Nils Leonard, Chairman and CCO of Grey London, is a key figure in what must be considered one of the ad world’s most intriguing – and unlikely – success stories of the past five years.
Agencies are shit at trust.
The agency used to be one of those old-fashioned shops that often got referred to as “Adland’s dinosaurs”: big, slow, and producing very little work of interest to the readership of this magazine. Until, that is, the arrival at the creative helm of Nils, who has overseen the most creatively awarded years in Grey London’s 52-year history, managing to engineer a complete turnaround in the agency culture. Over the last five years, Grey London has doubled in size and received numerous accolades, including Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year 2013, and a Cannes Black Lion in 2011 for creative effectiveness in recognition of its globally acclaimed work for The British Heart Foundation. Grey London’s work for brands such as McVitie’s or The Sunday Times “Rich List” have frequently featured in this magazine. Under Nils’ creative guidance, Grey London has also become one of very few global agencies to gain recognition outside of its industry, picking up a British Comedy Award for The Angina Monologues, a programming idea starring comedians Victoria Wood, Jo Brand, and Julia Davis that aired on Christmas Day 2010 to an audience of seven million. Nils told Michael Weinzettl, who interviewed him at the offices of Grey London, that, of the many awards he has garnered over the past five years, this was the one he is most proud of.
Hi Nils, you know the first time I was at Grey London was about 25 years ago. Great Portland Street, I think it was – way before your time.
It was. I was never actually in that building. Oh, I did once go for an interview there and I thought it was the sort of building that made people ill.
You have a very interesting background for a creative director, an unusual one even. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Yeah, well, you know I grew up in a semi-rough place. And my parents, like a lot of working-class people, were obsessed with sending me to university. They thought that was the way to get out. And, at that time, I had a crush on advertising. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what role I wanted. I just thought there was this kind of glamorous, a little bit sexy place where if, frankly, you could blag a bit and were kind of creative, you might be okay.
Do you remember any of the work that impressed you back then?
It was the work that was on telly at the time, early Levi’s, big blockbuster ads. I mean actually that was back when fragrance ads were still good. They were the ads that people talked about. And I just thought, God, I want to be in that world. So I applied to go to university but at the same time I was looking for a summer job and I got one as a junior at Ammirati Puris Lintas in the early 90s, which was just brilliant. I was 20 years old, I was working in Soho, they’d just moved to Soho Square. I was seeing a receptionist from The Mill… Life was absolutely incredible, I couldn’t quite believe it. And I had a job as a junior in a sort of production department, the whole design, the production. I was just doing everything, running around. And I realized very quickly that design was something I felt really passionate about. I was taken under the wing there by someone brilliant called Simon Fairweather, who just trusted me.
All my life, there has been this recurring theme of people who just trusted me, who gave me enough rope. And Simon just believed in people. He taught me a lot, it was a genuine mentorship, which I think is missing these days. I kind of grew there and realized what I wanted to do. So I became a designer and did all that stuff. And it was interesting but, ultimately, I started to see the patterns in it. And I started to see a lot of familiarity, particularly in print advertising at the time. So two things happened. One, I got kind of frustrated and I wanted to do more than just the same ad with the type bottom right. The biggest decision in our days seemed to be choosing a typeface. Now don’t get me wrong. I love type. But it struck me that it wasn’t meaningful enough a connection with the idea. So I started my own company at the same time, not even on purpose. I just started to meet a lot of music people, started creating album covers and posters. And started growing that out of frustration.
And, at the same time, some people in the world started to do print work that was good, that didn’t look like print ads. Paul Belford was a big hero of mine. Now I have this great belief that you should try and chase your heroes, try to work with them. I think whenever you work with anybody that you’ve admired from afar you can’t help but shatter the myth a bit. But Paul was an absolutely exceptional art director. He showed me so many different ways to look at the world, and to not just be inspired by advertising but be inspired by art. So I learned a tremendous amount from him, but at the same time that Paul and everybody of that era put the world into boxes. In the way that went: “I’m a designer and I’m going to sit down there in this place and am not going to talk about this stuff, you know, not talk about strategy, not talk about ideas, about copy or about language, you know, because I’m a designer.”
You mean designer as in art director?
Yeah, even when I was the art director in my own work it was frustrating to hear people and the way they referred to my role, the way it was referred to in general by the industry. The industry is generally very good at making boxes for people and it’s always frustrated me. We have creative in our job title and yet we’re the least open to change. The whole industry, even now, hides and gets comfortable and is happy with its routine. And, actually, all the people I was genuinely inspired by were the ones who would just throw it around, who had the ability not to be scared by something new or brash or different.
So design reached a point for me where I’d run my company on the side for eight or nine years and there I was directing music videos or fashion videos. I was creating identities for some of the shows they were doing. It was really fast, it was really open in a collaborative way. And the industry over here that I worked in during the day was the opposite.
Were you already working for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO at the time?
That was towards the end of the time I was working for Rainey Kelley/Y&R and just before I went to Abbott Mead. I was at Rainey Kelly for about six years and it was there that I started to feel a difference in print and really started to feel the impact of digital, and what that was doing to the industry. I was doing my day job, trying to be as good as I could but ultimately slightly frustrated. I would go home and work on fashion brands or on my music videos. It was just so much more inspiring. So I went to Abbott Mead, went there to work with Paul, learned a lot from him but also learned a lot about the kind of agency I never wanted to work at. At that point, Abbott Mead was immensely successful. So don’t get me wrong: it was a great agency in its time but it reinforced hierarchy, it reinforced dependency. I think agencies are shit at trust. We’re all paid really good money yet most agencies insist that the only opinion that matters is that of the ECD. Now why would you pay all these
people this money, why would you hire these geniuses, and then insist that your opinion is the only one that matters? It just boggles me. It’s not how it is on the other side, like in the music industry. They’re all about people coming together and they get in a room and they jam on it and they decide what they want to do and come to a decision and they are just going to do it. And there isn’t anyone going, “But you’re just the designer” or, “You’re just the art director” or, “You’re just the copy guy so if you have an opinion on copy you can speak up but if you have an opinion on strategy, Jesus, shut up!” So these are the things that were constantly frustrating me, and I guess I’m telling you this because it has really shaped the agency we have here.
You know the whole dynamic of an art director and a designer. There’s a guy sat in a chair tapping away and a guy stood up behind him telling him to move things left or right. That always just boggled me. I believe in collaboration but that isn’t collaboration. That’s like needing two people to do one great person’s job. And I know that isn’t the way all over the world but that’s how things were here – and still are in some cases. What I learned as a designer was not to be dependent. I can always design. I can have an idea, can get on my computer and make it real and then I can go and sell it, and have made it. I didn’t need anybody else. And it was a really empowering realization and the more of us creatives that actually learn to create physically, make something, edit, code, design, illustrate, the more powerful we’ll be.
So I think that’s made its way into the culture of this agency, as well in terms of me trying to educate and allow people to learn as much as they want to learn in order to empower them. We try to do a lot of mood films here, for everything, even before the client meeting. We make lots of film, we get to execution very early on. That’s probably a hangover from my design days.
So when you arrived here at Grey, what were the challenges like?
I was at United actually, and Grey had bought United, and someone said to me, “Grey is where you go to die, mate!” People here were still ordering ten white lilies for their offices, you know, this kind of mad early 90s behavior. And there were lots of people going on about their titles. It was a broken agency, it was all the things that old agencies used to be, except that it wasn’t good. It was slow, it was fat, it had lots of overpaid people, all really trying to do not too much or not to be too accountable. Lots of people claiming titles and wanting power. Very little focus on the work, or the originality of the work actually at that point. There were some people here for sure who still had ambition but, as an agency, Grey had really lost its way. David Patton, who took over and who I really ought to mention, was the client behind Sony “Balls”, Sony PlayStation “Mountain,” “Double life”… he’s been partly responsible for some of the best advertising of his generation. He’s a really weird guy. I mean him being from a client background, he came here as CEO and he was the first hire. And he brought me on, he brought John Williams on… and his frustration was that, as a client, he would try to make a decision in a room with the agency and they would say, “We can’t agree to that right now. We’ll have to ask the creative director what he thinks.” So no matter how good
Fallon’s advertising at the time was – and it was bloody good – the nature under which it got made ultimately limited its success. So David came in frustrated. I came in frustrated.
So we tore down the offices, and for a reason: it literally is a physical barrier between an idea happening or not if you have to stop outside a door and knock to go and talk to somebody. I understand that dynamic. If you’re a fast creative company, why wouldn’t you remove just all the barriers to communication? So that was something we were passionate about. We then removed sign-off. I guess that is one of the biggest things people still talk about. The idea that my signature, or a planning director’s signature, would validate a piece of work. You know this idea of blessing something just drove me nuts. And we really encouraged trust and empowerment. So that’s how we work here: small empowered crews of people run our clients and it’s down to them. There’s a creative, a planner and, I guess, a suit, or a producer, and what they create is theirs and what they make is theirs, and none of them work the same way. So we don’t have one way of doing anything, we have radically different processes depending on the client. The one consistency is trust and these guys, it’s on them. And the reason that’s really good to do is that when a creative in particular feels that someone else has sign-off, it’s never really on them, never really their responsibility if it’s good or bad. They can always look up the line and say, “Well, it was him, he said it was okay.” And it’s bullshit. Because what people do when they know it’s on them… they work harder. They have more trust, they believe more in what they’re doing. They grow up. They really do have a sense of ownership. And ownership leads to better work. My role then became to chase these teams, which is a very different dynamic than if they would bring me the work and wait in a line at my desk, etc. That’s not how we work. My role is that of a mentor who tries to advise them, and it doesn’t mean that we’re happy all the time. Sometimes, we collide and I might say something is not good enough and then we’ll have that chat. It still happens but it happens the right way.
We spent two years fixing the culture here. It’s a really interesting thing, culture. Most people think it’s a soft thing when we talk about it, a kind if squishy sort of thing. I don’t think it is. What I’ve learned is that culture is the hard things, the things that define you as a business. So it’s no sign-off, no offices. And we don’t budge on this for anybody. There were people when we tore the offices down that said, “Fuck you, I’m gonna leave.” And I thought, “Great. If you’re willing to quit over the fact that you don’t have an office, you’re not right for this company.” And you can’t make exceptions. I’ve heard this rumor that BBH tore everyone out of an office – apart from three teams who really wanted to keep their offices. That just really wound me up. Because how can that be a principle?
So we fixed our culture, we call it open. And here’s another thing. There’s a lot of words in our industry but I think you need them. Because when you’re over a hundred people – we’re 490 now – you need a way for each to call each other. So it’s not about me standing up at a company meeting saying I want you all to be more open, I want you all to be more trusting. Ultimately, the real test of a culture is when I can walk past people saying, mate, that wasn’t really open, you’re not living open. And they challenge each other – that’s the real mark of a culture.
We spent two years doing that, just reinforcing. Making sure the right people go there. Rewarding people who held it up. And I think the real benefit of this for clients is that we got fast. So if you trust people, you don’t put barriers in the way and you speed up the process. You’ll be twice as fast as most agencies. So we got good at pitching. We won, like, 21 out of 24 pitches in the first two years. It was huge. We transformed the client list. When I got here, the client list was something like 65% Procter & Gamble. And they’re a great client but that’s too big. That’s too much power for a client in an agency. It’s now about right, I think. It’s about 20%, maybe 15%, and that’s a decent balance for a client’s size. And we just pitched and we added clients to the list.
Tell us of a few projects you’re particularly proud of.
The other thing I felt less from my background as a designer but more in general was the shape of work at that time. We have this quote from Death of a Salesman here which we often use. It goes like this: “The woods are burning, boys, do you understand? I don’t want to hear about stories from the past or any kind of that bullshit. The woods are burning.” And it felt to us, culturally, that the woods were burning so we made this open culture. And the work needed changing too. Most people still talk about “big ideas.” But what do they really mean when they say that? Someone might say it’s cultural, someone might say it sells a lot. Everyone has a different opinion. Really, what most people mean – and, I would argue, probably still mean – is a television commercial. And it just pissed us off. We were looking at ideas like X-Factor, that’s a different sort of idea. What’s the best bit about X-Factor? The live shows? The auditions? The judges? The fact that you can buy the song? It’s a long idea. And that’s what we hit upon – this notion of the long idea. Big is about ego – you know, creative director traditionally telling you, “This is a big idea.” And you’re scratching your head thinking: “Is it?” And you have to buy into it because it’s big in ego. Long is about time. How much time will I spend with this idea? And everyone can answer that. And once you start writing long ideas, you don’t think about telly ads.
So you weren’t after ideas for long-running campaigns such as the classic “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers can’t reach,” to cite one example?
Sure, we’ve got clients that have those. “How sweet!” for McVitie’s is one of them. That is great, But really what we wanted was making every execution longer, every campaign longer. Let me give you an example: The Lucozade Condition Zone. We could have made an ad about the World Cup, and the ad would have come and gone. Instead, we made a building that recreated the temperature, the climate of Brazil. And we called it the Condition Zone. We made this building that people could go to. That lasted a month. Then we advertised the building. So you recruit people to go and play in it. You get England’s stars to play in it. You get journalists down there. Now that’s a long idea. That whole activation lasted about two and a half months, pre and post the World Cup. And Lucozade weren’t even the official sponsor. And for any news crew in Europe who couldn’t get to Brazil, they came to the Condition Zone to talk about it. Now for me that’s a different shape of idea, and arguably a really engaging shape. What was the best bit of that? The content we made? The adverts we made to promote it? The information it produced? The fact that you had to give a urine sample inside, which was really funny. You’d run around and they’d do all these scientific tests on you to see the effects the heat had on your body. And then of course Lucozade, the drink that made it happen, would replenish it. So that is the kind of long idea I was talking about. I also say this because, at the time in the industry, it would have been mad for us to try to go toe to toe with BBH on television ads. At that point they were an incredibly strong agency and they were making great telly ad after great telly ad, and it struck us that if we wanted to make a difference just trying to be good at telly ads, Grey London was never going to do it.
One of the best things we’ve ever made, really an example of long-before-its-time, was the “Angina Monologues.” It was a theatre show at the Haymarket. It’s for the British Heart Foundation. Women think they’re going to die of breast cancer, and men think they’re going to die of a heart attack. That is what people think. And the truth is that women are actually more likely to die of a heart attack. So what we wanted to say to women was, you’ve got to think about your heart. And women are one of the hardest-to-reach audiences in the world because they’re so busy. They’re mothers, they’ve got to take care of their kids, they work. They’re more preoccupied than a lot of other audiences. And if you have negative messaging, they just switch off. They don’t want to hear it. So we asked ourselves, what are we going to do? So we made a comedy show. We had it at the Haymarket Theatre in London, a sell-out comedy show with Victoria Wood at the heart of it. And we had all these female comedians. And the subject of these “Angina Monologues” was the stress of being a woman in these times. And we sold it as programming and it ran on Sky One on Christmas Day to seven million people. And it won a British Comedy Award. Now for me, we haven’t made as good a work since, and I think if we made that now, it would be three times as famous. Because the world is ready for programming and branded content now. No one was even talking about branded content years ago when we did that. That was a bit frustrating but it was a real benchmark for us because we realized it was a different shape of idea. Not many people were doing it.
Did you get a lot of recognition from the international ad awards circuit on that piece?
No, we didn’t.
Because the juries didn’t know what to do with it?
Because they didn’t know what to do with it and, secondly, because we were Grey London. You know juries and shows respond to agencies. They just do. They don’t mean to but they do. “That came out of Droga!” – “Oooh, then it must be good!” And, actually, that’s horseshit – these days more than ever because there are so many start-ups. I was really frustrated at the time. Imagine as a creative director trying to prove yourself, trying to change an agency. I really thought it should have gotten a Grand Prix at Cannes. It did pick up a D&AD and it picked up something at Campaign – you know, it got a few things but I mean, man… where I really believed this was the future of the industry what I watched in terms of award recognition, it was just people not really knowing how to judge it. I think creatives, they’re the hardest people in the world to convince. Clients don’t give a shit. Clients just want to work with great people. And you can have any name above the door and they won’t care. They will come if they like you and if you’ve got good ideas. Whereas the talent in the industry is far more suspicious, far more fragile. You know they look for success. And that’s one thing that’s always depressed me: What I really look for is a task and that is why I went to Grey and stuck with it. And of course David had total trust in me, gave me enough rope. But it helped that I wanted to fix something, whereas creatives often want to be part of something successful. They don’t necessarily want to be part of making it successful. So recognition of our work was kind of tough at that point.
So, for two years, we fixed the culture and pitched. Then we did good work for a year and a half and tried to get good people. I knew who the good people were. I spent my days spotting people I wanted. And of course half of them didn’t want to come because they weren’t sure yet. And then we made more good work. Now we’ve been making good work for five years, and we have some of the world’s best talent knocking on the door. So the last couple of years have been about finally getting some of the world’s best people, and it’s taken that long to prove to them that we’re the sort of place they definitely need to work.