Eduardo Maruri: the Grey Europe chief who almost became Ecuador's president

Eduardo Maruri, Grey Europe's new chief, has dealt with Ecuadorian political corruption, fanatical football fans, a shattered jaw and death threats. So turning the lacklustre network into a creative force should be a walk in the park, right?

I cannot wholly vouch for the verity of the story I’m about to share. It happened far away, where I have no reliable sources, insider contacts, no feel for truth. And it happened to a man I barely know. But I believe him.

Eduardo Maruri is from Ecuador. As we wrap up our interview for this piece, phones buzz with pictures of a doughy Julian Assange being dragged from the Ecuadorian embassy.

Maruri tells me he discovered – flicking through a book in an airport bookshop – that his name features in published WikiLeaks documents; it turns out the US government quite fancied him for president of his country. Instead he’s the newly installed chief executive of Grey Europe.

How he got here is compelling. The story of Maruri takes in politics and football but it began and may end with advertising. Before we begin, though, reasons to read on:

  • Maruri won Ecuador’s first Cannes Lion, which was the subject of a state ceremony and a national media event when he brought it home. He now has 99 Lions to his name, 20 of which are golds.
  • He’s running 21 offices around Europe for Grey and is determined to position the lacklustre network as a creative force within WPP. Hiring Adrian Rossi from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO at the end of last year as creative chairman to run Grey London underlines the intent.
  • He’s ambitious and tipped to climb much higher up the WPP pole. WPP chief Mark Read demurs on that point, but says "Eduardo brings an infectious enthusiasm and energy to Grey, which can push our people to better work and ultimately better results for clients".
  • Uncommon Creative Studio’s Nils Leonard chose him as the subject of his hero essay for Campaign a couple of years ago (heroes chosen by other creative leaders in the series included David Bowie and Muhammad Ali).
  • Vicki Maguire, Grey London’s chief creative officer, reckons he’s "the real deal, a one-off. Show him a good idea and his face literally lights up. The creative kicks in and he can take it from good to great. Do you know how annoying that is?" And anyone who thinks Maguire is the type to suck up to the boss can leave now.
  • It’s a damn good story.

Getting to the heart of what brought Maruri to London takes us back to 2009 and Barcelona SC, the most popular and successful football team in a country where the beautiful game is opiate.

Barcelona SC. El idolo del Ecuador. The only team in Ecuadorian history to have never been relegated from the top-flight Serie A league to Serie B.

Until 3 October 2009?

On a warm afternoon as the equatorial dry season was just turning, 70,000 fans swarmed the Estadio Monumental Banco Pichincha; their club was poised for the fight of its life. They must beat LDU Portoviejo or face the devastating humiliation of demotion. The president of the club – Maruri, the man who had promised to rejuvenate the team and secure glory – stood in the executive box facing the heat of the crowd. He had pledged victory but was he about to deliver defeat?

Maruri had arrived at the club two years before on a wave of love. He’d risen up through public office in Ecuador to become a popular politician and favoured presidential candidate. By the time he switched politics for football, he was something of a celebrity.

His political career had not been planned. After getting divorced in his early thirties, he’d gone to a therapist who’d told him his problem was that he’d never been happy. "It was a revelation to me." So in search of some fresh purpose in his life, he secured enough votes to be elected the youngest ever president of Ecuador’s Guayaquil chamber of commerce, becoming a charismatic champion of industry at home and on the international stage.

It was a time of political turbulence in Ecuador, corruption and crime were out of control. In this mire of malfeasance, Maruri stood out. "I was a young man, not a traditional politician, doing the right things, talking about how we should open to the world, pursue free trade agreements, thinking about innovation. It was fresh and people liked me."

With the country’s 2006 presidential elections approaching, the young businessman found himself urged by some of the country’s biggest businesses to stand for the highest office. They pledged campaign money and endorsement. "They said ‘we’ll put you there’." It was a big step for Maruri and one he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to take. So he set off to tour the country, speak to the people, find out what they wanted and find out what he wanted too.

After a few months, Maruri was scoring highly in the electoral opinion polls as an independent candidate. "I knew I could win." But being president is one thing – in Ecuador, having the power to make real change is another.

"I had myself and I had the people, but in the end I realised it wasn’t enough. I didn’t have enough members in congress, enough contacts in the military and I didn’t know how to solve that." So Maruri stood aside, Rafael Correa won the election, dissolved congress and asked Maruri to help him draw up a new constitution for the country. The result was a new social and political framework that put more power in the hands of local government and afforded groundbreaking rights to the natural environment. Maruri’s name is on the official constitutional document as a founding father of modern Ecuador.

Job done, Maruri started looking round for another passion play. Football.

Barcelona SC was in trouble. The club was losing matches, losing money and hadn’t won the championship for 14 years. It needed a new leader and Maruri was elected. "Sixty per cent of the population supported Barcelona SC. For a lot of people, the president of Barcelona SC was more important than the president of the country."

He brought experience of business, of entrepreneurialism, of technology, of marketing and a vision of victory. In two months he’d boosted the team’s revenue from $5m to $14m through a series of new commercial deals. With the money, he bought a bench of star players and when the first game of the season kicked off, it was a new Barcelona SC that took to the pitch. The team lost, and to a much weaker side. From there, things got worse.

The star players were stars but not team players. They couldn’t win. The club’s board left, the sponsors withdrew, debts going back 10 years were called in, his son was pilloried at school by teachers angry at his father’s failures. "All this came boom, boom, boom, boom. All that love, in one year it became hate."

By 3 October 2009 and that crucial match, half the country had the taste of blood on their lips: Maruri’s. "I remember 70,000 people in the stadium chanting my name, ‘get out, out, out, out, out’." By half-time, the score was 0-0 and a military colonel with a platoon of 15 soldiers rushed the presidential suite, urging everyone to leave, their lives were in danger. "He said, ‘if you don’t win, they could kill you’." Maruri stood his ground, faced the fans and his team netted the ball. The final score was 2-0.

Maruri and Barcelona SC lived to play another Serie A season and the club’s fortunes picked up. Even so, by the end of the following year, Maruri – Ecuador’s 58th fastest ironman, with a time of 11:58:57 at Ironman Florida in 2002 – was crushed. "I was physically and mentally broken. I couldn’t walk the streets because people gave me trouble. It was really, really bad. I had death threats; someone called me saying ‘your son’s coming out of school right now, I’m watching him’. I had four or five bodyguards all the time. It was the worse time of my life, unbearable."

To save his family, he resigned. There’s a video of the packed media conference on YouTube, Maruri surrounded by his family, reporters pressing in as he announces his departure. There’s an unbearable close-up as emotions finally break and he cries. "I couldn’t hold it, it was too deep." TV stations interrupted their schedules to newsflash the event. The next day’s newspapers headlined the tears, the utter defeat.

'I had to accept failure for the first time, really, really deep. Not failure like losing a pitch, but deeply, personally; I was a failure to myself, my family, to the whole society.'

It was Christmas and Maruri’s girlfriend told him he needed a holiday. They went to Costa Rica, where Maruri took to his surfboard to try to relax. But things got worse. "Something happened and I hit my face on a rock really bad." He was dragged to safety and rushed to hospital by plane, conscious and riding adrenaline, confused why no-one would let him see his injuries in the mirror. He’d ripped the skin from the lower half of his face, exposing most of his jaw; it took a couple of days to clean the wound of sand before they could stitch him up. "I looked like a monster, big scars everywhere.

"Then I said, ‘this is the lowest, this is as low as I go. There is no lower.’" It was New Year 2011 and he began to plan the rest of his life.

Maruri is the second oldest of five sons, the one who moved faster, finished his degree before his older brother had left school, the one his father – who by now had a second wife and young children – relied on to help look after the family.

Advertising was in his blood. His father Jimmy was president of McCann Erickson in Ecuador. "When I was little I remember always going to the agency and being around the people there, and being cast in ads." After getting his degree from Eastern Michigan University and then a certificate in communications from Harvard, he joined Gillette as brand manager. Then in 1991, he persuaded his father to quit McCann and launch an advertising agency together: Maruri Publicidad.

Maruri senior’s reputation secured a lot of business quickly but before the first year was over, Jimmy was diagnosed with cancer and Eduardo found himself running the agency alone. It did well: top five in the agency league in its first year, second after three years. "We were the first agency to really commit to creativity." A decade and a divorce later, though, and Maruri was exhausted by the business. "I had enough money, a quite comfortable life, I had my house, my four brothers had houses, my dad’s ex-wife had a house, everyone was doing OK." But as his therapist had pointed out, maybe Maruri himself wasn’t. Then came politics, football, failure; love then hate.

The rebuild plan of 2011 sent Maruri back to the agency he’d founded. It was still going, his brother had kept the lights on. But they had no new clients, hadn’t won an award in years and the debts were high. Maruri had sunk all his money into his political campaigning, then Barcelona SC and the agency was broke. But it was home.

Maruri’s plan now was to make his agency the most creative in Ecuador, and one recognised on the international stage. He was an OK creative himself but not world-class – he knew that. He went to Cannes that summer to see what was going on in the industry he’d abandoned for so long, sitting alone watching and listening. The he went back to basics and enrolled in the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, a 45-year-old student (re)learning his creative craft, and set about putting creativity at the centre of his agency.

Within a year his agency was back, winning the country’s top advertising accolades and setting its sights on a Cannes Lion. "Everyone thought I was crazy. Ecuador had never won an advertising award like that." In June 2012, Maruri brought home the country’s first Lion, an achievement that made national news; the Lion now sits in the museum of the Ecuadorian presidency.

The following year Maruri won five. Then nine. Then 12, beating rival south American countries that had for so long defined creativity in the region. Maruri says "creativity was my way to rebuild my life" and he became "a hero of creativity" not just in the ad industry but on the public stage; creativity turned the Ecuadorians’ hate for Maruri to something more like respect. Then Grey, with which Maruri Publicidad had been affiliated for years, offered to buy the agency outright. "The company that was worth zero in 2011, we sold it for a sum with many zeros on the end," Maruri laughs. He was handed the reigns of Grey Latin American in 2016 and at the end of last year moved to London to run Europe.

For a man who claims to have been loved by millions and hated – death-threat hated – by more, Grey Europe seems like a breath-catching staging post: a challenge, yes, but no bodyguards required. "The issues are the same here, we have to give the creatives the power, put them in charge and do better work. I hope it works because that’s the only thing I know how to do."

Maruri’s story demands that more interesting chapters follow. The hero’s had his fall from grace and his redemption. We’re just not quite at the happy ending yet.

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