How a former Ecuadorian politician and soccer manager is now revamping a WPP ad agency

Eduardo Maruri, chief executive of Grey Europe and vice-president, Grey Creative Board
Grey Europe

It's no secret that ad agency groups are having a hard time: It's a world where clients expect more efficient marketing, squeeze their agencies on fees and are even setting up their own internal marketing teams.

Ad giant Publicis posted poor third-quarter results in October and while Interpublic upped its third-quarter profit, U.S. sales were down. American media giant Omnicom fell short of Wall Street quarterly estimates.

U.K.-listed WPP, meanwhile, posted a higher operating income for its third-quarter, but reiterated an expected drop of between 1.5% and 2% in its full fiscal year.

One way that agency groups think they can win the battle for marketers' money is by placing a renewed focus on the most imaginative and memorable ad campaigns, especially when many consumers are expressing frustration with advertising, particularly online. Gaining a reputation for being creative is also a way for ad groups to charge more.

When WPP-owned agency Grey Europe needed a new chief executive, it moved its Latin American chief executive Eduardo Maruri over to London in December 2018. He had previously turned around his own Ecuador-based agency, Maruri Publicidad, winning the country's first award at the prestigious Cannes Lions event in 2012.

One of the first things Maruri did at Grey was bring the group's creative heads together. "I said, this is very simple business … I made an analogy: if you are an actor, and you're a famous actor because you do good work and you win Oscars and Baftas, you get more calls, people will call you and you can charge more."

Since then he's hired Javier Campopiano, the ad exec behind "It's a Tide Ad," the award-winning campaign for Procter & Gamble's flagship detergent brand, as chief creative officer of Grey Europe. The company has also poached high-profile creative teams from rival agencies, although last month Grey London's Creative Chairman Adrian Rossi stepped down from his role after less than a year.

Procter & Gamble has one of the world's largest ad budgets and works with Grey Europe on commercials for its Gillette, Braun and Herbal Essences brands — Grey was behind Gillette's much discussed "The best men can be" commercial.

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In 2018, Procter & Gamble's Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard criticized agencies for wasting time and money on "excess management, buildings and overhead."

Maruri believes the observations have merit.

"I think we need people like Pritchard. He said something that I always remember, he said: 'Your complexity is not our problem.' It's true. I think sometimes we have created these structures, complex structures around the clients, which they have to pay for and then not necessarily every single part of the structure is adding value."

Maruri had more to bring to Grey than imagination, having done two things that are not on an ad exec's regular path: managed Ecuador's popular Barcelona Sporting Club soccer team and been a politician who considered running for the country's president.

Political ambition

In 2004, Maruri was elected as the youngest president of the Chamber of Commerce for the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil. In April that year, he was part of a group of opposition delegates who met to discuss taking action against Ecuador's corrupt president, Lucio Gutierrez. Maruri described a situation in which gunshots were fired outside the presidential palace as vice-president Alfredo Palacio was being held by the military.

After a campaign led by Guayaquil's mayor, Palacio was eventually released and became president. By the time his term ended in 2007, Maruri had gained popularity and considered running for the presidency himself but realized he ultimately didn't have enough congressional or military support.

Maruri thanks his time in politics for helping him in business. "I think (I learnt) ... a little bit of both freshness and trying to separate myself from the rest … how do you make yourself different. It's all about relevance," Maruri told CNBC. He's taken that experience to Grey, he said. "I try to be different because I bring more creative ambition."

Instead of running for president of Ecuador, he took over the management of Guayaquil-based soccer team Barcelona SC, historically the country's most successful club. But in 2007, it was in the doldrums, not having won a national title for a decade. Maruri was president of the team for four years but was unable to turn the club's fortunes around. Such were the passions of Barcelona's fans that his family received death threats, and in 2010 he resigned.

"Sports is a bit of a trap in the sense that it is something that's not up to you, it's a game. So, the ball goes in or it doesn't go in. If it goes in, you're a hero, if it doesn't, you're not a hero," he said.

"Politics could be also very deceiving in a way that makes you think you are this powerful person … And then when I went to Barcelona, it was a very humbling experience to learn … about failure in a big way."

After leaving the soccer team, Maruri went back to advertising, taking an executive MBA at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership to kickstart his own ad agency.

Creative challenge

Now Maruri's challenge is to help Grey adapt to a world where clients are more inclined to pay for work on a campaign-by-campaign basis. "I think in five years we'll think about it and we'll say: 'Remember we had this client who paid … these fees for endless work?' No, there's this project… so the agencies have to evolve and the agencies that can evolve faster and better are the ones who will survive."

A younger workforce may be happy to work on a more flexible basis, while creative department heads will be the "rocks," Maruri said.

"When I was at the Chamber of Commerce, I said: 'I want to take some measurements that may not be popular for everyone, but they are good for the people that I represent, my constituents' … It's the same (here). I do what I think is best. I'm not thinking, maybe this is good for (the) holding company. So, not being afraid … You take the fear factor out of it and just do things."