As CEO of global advertising and marketing agency Grey Group, Michael Houston understands the value of creativity and what it can do to set brands apart from the crowd.
“We’re not simply artists, but we are people who believed in the power of applied creativity,” Houston told Chief Executive. “Using that creativity for positive business performance is very much at the heart of our culture.”
Since Houston first joined Grey New York in 2007, he has helped the agency add more than $2 billion of new business, doubling its revenue and profitability. The company has also grown from 300 employees to more than 1,000 in that time. As CEO of Grey North America, Houston expanded the agency’s client portfolio to include bign name clients such as Gillette, Volvo, Nestle, Hasbro, Papa John’s, Kellogg’s and Marriott. He was named worldwide CEO of Grey Group in August of 2017.
Chief Executive spoke with Houston about why diversity is so important in today’s business ecosystem, the keys to managing growth, and more. Below are excerpts from the conversation:
On how creativity influences him as CEO
I think there absolutely are some key parallels between creativity and actually running an organization as an executive that could apply to a lot of different organizations. The first thing is that that creativity at its heart is about things that have never been put together, coming together. And I think regardless of industry, we’re in a time where the lines are blurring, things are absolutely crossing over and there’s massive disruption in almost every industry that I can think of. And so rather than looking at that as a bad thing or looking at that as something that is new and unchartered territory, if we look back to some of the basic principles of creativity in general, that’s what we’re all facing today. We’re facing this notion, these collisions of different worlds. And so that’s what we do on a daily basis.
Here at Grey, we put ideas and people and situations that haven’t previously been together. We force them together in new and interesting ways. That’s what creativity is. So I think that notion is something that has broad application across industries. Now I would also say that in doing that, there are some very natural human instincts that take hold that we have to be aware of, and often we have to counterbalance. When things are coming together that haven’t been previously together, they’re usually is resistance there, there are opposing forces, and so as a leader, one has to look at the various ways in which you can knock down those barriers and get various people’s or factions points of view to appreciate and actually see value and the opposing points of view. Because when those come together, that’s when things, in my opinion, get really interesting.
The keys to managing growth
Like most things, it starts with a clear vision and articulation for what the company stands for—really ensuring that there’s a clear definition and signals as to what the ethos is. In our particular case, it’s about cultural relevance. It’s about storytelling and it’s about ultimately driving behavior in order to help our clients have positive business results. If everyone around the globe understands that that’s what we’re coming into the office to do every single day, then as the organization grows, there are going to be new limbs or new buds that are going to appear on the tree. That’s a good thing. That is part of the growth, but it still has to be tied back to the base, to the trunk of what the organization actually is about. So for me, I would say it’s really about a clear articulation of vision, ethos, principles and ensuring that everyone, whether they’re a new employee or someone who’s been here for 30 or 40 years or sometimes in our case a 50 years, I’m ensuring that everybody is aligned in what our mission is.
His thoughts on the importance of diversity in business
I think that the idea of a “Quota X” or just checking boxes, from my perspective, it’s very infuriating. It’s infuriating because it actually denigrates the actual beauty of diversity, in my opinion. What is great about diversity and the reason that it’s a business imperative, particularly in a creative organization like ours, goes back to how I previously defined creativity. If creativity is about different things coming together that have previously never been together, then diversity is an absolute must. We need different points of view. We need different perspectives. We need that. We actually need to create, spark an interest by way of this collision and, and that’s not going to happen if everything is extremely homogeneous. And so from my perspective, we wouldn’t be able to do our job well if we weren’t able to put these things together, but in order to do it, there needs to be tremendous respect.
It’s not simply throwing two things that are unlike in a blender together—it’s about putting them together and having them figure out, what is it that we’re not seeing based on being more empathic and understanding a different perspective. That’s when things get really interesting. It’s when they come together that we create the new thing that the world hasn’t seen nine times out of 10 that is extremely magnetic for the rest of the world. So to me, I think diversity is important in most businesses because I do believe that it leads to more interesting ways of thinking. It leads to greater innovation, and in our industry and within our agency it’s not just interesting, it’s imperative.
One of the things that I love most about our agency and and our industry in general is that it takes a special kind of person, I believe, to actually thrive in those kinds of environments where there is diverse thinking, because a lot of people are comfortable living in their bubbles, and in order for us to do our job correctly and to find and create stories that are going to resonate with society at large, we need to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and actually feel what they’re feeling in order to create authentic messaging. I think it takes an evolved kind of person from a social and emotional standpoint to really thrive in our business.