Grey London is one of the most significant agencies in the world. As Chief Creative Officer, it’s hard to overstate Nils part in that. Take one year: in 2015 they won two Grand Prix in Cannes, Nils was voted into Ad Age’s Creativity 50, and he was named Most Creative Person in Advertising by Business Insider. Nils has also torn down ‘traditions’ of design, like the sign off process and offices. Even people outside of advertising know who he is.
I’m not your typical adman. My dad was in a bike gang, my mum taught RE, we grew up in a place called Wealdstone outside Harrow. It was a shithole, where you found shopping trolleys on greens – that sort of joint – and I was just desperate to get out of there. My dad calls me Maggie’s minion because I’m the only Leonard to have brought down a salary and actually paid tax.
Joining Grey, I was one of the youngest heads of design at the time and a lot of people didn’t think I had the craft or the wisdom. I feel like I constantly have something to prove. But I think I’m in an agency of people who feel the same way, so that’s all right. A lot of the people who had gravitated to Grey have something to prove.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with awards. I thought they held up the wrong stuff and they can turn people into monsters. So I was scared of them. But I realised that, until you win awards, proper global talent doesn’t come knocking. You need awards to pull talent. So I thought, if we’re gong to play that game, we’re going to play it really well.
To create something like ‘Life Paint’ [for Volvo, the winner of two Grands Prix at Cannes] and to have seeded it in the world in the right way is, I think, a different shape of idea that people aren’t used to seeing; to get rewarded for that idea really validates our way of thinking. Because you’re never sure: you believe it in your heart, you’re running and you’re asking people to run with you, but to hear that the industry’s with you too is a great thing.
But I’m also scared of that, of going ‘that is the be-all and end-all’ – it’s not, it can’t be. I don’t want it to give us a ceiling. This is the start. I promise you, this is the start.
For any brand to play a meaningful role these days, it has to do many things, and actually ‘mattering’ – alongside doing some communications – is one of them. And we have to be able to do many things, not just ads; if I woke up tomorrow and was in total charge of Volvo, or any other brand, I’d be looking for that mix of work. I would like to believe that, in the future, creative companies like Grey London – not necessarily ad agencies – will have a different relationship with our clients and they’ll come to us for things like that.
When I joined Grey, someone said to me: ‘Don’t go there, mate – it’s where you go to die.’ I went there and there were people ordering ten white lilies a day, and sending four e-mails a day about their job titles and the size of their offices, and it was an agency that spent 50 per cent of its time worrying about the wrong thing. Creative talent was buried in a waiting line, with brilliant people told to wait 20 years before they could be a creative director. We spent a year breaking that culture, moving people out of offices, finding new ways of motivating people so they wanted to take a chip out of the competition.
When I was made ECD, I said I wanted the most ambitious creative department in London – on the planet, even – and I think, to some extent, I’ve got that and I’ve got it by trying to make Grey a beacon for the frustrated. But many of our great people are not recent hires, they are talent we’ve grown. We don’t have a lot of churn because people enjoy it. I want people to say ‘I was at Grey when…’ and feel proud to be part of something big at our agency. And I genuinely think this might be the year that people look back on.
The creative director of the future: they’re not reinforcing hierarchy, they’re not reinforcing ego, they’re not in a corner office with two PAs, they don’t need to sign everything off, they build a culture of trust not swagger, they empower the teams. And the creative director of the future honestly is concerned with business – they want to partner with their clients to make a meaningful impact. Even the best suits in our business can’t look a client in the eye and say ‘I came up with this; I’m going to do it with you’, and I think that any creative who wants to work with their client like that is going to go far these days. Creatives don’t get (which is why they’re insecure and why some of them don’t get what we’ve done) that they’re the most powerful people in their agency. They have the most power to effect change.
I want a different shape of company. Some of the most driven people in our agency happen to be women: they are exceptional talents. I hear people saying they want to promote more women, but they should be asking themselves why the fuck any woman would want to work for your company – that’s where you should start thinking.
Also, I want to allow people to succeed at a young age, not wait in line. And we get far too many people coming up through the same path. We’ve taken the universities and colleges off our applicants’ CVs because it doesn’t matter where people went or where they came from.
It’s massively inspiring to meet all these 28-year-old data-design geniuses who’ve already got their own company. I think ‘That guy doesn’t need me; I need that guy’ and we have to get our heads round that. Don’t tell me you’ve hired another industry hero – it’s irrelevant. If we don’t get our heads round this, we’re going to be obsolete of proper talent.
In the future, our clients aren’t going to be sitting round the table with their digital agency, their advertising agency, their media agency; they’re just going to be sitting there with great people, and you’ve got to ask yourself if your people are good enough to make the table. Our people are going to be the best. I promise you that. And it’s because I’m not going to go to the same places for talent. The scale of our clients, our belief and ambition will attract the right talent – we just have to know what it looks like.”