Nils Leonard, Executive Creative Director, Grey London: “ While ‘big’ ideas are all about size and ego and someone’s opinion, long ideas are all about time”

Nils Leonard told Popsop about why Grey chooses ‘long’ ideas, not ‘big’ ideas,  why he thinks the award shows have become better, about how social media agency The Social Partners complements Grey’s more ‘traditional’ services, and why advertising will always be about selling something.

— When you were promoted to ECD back in 2009, some critics claimed your vision for Grey was naïve and too youthful. Some even called your aspirations to transform the model and spirit of the agency ‘evangelical’. Three years on, what is your comment on those criticisms? Are you happy with the results of the new agency OPEN policy? How do you feel about the atmosphere and culture of Grey London?


— There’s a lot of cynicism in this industry, and it’s a shame. I’m not interested in what the critics think: our work and culture is speaking for itself now. Grey LDN needed a radical and powerful change to become what it is today, but it’s nowhere near finished.

To be truly successful as a creative company these days you have to accept that your company will never be ‘finished’, never complete. The same is true of people, if you don’t adapt, if you don’t stay open, you fall behind. Open is all about this. In an industry where ECDs monopolised power by having ultimate sign-off and demotivated people with hierarchy, I just felt there was room for something new. Open is a culture that invests heavily in creative talent and simply trusts people to do what’s right. Which weirdly isn’t what the rest of our industry does.


— You base your campaign strategies around ‘Long’ ideas as opposed to ‘big’ ideas. Can you explain what that means and why the impact is greater?


— Long ideas came from us looking at the sort of work we wanted to make. We were far more interested in what X Factor were doing; how Angry Birds had succeeded; Instagram, and the innovations happening in the music and festival industry than we were in trying to sell soap in a new way in 30 seconds.  The things we were interested in played a part in popular culture. Where ‘big’ ideas are all about size and ego and someone’s (usually the ECD’s) opinion, long ideas are all about time. Would people spend time with this idea; seek it out; revisit it?

This is where work like The Angina Monologues (which won a British television award for entertainment) came from: trying to play a part in culture; create something people would spend their time with.

Long ideas always have a spark for a conversation in them. We always ask: “Where’s the tinder?” You can’t bullshit people with tinder: it’s either there or it isn’t. Are people going to talk about this? Pass it on? Celebrate it?


—You were at Cannes this year, where Grey scooped four Lions for its integrated and broadcast campaigns. How do you think the festival itself has changed over the past few years? Was there anything about Cannes 2012, whether entertainment or judges’ choices, that you particularly liked or disliked?


— Awards shows were bad for about a decade. They’d award what won the year before and it felt very stale to me. The good news is that now the shows are chasing the pace of the industry. Instead of people writing for awards shows we are seeing the shows inventing categories to award truly original work, and that’s the right dynamic. It’s not that the older crafts are less important, it’s that they are being used in different ways.


—Can you name a truly breathtaking advert that has made you think or feel differently as a consumer, as opposed to as an industry professional?


— A fantastic piece of work I’ve seen recently is the Paralympic Superhuman work on Channel 4. It just stepped above the sanitised noise of the other Olympic sponsorship and properly moved me.  Great soundtrack, great thought and an edit that made me want to weep.


—David Ogilvy once said: “We sell or else.” Do you still judge advertising success according to sales figures, or do you think it is now measured against new parameters?


— Advertising will always be about selling something. It’s the business we’re in, but how we sell has never been so varied. Our canvas, our tools and the disciplines involved in our game these days are properly inspiring. On the BHF account, we’re in the business of saving lives – but using comedy and the Bee Gees to do it; and creating education films through entertainment channels was a new way to get an important message across. It’s important also that we’re all trying something new. That we’re having fun doing what we do. You can feel it working here when the team know they’re onto something special.


In your opinion, can a small start-up agency win a creative pitch against Grey? What is your comment on the perception (or misconception?) that big brands only work with big agencies?


— Size is only an issue when a client is after a network solution or a shop with real credentials in a certain space.

It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Whatever anyone says, pitching always comes down to the people in the room. If the three guys from your agency are better than the three people from the big shop then you’ll win. Big or small, it’s about energy and hunger, and the best way to pitch is with no fear at all. We rejoice in the fact that it’s the only time in our industry that you’re either right or wrong: when you’re discussing work it’s all a debate; when you’re pitching you either get it or you don’t.  Win. Lose. No draw.


—How do you motivate and inspire both yourself and your staff? How do you manage to lead Grey and run your own business at the same time – and which is more rewarding?


— Energy is everything in an agency. We do everything we can to inspire and cultivate our talent. We keep educating our people: most creatives here can design, illustrate and edit, and that is empowering. And we’re moving as fast as we can to make code our new discipline as we go. The more a person can do without needing someone else, the higher their ceiling gets. We also give our talent a lot of space, both in how they want to run their projects and also in terms of where and how they want to spend their working day.


—In an interview with Campaign two years ago, you said you liked to surround yourself with like-minded people, who maybe have their own business or work in a different creative field, and that advertising training was not an essential in your colleagues. Has your perspective on that changed, or do you still believe people from any background can break the ad world?


— To be a modern company these days you have to always be in beta. Yes, we have some exceptional advertising talent – but the vision here is to build a diverse and relevant team for any opportunity we might come across. What are the ‘advertising’ skillsets these days anyway? It’s all opening up.  In the past 2 years we’ve created a live show at the Haymarket, Christmas day programming, a record label, a crowd-sourced roadtrip documentary and a Youtube-hosted lifesaving public information film as well as some work for the more expected channels. The people who made this stuff happen come from all over the place.

People with their own businesses and personal projects alongside the agency also tend to be more driven. They have a personal ambition for their work, which takes things to a new level.


—You have a social media activation and word-of-mouth agency within Grey, The Social Partners. How does social media/word-of-mouth complement Grey’s more ‘traditional’ services – and how can brands incorporate such services into their marketing communications effectively? What other advances is Grey making into the digital/non-traditional space?  


— We’ve shaped Grey LDN and its culture around social. That’s where tinder came from. It helps to have a culture and a language around the sort of work you want to make, and we don’t see a divide between social, digital, above-the-line or search any more. We also incorporate an events company, a PR firm, shopper marketing, service design and a full post-production group into what we do, plugging these disciplines in and out of projects as appropriate.  Projects like The Angina Monologues, Vinnie and our Lucozade work have used digital, social and content all at once. As a company it’s about staying fluid and open to trying new things, about losing the fear and preciousness and having people around you that constantly push boundaries.