Grey’s enigmatic ice-maiden is on her way at last. Carolyn Carter, ceo of Grey Europe, has been the target of almost constant speculation about her ‘imminent’ departure since 2006, which she has successfully quashed with Mark Twain’s famous rejoinder. Now, after over 20 years’ service in the higher echelons of an advertising empire long treated by Ed Meyer as his personal fiefdom, but latterly owned by WPP, she really is on her way out. Gone by Christmas time, they say.
Originally, Carter was a client: she joined Grey from General Foods in the early 80s. In 1996 she moved to London as global account director for Mars, a staple Grey client. From 2002 she gradually took on the mantle of John Shannon – possibly the longest-serving senior executive in advertising history – becoming ceo Grey Global Group EMEA in 2004. She, like Shannon, might reasonably have expected to see herself through to retirement age. Meyer was incredibly loyal to senior executives who quietly and efficiently accomplished his aims, which might be defined as personally enriching him, but not at the expense of alienating any of his key clients. It could be a harrowing, stressful role. Which is one reason why top Grey executives used to be some of the most highly paid in advertising.
But the world of Grey changed irrevocably when Meyer decided to cash in his chips and put his agency up for auction in 2005. WPP, the eventual winner, has been every bit as exacting as Meyer, but in a different way. Out went the stellar salaries, Carter’s own excepted.
Carter faced early disappointment when Jim Heekin, formerly of McCann Erickson and Euro RSCG, beat her to the top position at Grey, which anyone else might have interpreted as curtains time. Hence the speculation about her leaving. Cool, ruthless professionalism has seen her through. Until, at least, an unprecedented slump in advertising revenue forced WPP to wield the retrenchment axe more savagely than might otherwise have been the case.
Now it’s time for her to go. David Patton, UK group ceo, will be confirmed as the new EMEA chief. Chris Hirst, his managing director, may take over the top UK role. Carter will miss the London theatre scene, but how much else I do not know.