Q&A: Grey’s New Global Creative Council Chairman on ‘Never Choosing the Middle Road’

Per Pedersen reflects on being the network's top creative evangelist

Grey earned Adweek's 2015 Global Agency of the Year honors on the strength of both its relatively conventional work for clients like Canon and its more outlandish efforts like a recently launched project in which the official phone number for the country of Sweden redirects to a random citizen. (When Adweek's Tim Nudd called, that citizen happened to be an Associated Press reporter.)

How does the global network produce such a disparate array of work?

Much of that responsibility lies with the Grey Global Creative Council and deputy worldwide chief creative officer Per Pedersen, a 25-year veteran of the organization. Now the agency has officially named him chairman of the council.

Pedersen recently spoke with Adweek about what this new role means and shared some of his more colorful experiences helping lead the network's 432 offices in 96 countries and taking other creatives on the group's singularly exotic retreats.

Adweek: Why does Grey need a Global Creative Council?

Per Pedersen: It's a network within the network. The thing is 9 years old. It has been developing overseas, and we put it in place to raise the creative bar. These days it's more about building a global creative circle where people actually know and like each other. … We've reached the point where our leaders are becoming friends, and that has proven to be very significant for us in terms of new business by allowing us to work across cultures.

What sets Grey's network apart from those of other agencies?

We hold our meetings in places outside of people's comfort zones. Instead of a nice hotel in Northern Sweden, we go to the Indian version of the Grand Budapest. We've also gone on a safari in Africa and visited a village in Cambodia. We choose places that are inspiring, and there's an element of getting to know your colleagues involved. These places aren't five-star, but then if you sit in a boring meeting room at a fancy hotel, why would you really get involved with anybody?

How do you choose these off-the-wall locations?

After every meeting we talk about where we went and what other sorts of places might be interesting, because if you live a life in advertising and all your friends also work in advertising, then you'll never really see the world. We wouldn't go to Syria or anything like that, but there needs to be a challenge involved.

What are some of the wildest things that have happened to your team on these retreats?

We once visited an ice hotel and went reindeer sledding. It sounds nice when paired with a hot drink, but the thing people don't know about reindeer is that they are completely crazy. They're the fastest animals I've ever seen, and they can never really be domesticated. So we were at the mercy of this animal flying through the air across an icy wasteland. Let's just say a couple of guys got humiliated by the reindeer, and nobody saw that coming.

How do you develop campaigns and/or other projects via the council?

Everything starts as something small. I literally look for ideas where one's first reaction is, WTF? It's a healthy response when confronted with something that might either be big or the worst thing you've ever encountered in your life—like the Swedish phone number project we just launched. It started as a WTF and turned into one of our biggest ideas of the year.

So it's a process of trial and error?

Yes. We have many more examples of things that got killed long before launch because they were too random or simply stupid. The council is about weighing both craziness and genius but never choosing the middle road because that's just boring. Advertising used to be all about paying for exposure, but now we are at the mercy of people like you and others … hence, the make-or-break process. When we have a group of our best creatives behind an idea, it becomes easier to sell to the client.