Nils Leonard is restless. Over the last decade or so he’s had the time to work in some of the most successful agencies in London and then become Chief Creative Officer and Chairman at Grey London, where he turned an agency that was as bland as its name suggests into one of the top 3 in the world.
Last June Leonard, along with CEO Lucy Jameson and MD Natalie Graeme, shocked the industry by quitting Grey. Since, he’s introduced Halo, a sustainable coffee pod brand (think Nespresso with a conscience). And he’s only turning forty this year.
We meet Nils Leonard in San Sebastián, where he’s a speaker at the Club de Creativos. Once his keynote is over tweets are shared with a picture Leonard standing by one of his slides. It reads: “Wake up. People are paying money to avoid what we spend our lives making”.
How’s life after Grey London?
The truth is, it’s been brilliant to get some time. I’ve seen the world, I’ve launched a coffee brand, I’ve got something else coming. I’ve done a lot of stuff I would’ve never done and I’ve learned more in six months than in the last two years.
When you’re in an agency, a particularly big and successful one, you just put out the fires in front of you. Every day you turn up and you solve a ton of different problems. But you don’t realise those are not real problems, they’re just problems in the agency. So you don’t stop to think about what the world needs, or even about categories. Take the car industry, what does it need to change? We’re brilliant thinking like that in our industry but we never do it because we just solve our clients’ problems!
When you talk about big problems, you’re talking sustainability?
The obvious ones are sustainability and gender. I also mean cultural problems and frictions. I also mean acceptance. Or simple things that some people can’t have like entertainment or openness or platforms. It’s really interesting when you look at social media in China. Or how people are misunderstanding VR and what it can do.
I’ve always felt empowered to play a part in the bigger world, not just to make adverts. At Grey I always said that I wanted us to be a company that people in the real world knew, not just the ad industry. Agencies are invisible, we’re these invisible shadows. When your ambition is to be Channel 4 or Pixar or Vice you need to put something into the world that people actually want. Not just a solution to a client’s problem, because very rarely a client’s problem is the same as real people’s.
Fast Company publish every year a ranking of the top 100 creative people in the world and none of them work for a creative agency except for David Droga. Is that what you’re talking about?
I like David, he gets it and shares my ambition. He says it differently, he wants to be an influential company. I don’t mind influence, I just want to make things that matter. I would love the idea that people knew the company I ran and said “that was cool, they made stuff I really like”. I’d like to believe Halo is doing that, and not in a charity way. I did not start a charity, I started a business and the interesting bit is how that business addresses a problem.
Creating things that matter sounds like your mantra at Grey about brands having a broader impact in culture.
The most ambitious CMOs I know understand that their brands can play a part in people’s lives. I did a pitch for Honda once where there was a great brief: how do we go from being a brand that sell people stuff to being a brand that people wish existed? I thought that was an incredible question, but it’s not a question reserved for brands, it’s a question we in this industry should be answering: does the world really want you in it? And why?
When you look at work like Nike ID or some of the Droga work, arguably Volvo Life Paint, people like it. And it doesn’t need to be charity. It can be entertaining or really funny. The Vinnie Jones work we did for the British Heart Foundation at Grey saved 45 lives, probably more. And it was an advert, but not really: it was the world’s most entertaining educational video.
Do you feel we’re better equipped to do that on the agency side or on the brand owner side?
We’re better equipped on the agency side from an insight point of view. We’re talking strategy. From a reach point of view if you’re a brand you’re more equipped but you’re less salient. In agencies, all we do every day is look at categories and go: that would be interesting, what if we did this?
I’m not going to stop at hopefully getting the client to buy an ad, if they don’t buy that I’m going to go and do it myself. That’s what I do with Halo. If we did really good coffee in a capsule that would be original. But if we did really good coffee in a capsule, but sustainable, that would be awesome! Done.
How do you get clients to buy into that?
This is my point: try to partner ambitious clients and try to get them to do it. And if they don’t, do it yourself. We’re too dependent, we’re asking our parents for money. What does a retainer really mean? They pay you a regular amount of money a month to solve their business problems. But are they paying you to make amazing work or are they paying you to do things you don’t want to do?
If my mission if to create culturally impactful moments for brands but your mission is to put more shelf wobblers in a supermarket, you’re going to have to pay me a fee to do what you want. So as an agency you have to ask yourself what you really want to do.
Leonard looks sharp: perfectly trimmed graying hair, two-day beard, trendy yet unassuming clothes. His eyes are bright and brown, somehow similar to that piece of amber preserving a mosquito in Jurassic Park. An adman without an agency, Nils Leonard speaks with the freedom of someone who has nothing to lose. One of the most daring creatives in the world is gone rogue, and he’s on a mission to change brands for good.
Would you be happy with a smaller shop with better clients?
Yes, but I don’t believe I’ll have a smaller shop, I think I’ll have a very ambitious shop because I’ll have a different set of clients and a different set of talent. You have to stop and ask the whole world: do you want to work with someone who want to put you into culture in the right way? That was a belief I had with Volvo Life Paint because the idea of the product was big enough. I feel really validated, because I wasn’t sure, I was terrified because I thought maybe it wouldn’t work.
So you believe advertising is the price you have to pay when you have an under par product?
Or an under par brand. I’ve seen businesses win because they’re nicer, they’re better brands. I love that. But I think if you can start from the ground up with a proper idea inside your brand, you win. The most successful businesses in the world tuned in with something people needed, a frustration. They fixed something.
We have a great example here in Spain with Zara. They don’t advertise at all.
I love Zara. But let’s define advertising as well. When someone says I need some ads I freak out. That is why Adam & Eve DDB are powerful: they realised the majority of the world wants to skip ads and said damn, that’s a shame, so we’re only going to make massive ones with millions of pounds. Literally, that’s the brief: they only work with clients who have one million pounds for production and a two minute epic. I respect that because they believe advertising is not dead as long as you do it up there (Leonard raises his hand above his head).
At Grey we also explored every other area: experience, product design, technology, entertainment… any other way for a brand to get their message across. In a world that skips advertising you need to think what business you’re in.
Another pressing issue in the advertising industry is age, the obsession with youth. In fact you said at Cannes Lions that only 5% of agency workforce is over 45. How old are you now?
I’m 40 this year. In entertainment age is not even an issue. You’re just an artist and the older you get, the nastier, the sexier you get. Banksy, Nick Cave, is his album good? That’s all I care about. In our game it doesn’t work. Why is that? In the ad industry as you grow old you either run your own place or you become someone very difficult to slide into a department. And that’s because we’re a service industry.
When I started at Grey it was full of old people. I didn’t change that for cost, I changed that because I needed new energy. But over the course of that time I met two or three people that we reeducated and were great. Pete Gatley is one of the most exceptional creatives I’ve never worked with, he wrote the Tate work we created at Grey. You get a junior team in a room and they’ll come with 25 bits of paper and Pete will come in with one, but what’s in that piece of paper will be phenomenal, jaw droppingly insightful. You have to balance it. In the company I want to build I genuinely don’t think age will ever be an issue.
What about diversity in London? For example there’s not one Head of Planning who isn’t British in the UK. Do you think that’s an issue, and is it going to become a bigger issue with Brexit?
I think it is going to be a bigger issue and I worry about that. Advertising is an old boys club: they all went to uni together. To me it’s a slightly different question which is: why isn’t it a bit more global? In London we’re 15 years behind NY and they’ve learned to integrate people in a way that’s far more comfortable.
You have to recognize the cultural differences in different places. In London it’s frenetically fast. Grey was prolific and there was a reason for that: we worked twice as hard as everybody else. That’s why we smashed it, there’s no magic. That comes at a price, and at a certain mentality. It’s tough even for New Yorkers: when I tried to have more Americans in the company it never really worked. They don’t like London.
But that’s their issue, not yours.
Agencies hire quickly because they want to solve problems. We don’t grow organically, or only at very senior level. If you’re hiring a middle weight planner because someone else just quit it’s unlikely you’re going to reach out and see how someone feels about coming over. It’s laziness and expediency creeping in. But when you run a company you go quick and try to solve problems fast.
Nils Leonard smiles one last time, says gracias in Spanish, turns around and marches off into the sunset. One thing is for sure: we’ll hear back from him sooner that we think.