For the past five years, my friend Norm LeHoullier has been telling me he’s ready to retire as head of Grey Interactive. Time and again, I insisted he was bluffing, and I was always right.
Until last week.
LeHoullier, an early pioneer in interactive marking and a personal mentor, actually retired. This sobering reality hit me hard last week while attending the sendoff party by his Grey colleagues.
Interestingly, the younger folks from Grey Interactive, recently rebranded G2 Interactive, were probably toddlers when LeHoullier started connecting the powerful dots between technology and marketing back in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Survivor: Interactive Agency Edition
The history of interactive marketing is dotted with ups and downs, belief and disbelief, hype and correction. Being early is hard. Sticking it out for the long haul is even harder. Intestinal fortitude is a requirement, and LeHoullier had plenty.
“He understood digital before most folks understood what it was,” says Mike Donahue, EVP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA).
In 1993, LeHoullier convinced Grey’s legendary Ed Meyer on the notion that digital and interactive must be a critical building block of brand strategy. This was before Time Warner’s overhyped Full Service Network, before Procter & Gamble CEO Ed Artzt’s “whale of a change” speech to the ad industry, and before Netscape. Grey became the first top 10 agency to set up an interactive unit.
“Did anyone else build a viable digital services organization within a traditional agency and have it last?” said Lynn Bolger, EVP of comScore and an equally accomplished pioneer in digital media and measurements. “He never let himself get too far in front of the curve like so many of his peers who long ago crashed and burned.”
I met LeHoullier when I joined P&G’s first interactive marketing team back in 1996. Grey Interactive had been selected as P&G’s interactive agency of record, and he brought to our team deep strategic thinking, business focus, and an acute understanding of the unique challenges consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands face in the online space. He understood, for example, that for brands like CoverGirl it’s not just about clicks. It’s also about figuring out the deeper brand sell in a medium conditioned by direct marketing rules.
With LeHoullier, P&G moved otherwise Web-weary brands like Pringles into the interactive space. It pushed aggressive cross-brand content initiatives like Parent Time and Phys.com, models similar to those brands are exploring today with the zeal and gusto of political bloggers. Not all of these initiatives withstood the test of time, but the core strategy was spot on. When P&G nabbed the coveted Ad Age Interactive Marketer of the Year award in 1999, LeHoullier’s fingerprints were all over our success stories.
But in many respects, P&G represented small change relative to other big marketer initiatives LeHoullier led.
For example, LeHoullier and his team led the groundbreaking Dell Direct work that empowered buyers to easily configure and buy Dell computers online. Long before the dot-com crash soured businesses toward the Web, Dell Direct generated sales of nearly $15 million a day. Configurability proved to be a huge insight.
“Something powerful happens when consumers configure their own machines,” LeHoullier explained to me at the retirement reception. “Brand loyalty is nurtured by the process of allowing consumers to participate in the design and configuration of the end product. It created a higher ‘value’ equation.”
Wait. Isn’t that Web 2.0 talk — participation, co-creation, feedback loops to develop and customize products? Indeed, though we rarely saw LeHoullier at high-visibility industry conferences, he saw, and delivered, the right insights before most of us.
Then there was M&M’s breakthrough Global Color Vote initiative. This was a true offline-online collaboration that involved a host of agencies, including Grey and BBDO. As with Dell, LeHoullier and his Grey Interactive team built the online brand infrastructure to enable millions of consumers to vote on their favorite M&M color or combination of colors.
Equally important, he ensured the online part synergized in every way possible with other aspects of the marketing mix, including the work by Porter Novelli on the PR and buzz-building side and BBDO on the TV and print side of the equation.
The net outcome: nearly 10 million consumers voting, a significant boost in product sales and an opt-in brand database that recast the entire relationship marketing equation for Mars.
LeHoullier also helped many mass-marketed brands appreciate the rich rewards and dividends of targeted, relationship marketing. His team significantly upgraded Gerber’s online interface to follow parents at multiple life stages. With Slim-Fast, he put interactive to work in targeting consumers at situational marketing opportunities.
In my early development of the PlanetFeedback.com business model, LeHoullier and his Grey Interactive partner Orin Wechsberg provided invaluable counsel in how to manage ever-fragile consumer loyalty at the third moment of truth.
But there’s a final reason I’m investing this week’s column inches to LeHoullier, and I hope it inspires us all. LeHoullier always took his business seriously and recognized that his success was inescapably tied to the development of an advertising industry that was trusted, disciplined, self-regulated, and sufficiently standardized to engender meaningful brand investment.
LeHoullier played a key role with the original Coalition for Advertising Supported Information and Entertainment (CASIE), and he was a key catalyst of P&G’s FAST Summit and the ensuing FAST Forward organization. More recently, he served as a founding participant in the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) push toward a new engagement metric. It’s worth noting that the founding of Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), which seeks to address word-of-mouth ethics, owes its inspiration to folks like LeHoullier.
We all owe LeHoullier a debt for his special contributions to our now-burgeoning space: for sticking it out for so long, for keeping the message about the value of interactive simple and strategic, and for always keeping his eye on both business results and creating a space we can all be proud of.