Nils Leonard on starting a new creative shop, and everything that’s wrong with advertising

CR enjoys a sweary chat with Nils Leonard about Uncommon, the new start-up studio he’s launched with former Grey London colleagues Natalie Graeme and Lucy Jameson, and why he thinks the ad network culture it was born out of is unsustainable in its current form.

Graeme, Jameson, and Leonard

If you’re remotely tuned into the UK advertising industry, you’ll probably be aware of Uncommon, the new start-up launched this month by three of Grey London’s former top dogs – managing director Natalie Graeme, CEO Lucy Jameson and CCO Nils Leonard – 15 months after they dramatically left the agency just after Cannes Lions last year.

The new studio has gained attention for the team’s approach, which mixes communications and branding with a commitment to support the formation of new brands. But, beyond this new model, what is also interesting about Uncommon is the problems its founding reveal about the current ad industry set up.

The news of Graeme, Jameson and Leonard’s departure from Grey was unexpected as the agency was riding high at the time, both in creative and business terms. Added to that, Leonard is about as close as you get to a celebrity in adland these days, with his profile gaining steadily over the years via a number of forthright think pieces, an appearance on stage shirtless with Iggy Pop in Cannes, and, yes, quite a bit of decent advertising.

The decision to leave therefore can’t have been easy, and certainly wasn’t accepted lightly by WPP boss Martin Sorrell (head of the network that owns Grey London), who made them wait until now, 15 months on, before they could talk about what they had planned.

It turns out that Uncommon is born out of frustrations about the network culture that could be epitomised by such contractual headaches, as well as its general lack of agility, particularly around new approaches. Leonard and the creative department at Grey London built a reputation for unexpected and varied marketing ideas, including a live comedy show starring Victoria Wood titled The Angina Monologues for The British Heart Foundation (which won a British Comedy Award) and cycling safety product Life Paint for Volvo. Yet it was the network’s ultimately limited vision around such ideas that caused the trio to exit.

“The agency set up isn’t geared to allow you to be entrepreneurial,” Leonard explains. “Networks in particular don’t like it for some reason…. I’m a massive fan of the trust they gave us – in every sense I felt like it was mine, I poured my energy into it as if it was, put it that way. It wasn’t a fucking job, I was working 12-hour days, and they rewarded me handsomely for that, and all that other stuff. But every now and then it would suddenly jerk back into reality, when you’d say, ‘right, I want to borrow £100K please from the company. We made x million this year, I think that’s probably ok?’ ‘No – you have to get sign off.'”

The kind of projects Leonard would want to spend this money on are new brands or product lines. These might be like Life Paint, but he wanted the opportunity to create the product without the bother of convincing a client to get on board with the idea first.

Life Paint was made in partnership with Albedo, a Swedish company specialising in reflective sprays that make you safer when cycling at night. Grey London’s creative team rebranded a new spray as Life Paint, a press-friendly moniker that immediately gained the product huge amounts of attention when it was launched by Volvo in 2015 (under the marketing guise that the car firm cared about safety on the roads). But it took a year for the brand to come on board with the idea.

“It took a year to sell it,” says Leonard. “And we were happy about that. Why did it take a year? Why didn’t we just go and get first-round funding, brand it ourselves, then take it to Volvo and say, ‘would you like to come on board? We’re going to do this anyway – it’s a project for cyclists, an invisible spray, borrowed from these guys called Albedo, it’s going to be huge’…. Then the relationship’s completely different. Instead of just begging, like it’s an ad still.”

Leonard has a point here. The other major issue with Life Paint being an ‘ad’ is that it ultimately was always more of a PR stunt than a real product. When enthused cyclists tried to buy it, they found it virtually unavailable, and when the product was finally brought to market (a year after the success of the launch) it was sold via Volvo car dealerships, hardly the most cycling-friendly settings. The smarter idea would surely have been to just create the Life Paint brand independently in the first place. This, unlike the process at Grey, would be the Uncommon approach.

Leonard, Jameson and Graeme

The Angina Monologues created different challenges, in particular around partnering with other players, something that is uncomfortable for an industry like advertising, which likes to have sole control of the projects it creates. “To make it happen we had to get into bed with two or three other companies,” says Leonard. “Which ad agencies aren’t alright with by the way – we had to give away ownership as an agency and let them in, and all that other stuff that agencies hate doing. And of course then it worked. It ran at the Theatre Royal in Haymarket and sold out and then it was made into a TV show and ran on Christmas Day, 7 million people watched it.”

Despite this success, once it finished, everyone in the agency moved on from the idea, as if it was a one-off ad, much to Leonard’s frustration. “I remember saying, ‘that’s amazing, are you going to do it next year?’…. It was ‘hmmm, maybe’. It had been quite hard. But I looked at it and commercially we could have sold it in regions, we could have sold it abroad, we could have made more content….”

He cites the realisations learnt from both these examples as central to what Uncommon would like to do differently. “I believe that what we learnt at Grey is we’re in a remarkable position if we’re good and intelligent and people want to work with us, to not just make the same old shit. And by the way, it can be radically entertaining – but it needs to be more radically entertaining because clearly ads fucking aren’t because people are skipping them.

“And ideally it would serve something bigger, because marketing budgets are immense,” he continues. “So if you’ve got £25 million quid … I’d rather somebody made Life Paint than made a shit ad that talked about it. What would you rather existed? I’d rather the Angina Monologues existed than a TV ad telling you that you were going to die as a heart attack as a woman. If I can influence those choices, and if I can work with brands who know they need to matter more, that’s alright isn’t it?”

If Leonard sounds mildly defensive in that last quote, it might be because we’d been talking about the tendency for brands to be encouraged by ad agencies of late to spend their marketing budgets on ads that emphasise the ‘goodness’ they bring to the world, and my concern that Uncommon was going to be another start-up from ex ad folks that will focus only on ‘worthy’ projects.

Leonard stresses vehemently that this is not the case, that Uncommon wants to find like-minded partners who share their vision but that these can come in many forms, global or local, big or small. If there is an earnestness here, it is that the brands they work with are committed to putting something of value into the world.

“We’ve always loved working with scale, I’m not talking about just starting with niche or hippy clients, I’m not talking about permanently doing good, I’m really not,” he says. “It’s about truth isn’t it? I’m sick of people talking about it. It’s like diversity, I’m sick of panels talking about it, but hang on, I’d rather they were talking about it than not. However, what I wish would really happen is more companies were just more diverse. And what I wish would happen in marketing is that people just made things that people really cared about, and were really good and fixed problems.”

He is also keen to point out how Uncommon differs from other start-ups that have made a focus on IP as part of their model. “I don’t think they’ve ever offered, or even bothered to think about or articulate a point of view on the brands that they’re making. They’ve just wanged on about IP, like that’s innovative…. The problem with that is all great start-up brands have to have a point of view on the world, that’s what they’re born from. You don’t strategically start anything when you build it … your passion makes you do it, and borrow money and make it. I want people to understand that we have a point of view on the behaviour of brands and the reason that brands should exist.”

Leonard talks enthusiastically about everything he learned in his nine-and-a-half years at Grey London – “it’s rare to be somewhere that long” – and the many leadership lessons he will carry with him to Uncommon. As well as the great skill he built up at winning pitches, and everything he learnt about PR, he talks about the trust he fostered among the creative teams, and how he encouraged them to collaborate and not be possessive of ideas. Many of these notions – especially an emphasis on trusting the talent – he feels are treated with suspicion in the network culture.

“I think holding groups have a weird relationship with talent,” he says. “I don’t think they really understand talent and it scares them. That’s great for talent sometimes, because you get really well paid because they don’t get it. But I think ultimately if they were worried about talent – and the reason to be worried about talent of course, is that brilliant ideas are made by them and therefore clients follow them – they’d behave radically differently, wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t behave like they do, they wouldn’t be as structured, they wouldn’t be as contractually focused.”

Leonard envisions Uncommon is a studio born out of partnerships. Projects already underway are Halo, an eco-friendly coffee brand, and a charitable project soon to launch called The Last Straw, which aims to end the chronic waste created by our use of throwaway straws by designing a washable straw that is used like cutlery and can be customised in a Nike ID style.

He is pretty categorical about how the network model needs to adapt to survive, but can forsee a world where that will happen. “We’re all going to meet in the middle, that’s what’s going to happen, like always,” he says. “They’re going to start heading a different way. You can put your hands over your ears and say ‘oh, it’s all doomed’ – it’s not, people are still going to spend vast amounts of money on marketing, they’re just going to do it differently.

“So if I were them I’d be looking to inject fluidity … I mean, break down the business structures of those agencies, so they can behave with more agility,” he concludes. “And we’re going to behave with scale in a far more partnership-based way to grow and we’re all going to meet in the middle somewhere. And then it will probably be healthy, hopefully.”

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