Grey Group chairman and CEO Jim Heekin talks about his career achievements - The Secret of My Success

Gary Stolkin, Jim Heekin.

In a new series of interviews in partnership with The Drum, Gary Stolkin, global chief executive of The Talent Business, who has handled multiple c-suite hires around the world for agency groups, talks to some of the most admired global chiefs about the secrets of their success. Here he catches up with Grey Group chairman and CEO Jim Heekin.

How did you end up making this career choice in the first place?

My father, James R Heekin Jr, was tapped by David Ogilvy to serve as president of Ogilvy & Mather in the US at the age of 39. As a teenager, the last place I wanted to be was in advertising. But after teaching, I got the bug and went out and got my own job in the planning department of JWT in New York where I’d become president. All of the lessons my father drilled into me — competitiveness, challenging oneself, pushing limits, passion, teamwork and being a straight shooter — began to make sense. The business suddenly felt incredibly natural and I instinctively knew how to deal with things.

Were there epiphany moments that changed the course of your career?

In 1992 I went to McCann Erickson to run its North American division, which was struggling to win new business or even get asked to pitch big, exciting accounts. I was brought in to fix all that but it was a tough place with an embedded culture. In two years, the team we put together won Mastercard, Microsoft, Motorola and Marriott. We went on to win Adweek’s Agency of the Year three years in a row. I learned you can reimagine an old-line agency, focus on next-generation thinking, recruit bright young people who want to do something audacious and win for each other. We’ve done it at Grey.

Left, Gary Stolkin. Right, Jim Heekin.

Do you think what it takes to be a successful chief exec in 2016 differs significantly from what it took when you started your career?

The fundamentals of team-building, competing, winning and effective leadership don’t change. In fact, they are more in demand than ever. Obviously the business environment and technology revolution have changed our industry drastically. Creativity and continuously breaking new ground in brand experience across every emerging platform is the coin of the realm.

Were there ever times when you thought of throwing in the towel on your agency career?

Never. I’ve absolutely loved everything I’ve done and been devoted to it. It was a great compliment when my son, Jim, entered the creative side of the business. I guess three generations prove it’s in our blood.

Have you ever been fired or come close to being fired? If so, how did that affect you?

In life sometimes bad things happen to good people. Those setbacks make you more determined and help you learn about yourself. You stay on the high road and move on.

How do you go about building a leadership team?

When an agency works, you will find a team of five or six highly-talented, like-minded people for whom achieving success is personal. We started in New York, London was revitalized and our transformation has gone on to touch every corner of the world. People want to be part of this kind of success, exceed expectations and stay together. Creatively, financially, talent-wise, Grey has had a decade-long run that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

How do you manage the tension between making this year’s targets versus investing in capability to secure the future?

New business, growing clients, new talent, new offerings are the lifeblood of an agency. Winning works wonders for budgets.

To what extent is the chief exec‘s key role harnessing the energy of the people in the organization?

There is no substitute for a vision of what an organization can become and a plan to get there. I spend a great deal of my time visiting our operations, communicating and listening. We have a very tight senior management team and a global creative council who does the same.

It can be lonely at the top. How do you keep yourself motivated now?

I’ve never found it to be lonely at the top. Not enough hours in the day to connect to our people and our clients. That's motivation enough.

What's the secret of your success?

Success begets success. There’s always another hill to climb. Remain humble.

The the above content is editorially independent and is brought to you in partnership with The Drum and The Talent Business.

Other installments of The Secret of My Success can be found at The Drum's dedicated content section.

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