Creativity 50 2015

Creativity 50 2015: Nils Leonard

Chairman, Chief Creative Officer, Grey London

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Nils Leonard
Nils Leonard Credit: Courtesy Grey London

Nils Leonard has been instrumental in transforming Grey London's creative reputation, sealed with the awarding of two Cannes Grand Prix this year for Volvo "Life Paint." Grey also won Most Awarded at D&AD.

Though Mr. Leonard didn't dream up the "Life Paint" concept (that honor lies with Hollie Newton, now executive creative director at Sunshine), he is widely seen as having ignited the agency's creativity. Ms. Newton said, "He is very good at fostering the kind of environment that allows creativity to thrive."

So why has Leonard succeeded where a succession of creative chiefs had failed? Perhaps it's his less traditional background in design. He's also still involved on the front lines -- he recently designed a brilliant long-copy ad for Tate Britain that transformed visual works of art into words.

At 38, he's also one the youngest ever chiefs at a top agency, and has spoken out on issues such as gender equality and diversity.

Ad Age: What work are you proudest of this year?

Nils Leonard: I'm proud that Volvo "Life Paint" became a reality. More than the sales and recognition, it's taught us to really believe in making a different shape of work. The best ads don't look like ads anymore.

Ad Age: How do you inspire creativity among your department and create the atmosphere for it to thrive?

Mr. Leonard: We have a quote from "Death of a Salesman" on the wall at Grey London: "I'm not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, you understand? There's a big blaze going on all around."

It's about letting our frustrations with the old mechanics of the industry and the slow pace of change motivate us. We wake up every day with a desire to do more than create advertising. To be culturally ambitious. To make things that actually matter. A company doing this every day speaks to the world's best talent. Not just the few that are interested in ads.

But the most motivating thing at Grey, not just in the creative department, is a culture of trust. Most agencies hire all these brilliant people but insist the only opinions that really count are the end-of-level baddies, the CCO or the CSO. Grey London has turned this on its head, empowering our crews that run business to do it their way. Our job is to mentor and coach the creative process instead of becoming another barrier.

Ad Age: What was your biggest creative challenge of the past year, and how did you tackle it?

Mr. Leonard: The biggest challenge has been Grey London growing in size, but keeping our culture alive. Keeping what makes us special. There's this lazy adage of big is bad, that you can't stay creative if you grow too much. The truth is that you can, but it takes real work. Only the best companies in the world manage it. Rarely agencies.

Ad Age: What's your advice to anyone in a creative slump? How do you fight your creative demons?

Mr. Leonard: Don't get comfortable. Get angry. Find what's broken, what moves you, and go at that. When I'm stuck, I go back to the stuff that winds me up. The frustrations. A need for change. A fantasy of an industry that's diverse, open and radically creative. A fantasy of ideas with a different shape to what came before. A fantasy to lead a company that isn't just famous in our industry, but is known and valued by people in the real world. Whatever the brief, let the things that move you inform the answers you create.

Doing properly new stuff is hard. It takes confidence. Irreverence. This is a fragile state. These are easy qualities to lose in the face of cynicism and nerves. Our industry is in the unique position to really make some incredible things happen. The ones that push things forward aren't trying to re-create previous years or replicate ideas from the past, they're on a different path. Remember this when average comes knocking.

Ad Age: What's the best advice you got when it comes to nurturing your creativity?

Mr. Leonard: Energy beats talent.

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