Very interesting interview this month with Nils Leonard, Chairman and CCO of Grey London.

The bit that really jumps out is that he claims he doesn't sign off any of the work.

Let's rewind. When Leonard first took over at Grey, a few people carped along the lines of 'how can he be an ECD when he's never done any great work as a creative', which is a rather foolish argument, akin to questioning Arsene Wenger's managerial ability on the grounds that he was a mediocre left-back.

Leonard's success is undeniable. Grey London has been utterly transformed under his watch. The agency where people "went to die", and whose creative floor was once known as "Jurassic Park", is now arguably one of the most dynamic in the world. In the last five years, the place has won a shitload of awards, and more than doubled in size.

So what did he do that was so different?

I'm pretty sure I know the answer, but he himself prefers not to tell us. Because it certainly can't be any of the three points he makes in his interview.

The first of these was his decision to go open-plan. As regular readers will know, I'm not a fan. But perhaps Leonard has a new take on it? "We tore down the offices", he says, "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." 

Sounds hip, yeah. But if you actually examine it, I reckon this argument is super-weak. I mean... is that really such a huge barrier - a fucking door? Last time I checked, doors do open. And fairly easily, too. I don't recall them being much of a barrier when we had them at DDB London. They certainly never kept any suits out who wanted to come in. Or indeed anyone. They simply knocked, and entered! And once inside, you could actually have a proper chat... which in an open plan office, you can't.

But anyway, whatever the merits of open-plan, this move cannot be the cause of Grey's recent successes (21 pitches won out of 24), since every other agency in London has gone open-plan too. Hence, no competitive advantage there.

His second point is around looking for what he calls 'long ideas' rather than 'big ideas'. This means ideas that people want to spend time with, rather than simply ideas which can support multiple executions. And he's walked the walk here, for example producing a stage show 'The Angina Monologues' for the British Heart Foundation that was also broadcast on TV.


He's phrased it beautifully - "long ideas" - but a commitment to producing longer-form content cannot be the source of Grey's competitive advantage either, since every other agency in town is doing the same.

His last point is around "no sign-off". Leonard explains that a team consisting of a creative, a planner, and "I guess, a suit, or a producer" (he means a suit, but doesn't want to sound old-school) takes ultimate responsibility for the work - not him.

There are arguments both ways here. Yes, it's true that if people know the buck stops with them, they feel a greater sense of ownership, and may create better work. But on the other hand, you could argue it's a mistake to remove the CCO from the process - does it really make sense for the agency's best creative not to be involved in the work? 

He's certainly being a little disingenuous by reducing the CCO's role to a mere 'sign-off'. The good ECD's or CCO's or whatever the top person is called in an agency are doing a hell of a lot more than just signing off the work. They're adding to it, improving, finessing... sometimes transforming it.

In any case, once again this can't be the secret of Grey's recent out-performance, since many other agencies in London operate exactly the same system - including the last two where I worked, DDB and BBH - as do many other agencies around the world.

And it's certainly not true that this system is, as Nils Leonard claims, significantly faster. "If you trust people," he writes, "you don’t put barriers in the way and you speed up the process... you’ll be twice as fast as most agencies."

Really? Twice as fast? The ECD gets a day or two max to have their input - sometimes an hour. That's not 50% of the entire strategy/ideation/creative direction/presentation process. It's way, way less.

So what is the real reason for Grey's success, and why does Nils Leonard not tell us, instead making claims for the success of his agency which sound modern and groovy, but which aren't actually any different to what every other agency is doing?

In my view, the major change that has made the difference at Grey since the arrival of Nils Leonard... is the arrival of one Nils Leonard.

Obviously he doesn't say that in the interview, since it would sound horribly immodest (not to mention old-fashioned) to claim that one great creative leader can make the difference. But we all know that they can.

I have no interest in crawling up the bloke's arse, since I'm 10,000 miles away and not planning to go back. But by all accounts he's just very, very good at his job. Highly charming, highly creative, great with clients, great with ideas, great at hiring... and of course, great at PR.

And surely it's this latter quality that explains why in his interview he weaves a compelling story - a parable of modernity and inclusivity - rather than revealing the rather boring and old-fashioned truth.
 

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