History of advertising: No 175: Larry Valenstein's office walls

Grey: founded by Larry Valenstein
Grey: founded by Larry Valenstein

Ogilvy, Rubicam and Bernbach are all familiar names in advertising's pantheon. But, try as you may, you'll not find anybody called Grey. The name of one of the world's best known networks was not inspired by anybody of that name.

Such a person never existed. Grey’s founder was Larry Valenstein. In 1917, at the age of 18, he set up a direct-mail company in a tiny office on New York’s Fifth Avenue with a $100 loan from his mother.

Worried that business prospects would not be able to remember his name or pronounce it correctly, Valenstein decided to name his fledgling operation after the colour of his office walls. Thus Grey Art Studios (which became Grey Advertising in 1925) was born.

But while Valenstein was Grey’s founder, its driving force was Arthur Fatt. He had answered Valenstein’s ad in The New York Times for an office boy but never really saw himself as such.

He was soon coming up with so many innovative ideas on how his boss could grow the business that, before long, he was Valenstein’s partner. In the years that followed, Fatt showed his supreme salesmanship skills. Ford and Procter & Gamble were among the accounts he brought into the burgeoning agency.

Fatt was also a decent copywriter, having devised the famous "Leave the driving to us" for a pitch to Greyhound Lines bus company. When David Ogilvy, who was also contesting the business, saw Fatt’s presentation, he is said to have advised Greyhound to award Grey the business on the spot.

Ed Meyer, who took over from Fatt as Grey’s chief executive in 1970, remembers his predecessor as a dapper man of monumental energy who was also very self-effacing.

"He became a champion of creativity, put it first on our business agenda and encouraged the risk-taking it demanded," Meyer said.

Things you need to know

  • Grey’s décor remained drab for some years. When Mad Men character Duck Phillips lands a job at Grey, he describes the offices as looking like "a Penn Station toilet with Venetian blinds".
  • Fatt succeeded Valenstein as chief executive in 1956. The two remained close friends until Valenstein’s death in 1982.
  • Although Fatt retired in 1976, he retained an office at Grey into the late 1980s. He died in January 1999 aged 94.

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