Nils Leonard on how to make stuff people actually want

DA&D just keeps on giving. Along with an incredible talk by Paul Smith and the launch of a programme encouraging diversity in the design industry, we also had the pleasure of a feisty talk from Chief Creative Officer at Grey London, Nils Leonard, on where the ad industry is going wrong and how designers (all designers) can keep producing good work. Here are some of our favourite bits. 

Don’t be a tool: use more tools

‘I’m looking to step away from the tools’ is a classic comment from a designer who wants to get further in the industry but give-up on everything that makes him a designer, thinks Nils. Don’t do it. Answering emails and making less is not design.

“The relief and comfort you feel from stopping making is a trap. Fear it,” thinks Nils who, as one of the youngest Chief Creative Officers in the world at a leading agency, is well acquainted with the dangers of leadership and slowing your creative pace. “We are the only industry that stops itself doing what it’s good at.”

“In our industry, you either think or you make and it’s implied that you’re not as good if you do both. It’s very frustrating.” He himself stayed in the front lines despite being in leadership - for example, art directing the striking Tate Britain, long-copy adverts, which compellingly, verbally tell the story behind the art. 

“If you stop learning no one can help you. If you never stop learning no one can stop you.” Nils is all about empowerment through learning code, money, design. All the basic tools of the industry that will make you a “threat”. 

Threaded throughout his talk is similar violent, action-based imagery - and it’s easy to conclude that frustration with the status quo is one of Nil’s main drivers in his dogmatism, ferociousness and discipline in achieving what he wants.

Always question the status quo

When Nils was promoted in 2014, he had a rotting agency on his hands but dramatically spun it around for it to come close second in Campaign’s Agency of the Year category. That did not come from sitting back, but applying his equally destructive and well-considered approach to giving Grey London a shake-up.

Partly why Nils has such a fresh perspective on the ad industry is that he ignored the well-guarded, polished front door to the sector to instead scale the electrocuted fence out back, putting on a fake moustache and charming his way to the top floor. That is, he didn’t puff his way up the pay scale of ad agencies, but moved from an untraditional design background of consulting high fashion and music. 

Nil’s outsider perspective shielded him from the worst of ad land: the cliches, the unarguable tradition and the stuffy hierarchy. Nils “railed against agencies that were happy to be ‘the shadowy advisors, whispering in their client's ear’.”

Niles cites how the ordering of ten white lillies every day from one member of staffinconsequential, petty in most environments, but a symptom of a wider problem in this one - bothered him when he first joined Grey: it became a symbol of the dangers of comfort in a struggling, unaspiring agency. Unshackled and unafraid, Nils changed all that.

“The dark con of advertising is that doing less often feels like the way forward,” says Nils, who I suspect is not a fan of the ‘less is more’ brand of wisdom. Nor is he particularly into to the adverting industry platitude that “the way to make real money is to just offer [clients] the strategy.” 

“It’s not fucking working for us,” he said. “We’re making less money and we’re not attracting the best people. We have to change and I think making things is our way out. We can redesign our place in the world.” 

Nils has a list of what will fucking work for them: don’t outsource design, don’t have complex and boxed-in departments and, as you rise up the ranks, do more of what made you good at your job in the first place (use more tools). 

Give the people what they want 

And what the people want is not advertising, which seems to be hated just as much as death and taxes. Nils sums it up neatly: “the best ads don’t look like ads anymore.” And nor should they be just for Christmas: "we can try and make the one Christmas ad that everyone likes or we can change our game." 

Video: Grey London's Volvo campaign

A wonderful example is Grey London’s release for Volvo: spray paint for bicycles that glows in the glare of headlights. It was given away in London and Kent cycle shops to the cyclists with whom Volvo shares the road, and eventually grew from a trial run to being sold globally. 

And it doesn’t look like an ad. It doesn’t obviously sell anything. In fact, the campaign needed a completely different skill-set to execute well. Grey London did make one mistake with the campaign, though. 

"It was not a £1 million idea for us,” Nils told us. “It could have been but we didn’t know what we were doing. It was something we co-created with a brand and we should have owned a part of it."

Grey London learnt their lesson by the time it came to their iKitten for McVitie’s – an augmented-reality app that lets users dress and play with a virtual kitten. Kittens are clearly not directly related to McVitie’s biscuits (apart from that they’re both ‘sweet’), but the app proved incredibly popular and a wonderful boost for the company

By ensuring that Grey London owned the wireframe technology behind the app, McVitie’s only had it for a limited frame of time and Grey London could ultimately gain from it. 

Keeping the money Grey London deserves ensures they can survive. But why do they want to? “We want to be a company that people in the real world are glad exists.” Nils cites popular companies like Netflix and HBO as his inspirations.

If you want to succeed, Nils advises, “try your hardest every day to make stuff that people might actually want in the world.” And that means clever, sometimes silly and fun, always not-immediately-obvious ideas like an augmented reality kitten. I couldn't think of much I'd want more.

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