Nils Leonard of Grey London Talks Culture, Creativity and That Infamous Adweek Column

What the chairman title means to him


 

Photo: Alfred Maskeroni

Specs
Who Nils Leonard
New gig Chairman of Grey London
Old (and continuing) gig Chief creative officer of Grey London
Age 37
Twitter @nilsleonard

How does this promotion change your responsibilities?
They did it in New York with the role of president for Tor [Myhren]. It’s down to the CCO to lead the culture of an agency. And when you’re in the business of cultural change—not just the work getting better—you have your eye on different stuff. The role of chairman, for me, means steering the decisions of the company in terms of business, in terms of people we take on as partners, in terms of joint ventures—all its future ambitions.

And what is the culture at Grey London?
My background is design. I have a real problem with the whole “We’re a creative team in an office, you knock on the door, you wait your turn.” It slows ideas down … We removed sign-off. We removed offices. We removed departments sitting together. We decided purposefully not to make awards a creative end point, and not to make high productivity an end point. We tried to make our way into culture. And that’s evidenced in our work. We bake it into every idea we make.

Can you give me some examples?
The Angina Monologues won a British Comedy Award. There’s not another agency in town with a British Comedy Award. Generating and publishing a No. 1 hit with the Lucozade campaign—it was No. 1 for four weeks on the U.K. iTunes chart—this is the sort of work we’re trying to make.

Keeping a culture alive is harder as you grow bigger. But that must also be the goal.
A hundred percent. I want to grow but keep our culture absolutely at the heart of the business. Take Mother. Absolutely brilliant agency in its time. They tried to export their culture. But unless Robert Saville lands in New York and does the job, they can’t export it, because it’s rooted in that guy and a couple of others around him. I think we can. I think we’ve thought about our culture hard enough to know what it is. I know we can be big and still be a great place to work.

We see great TV work from Grey London—Vodafone, the Sunday Times, Volvo. What else are you good at?
The stuff we’ve transformed the agency on has been untraditional. The Ryman Eco font for Ryman. The Lucozade Conditions Zone. The Angina Monologues was sold as programming—7 million people on Christmas Day watched that. 

Or the “Fashion Royalty” campaign [for The Sunday Times]. That was mostly a print campaign. But to celebrate the Best Dressed list, we made a stamp of Michelle Obama as the queen and seeded it with The Washington Post. And it went turbo, obviously. It was the most-viewed Twitter image of Michelle ever, at that point. That wasn’t an ad. That was a piece of propaganda. That’s the kind of thing I would love us to be known for.

You wrote a column for Adweek saying the perfect modern creative is “fierce, fearless and female.” It was polarizing, to say the least. How did you feel about the reaction to it?
I was overjoyed that people care. I wrote an article about creativity. I changed the language of it to “she.” And that’s clearly a fucking sore point for the industry. Whether you like or lump that article, it’s a sore point. So I was happy, in a way, with the controversy it created.

How do you stay inspired?
Genuinely, it’s people. It’s the people we hire. It’s the places I go to try to meet people. I do as much socializing as I can. It’s people with energy. In the world, unlike our industry, there are no rules. And some people out there just remind you of that.

What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Driven like Senna.

What three words would others use to describe you?
Disruptive. Considerate. Magnetic.