​Nils Leonard calls it as it is.

If you missed the D&AD President’s Lecture in Perth on November 11 morning, you missed out.

If you don’t know who Nils is, he’s the Chief Creative Officer and Chairman of Grey London. He joined the agency when it was a basket case. Fridges full of vintage Dom Perignon and Old Etonians ordering daily flowers for their office while the agency burned.

Five years later, the staff has grown from 120 to over 500 and the agency has won 25 D&AD pencils. That’s real, yellow and black ones.

Work such as the Vodafone ‘Kiss’ and the Vinnie Jones demo of CPR set to the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive track has broken the mould and in many cases changed the way we think of advertising.

So what’s his secret?

In a word, culture.

Culture, according to Nils, is more important than talent. And I couldn’t agree more. Which is not to say talent is not important because clearly it is. But if you don’t have the right culture, good luck with attracting and keeping great talent.

Anywhere, we were assured, can be excellent. Not just agencies but any organisation. Which is just as well, since the audience included tables from a private school, an oil and gas company and a university. There is no place that creativity and innovation aren’t important.

For all of us, Nils had some incisive messages.

Nils Leonard presenting at the D&AD President’s Lecture in Perth. Image credit: Hamish McNair. Curtin University

Quotable quotes

Agencies are just buildings full of people.

Comfort is the enemy of creativity.

You’re at your most creative when you’re in the sh*t.

The best stuff comes from panic, frustration or failure. (I used this one today when one of our team members had a meltdown.)

I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.

Happiness isn’t motivating. Anger is, and so is revenge.

We all need to be driven by something.

Decide what you love and what you reject.

Arguing with idiots is like playing chess with a pigeon. Even when you win, it will sh*t on the chess board anyway.

Creativity does not look backwards.

Staying good is harder than getting good.

Grey’s recipe

So what happened to turn Grey around? Apart from hard work of course.

They killed offices.

They killed departments.

They sat people together who got on with each other.

They killed the production line approach.

They killed the brief as an immovable contract.

They killed the sign off and trusted their people (after all, they had hired great people).

They killed powerless account teams. (Not literally, but they recognised the power of great account people. And vice versa.)

They killed ego.

What next?

Nils described Grey as like an empowered army of jilted lovers.

The agency is now talking less about the big TV ad and they’ve started talking more about the ‘long idea’ rather than the big idea. They’re making stuff, building prototypes, getting a seat at the CEO’s table.

They are trying to build a company that people in the real world are glad exists.

To be taken more seriously they recognise that creative people need to understand business and money, otherwise the CEO won’t want to talk to them for advice.

They are looking for people who are “fire starters”.

(Better take care with that one in a Perth summer, Nils).

In my Cannes wrap up I talked about the need for radical change in our business.

Nils Leonard presented a cast iron case for why this is right.

Article posted by Paul Yole