Edward H. Meyer, Who Built the Grey Group into an Ad Giant, Dies at 96

REUTERS/Keith Bedford
Passersby walk in front of the Times Square Red Lobster restaurant in New York, June 23, 2010.

As he built the Grey Global Group into an advertising giant, Edward H. Meyer embraced a reputation as a meticulous, intense and even autocratic leader, a chief executive in the mold of Rupert Murdoch or Sumner Redstone. Profiled by the business magazine Campaign in 1998, he jokingly suggested they headline the article, “The Benign Dictator.”

Under his leadership, Grey released a number of catchy taglines, including “For the seafood lover in you” for Red Lobster, “When you’re here, you’re family” for Olive Garden, and “Choosy mothers choose Jif,” which debuted in 1966 when he was an executive vice president at the firm, overseeing ads for the peanut butter brand’s parent company.

Meyer made it a point to know every detail about his clients and their needs and expected employees to do the same. While traveling overseas, he would spend an hour or more at a supermarket or department store, examining his clients’ products so that he could understand how they were presented on shelves. When his company landed a big new account, he would take a hands-on approach to learning about the business, whether it was seafood, pharmaceuticals or digital cameras.

“When we began working for Red Lobster, I took shrimp crates off the truck and washed and prepped the shrimp,” he recalled in a 2017 interview. Meyer, who was about 60 when he started learning the ins and outs of the restaurant chain, also tried his hand at waiting tables, and was horrified when he accidentally spilled a little coffee on a customer. “She told me no apology was necessary,” he told a Grey interviewer, “because it was nice to see someone of my age doing that job.”

Meyer, who led the Grey Group for more than 35 years while growing the company from a modest New York firm into one of the world’s largest independent agencies, was 96 when he died April 11 at his home in Manhattan. His family announced the death but did not cite a cause.

When Meyer joined the firm in 1956, the company called itself Grey Advertising and was billing $34 million a year. Its clients were regional, not national. But as he rose through the ranks, becoming president in 1968 and chairman and CEO two years later, he oversaw an expansion across the country and then the world, with the agency broadening its roster to include companies such as Nokia, Mitsubishi, Canon, Fruit of the Loom and GlaxoSmithKline.

By 2005, the firm was billing about $4.2 billion, according to a Grey spokeswoman. Meyer sold the company that year to the London-based advertising conglomerate WPP for about $1.7 billion, earning an estimated personal payout of nearly $500 million. He retired at the end of 2006, just before he turned 80.

“I was one of the few guys who owned a big hunk of the agency he ran. Every penny I had was in here, so I had more at stake than anyone else,” he told the New York Times before stepping down. “I sweated it harder. I overruled people because I couldn’t afford to be a nice guy.”

The firm helped brands succeed with “strategic repositioning,” as when they proposed marketing SlimFast as a nutrition product instead of a diet product, helping to fuel an explosion in sales, according to a 2000 article in Chief Executive magazine. It was also credited with encouraging Hollywood studios like Warner Bros. to advertise movies on TV.

Meyer was not shy about trumpeting the company’s achievements, although he was often reticent about his plans, including when it came to the issue of succession. The New York Times wrote in 2004, amid rumors that Grey was up for sale, that he had a “penchant for playing his cards so close to the vest as to make Wyatt Earp look like a first-time visitor to the Atlantic City video poker slot machines.”

The second of three children, Edward Henry Meyer was born in Manhattan on Jan. 8, 1927, and grew up on the Upper West Side. His father manufactured children’s clothing, and his mother was a homemaker.

From a young age, he dreamed of art, not business, hoping to become a comic playwright like Moss Hart or George S. Kaufman. Even after he became the head of Grey, he was still writing dialogue after work. “I’ve got the first act of a dozen comedies sitting in my drawer,” he said.

Meyer graduated from Horace Mann prep school in the Bronx and studied economics at Cornell University. After taking two years off to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and enrolled in the executive training program at Bloomingdale’s department store. “I learned to be a merchant prince in women’s lingerie,” he said.

Two years later, he started his advertising career as a copywriter at the Biow Co. His early clients included Procter & Gamble, which he continued to work with after moving to Grey.

He later served as a board member or adviser for companies including Ethan Allen, Harman International Industries and the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management. He also was a trustee for the American Jewish Committee and New York-based arts groups, including Film at Lincoln Center and the Guggenheim Museum.

Meyer told the Wall Street Journal that his decades in advertising provided plenty of “excitement and enjoyment,” but did not seem to “serve any higher purpose as far as I could see.” Looking to make a contribution that had some “nobility” to it, he and his wife, Sandra Meyer, donated $75 million in 2014 to expand the cancer care and research programs at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, resulting in the creation of the school’s Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, the former Sandra Raabin; two children, Meg and Anthony Meyer; and five grandchildren.

“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,” Meyer told the Times. “Not what they like for dinner, but their advertising needs, better than anyone at the agency.”

Still, he also made it a habit of learning clients’ meal preferences. Meyer spent so much time in high-end restaurants, meeting with executives over lunch or dinner, that he decided to invest in one, getting in early on the steakhouse chain Smith & Wollensky. The food wasn’t cheap, he noted in an interview with the Indian magazine Business Today: “I wouldn’t advise you to go there unless the company is picking up the bill.”