TAC/Grey split: How did the wheels come off?

By Brendan Coyne | 15 November 2013

Eyebrows lifted this week when it emerged that the TAC had ditched Grey, understood to be for Clemenger Melbourne. One of the longest held accounts in the country, it had survived multiple changes of government, budgets and overlords and bagged some of the world's most coveted awards including an Integrated Cannes Lion in 2011.

Over 24 years, Grey had hardly had to pitch to keep it. The hard-hitting work consistently helped drive down the road death toll, which had been close to 1,000 annually when Grey took on the work. Last year it was closer to 200. That's arguably one of the best efficacy metrics in the business.

So why change now?

Some fingered the new marketing man looking to shake things up.  Others suggested that maybe the creative idea was starting to splutter. Some said that Clems, one of the best agencies in the business, had blitzed the pitch. But there was also suggestion that while some in the department had resisted the call for change, those in power drive the agenda.  

Either way, it's happened. Paul Gardner, a Grey man for two decades before leaving last year, worked on the account from 1992 to 2011. He said the agency would be hurting but should be proud of the work.

“It was a privilege to work on the account. It is arguably one of the best campaigns in the world. People talk about Nike, VW,  but it's up there with them. It broke so many glass ceilings in terms of shock ads. The agency, the TAC, the police, the government, should all be proud.”

Gardner said he didn't know the detail of why TAC “a good organisation, clear, concise, progressive”, had decided to switch supplier. But he offered one observation.

“For a little while, the campaign had moved away from the creative idea – crash and disaster – into a set of mini documentaries that could have been shot by a documentary maker.  When you do that you leave yourself open to another creative idea. May be it had run out of puff from a creative point of view.”

That said, the firm had had a pretty good run, outlasting similar government department accounts, in some cases several times over.

“I hope they can get over the hurt and look back on all the lives they helped save. It's a genuine piece of work. Saving lives is different to shifting cans of baked beans. I hope Clemenger can continue that.”

Andrew Scott, CEO Whybin TBWA Group Melbourne said the length of the relationship was “typical of Melbourne clients' longevity” noting that McCain had been with Ogilvy for a similar length of time before Whybin TBWA picked it up.

“I don't know the politics. It is a shame for Grey because they did great work, as results showed. But Clems is a fucking good agency. I guess there was a requirement for a new strategic approach. Grey definitely delivered a new strategic approach but maybe it was not what they were after.”

Darren Spiller, executive creative director, DDB Melbourne said it was hard for Grey and a challenge for the new agency.

"It's a shame in one respect because I think they've helped the brand achieve its success and they've done great work over the years. But good marketers are looking for tomorrow rather than worrying about today and you can never rest on your laurels. You need to continually challenge yourself that you're giving the brand something that's one step ahead. This is what keeps the industry exciting."

Spiller said the same happened with BBDO New York and Gillette, which was an 80-year relationship and locally with Tourism Victoria and Mojo which had endured for almost two decades.

"The challenge for Clemenger will be to find a new or fresh way to hit the [road safety] message home because it's such a easy topic to turn away from."

Former TAC marketing and road safety boss John Thompson was full of praise for the TAC/Grey partnership as he reflected on his nine-year tenure at the organisation.

“Over that period, the partnership delivered numerous effective and award-winning campaigns,” he said. “The objective over the past 25 years was to reduce trauma on this, the campaigns delivered in spades.

“There's been a 75% reduction in road trauma over the past quarter century because of campaigns delivered by TAC, Grey and the other partners involved. It must be acknowledged that the TAC and Grey produced one of the best social change campaigns ever. It's a part of my career I'll never forget and I wish everyone at Grey all the very best.”

Grey itself wouldn't be drawn on what had gone on. The agency issued a statement expressing surprise when the news broke, and Randal Glennon, general manager, told AdNews that the agency was still “in shock”.

Glennon has worked on the account for 12 years. He didn't want to comment on the politics behind the decision, but disagreed with the “documentary” observation which he said was a  “subjective” view.

He said the bottom line was that the work had helped achieve “six continuous years of record declines in road toll and that is the biggest KPI of all.”

“In an environment where there are more cars, more drivers and more kilometres driven, that is very rewarding for us.”

Additional reporting by Wenlei Ma

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