Michael Weinzettl, who has been an admirer of Alex’s and Adrian’s work since way back (Archive first featured the duo’s work for Club 18-30 in 1997, when they were at Saatchi’s, and before their eleven-year stint at BBH), caught up with the exceptional creative.
Hello Adrian, you left your position at the creative helm of AMV BBDO, London, one of the world’s top agency groups, and decided to go to Grey as Creative Chairman. What prompted you to do so?
We implore our clients, as an industry, to be brave, to be different. Yet if we were to look at ourselves, we as an industry are none of those things. We have barely moved the dial since the Mad Men days. I was at the Cannes Lions and there were people with funky hair and crazy clothes but, for all the bravado, they didn’t realize they were already dinosaurs. There is talk of being different, but it is by the smallest fractions. AMV, A&E, W&K and the rest – big and small – are stuck in the past.
AMV is an incredible place full of the most lovely, talented, incredible people, so I thought I would never have my head turned. Then Grey contacted me and I said, No thank you. Then I said no again. And again. Persistent buggers that they are, I eventually relented and met Michael Houston (the Grey Global CEO), who is one impressive character. Why would I go from one of the most creative agencies in the world to one that, to be kind, had been asleep for years? One that desperately needed creativity built into its DNA. From the outside, it looked like it had f… all going for it. But in that lies the rub: that, right there, is the opportunity. That is something totally unique. That’s if Michael saw it. Luckily, he did. In our first meeting, he set out his and John Patroluis’ (the global CCO’s) vision for the agency. It was for it to be made up of 75 per cent creatives and the rest everyone else. I said that would be an agency that would end up shutting its doors not in six months but six weeks. I laid out how I would do it and he went … ok! Because my ambition of where I wanted to be is not the best agency in London or the world. I told him I wanted to be one of the most creative companies in the world, up there with Marvel Studios, Spotify, Netflix, and the rest. I want a reca libration of what great looks like. That will then influence who we hire, processes, structures, everything and – most importantly – our output. It will also mean we are not going to be like any other agency out there. I am not interested in moving the dial just a little bit. This is not an evolution, it is a revolution. I wasn’t looking to move but, when an opportunity as unique as this comes up, you have to take it. And because … she will kill me if I don’t say this. It is because I found a true partner in Anna (Pancyk, the Grey London CEO). We met for the first time for a one-hour lunch chat, and that went on for six hours and may have involved more than one bottle of Chablis. It also involved her missing her flight back to Poland. We have been forging ahead together ever since.
What are some of the challenges facing you in your new position?
“Challenge” sounds like I’m about to climb frigging Everest. Look at it this way: Football is an incredibly simple sport but, like advertising, it has changed immeasurably in recent times. Therefore, one of the places I’ve drawn inspiration from is not just from the typical creative companies but also places like Ajax football club, arguably a creative company in its own right, which reached the Champions League semifinals this season and beat teams bigger – and supposedly better – than they. Their focus is on the development of players. Players who play the Ajax way – of attractive, total football. They have a simple focus: the players and the output on the pitch. For us, it is similar. The focus is on the people and, from there, the output. They look for players with hunger who will work for each other without ego. We are looking at a similar people. They realized football has moved on quickly; advertising has moved on even more so. But before I even get to the output, I want to ignite people’s hunger and raise their ambitions to new levels. That will mean every part of what we do, and how we do it, is going to be looked at. People don’t like change, but that is going to be our oxygen now moving forward. We are going to be changing again and again and again. We are setting up new units in service of ideas. Some will work, some won’t, but we are going to continually be trying and empowering people. Creativity is about freedom of self-expression. I am going to be hiring, with Anna, people in all departments that can think differently. We are chucking away the cookie cutter. I want people to challenge how I think of things, not just replicate my way of thinking.
This is the most exciting time ever in my career so far, and my ambition for Grey is huge.
You started out as Art Director at Saatchi & Saatchi London in 1991. Can you share some memories of that time, and of working with the great Paul Arden, who left about a year after you joined? It must have been an incredible time.
Saatchi’s was advertising anarchy. Arden achieved, shaped, and redefined advertising globally. Many of the greats of our industry may not even know their thinking was born in this man. I learned a ridiculous amount. He saw the world in a way no one else has, either before or since. It was a privilege to share the same air as that man. There was the good but some bad as well. I’ve kept the best and ditched the rest. His approach helped me formulate some of my approach at AMV. I loved that you never knew where, or on what, the next great piece of work was going to come from. In some cases, it was so ahead of its time the work it produced didn’t even have categories yet in awards. At AMV, for example, I set out to first win more awards across more clients than anyone else, which the agency did. Then it was to win more awards across more clients on more platforms than anyone else, which they also did. But Saatchi’s was an agency of its time. I’m not sure all of its quirks would survive a minute now.
What are the main things in the ad business that have changed since then – or have remained the same?
These days, everyone is bleating on about the death of advertising, with all the other sectors moving in, or advertising itself moving in-house. Really? Get over yourselves! The way I look at it is like this: Muhammad Ali wouldn’t have been called the greatest of all time if he hadn’t fought Liston, Frazier, Foreman and the rest. He raised his game because of them. We as an industry are going to have to do the same. If we raise our game, I believe we are on the cusp of the greatest era in advertising ever – for those who take advantage of it. I look at some agencies who’ve lost sight of what we do. They are getting wrapped up in capabilities that aren’t in service of the idea. Yes, we need all of these things and more – but not to the detriment of the idea. They have got the formula totally arse about face. I love all the things at our disposal to open up new creative avenues, but only as long as they enhance the creative output.
There is another conversation about what constitutes an idea these days, but that is one for another time! Ideas are our currency – that is something which never has, and never will, change. Change is not just good, it is great since it is absolutely essential.
You once said, in a piece for Creative Review, that “agencies are becoming like McDonald’s. Creativity is being treated like a production line.” Is there anything from your perspective that can be done to resist this recent trend?
Like all trends, that was the trend then. It isn’t now. The trend I would like to see taken outside and have a bullet put in the back of its skull is an end to the cult of the snake oil salesman. People who have made up new names for what we do. These people who have decided they don’t do advertising anymore. Get over yourselves! We do advertising. Be proud of that! It is the greatest time in advertising ever. And I am glad to say that is the industry I work in.
Did you come from a visual arts kind of background?
No, and like all things you can’t have, you crave it. Which meant that, as a kid, I would draw and paint on anything and everything. Books, scraps of paper, walls, wood, stones, anything my grubby little paws could reach. Everything was a canvas. When I discovered superglue, I started making all sorts of crap, most of which my mum, for some unfathomable reason, still keeps. But it wasn’t just the visual world, I wrote my first “book” at age 8. Nobel Prize Winners need not worry. I loved just creating and making things; most of it was absolute toilet but I had fun doing it.
Did you have any heroes in the ad business?
That question – sorry! – says so much about what is wrong with our industry. For a start, we are too inward-looking. We look only as far as the shores of this little island called “Adland” for our inspiration. If anyone has heroes from advertising, they are aiming too low. We need to look outwards: there are so many much more exciting people, more inspiring thinkers and individuals who are actually making dramatic and profound changes out there. Stop the navel- gazing, and stop looking in the mirror, and look for true inspiration farther afield. Then there is a whole other part to that question, that as to what even constitutes a “hero.”
How did you and your longtime creative partner, Alex Grieve, meet? (The first campaign the two of you popped up with in Lürzer’s Archive was Club 18-30, back in 1997) You had been working together for at least two decades before you moved to Grey this year. It must have been strange to set out “on your own” with Alex staying on at AMV BBDO.
As with all good relationships, we met in a pub. Over a drink. Or two. Alex is one of the most talented people in the business. We learned together. We grew together. We went on an emotional journey together. Just because we don’t share an office anymore doesn’t mean we don’t share a connection thicker than blood. I was not ever looking to leave the two “A’s” of Alex and AMV. But when it happened, I knew it was the right thing for both Alex and myself. I miss Alex and the incredible people at AMV deeply. I will always carry a little bit of them in my heart. I will love Alex and his family always. What I do know is the good ship AMV is in excellent hands with Mr. Grieve at the helm.
What are some of your memories of your time at BBH, where you were Creative Director for over a decade?
BBH feels like a lifetime ago. Whilst I was there, that place went through so many incarnations it was like being at three or more different agencies. It went from a small boutique to a proper global player. BBH was my school. The lessons may not have always been easy but I learned so much from some of the huge brains who inhabited the place. As at all of the places I’ve worked, and I worked there the longest, I’m like a magpie: I’ve taken the best, the shiniest, and left the rest. I could have listed all the incredible and amazing people who walked through its doors whilst I was lucky to be there, but that would end up running longer than War and Peace. Suffice to say each and every one had an impact. And thank you for not asking me if John (Hegarty’s) wine is any good or not.
What is some of the work you have done over the course of your career that made you proudest? You’ve won an almost ridiculous amount of ad awards, every top international creative honor several times over, including Cannes Lions, Grand Prix, Titaniums, D&AD Black Pencils, Clios, New York Festival, BTAA, Creative Circle, etc. Has this changed your perception of the awards circus?
Awards? I don’t believe in them as the end point to anything we do. They are nothing more than a pleasant byproduct. Fame is my driver. Fame wins awards but awards are not always famous. If we are doing the right job for our clients, then the work should be famous. Aiming purely for awards is setting your sights waaaaaay too low. I love that two pieces of work I’ve been involved in for two separate clients have been talked about in the House of Commons in front of two different prime ministers. One piece was talked about in the UN. Another is on permanent display at the Design Museum next to Elon Musk’s Space X Rocket. And one piece of work changed the law in a whole country.They ranged from a print campaign to a social campaign. The mission creep to only doing work for award shows is making “creativity” a dirty word. We need to reclaim it for the incredible power it actually wields.
How was Cannes Lions for you this year? What are your thoughts on the Grand Prix winners such as NYT, Nike, or others? And, of course, your former agency doing incredibly well in terms of Lions they won.
The two standout and most-talked-about pieces of work at Cannes were films, which in itself was a shift from recent years. NYT and Viva le Vulva were incredible. Yes, they had amazing craft, and were incredibly compelling and were massively brave. But the real reason I loved them both is they weren’t vanity projects. They both had big ideas that actually helped, built, and enhanced the brand. NYT was a great campaign idea. Viva le Vulva has built on the “Live Fearless” brand platform created years ago. Too many of the other winners were untethered from big ideas and were too often clever ideas but did not help the brand. Up and down Cannes, clients and – incredibly – senior creatives were misattributing some of the other big award-winners to other brands – or to none at all. Vanity advertising, or art school advertising, has to stop for the good of the industry. Great brand ideas release differently shaped work. A great brand idea liberates experiential, activation, product design, AI, AR, VR, film, print, interactive, and everything else.
As an industry, we must make sure we are not taking the easy route and doing a series of one-offs that help no one apart from the creative teams’ pay packet. It’s blindingly obvious – but let’s do work that works.
You’ve been involved in the creation of the most stunning print work of the past 20 years. How do you feel about the diminished interest that adland seemingly shows toward the print medium in favor of the digital or “experiential” stuff. Let me add here that you and your longtime creative partner, Alex Grieve at AMV BBDO, were kind enough to select the “Digital” content for Vol. 4-2018 of this magazine, so your expertise in new kinds of ad media is very profound indeed.
God, it’s so simple what we do – it’s ideas. And to create ideas that stand out. That are different to what has gone before. That has never changed. I have never been interested in the platform, just the quality of the idea. The chat around the demise of print is like the demise of cinema when TV came out. And yet there has been an increase, not a decrease, in audience figures at cinemas. Are there less newspapers and printed magazines? Yes, but the ones that are there exist because they have a quality proposition. Like films, if the content and the quality is good enough, people will still use and read them.
That means we should, as an industry, be doing great print. But why aren’t we? Because it is one of the most frigging hard things to do, that’s why!
The creative discipline of doing a print ad is still one of the purest challenges we face. It is a lot easier to explain your idea in a verbose two-minute case study film. When I worked at (digital agency) Glue, what massively struck me was how baggy their idea creation was at the time. The discipline of creating something like a print ad wasn’t there. Now, if you look at the great pieces of innovation-based work, they mostly come from teams with a traditional grounding in things like print.
Why are you creative?
Because I am shit at singing, so my dreams of playing Glastonbury, in the headline set on the Pyramid Stage, disappeared when I realized I sounded like a dying cat’s last meows. Also, my football skills, or lack of them, meant I knew I could never lift the Jules Rimet Trophy. The closest I am going to get to being Messi is on FIFA. And, I don’t like blocking punches with my face, which ruled out becoming the Unified Boxing Champion of the World.