Fearless - Ep 24: "The Difference Maker" - Nils Leonard

nl.jpg

"The Difference Maker"

Nils Leonard is a self-made success. His journey carried him from humble roots to becoming the chairman and chief creative office of one of the most celebrated ad agencies in London before he turned 40.

Today, he is the co-founder of Uncommon, a company that builds brands that people wished existed in the world. He is a disruptive and somewhat controversial figure. 

I met Nils in Uncommon’s London office, and we talked about why tattooing played a critical role in his early life, about what he’s learned about unlocking creative talent,  and about his own personal evolution and understanding of what matters most.


Three Takeways

  • Follow your heart. Listen to your instincts and pursue what's next based on that.
  • A genuine passion for other people and the opportunity to bring them along and to help them.
  • Personal vulnerability -  a characteristic that I see in people who are successful in leading creative businesses because it allows other people to be vulnerable and it draws the best out of them. 

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 24: Nils Leonard

Charles:

The difference maker.

Nils Leonard:

It's not just about not getting fired any more. Now it's about, I have a larger vision for what should exist in this world, and it matters.

Charles: [00:01:00]

Millions of words, perhaps tens of millions have been written about the intellectual challenges of leadership. Better planning, better strategies, better practices. Think harder, work harder, do more. Not every word ever written about leadership is useful, some are distinctly unuseful, and many are out of date. In fact, it's possible that the majority of words ever written about leadership are now irrelevant. So fast has the world changed in the way that businesses, particularly creative businesses, work today. Separating what is important from what is not, out of the Library of Congress ask volumes of information on leadership is an impossible task. But I've come to recognize that there are practices and methodologies that are essential for every modern business.  [00:02:00]

I believe companies must be built with a clear vision of what success looks like and some sort of reasonable plan to get there. I believe it's easier to build scalable foundations in the early stages of a business, than when it's a thriving concern with multiple responsibilities. Hands up if you remember MySpace. It was Facebook's earliest and biggest rival. It was bought by Rupert Murdoch in 2005, for 580 million dollars. That year, it passed Google, as the most visited U.S. website. But MySpace wasn't built to scale. While its engineers were busy trying to rewrite the MySpace code, Facebook, which had been built with scalability in mind, was able to offer a richer, more engaging, and ultimately, more valuable user experience. The end result is here for all of us to see today. [00:03:00]

So, yes, there are practices and strategies and methodologies that are critical to successful modern leadership. The attributes that make the difference in fearless creative leaders are not these alone. There are other factors, and they are much, much more personal. What drives you from within? Do you want to lead? What's holding you back? What gets in the way? What do you think about yourself that's not true from the perspective of others? And what do you not know that is obvious to everyone else? This internal debate, which sometimes becomes a battle, is being waged relentlessly inside the very best leaders. They are drawn by a simple need, they want to make a difference. [00:03:30]

And though this is often wrapped in business language, it almost always comes from a very personal place. Over time and with experience, the best leaders are able to quiet the internal discord. The voice in their head becomes less critical and more confident, more certain and more consistent. That's when things really start to happen, when it really gets interesting for them and for the people around them. It requires a willingness to look within, to ask the questions, and to face the answers. That's where the journey towards being a fearless creative leader begins. Where it finishes is up to you. [00:04:30]

Nils Leonard is the definition of a self-made success. As you'll hear, his journey carried him from humble roots to becoming the chairman and chief creative officer of one of the most celebrated ad agencies in London, before he turned 40. Today, he's the co-founder of Uncommon, a company that builds brands that people wished existed in the world. He's a disruptive and somewhat controversial figure. I met Nils on a recent trip to London. We talked, in Uncommon's offices, about why tattooing played a critical role in his early life, about what he's learned about unlocking creative talent, and about his own personal evolution and his definition now of what matters most.

Nils, hello. Welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this.  [00:05:00]

Nils Leonard:

Absolute pleasure, thanks for having me.

Charles:

My first question to you is, what's your first memory of creativity? How did creativity first show up in your life?

Nils Leonard:

It's quite an easy one really, my father was a tattooist. It was quite a strange childhood, my father was a tattooist and a biker, and my mum ended up teaching RE, which is always hilarious.

Charles:

RE, for the purpose of-

Nils Leonard:

Theology, yes. Sorry. Religious Education.

Charles:

Religious Education.

Nils Leonard:  [00:05:30]

Yeah, that's right. So, there was this hilarity to that. My dad was always drawing. We always had a house for the people, it's a very social life tattooing even outside of the shop. I just remember, I say art, but it wasn't art art, it was just drawings and flash. Flash is the stuff that they have on the wall in a tattoo shop, just all over the house all the time. Tattooing or drawing is one of those things where you just get better by doing it, so he was just always drawing.

Charles:

Which is bad news for your early recipients.

 

Nils Leonard:

[00:06:00]

Yeah, I mean, some of that ... By the way, some of the tattoos my dad has, and he won't listen to this so I can say this, are shockingly bad. I mean, he has ... He claims it's all history on his arms. But honestly, he has an eagle that looks more like, I don't know what cartoon parrot. I mean, this dreadful version of the Chelsea logo on his arm.

 

Charles:

Is he a Chelsea fan?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, he is. Yeah, so-

Charles:

Me too.

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, me too.

Charles:

Oh, really.

Nils Leonard:

There we go.

Charles:

Oh, good, there you go, good connections.

Nils Leonard:

[00:06:30]

We're good. Awesome. Yes, so, there's just memories of that all over the house. And a lot of music and a lot of people who were always sat around playing music. So, this sense of creativity was installed very early on. I guess, to some degree, it always clashed a little bit with money. In our house, we didn't have a tremendous amount of money. I think, very early on, I think I was in a conundrum, in my mind. I didn't know I was thinking about it, but I think I must have been, which is, "How do I do all this stuff that clearly looks brilliant and fun, and it's lovely and I enjoy, but also don't grow up here?" If I'm honest, that felt like ... Really, I don't know why I just told you that, but there you go.

Charles:

What did you think your path out of that conundrum was?

[00:07:00]

Nils Leonard:

[00:07:30]

Well, genuinely, you might not believe me, but advertising. I didn't know what advertising was. I always had heroes, right? My heroes, back and I realize this, were people who came from somewhere, did something differently, didn't necessarily fit in but found a way to make it work. I desperately did want to not be stuck where we were. We grew up in Wealdstone, and it was fine. But it was rough, a council house and it was just hard. A hard life. We didn't have a car or anything and my dad was in and out of our lives at that point. It was tough. I just remember thinking, "Money doesn't solve everything." I definitely knew that then. But I know it solves some stuff, and I thought, "I'm going to get out." [00:08:00]

I remember, I just had this image of advertising, which if I'm honest, isn't wrong. Which was, well, if you can string your sentence together and you can blag a little bit and you can think creatively you can put something down, it felt like this slightly slutty version of art. I guess, I thought, "Well, I could do that." I didn't give myself a pure enough somehow to do art, to be an artist, but I viewed myself. And then, so I applied at a job center, in that summer. Which is hilarious because you could still get at the job center and get a job in advertising then. I got a job as a junior, yeah.

Charles:

How long ago was this?

Nils Leonard:

Oh my god, almost 20 years, I think. Something like that.

Charles:

So, 20 years ago, you did get a job in advertising at a job center.

Nils Leonard:

[00:08:30]

Yeah. I mean, and what was mad is, no one even knew it or talked about it. I literally went into advertising and said, "We have one thing." And it's been on there for three months or something, and it was a genius job. An agency called Lintas. And, of course, it was in the production department, which in those days was a bit dirty. So that might have been why it was in the job center, right? You'd never have advertised for your creative director in the job center, but production, yeah, that was fine. Then they go, "Yeah, a [inaudible 00:08:43]." There was that job going. I went in, I got there two and a half hours early, because I'd never traveled into London, for a job before. We were in Zone 5, which is not exactly not London, but isn't London. And got it, and that was it.

Charles:

Why did you get it, do you think?

[00:09:00]

Nils Leonard:

Honestly, because anyone could have. Because I showed up and I was eager. A lot of the time, in production at that point, it was about who you knew. So, it was lots of friends of friends, and they were all of A type. I was a little bit different, and I think they thought to take a chance. Turns out I was a pain in the ass, to some degree. Because I was very ambitious and a bit of a gobshite, because I like to talk a lot. But I ended up just falling in love with it. It's production, there was a studio, there was topography, there was design. All these parallels of my life.

[00:09:30]

I was suddenly like, "Oh my god, this is amazing." By the way, advertising, back then, I mean, it was insane. The building on Soho Square, I was seeing a receptionist from the mill within three months. I was like, "This is the most amazing life, what the hell? Where did this come from?" I just fell in love with all of it. And in a weird way, that dream I had of it, it wasn't madly dissimilar. There were people who were exactly the hero I'd come to be in my mind, doing that job at that point.

Charles:

[00:10:00]

What did you think advertising was going to be like, from the outside? And what did it end up being in those early days for you?

Nils Leonard:

[00:10:30]

Yeah, I mean, I thought it sounds really mad, no one ever draws these parallels. But one of my favorite films back then was Dangerous Liaisons. Weirdly because it all just dealt in emotion and it dealt in tensions and manipulation and all that other stuff. I found that very sexy and interesting. It's quite sad, really. I think that advertising dealt in that, in my mind. My fancy was that advertising was about the ability to sway people or convince them or make them come with you. What I didn't realize at that point was, internally, that's exactly what building a culture is about. The fancy for advertising was that that was what it was.

[00:11:00]

And so, I saw, when it was, it was different at first but then it wasn't. There were people who had absolute passion about changing the minds of people, who were brilliant in a room. Back then, as well, by the way, it was far more diverse. And no one talks about diversity now, like advertising hasn't been diverse. They were experts. As a creative, you could have been a butcher and decided to become a creative. You can't do that now. You can't do that now. They all come from the same schools now, you can't do that. There's always this mad mix of people. Some of whom want these glitteringly intellectual people at all, they were just really good at some stuff. But they were in there and they were creative and they were drawing and they were making. I was just like, "This is brilliant."

[00:11:30]

[00:12:00]

Then, of course, I saw a couple of other things that set your blood racing, ambition wise. I'd see the creative director's secretary with a roll of Harrods receipts. I was like, "What are you doing?" She'd be like, "Oh, I'm just expensing his weekend shop, because he's got a client coming over." I said, "Has he really got a client coming over." I was like, "What is going on in this business?" I was like, "This is amazing." I grew from there, I found a hero there. Like I said to you, I've always followed heroes. There was a guy called Simon Fairweather, who was a topographer. He used to be a photographer, but he just spoke about type and design like it mattered more than anything else. And passion is attractive, right?

 

Charles:

It's amazing.

 

Nils Leonard:

So attractive. It was just so convincing, and I just wanted to feel that way. I wanted to care as much as he did, to have standards as high as he did.

 

Charles:

Were you intimidated, walking into that environment, just to begin with? Did you have-

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[00:12:30]

Honestly, not really. I mean, I didn't know what I didn't know, and I made some horrific clangers. I mean, oh my god! Back then, you used to have to, in the production department, as and when a campaign was ready, the media agencies be bartering about what magazines they were going to go in, but they wouldn't tell anybody, obviously, so they couldn't raise the prices. Then you'd release copy, and release copy was you sending all of your ads to the magazines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:13:00]

Well, I released copy, I think about three months before the media bookings had even gone in on one job. I'm pretty sure that was a sackable offense to most people. I just remember, I made some howling errors, but everyone was just okay, I think. I didn't ever feel ... I mean, there was a bit of this and that, but it never really got under my skin. Maybe it should have, but it certainly didn't. I was more in love with it than I was scared of it.

 

Charles:

Where do you think that came from?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

 

[00:13:30]

Just that it honestly was a conduit to do the things I loved and get paid. I mean, it was unbelievable. I wasn't getting paid a lot too, but I was getting paid. I was getting paid to talk about the things I loved. I mean, that's incredible, when you don't know that that's how life can be. So, it was just like, "Wow!" People were sat in rooms, the normality of advertising. You sat in a room, a bunch of really highly paid people talking about a cat coming out of a pack of biscuits. What were we doing? And we all get paid. That's a really important decision. And what music comes in, all that. Maybe something a bit of the Blockbusters theme tune. What? It's brilliant. It was all of that. Then you're hooked at that point.

 

Charles:

So, from production, what was the next step?

 

Nils Leonard:

Design, yes. I followed Simon. He took me into design and topography, and he really put me under his wing. I'm going to say some stuff. I mean, Simon would be honest about this now. He was a hero in many ways, he showed me how to live too.

 

Charles:

in terms of what?

 

[00:14:00]

Nils Leonard:

 

In terms of, "Here's how you go out to lunch, and here's how you order a Veal Milanese. And here's the wine you drink. By the way, yes, you should know about wine. Also, eat rockets twice a week, because you won't get fat."

 

Charles:

I didn't know that was the case of the matter.

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[00:14:30]

Yeah. He was amazing. There was a period of time where he got me an office, and that was wonderful. I was on there, "Wow, I have an office." That was good. For a while, I believed, it was because I was quite good and deserved one. Then I realized, of course, it was so that I could look after the design department in the morning while he was sleeping off his night before. I loved him for that, and everyone else did too. He was your classic, back in the day example of an artist in advertising. He was brilliant, but also brilliant at partying. He smashed it. That was very inspiring. What I saw with him was the chance for what we did every day, to be bigger than just the ads that the client had asked us to make.

 

[00:15:00]

He would go to war over the design of something. Because he knew that he shouldn't put anything into the world that looked bad. I was just obsessed with what. I thought, "Wow, this guy has a moral conscience about the work he makes." Then you suddenly got a new goal in your mind. This is not just about not getting fired anymore, now it's about, "I have a larger vision for what should exist in this world, and it matters." Once you're in that play, I think it's good. Because you're just then obsessed with it, and that, oh, it haunts me every day, really.

 

[00:15:30]

Charles:

 

It sounds like you walked into the business with very much of a clean slate, from your own perspective, and almost kind of a white board. It sounds to me like you were lucky enough to have somebody around who could have instilled in you and showed you what was possible. Is that fair?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[00:16:00]

Yeah, I think I was really lucky. I think I was really lucky. Because, who gets a job in advertising from a job center? Definitely. Definitely. I think advertising is good. It just relates things, where in life if you just do stuff, give it a pump. Advertising is a great place to give it a pump, because so much happens inside it. I'm pretty sure ... I'd like to believe that for every one of me, there was a planner who wasn't a planner, that showed up and was just obsessed with data and how powerful it could be. And worked with somebody, maybe like Lucy Jameson or Rory Sutherland. And suddenly discovered that actually data and how you frame data can be life changing. I'd love to believe that those people benefited from it as well. Yeah, I was wide open, hoping this is really important.

 

[00:16:30]

Charles:

 

I think that's true. It's interesting how so many of the great creative companies are built on the thoughts of, "Forget what you knew yesterday and walk in here a fresh man." I mean, it's very difficult to do that as a human being, obviously. But I think it's fundamental, isn't it?

 

Nils Leonard:

It is.

 

Charles:

Design, you're getting that background, you're getting an education and what's possible in caring about what the work does and what it stands for. Tell me what happened next?

 

[00:17:00]

Nils Leonard:

 

Yeah. So, I grew up, eventually got another job. Went to TBWA, realized that was a completely different culture and hated it. I was off again, in six months.

 

Charles:

Why did you leave in the ... Why did you leave Lintas, to start with?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

[00:17:30]

My time there was coming to an end. I think Simon's passion for it, my mentor at that time, was waning. The business, actually, I didn't know this, but you can almost tell from the body language of a business, looking back. It was about some merger were low, I think, at that point. Everybody there thought they were on the receiving end of the poor part of the deal. I think it all just dropped. Shoulders dropped, and I think that was it. I smelled that coming. I was hungry though, and I had made quite a lot of good work and I had learnt a lot. I thought it's time for a move. I had also overheard, in the past, lots of people getting their books ready.

 

 

 

 

 

[00:18:00]

As a designer, by the way, back then, you were on the receiving end of information first. Because when people wanted to leave, they had to sort out their portfolio. To sort out their portfolio, they needed it designed nicely. They would come and go, "Hey, I'm thinking about ..." "Oh, are you?" It was exciting to hear these people making these moves. I think, it was as well, it was just the right time to make a move. Yeah, I went to TBWA, and it was a stark contrast. It was a studio and it was below stairs and it had no opinion on design, as long as it was what upstairs wanted. I just hated it, of course I did. Because I had gone from being empowered and righteous and all that stuff. But really caring to an environment that didn't give a shit, at that point.

 

[00:18:30]

So, I left that and went to Rainey Kelly, to work with Jon [inaudible 00:18:32], who was head of type there. And started, at that point, to broaden. That was the original partners, Mark and MT and Jim And Robert. It was a great agency. They were just on the deal with Y&R. They were flying, Rainey Kelly, Y&R. That was brilliant.

 

Charles:

Why do you think people take jobs that they're so unsuited to?

 

Nils Leonard:

[00:19:00]

I think, I am a massive ... I think there's one thing that everybody does that we can't stop doing. Because we'd never hire anybody or ever take a job, but we do automatically would choose. When you hire someone, you have a fancy for who you're hiring, and you do. You have to, and it's never that. When you're getting a job, you have a fancy for the job you're taking. Very rarely is it ever both your fantasies. But hopefully, you meet in the middle somewhere and some gem of it works out, as it goes on the street. I think, any job at that point was going to, of course, work like the job I was in. I was so naïve. Of course, I'm going to be deeply empowered. They're going to love it and they're going to give me more, aren't they? Of course, they'll not.

 

[00:19:30]

You don't ask the right questions, you don't learn to ask those questions for years. I mean, I thought about you as well, I think, creatives, in particular, I don't think we're all these entitled stereotype at all. I think we're all quite nervous and I think we all want to be wanted. I think there was a bit of me at that point, was so grateful that places would want me, yeah. Because you've always got the thing you came from, in the back of your mind.

 

Charles:

[00:20:00]

Do you see the world through that lens of creatives and non-creatives? How do you differentiate, within any organization?

 

Nils Leonard:

I try not to draw the line in any organization, certainly not culturally. I mean, I attach no difference in the importance to that. I just do know there are some traits that creative people have that perhaps other disciplines don't. But I'm-

 

Charles:

Such as?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[00:20:30]

Well, I think, if I'm honest, some of the best business leaders I know or either see, is the people who kick a door and go and make something happen. Some of the best, those people have very little self doubt. I think they just wake up and know what they're good at. And they go, "That's what I'm brilliant and I'm just going to kick-

 

Charles:

Or they hide it well?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah. Okay, yeah. Or they have something that's exactly right, that pushes against it in their day to day, that let's them do it. Whereas in creatively, when you're constantly looking for answers and constantly asking yourself if something is good, inside that question is, "Am I good?" That's great. That's also really motivating. I mean, you make a mistake, if that went away, we'd all be awful, we'd be unbearable.

 

Charles:

How did you, back then, measure the answer to that question?

 

[00:21:00]

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

 

[00:21:30]

 

Other people. I'd love to say something far more independent. But no, other people, other people told me I was good. I was needy. I'm still needy. Way back then, it was, "Does Jon, does Matt Roalfe think what I've done is good?" I have my own versions of that, and I've always liked to mechanize success. I've always liked to not ... If you don't have a view of success, a concrete one, I do think you are liable to get lost. I've always tried to do that. But back then, it was very much about whether they thought it was good. And then you start developing a hero as outside of that company, or even better outside of the industry, and that changes your perception of good completely. So, at Rainey's, while I enjoyed it, I started to get a bit bored.

 

 

 

 

[00:22:00]

I think print advertising wasn't in a great place. Paul Belford is a great art director, who was working at Abbott Mead Vickers. He'd started to make print and posters that didn't look like print and poster ads. They looked like packaging or thrown away garbage. Literally, they looked like the graphic design section of The Tate. It was really refreshing and I suddenly developed a massive crush on him. Fought my way into Abbot Mead to find him. And so, you chase lacings, and I knew that that was good. Or put it this way, I'd become brave enough to know that that was just better than the 90% of ads that had the logo at bottom right and looked exactly the same.

 

 

[00:22:30]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:23:00]

So, I followed him, chased him. Then I realized, well, at that moment, what I started to do with every hero I've ever followed, is find the base about them that initially enticed me and made me fall in love with them. But also see the stuff that they didn't do well. There was almost more to learn from that. Paul was, and still is, I think, one of the best art directors on the planet. I mean, he really is, his eye is incredible. But I think Paul had very little interest in lots of other stuff. He was at the helm, at that point, of one of the most prolific creative agencies in Abbott Mead Vickers. I saw, I looked at the opportunity that company had at that point and just went, "Wow, how are you not interested in all of this?"

 

 

Around the same time, I had started a design and fashion consultancy, just to keep myself sane. And what they showed me was that you didn't have to have the process the agencies were all desperate to have. You work very fast, very organically, very messily to make brilliant things happen. And you were never sure they were good until they were done, but go, go, go, go. I think that digital entering the industry started to do that too. That's, I guess, where it all changed slightly.

 

[00:23:30]

Charles:

 

I'm fascinated by this notion of following heroes. Have you ever had your heart broken, following a hero?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

[00:24:00]

 

 

 

 

[00:24:30]

Well, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, for one, I mean, it's hard, isn't it? Because I don't want to say things out of turn. Yeah, I don't want you to be a dick, and you might be with a few different people. I don't want you to have some of the classic traits of creatives, I don't want you to be obsessed with ownership, and you are. Those things are a shame. Because your dream is that your leaders or your fantasies are going to lead in every way. Yeah, a little bit. But I think, again, that taught me what else I needed to know and taught me what not to do. Some of the leaders or the people, the heroes that I've met in later life were definitely not creative. They just taught me stuff about how to be in a room with people and my diary and my life. It's really funny, all that stuff. You should learn that stuff straight away. You should have the boundaries around your home life straight away sorted, but you never do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:25:00]

I mean, it's all those lessons I got very late from the guys at Grey, really. David Patton was a massive inspiration to me. It's funny, because you meet David and he's brilliant. But I don't think he'd ever sit down and the first words out of his mouth will be he is inspirational. He was not that sort of guy. He doesn't want to believe he's that sort of guy, that he would stand on a ... But he is, he's really. His actions and behaviors and what he teaches you through. Literally, what he does, back at Grey, anyway, I learned a tremendous amount from him.

 

Charles:

What are the keys to showing up in a room? I'm fascinated by that.

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

[00:25:30]

Say less than everyone else. Let them all in, empower everybody immediately. If you're the most senior person in the room, you don't have to lead the room, quite the opposite. You've got to hold it up and keep it moving and keep it going. I remember once I ... Some of the stuff is quite weird, isn't it? There was a company meeting, I had just taken the job as ECD there. I was so keen to be creatively good, because, by the way, no one still knew who the fuck I was. They were like, "Who is this guy?" All the magazines were like, "Who's Nils?" "I don't know." Desperate to be creatively good. At Grey, it had gone really well. So people, internally, I think some of them had come around.

 

 

 

 

[00:26:00]

So, my first company meeting, so I'm desperate to hold it pretty well. David pulls me aside about 15 minutes before, "So, Nils, you're going to show some of that hair care work, right?" I said, "What? Well, I wasn't going to use it." "But I think it might be a good idea." "Why?" He said, "Because it would make the people who did all that work feel really good." And at least, it was like a punch in the stomach, and I thought, "Oh, but of course I should." I hadn't remotely considered that my job might be to lead or inspire immediately. I was so obsessed with telling everyone how good I was and here's the work I think is ... No, I was just like, "Wow!" I took that from that day and just kept it every time.

 

[00:26:30]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:27:00]

Grey, when we left, it was 550 people, when I arrived it was 160. Make no mistake, not every one of those people is a glimmering rockstar, it's impossible for them to be. And even the glimmering rockstars are one week and not the other. You go, "God ..." You got to hold everybody up and push everybody forward. That's what a creative leader can do. David showed me ... Because he'd been a client and I think slightly fallen in love with creatives, I think. He showed me that a creative could be a leader of a company there. No one else had done that. Because creatives don't have to be ... Where I grew up, in my career, you were the naughty but very respected miscreant that they would put at the top of the company. But you didn't really have to be accountable for anybody's emotions or anything.

 

 

 

 

 

[00:27:30]

The leaders that I had worked with, rightly or wrongly, they were just those guys. The business and its buoyancy and its motivation seemed to come from a different place. Whereas I think David was of the belief that that's not how it should be. And if you're creative, you have the most power to lead or to, by the way, run it terribly. I think that's 100% true. You've seen that time and time again. The creative stereotypes that exist in the world, exist because most creative leaders are lunatics, exactly, to some degree.

 

Charles:

When did you make the transition from design into more general leadership positions, or more specific, leadership positions? How did that transition happen?

 

Nils Leonard:

[00:28:00]

 

 

 

 

 

[00:28:30]

I was still at Rainey's. Like I said, at Rainey's, I started my fashion and music thing. Mostly because there was a crew of people I've met that I just got involved in. They loved what I did, and that opened it up from pure design to this creativity. I was creating runway shows, themes for shows, launch events, music videos, Buster fashion material. It was a lot, non-linear. So, advertising back then was super linear. It had a story and it had an idea, "Where is the idea?" That classic crazy, "Where is the idea?" You know, "All right." Actually, what fashion had taught me is that the look can be the idea, the vibe can be the idea, the feeling can be the idea. It doesn't have to be this linear thing with a gag at the end. That's not the definition of an idea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:29:00]

I heard one suburban describe that creative body was weather. I was just, "That's fucking brilliant." I mean, that's something liberating. So, I started to do all that. I started to realize I didn't need a plethora of people or to be in an agency to go and make great things happen. The fashion world and the music world don't work that way at all. They come around projects in a different way. Over the course of that job and the one at Abbot Mead, I started to get involved in a lot of stuff. Abbott Mead, at that point, had a very clear hierarchy, so that I was really starting to outgrow my position and it was winding people up. They thought I was gobby and opinionated because I was-

 

Charles:

And were you?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[00:29:30]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:30:00]

Yeah, yeah, I really was. Yeah, really bad, actually. Probably unbearable on occasion, but I was dissatisfied. They ran it so, it was horrific at points. There was no need for it. There was this belief that quality came from this regimental, very top-down borderline military view of the world, and I just didn't see that as true at all. So, I just was constantly rubbing up against it. It's ironic, isn't it? It's probably one of this best creative periods, yet is the least creative trait. Militarizing, mechanize it always, "Come on, you just got out. My god!" I guess, at that point, I did not have the pleasure either of working at one of those other agencies at that point. The wife or the mothers, I had not encountered them. My experience had been previously powerful places, for sure, but very much on that side of the fence.

 

 

I then went to work with Robert and Jimmy, at United, which used to be Howell Henry. They called me a creative director, but what they did do is basically just give me loads of space. I ran two or three accounts, was also head of art, was also a few other things. That, I think, was the first official title, I suppose, that meant I didn't have to just do one thing.

 

[00:30:30]

Charles:

 

When you look back, now knowing what you've known today, creative organizations and their structure, their mindset. I mean, I think this notion of looking at the militaristic mechanized organization being incredibly successful creatively and also we've both seen exactly the opposite, do you think that there are consistent characteristics and practices that live inside all creative businesses, or do you think they are all a law unto themselves?

 

Nils Leonard:

[00:31:00]

No, I think ... Well, I'll flip that up the other way. Trust and ownership or an issue in every creative business. Everyone. The key to those, depending on how you approach, is the key to making great work. I don't believe that you have to remove ownership and trust and give it to your supposedly best people to run everything. That is the belief of other agencies.

 

Charles:

That can't work?

 

Nils Leonard:

It can, but I think it's unsustainable. I think that is like saying your canvas is as big as that person's attention span. So, how are you ever going to be a truly large and ambitious creative company, if that's the case?

 

[00:31:30]

Charles:

 

You can have a window of success doing that?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, yeah.

 

Charles:

But it doesn't scale very far and it's not sustainable.

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

 

[00:32:00]

No, it's not, yeah. The dream is that you create Pixar, right? The dream is you create this constantly bountiful creative playground for people, it doesn't mean easy. That only comes from trust. I saw that if you're going to be really cold in a management way and appraise people and say, rather they were six out of 10, I saw that all of that shit went out the window when you gave people trust. Because those people suddenly became a nine out of 10, because it's on them. This is a classic thing. Agencies used to assume I sign off, "Okay, I'm going to sign everything off. You're going to show it to me." That means it's going to be good before it leaves this building, you're going to be scared of me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:32:30]

What happens is, people don't really care because they have to show it to you. Their name is not on it, your name is. I was like, "Well, that doesn't work." The moment we removed sign off for Grey and said, "No, it's on you, you're the crew. If you want my help, come see me. I might come see you, but it's on you." Suddenly you see people really lift their game, they take it very personally. It's on them, but that's their thing. So, we raise the right fear, it's the right motivation. That's a consistent thing. Then ownership, really. Which is creatives, in particular. We've been taught, in our industry, to own and be seen to own an idea.

 

Charles:

Well, they compensate on that, don't they?

 

Nils Leonard:

They do, which is weird.

 

Charles:

Towards those decisions. I mean, it's the industry's is commonly built around that. How do you change that?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

[00:33:00]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:33:30]

Well, I have a love hate thing with awards. We didn't enter awards for two and a half years at Grey. Then I realized the one thing you don't do if you don't enter awards is market to tell them. It pissed me off because we were having conversations earlier on, we were trying to change the entire culture at Grey. People were sending me emails from New York, going, "Oh, by the way, we need to do well at Cannes this year." I was just thinking, "You're fucking kidding me." Like, "We don't need to do well at Cannes, what we need to do is actually win a piece of new business." Because this business is in trouble. I think it gets in the way when it's there. But what I realized is, we were starting to make some great working in the form of their joint monologues and things like that, and no one cared. Because they weren't picking up awards. That really annoyed me, but I thought, "Right, that's a game I have to play, then we're going to play it well."

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:34:00]

What you have to watch is, I think is that when you win those awards, the whole crew wins the awards, not just Grey is. So, in that room, on that table, wherever you are at the show, the whole team that made it happen are there. Because that's the truth. And that's really, really important. That stops people, I think, becoming those monsters with the sagging shelf of trophies who eats juniors for breakfast, because those people are not the future. But you have to watch it, it's a balance. Because you can get hungry for it, and I mean, it's addictive.

 

Charles:

You see that, don't you? I mean, it's interesting to look at certain people's balance while on the head shots, for instance. Every time they're interviewed, they're sitting in front of awards, of awards, and so that's the validation. I always find that interesting when you see that.

 

Nils Leonard:

 

[00:34:30]

Well, the biggest success at Grey, and I think you're right, when you leave and you start something, you're forced to somehow refer to your past in a way that you think might be appealing. So, looking at it, I was like, "Oh, that's interesting. We're the most awarded, at DNAD twice, in three years." I mean, that didn't matter at all, the thing I'm most proud of, it's 550 people. And a company culture that was buzzing, that's really hard. That's not just me, but that's what we made as a crew at Grey. That's what we made. That's amazing.

 

 

 

[00:35:00]

Now, if I could get across to anybody the accomplishment at Grey, it would be that. I think that's far more powerful. I would look at massive respect for her, for [inaudible 00:35:00] and say, "Not only have you formed quite an award or whatever, but you've built an institution globally that works your way." It couldn't be anybody else, in the form of [inaudible 00:35:10] or in [inaudible 00:35:11], I show respect, both to these guys, massively. I think that's the bigger accomplishment, is that you put something new into the world and it worked, and you made it work for you.

 

Charles:

[00:35:30]

Such a powerful point of reference. I'm really interested to hear the story about how your leadership skills, your leadership profile continued to evolve. So, you're the ECD ...

 

Nils Leonard:

Well, at Grey, when I arrived, I was associate creative director. Because I wasn't allowed to be called creative director, because they had creative directors and they hated the fact that I might be called one. So, I was associate creative director. Did a lot of pitching, won a lot of business, made some okay work, for Channel 5 and a few other people.

 

Charles:

Before you-

 

Nils Leonard:

Oh, I'm sorry.

 

Charles:

No, it's fine.

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, yeah.

 

Charles:

Why did you choose Grey? What was it? You're rushing out.

 

[00:36:00]

Nils Leonard:

 

Yeah. Well, I went back to United, to work with Robert and Jim, who I had worked with at Rainey's, and I loved those guys. And also wanted a little bit of the Howell Henry danger to rub off on me. Man, I loved that.

 

Charles:

They were dangerous, weren't they?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

[00:36:30]

Oh god, they were so good. But they weren't a fucking ad agency, they weren't. I mean, some of the work they made, this is the ... Can we get back to this? Because I really want to ... The big thing about that is, this whole stuff that in 1991, or '92, whatever people looked forward to the ads and telly more than they looked forward to the programs. That was because the ads on telly were more punchy. Now, if you look at where programming has got now, in terms of Game of Thrones and all those other things, it's twice as punchy as the ads on telly. So, discuss Howell Henry, if they existed now, would not stand for that. Can you imagine the ads that would be coming out of that place. Anyway, sorry.

 

Charles:

No, no, I think it's a good drift. Because, yeah, my point of view about the rise of things like Netflix and Google and Amazon, that's such an indictment of the advertising industry. Because what it says, actually, is people would rather spend money than watch your work. That's the choice they're making.

 

[00:37:00]

Nils Leonard:

 

Yeah, there's a button on every bit of insane we love, called Skip Ad, which is essentially the entire world, by the way, telling us they hate what we make. We got to get our heads right.

 

Charles:

Engineered in.

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[00:37:30]

It's nonsense. I was hoping some of that would rub, but it's long gone, I think. Which is a shame. I love Steve, though. Steve Henry, I've tried to stalk him recently and get as much time, as long as I can. It did okay there, we were starting to, and then the relationship with Sky, which is its biggest client, broke down. Grey said, "Okay, at that point, we're interested in taking the rest of that agency on." It had some great partners. It had Richard Huntington, who's now Planning Director or Chairman of Saatchi. Jason [Cabo 00:37:44], [inaudible 00:37:44], [inaudible 00:37:44]. It had a load of great people.

 

 

 

[00:38:00]

I was lucky enough to be lumped into that. They said, at Grey, "Well, okay, we'll buy it. We'll take it on." It folded into Grey. No one wanted to go to Grey. At that point, it was where you went to die, and in fact, in conversations, that was how people described it.

 

Charles:

Grey by name, gray by nature.

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

 

[00:38:30]

Yeah, I mean it was terrific. Yeah, I mean, it really was. I met David Patton, and he, like I said to you earlier, he just met me and said, "No, we're going to give this a go." He was so different. He used to run Sony, just didn't have any conception at all of advertising agencies or any of that stuff. And he was really work off from him, because he was loaded with frustration. Loaded with annoyances from his previous relationship with agencies, loaded with the tropes of how people had been behaving. I just thought, "Wow, you're like me. You're like ... Angry and all." In a far more polite way. I saw that, and I thought, "I'm just going to give this guy a go." And also, "Why not. I mean, this is a break. I've landed here." I started as ECD, or whatever and went from there.

 

Charles:

Did you have ambition to run a company?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

 

Charles:

Yes, you said quickly.

 

Nils Leonard:

[00:39:00]

Yeah, I know. I did, man. I mean, I'm [inaudible 00:38:56], right? Yeah, by that point, I'd seen Robert and Jim do it twice. I thought, "Yeah, I'm getting there. I like it. I like how you can be with people and infuse them together and win a thing. That's attractive."

 

Charles:

You like being in charge?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah. Yeah, but I wouldn't ... The in charge bit, not necessarily. I like inspiring people on the brief occasion that you can see it in them. That's like crack. If you-

 

Charles:

That's true of it.

 

[00:39:30]

Nils Leonard:

 

Yeah, man. I mean, you've watched a bunch of people get excited by what you do or say, that's really addictive.

 

Charles:

Yeah, there's that moment, isn't there? Where you feel like, "Oh, I just made a difference."

 

Nils Leonard:

A far massive one. Well, outside of, "Did I do a good ad?" That's what I mean by-

 

Charles:

No, it's human.

 

Nils Leonard:

... what I'm proud of.

 

Charles:

It's really human.

 

Nils Leonard:

Massive.

 

Charles:

Yeah, it's very human.

 

Nils Leonard:

And you get that stuff, you remember when you're old. Because you look back, you won't remember crafting an ad. You just won't. I remember giving a company meeting and if it went loopy and you knew it would. That really, yeah.

 

[00:40:00]

Charles:

 

When you got to Grey, did you set your sights on ...?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:40:30]

Well, I'd wanted to be creative director, and I knew that it wasn't very good. And I thought there's a hole there and and a gap, and Christ, I'll give it a pop. I wasn't given it yet. So, he hired John Williams, who is a digital creative director. No one at that point had done that, so no one had installed a digital creative director. Certainly not into a a crusty old network agency, which is what it was. I was frowned on by the organization. And then I thought, "Right, David is clearly the man for me, because he's already pissed off in New York, to some degree." And they were all like, "What's going on over there? We're not sure about it." I think, at that point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:41:00]

But he went with it, and it worked. We started winning business, we started changing the client list, at that point. I'm going to get all these stats wrong, but it was something like 70% P&G. I mean, that's not bad, but that level of dependency is bad. We had to readdress that and make the agency about more than that. So, we went to look at the business, you know the British Heart Foundation Channel 5 garble, we got really good at doing business. There was one year, I think, we won something like 19 out of 24. I mean, we pitched twice a month. It was just crazy.

 

Charles:

What was the secret to winning?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

[00:41:30]

Openness. "We don't have all the answers, we're not a mechanized ad agency. You come first, we're going to work very fast in a very collaborative way. We're not interested in process." And as we started doing that ... That's just attractive. What I learned is, clients, by the way, don't care what your agency is called. You could be called dipshit.com, if they like the people who sat at the table, they'll give you the business, which would be so refreshing. You could certainly see how a majority of clients were so frustrated as well. They might have been [inaudible 00:41:38] experience. They wanted a new way, they just wanted to trust the people they were stuck with. And believe that they wanted it as much, if not more than that.

 

 

 

 

[00:42:00]

As we went on that journey, we started to look at the work we made as well. That was different. What we realized very early on was, probably we don't want to go toe to toe with deviation telly ads. Just don't really don't want to, because we'll lose, at that point, but also because it's not that interesting to us. At that point, you're watching X Factor, which was huge, and you're going, "That's weird, what's that? What's the best bit of that?" That's an idea, but it'll last a year. Is it the auditions? Is it press? Is it the PR driven into the judges? Is it what they say? Is it the controversy every weekend? What's the best bit of that idea? You watch them, then build on that idea.

 

[00:42:30]

Monetize it and just allow people into every juncture. We were like, "That's a much more interesting and inspiring shape of work than ads." So, we started to really try to change what we made. We looked at angry birds, we were looking at all these things going. These things are happening in the world and moving at rapid pace, and then advertising them. And we were like, "Let's try and make some of that, on behalf of our clients, not the other stuff." I think a mix of what we learned about culture and how to create and motivate people, and a mix of frustration and a different take on work.

 

[00:43:00]

Charles:

 

When you say you looked at it, was there a disciplined process to having people constantly out in a culture, paying attention to what was going on? Or was this people walking in the door one day and saying, "Oh, I've just thought about-

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[00:43:30]

No, it wasn't. I'd love to say it was, but it wasn't. It was a guy called Neil Hourston, who's now planning partner at the corner. It was David, it was me, it was a frustration. None of us were particularly traditional. Neil had a bug bear about creatives, in general, as a planner, and was upset with them being dogmatic lunatics. But also, I saw a new way. David was just completely for radical change. Jon was the next digital creative, as I said, and he was in ... I was, I just going, "Well, why don't we ..." I've seen fashion and music, and just going, they don't care, they don't care about what came before, they'll do anything.

 

 

 

 

[00:44:00]

And so, we forced it when we were looking at the ... We wanted a lot of business, and we were asking ourselves what we're going to make. Then we realized that all these pitches, by the way, this is another thing. If you try and move a client you have as an existing client, from five out of 10 to a seven out of 10, you're going to have to drag them over a year. Because they bought you for one thing and you're trying to change what they bought you for. If you pitch, and you just pitch radically new style, your thing ... Well, if they don't buy you, that's fine. But if they do, you're starting there. And that was just, of course ...

 

 

 

 

[00:44:30]

And so it forced us to really look at ourselves and really ask ourselves what it was we were pitching, and what our take on it was. Yeah, so way back when we coined this thing, which was long ideas. Because there was this, I think a sense of bullshit around big ideas. Everyone's definition of a big idea was different. And what does it really mean? Probably a telly ad. And we started talking about time, in terms of long and how much time we would demand and how we would go on a people's time. That was our language then, but that was all very road test worthy, and we just found our way into that. Then we tried to hold ourselves to it. It's funny.

 

Charles:

How did you end up running the place?

 

[00:45:00]

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:45:30]

 

Mix of new business and building a crew. David got the job in Europe, so started to do other stuff. John went with him. And there was a gap. By that point, it felt like the right thing to do. I just won a massive account for gravity in the form of Allianz, which was a massive global insurer. I think Grey, at that point, particularly from London, had never won a piece of business that large. So, London had really started to put itself on the map, in the network. And say, "Actually, we're going to bring some business to you now." Which hadn't previously happened, it was very dependent on New York. Of course, New York were doing well at that point too, I should point out too. [inaudible 00:45:34], who is a friend of mine, has smashed it at that point as well. It was kind of, "Wow, this is actually working."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:46:00]

I think around that period, it just felt logical. That's the other thing that David was very good at, he raised a whole crew of people. I remember being jealous at BBH, about five years before that. Because it felt to me like they only had three or four management teams. It was not. If you look at the depth of that team at the top, they must have had three or four planning directors in most agencies, just in that one place. I remember thinking, "That's the mark of success." Now, I don't know whether they were killing each other at BBH, but I'd love to believe at Grey, we had that depth of talent in a way that was all working really quite well with each other. I think around that point, won that business and then became ECD, which was great. And that whole raft of talent I'd grown up with, at that point, then to the management position at the agency.

 

[00:46:30]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:47:00]

And as those people left, I mean, this is truthfully how I think I ended up falling into even more of a leadership position. As Neil Hourston left, he was a massive influence on me. Will you stop asking Neil Hourston's advice, because he's not there? Then you realize, well, some of that advice might often have been maybe not right. Well, that gets really interesting, but I do need people around me to call me, so who would else would ... Your relationship changes. That sense of readiness that you know you never get given right, you're never ready really, until you realize you are. There was a bit of that.

 

 

Then Chris went as well. I think at that point I was made chairman. That was just really interesting. Because, I think, from from New York's point, it meant that there was a creative running the agency, which was interesting. I think from London's point, it felt very validating that we made all this work and that was the reason why we were doing so well. I was very proud of that.

 

Charles:

I bet you were. what did you learn about yourself when you took that on?

 

[00:47:30]

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

[00:48:00]

 

 

 

 

 

[00:48:30]

 

That I've got to be careful. Because on the one hand, how agencies work is it can become the Nils Leonard show or lead creative show, and I've got to make sure that we don't just do that and that we bring people with us. Whoever is leading the businesses has to bring people with them. I also learned that I really enjoyed leading a company as much as I enjoyed making it work. At that point, I think that title was interesting. But I think I had been enjoying speaking to the entire company, leading the entire company, defining our vision for a year, or whatever, all that stuff. I think I had been reveling in that, honestly, for two years or so. But, yeah, there's a little bit of danger in there, which is, it's hard. You've got to make your leadership team famous and you've got to give them a voice in the world. But you've got to not do that at the expense of everybody else. And so, I was worried, I mean, wagging on would stop people seeing that they were a part of it. So, that's still a worry.

 

Charles:

So, are you scared of anything else, worried about anything else?

 

Nils Leonard:

Not really.

 

Charles:

You had responsibility for this organization and that was-

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

[00:49:00]

Yeah [crosstalk 00:48:43]. But I had such a good team. I had such a good team. I mean, honestly, if you sit down and ask me to properly look at that, would I have been more scared? Probably. But I just didn't. I went, "I've got a great crew, they're amazing. We'll trust each other. We've all been through the fire, we all know how to pitch, we've all lost a client too. And we've all made some slightly shit work, so there's no fear at all really. It's a ride." I didn't look at that too hard. I'll tell you what I did ... Well, that's slightly different, I'm answering a different question, really. I think I wanted to continue our level of ambition, and I think we maybe made some decisions that weren't the brightest, about certain clients we took on.

 

 

 

[00:49:30]

 

 

 

 

 

[00:50:00]

Because I think, someone once said to me, at the very start, "When you fail, you're about to type." I don't think that's true. I thought hard about what he said, "No, you don't. When you're failing, when it's messed up, you try anything." Because it's failing, because you can't lose anything. When you're succeeding, it's much harder to do that. I think, with 500 people, there was a sense that if I'd come in now, how would I feel about it? Would I have made those decisions and are we too hungry? Should we have taken that client on when we knew that the chemistry was what it was and we knew what we were getting into? That stuff, I think, is hard too. I think, you know when you got, when you're making that call, really. You make-

 

Charles:

Did you define success when you took the job?

 

Nils Leonard:

Every year.

 

Charles:

Personally, as well as at a company level?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[00:50:30]

 

 

 

 

 

[00:51:00]

Yeah, I think so. There's a couple of things, rightly or wrongly, that stuck in my mind. When I took the job, Campaign Magazine who are really interesting force in our industry, wrote an article, basically was, who the fuck is this guy? Grey has always been a bit of shit, I'm not really sure, this is a bit odd. I remember thinking, "Fuck, I can't show that to my mum." I thought I'm quite angry at you. And weirdly, they didn't do it. I mean, they were right, who was I? I mean, it's not like they're assholes or anything, it's not what I'm saying. They were right, who was I? I had all the venom of, "Well, you don't know what we're about." All that crap. I thought, "You're going to rewrite that. I'm going to make you rewrite that." I got that done in five years. Five years. I mean, it shouldn't have mattered, but it did. It did matter.

 

 

 

 

 

[00:51:30]

Little things, desperate for us to win some awards because of this relationship we had with the outside of our industry. No one talked about that. I mean, I got a legitimate one at the Britain. Yeah, and joining monologues on the British comedy award, ran on the Christmas Day, on Sky One, seven million people. I won the British comedy award, and that was just insane. I remember thinking, "God, okay, that's awesome, how do we replicate that? What did I learn? How do we ..." I look back, by the way, and there's frustrations around that, that we just let that go? You ran a packed up show at the high market and then just treated like an ad. I mean, "We get done, thanks we're off now." That's frustrating, but stuff like that.

 

Charles:

It's hard to realize the value of those things in real time, than when you're doing them isn't it?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, it's nuts.

 

Charles:

I had a couple of experiences like that. You look back and go, "That's was so much bigger than that, and we were too satisfied to see them."

 

[00:52:00]

Nils Leonard:

 

Yeah, really, and massively. Personally, again, just back to heroes, I'll turn up things and see people speak and think, "I want to do what he just did or she just did, and see people capture people. Really capture people."

 

Charles:

Did you think you weren't capturing people?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, I wasn't very good yet, at times.

 

Charles:

Do you capture them now?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

[00:52:30]

 

 

 

 

[00:53:00]

Not every time. I give it a good go. No, I mean, I think it comes back to truth. And here's the other thing maybe, being really honest, it's good this isn't this podcast thing. It would start amazing ... I would be twisting myself inside out. I think the truth is, that I was probably better at capturing people, because I believed it in my gut early on, than I perhaps was at the end. Because when you're 550 people, and you're telling everybody it's going incredibly well, what are you fighting for? What are you really fighting for? It's to complete the margin, to improve the year's figures again? We got to a point where awards were never the end point, but we we said, "Okay, they do matter, [inaudible 00:53:03]." We've done that. So, yeah, okay.

 

 

 

 

 

[00:53:30]

Then I realized it was ... The last thing I realized, I think, is about the brief. I was like, "Pretend awards don't exist, what's the benchmark success?" And he looked at all these people I loved. You get, briefly, the Olympic torch. You get to design it. You get the brief for the champions and you get the ceremony. You get the brief for the U.S. presidential campaign. That there are ... Then you go, "Okay, that's different." Then you are a thing and an entity that people in the real world appreciate. Because you are winning the attention of people that are a key point. I suppose I asked myself if that's the case. Have we made too many decisions already with this company, where we're going to be unable to receive those briefs?

 

[00:54:00]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:54:30]

Around the same point, I think there was a real sense of startups and of brands and of the world being a little bit in trouble, actually. The last three years, probably. And so, it was getting more and more into the entrepreneurial side of it. I realized that all of this stuff that you share a stage of contagious or DNAD, the guy [inaudible 00:54:17] you, runs his own brand. He's twice as compelling because he's built it. I think I was just starting to also go, as a niche I'm not going to get to scratch if I stay doing this job. Quite the opposite. I'm going to end up doing less and less and less of the things that are really keeping me up at night. Then lastly, the horrific fear that you're just treading water. There's an ad that does that, just to the lamppost, did you ever see that?

 

Charles:

I don't think so.

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[00:55:00]

It was a running ad, and it just literally was a single shot of the street, and it was the mentality of a runner. A new runner. Just with a lamppost, just to the car, just to whatever. I think as an analogy for some careers at a certain level. You go, suddenly all of that drive and ferocity and the, "I don't give a shit," have gone away, and you're just worried about meeting what's next. I was starting to worry that it was going that way, I think. And so, yeah, I left, I think.

 

Charles:

Was that a hard decision?

 

Nils Leonard:

[00:55:30]

 

 

 

 

 

[00:56:00]

I had been offered another job somewhere else, and that process reminded me that I'd treated Grey like it was mine. I was also aware of what I'd given for that success. The energy and the time. And so, I suppose being offered another job, and it was a great brilliant flattering amazing job, but ultimately realized I was about to go and just take another job. I thought, "At what point ..." You can't keep giving that much if it's not yours. It was a hard decision, yeah. I was really scared. A lot of people I trusted at Grey, I didn't underestimate at all, what that company had done for me, personally. By the way, what I took for granted around me, in terms of the business we build, the structure we build and the money.

 

 

 

 

 

[00:56:30]

The money is scary. I'm not going to any more money now, I'm not going to get to fly off to lovely things that you do. These things that advertising throws at you are gifts, they are amazing. I don't mean that in a shit way, I mean it. You get to travel and matter briefly in rooms all over the world. You suddenly get away, and suddenly, man, none of that happens unless you make it happen. But similarly, I believed much more in the win of what we're trying to do now and in the win of creating brands. Really, if I could be gloves off and just totally do the part of the job that I really loved at Grey, which I believe that I will succeed, yes I do.

 

Charles:

What success now?

 

[00:57:00]

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

 

[00:57:30]

 

To put brand experiences products to make things in the world that people care about, unlike that make massive change and difference. What I learned is, you can do those in an advertising brief if you get lucky. But you're far more able to do those if you just start up. When you pitch or discuss you, say we're pitching for Coca-Cola, you have a dream of Coca-Cola. You go away for three weeks as a crew and you have this dream of Coke. What should it do? How would it behave? What would matter to it? If it were perfect, who would it speak to? What would it give back? What problems would it fix? What passions what it feel? All that stuff. You try and drag the client and the brand to that dream, in a pitch.

 

 

 

 

 

[00:58:00]

When you have a brilliant plan partner, sometimes that works and it's a brilliant feeling. Let's be honest, most of the time it doesn't work that way. You see a look in their eyes, and you go, "You're not really that interested in doing all of this." Then what we do though ... And so, "Never mind that, that's a thing you need in the middle, and that's fine." But then what we do as an industry is we just walk away from that dream we've had. We just stick all that paper or hard drive in a drawer and go and pick something else. I guess I just sat and went, "Well, if some of these are so good and so compelling, maybe we shouldn't burn at all, maybe we should just go and do them." The process is no different. There was this fear and lack of understanding. A year off, I swear to god, I've learned more than I learned the last five years.

 

 

[00:58:30]

There's another version of pitching, it's called fundraising. You turn up and you tell exactly the same story, except they give you money to build what you want. I think, Halo's an example, but it's a pump. I'm not saying it's not. I'm not saying it was a fully thought through with the entire infrastructure of coffee legends, it's not. That's-

 

Charles:

Halo is you coffee brand?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

[00:59:00]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[00:59:30]

Sorry, Halo is a sustainable version of an espresso. In that, it fits into an espresso machine but it's a completely biodegradable pot, filled with arguably better coffee. Certainly fresher. Two days before I met those guys, I had an article in the Evening Standard, about an espresso's recycling program not working as well as it should. I don't think, the guys, it's two years ago who got this version of this pot they're developing. I was like, "That's brilliant, let's go." We named it, gave it a mission, gave it a set of values. What I saw is, all this stuff, first of all, if you engineer something from the ground up to do a positive thing in the world, to give back. And it knows where it stands and what it doesn't stand for, you need far less conventional advertising. Like it sold itself. I'd always believed that, but the launch of that was nuts. It was everywhere. In British GQ, in the States.

 

 

 

 

 

[01:00:00]

The second thing, I think is, you just go, I can now look anybody in the eye ... And there's two or three more examples like that, the place we're spinning now, I suppose. I can look any brand owner or leader in the eye and say, "I get it." I'm not ever going to say to you again, "Be brave," without knowing what that means. You don't know what it means to be brave unless you've launched a brand or product into the world. You don't know what it consists of. And your problems are far greater than your marketing. I mean, and you go, all that stuff, the decisions around the logistics people you do business with. All those things are far more powerful, but, sorry. What you get from it is if you do that right, all of those things are a channel as well.

 

 

 

[01:00:30]

So, Netflix dropping 12 episodes in one night, that changed everything. That's not an adver, but I'd argue it's more effective than any adver that are saying that they are the most innovative broadcasters in the planet today. And that HR document that they released, did you see that?

 

Charles:

Extraordinary, isn't it?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Also, do I believe it was purely just leaks? No. But I'm also okay with that. I don't mind, I guess, if the things internally are as powerful as the things externally. That's the thing I'm really passionate about. I saw a load of that, a bit of that at Grey, but I saw a load of that in the last year. That all those decisions you make there can really change things.

 

Charles:

Well, one begets the other, right?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah.

 

[01:01:00]

Charles:

 

I mean, I don't think you can be successful externally, unless you do the right thing internally. So, you're not scared of being sustainable, to your point earlier.

 

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

 

[01:01:30]

I guess you're right. But sorry, I guess I'm going straight to the crux of it. Which is, "Okay, we've got some money, would we rather go and spend that on some advertising or do we think actually this internal program we have here or decision making process we have here, is going to be a far more powerful vehicle to get our message across?" That's what I'm saying. Which is, I think, you could look at some of the work that we've made in the past and go, it's guilty of seeming, yeah, it was different and innovative, and not advertising. But was it lucky or was it a stunt? I guess what I'm saying is, no, it's not a stunt. Like Life Paint is indicative of all those view. That people outside the car matter as much as people inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[01:02:00]

Now, they could've made an ad for that, and it would have been not great. It would have been an ad telling the whole world that that mattered to them, and no one would've believed it. And so, of course, what you make ... I guess I'm just looking at that and going, "That could have been far more fundamental for that company if they had wanted it to be." But what an amazing way to look at brands, right? If you just suddenly met every brand and said, "Okay, all of this stuff, I'm going to look at the internal and the external, and then ask myself the most appropriate way for you to make a difference." And everyone I've spoken to about that goes, "Jesus, yes."

 

Charles:

Success, for you, is making a difference?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah.

 

Charles:

Why is that so important to you?

 

Nils Leonard:

[01:02:30]

 

 

 

 

 

[01:03:00]

I don't know. There's a brilliant person I know, who's an investor, he's made loads of money. He's now an angel. He said he once got a guy into his company to find out what really drives his leadership team. So, they were all studied by some brilliant West Coast doctor, I think, and paid a fortune, I'm sure, for it. Then they worked out with him, after whatever, he was fueled by independence. He said, "That's absolutely right. Every decision I make is about removing the need to ask somebody for something." He talks about his business partner, and this is a lunch I had. He asks me some of the questions, then he told me the story. He said, "My partner was fueled by significance. The idea that he wanted to place things into the world that would matter outside of him."

 

 

 

[01:03:30]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[01:04:00]

I don't know why, but that is what fuels me. I don't know, man. I guess I just feel like the world has never needed it more. People that just try, just try the same cynicism. I think social media has become almost the 1950s, to some degree. Which is, if you don't say the same thing as everybody else, then you're not ... It's like the lawns, where everyone's mowing a lawn at the same time. I just look at it all and go, "There aren't enough people just giving it a pop, a lot of talk." But I think you've just got to give it a pop. I don't think it's dangerous at all. I think, I would just love to believe that some of the ... I genuinely would love to believe that some of the stuff that we'd help make, would be referred to and would matter. I also look at our industry, man, I'm not going to lie. I'm ambitious. I think our industry is viewed in a really shit way, and I would like to change that. Or I would like to be seen as not from it, one or the other.

 

Charles:

You learn a lot about yourself running a business. A lot. I'm not sure there's any place you learn more about yourself. What have you learned so far, that you didn't know when you jumped into this?

 

[01:04:30]

Nils Leonard:

 

 

[01:05:00]

 

Weirdly, so I mentioned before, I actually have always thought of myself as quite insecure. I think that I'm less insecure than I used to be, ever. To some degree, I've been surprised when it's been quite low or tough. Because before we started our business, it was a bit low and tough. By my resilience, I didn't need as much around me as I thought I was going to. I gave myself a bit of a talking to. I've learned the negative effects of some of the things that I would consider previously as my positive attributes, from people around me. We get so used to impacting on ideas very quickly. Colliding, whatever words you want to use, coming together with people and saying very fast what you think and why, dah, dah, dah. I think, remind us of all that stuff.

 

[01:05:30]

 

 

 

 

[01:06:00]

Way back when, I suppose, when I mentioned David, about how you work with people and how you let people into a process. Yeah, generally, i feel like a lot of this, if I'm really honest, I feel like a lot of the learnings I'm getting now are magnified versions of what I learned at Grey, in the very early stages. The people around me have never mattered more. I've been completely ... There is a decision for all of us to go and do this on a completely equal fee and in a completely equal way in a very open way. I think that is the only way to run a business, literally anyway. I would tattoo that on someone. I don't know, I've learned more about the crew, I think, than myself, at the moment.

 

 

 

[01:06:30]

We all have to make room for each other. I've been really like, it's weird, it sounds really funny and personal. But it's personal, because you're all sat in a room. There is no 500 person agency where you flip from meeting to meeting, throwing Stardust at the middle of the table. You're just in a room, and we have each other, otherwise it doesn't work and you just go. And you keep all the energy and ferocity, but not at the expense of anybody. Well, then it's a real tightrope. I feel like, I've never been more honest about who I am. I think that's never been more clear, so maybe that's what I mean.

 

Charles:

Who's your hero today?

 

[01:07:00]

Nils Leonard:

 

 

 

 

 

[01:07:30]

 

Yeah, okay. In terms of the work they make ... Oh god, I forget. Almost hate saying it. Heatherwick, obviously. He's out there, I think he's amazing. I look at people like Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, right? I go, "If you could just stop it all and hire someone as the CCO of your agency." These guys make more content off their own back, every week than most channels put together. And they just show that. They know how to articulate it. Yes, they've got a crew of people around them. But imagine what that is and how that feels every day, and what they would even refer to themselves as. Because they're not, I don't think they're from any show, far more than that these days. Deeply prolific creative people who are a mouthpiece on important events. If Jimmy Fallon wants to stop his show and talk about the election, he can. I find them very inspiring. Or just the reach of them.

 

[01:08:00]

 

 

 

 

[01:08:30]

I think there's some great founders in the world doing things that are brilliant. Channel 4, as an entity, is inspiring to me. I think Jay Hunt, at Channel 4, the CCO, she's one of the most incredible people I've met recently. I mean, genuinely. So fast on her feet, but clearly so attuned to not just ... It's easy to say attuned to the public's IQ, and no, she's attuned to people. She throws it away, but it matters so much to her. I really find her very inspiring. If you think about the stuff they've made in the last nine, 10 years, that stuff matters. That stuff has made people ask questions of each other on the sofa. I just think it's an incredible place to sit in the world, Channel 4. Be aware of your own mattering, and say, "Well, this is what we're about and this is our point of view and all.

 

 

[01:09:00]

That is weirdly, I think, slightly the difference between them and somebody like Netflix. Which is where I look at Netflix and I go, "You're an ambitious publisher of content and I appreciate your innovation, and all that stuff." I don't know if they're in the world to make it better. Because I 100% believe Channel 4 are. And so, I think there's just something in that. If I could end up in five years with a mix of Channel 4, Unilever, and Pixar, that would be pretty good, some of it. I mention Unilever, because they've got a collection of brands. Sorry, I know it sounds random.

 

[01:09:30]

Charles:

 

If you look at that as your ambition, when you look at yourself today, what do you think your personal ... What's your biggest personal challenge for achieving that? What do you have to overcome?

 

Nils Leonard:

I think we have to not compromise.

 

Charles:

Personally?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

[01:10:00]

 

 

 

 

[01:10:30]

Yeah, well, personally but also as a crew. We're all ambitious, well, the three of us. Very ambitious. I think it would be easy for us to make some bad decisions, again, because we want to grow fast and for it to be okay. I think we have to remember why we did it, and really, really hold true to that. I think we have to not lose ourselves in the journey there, and just hold each other to it. I think the dream is that in ... Can you imagine if you could say, in seven to 10 years, you've got 12 brands that exist in the world, that people love, of all sizes. I just know that they're good in what they do, and that you help bring those brands about, and had a part to play in them.

 

 

 

 

 

[01:11:00]

And alongside that, you may actually convince some of the world's biggest brands to either twist how they do things or look at things with a different lens, in order to make what they did matter more. That would be an incredible place to be. I'd love to believe that you could then attempt to, at some point, play a part in issues on a scale. That would be awesome. Also just want to be happy though. I really did. Some of that stuff comes with some stuff that doesn't make you necessarily happy. So, some of the brand owning bits and business stuff, I'm well aware, it's harder to do.

 

Charles:

Are you happy now?

 

Nils Leonard:

 

[01:11:30]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[01:12:00]

Yeah, really happy. Really happy. I've never felt more strict there. God, quite isn't what you've asked for, you've learned. I think I'm mechanized, selling and success are great at the end. I think I probably became a fucking parody of myself, maybe, I don't know. We were really quite good at some of it and it worked. And some of it just, I remember thinking it didn't, and I had a weird feeling in my mouth. I can categorically say now, I'd sit in a room with people, with one of the world's biggest clients or not, and it's just all true. All of it is true. No bullshit. I just go, "Okay, this is all we're about. This is all we believe in this." If there's a question I don't know, I'll say I don't know. If I know, then you'll say hey, with me. And I never would have ... I don't think I said that before. Or I certainly talked myself to a place where I thought I had an answer to everything, maybe.

 

Charles:

 

 

[01:12:30]

 


 

 

 

 

[01:13:00]

I wrap every show with three themes that I've heard. So, let me try this on you. One is, that you follow your heart. That seems to be pretty consistent. You've always been willing to listen to your instincts and [inaudible 01:12:25] next based on that. Two is, your, what seems to me a genuine, not just interest, but enthusiasm or this passion for other people and the role that ... the opportunity of the role that they play. And then the opportunity to bring them along and to help them. Then three is, I don't know you, I've known you for an hour and nine minutes, but you strike me as very vulnerable. I think that, to me, is a characteristic that I increasingly see in people who are successfully leading creative businesses. Because I think it allows other people to be vulnerable and then it draws the best out of them as well. Do those resonate with you?

 

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, yeah. It's funny, isn't it? Because I'd have said, I thought you were going to say, really angry at everything. You want to change it? But maybe I'm not any more. I don't know.

 

Charles:

Yeah, I haven't seen any one of those at all.

 

Nils Leonard:

No, that's funny. Yeah.

Charles:

A lot of hope, actually.

Nils Leonard: [01:13:30]

Yeah, I've got loads of that. That's exactly right. It's funny, isn't it? I realized that talking to you, I don't know. It's sounds that way, this is really weird. I don't go to a psychiatrist of anything, I don't do that stuff. So maybe this has been that. Yeah, I think I am really hopeful.

Charles:

You seem all right.

Nils Leonard:

Yeah.

Charles:

Thank you so much for doing this today.

Nils Leonard:

Thank you.

Charles:

It was great meeting you.

Nils Leonard:

Thanks, mate.

Charles:

You've been listening to Fearless, the art of creative leadership. If you like what you've heard, please rate us on iTunes. It helps a lot. If you want more information on this episode or any of the others, go to fearlesscreativeleadership.com. Thanks for listening.