president in 1968 and assumed the reins as chairman and chief executive in 1970. Over the next 35 years he built Grey, one of the last major agencies to remain independent, into a behemoth that a company spokeswoman said was billing $4.2 billion at the time of its sale to the British advertising and communications colossus WPP in 2005 for $1.5 billion.

As a manager, Mr. Meyer was anything but passive. Demanding performance at all levels, he had an uncompromising drive that inspired comparisons to corporate barons like Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone.

“Ed inspires awe in staffers of every rank,” a 2003 profile in Adweek noted. “He also inspires fear.” The article quoted a former Grey middle manager who said that employees would often go silent the second Mr. Meyer stepped into an elevator, and that some would visibly tremble outside his office before meetings.

While gracious and often incisively witty in interviews, Mr. Meyer did not duck such characterizations. “I just tend to think I’m not benevolent,” he told Adweek. “But everybody says, ‘Boy, he admires brains, he loves people who get it done. If you can match those criteria, you’ve got it made at Grey.’”

Mr. Meyer believed that serving clients required a lot more than whisking their top executives to four-star restaurants.

“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,” Mr. Meyer told the New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott in 2006. “Not what they like for dinner, but their advertising needs, better than anyone at the agency.”

Mr. Meyer made good on his words. In 1988, for example, he took a turn cleaning shrimp and waiting tables at a Red Lobster restaurant in Orlando, Fla., to get a feel for the inner workings of the chain, a client that Grey supplied with the memorable tagline “For the seafood lover in you”

As a waiter, he had his shortcomings, spilling coffee on one patron. “She told me no apology was necessary,” he later recalled, “because it was nice to see someone my age doing that job.”

Over the years, clients took note. “Ed is Grey and Grey is Ed,” an executive for Procter & Gamble, a cornerstone client for decades, told Adweek.

Such hands-on dedication made even more sense for Mr. Meyer, given that he had an unusual amount of skin in the game.

“I was one of the few guys who owned a big hunk of the agency he ran,” he told Mr. Elliott after the sale of Grey, which netted him an estimated sum close to $500 million. “Every penny I had was in here, so I had more at stake than anyone else”

“I sweated it harder,” he added. “I overruled people because I couldn’t afford to be a nice guy.”

Edward Henry Meyer was born in New York City on Jan. 8, 1927, the second of three children of Irving Meyer, a manufacturer of children’s clothing, and Mildred (Driesen) Meyer.

After graduating from the private Horace Mann School in the Bronx, he enrolled in Cornell University. He took time off in 1945 to serve in the United States Coast Guard Reserve for two years and, after returning to Cornell, received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1949. He then entered the executive training program in the Bloomingdale’s division of Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s Inc.).

Mr. Meyer began his half-century in advertising in 1951 when he took a job with the Biow Company, a small agency. It was there that he began his long and fruitful relationship with Procter & Gamble, the Cincinnati-based packaged-goods giant, by working on its Lava soap account.

His work with Procter & Gamble continued five years later when he jumped to Grey. It did not take him long to produce results.

In 1959, the agency won the account for Procter & Gamble’s Ivory Flakes laundry soap, a brand that was in a lengthy slump as competitors touted their new and improved ingredients.

As account supervisor, Mr. Meyer directed research into the brand’s most loyal consumers, who turned out to be new mothers. In response, Grey focused on the brand’s perceived purity, arguing that Ivory Flakes were soft and gentle enough for washing baby clothes and cloth diapers.

A resulting television spot featured a professorial man in a bow tie who calls himself “the world’s only baby language translator” deciphering an infant girl’s fussy ramblings as a consequence of wearing scratchy diapers that had been washed in competitors’ soaps. After just a few months, the brand had reversed an 11-year decline in sales, according to a former Grey executive interviewed for an internal history of the agency compiled in 1992.

An early proponent of globalization for the industry, Mr. Meyer viewed a worldwide reach as key to his agency’s growth. He also expanded into related areas like public relations, media buying and direct marketing.

“When I took it over, it was a domestic, United States, advertising agency that had just begun to explore the world,” Mr. Meyer said of Grey in a 2001 interview with Business Today magazine. Under his guidance, he continued, “Grey became a truly global agency, in the ’60s and ’70s, which was the right time to do it because you can’t do it anymore.”

Mr. Meyer is survived by his wife, Sandy; his son, Tony; his daughter, Meg; and five grandchildren.

He retired in 2006, a year after the agency’s sale. In 2014, he and his wife bestowed $75 million to Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan to expand and consolidate its cancer care and research programs under the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center.

To many in the industry who had come to see Mr. Meyer and Grey as one and the same, his departure after so many decades seemed almost unimaginable. Mr. Meyer, apparently, agreed. In an interview with Chief Executive magazine late in his career, Mr. Meyer discussed his seemingly endless tenure as Grey’s chief.

“When will I retire?” he said. “To paraphrase Warren Buffett, five years after I die.”

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *