Grexit trio Leonard, Jameson and Graeme reveal ‘values-first’ agency vowing to build brands people care about

Uncommon's founders left to right: Natalie Graeme, Lucy Jameson and Nils Leonard

A year after Grey London’s top three executives made a surprise exit, the trio have launched the Uncommon Creative Studio; the antithesis to big network thinking that promises to ‘build brands people care about’ by ripping apart the model of what an agency should look like.

It ends a year of speculation about what Lucy Jameson, Natalie Graeme and Nils Leonard – who held the chief executive, managing director and chief creative officer titles respectively at Grey – would do after their coordinated departure.

Uncommon, they told The Drum, will be a “fluid” network of strategists and creatives from around the world that will be handpicked to work on projects for companies that want to “fix a problem, fuel a passion and are fair to people on the planet.”

Underpinning the new agency's philosophy is the often-cited research that suggested the majority of people wouldn’t care if 75% of brands disappeared.

“The 25% of brands that people actually care about are the ‘Uncommon’ brands; they’re in the minority and those are the kinds of brands we want to build, either with clients or on our own,” said Jameson, whose title now reads ‘founder strategy’.

Despite their traditional pedigree, Jameson, Graeme and Leonard said the riskiest move they could have made was to launch an ad agency built on the tried and tested construct they’ve spent much of their careers in.

Among the biggest frustrations for Leonard (whose title is now founder creative) from his time at Grey was that some of its most highly acclaimed work - such as Volvo Life Paint and the British Heart Foundation ‘Angina Monologues’ – often involved, behind closed doors, a drawn-out battle to for client approval.

“[Life Paint and the Angina Monologues] were a brilliant way to communicate with the world beyond traditional advertising but they were really hard to get out. [At Grey] we found ourselves giving our most amazing ideas away, for free. Life Paint took a year and it shouldn’t have; we should have been more entrepreneurial.”

Learning from this, Uncommon sees incoming business coming in two forms. At one end of the spectrum, there will be companies – predominantly start-ups – that “can make a massive difference, but might be tiny” that the agency will take an equity stake in and help develop.

Halo Coffee Limited, a company co-founded by Leonard, and Headstart, a business using machine learning to disrupt the current recruitment model, are two examples already on its books.

At the other end are the more traditional clients that Uncommon will partner with for bigger ‘change’ briefs.

“The model there is more familiar but we want to make it project based; punchier and more output based,” said Jameson.

From its office in London’s Exmouth Market, a stone’s throw from their old Grey stomping ground, a bespoke creative studio for each client will be created by selecting the most suitable creatives or strategists for the project.

Dubbed ‘The Hollywood Model’, this is Uncommon’s alternative to time-based remuneration that most agencies are beholden to, meaning it can not only be more experimental and ambitious in the kind of work it can deliver – from developing a ‘Life Paint’ to putting on a theatrical show or writing a strand of programming – but also more open to the talent it brings in.

“We want to reframe perceptions and the way talent is talked about in the industry. The two worst words on a contract are Freelance and Permanent. The terms freelance and permanent have come to mean ‘I don’t give a crap about you’ or ‘I own you, so do what you’re told’,” explained Graeme, founder business.

“It’s a new view of freelance. It’s a new view of permanent. It’s a new way of working - a commitment to working differently - a kind of uncontract. The idea that we are our most important client. Our relationship, energy and health is everything. If we win, we win together and our clients win.

"If we love what we do, our clients usually do too. The other problem is a realisation that talent is headed elsewhere. Never mind the other agencies or even the Google and Facebooks of the world, the most talented people want to start their own thing, to get their cake and eat it. They get to do that at Uncommon.”

While Leonard was developing Halo, Graeme and Jameson spent much of their gardening leave from Grey doing either mentorship or internships at various companies in an effort to get to know the start-up community better.

In doing so, it has a pipeline of companies with "really early ideas [...] but no clue how to build a brand" that it will begin to partner with as it searches for those bigger client projects that will deliver much needed capital.

"Yes, some months might be difficult because we’re leaning into tiny businesses that we don’t know if they’ll succeed," said Leonard.

"We want to grow fast. We want to take on global briefs and tasks. In a short time from now we’ll have a load of different ventures and different partners. We’re not allergic to scale, but we are going to hold ourselves to partnering with people and brands with the same values as us. We won’t grow at the cost of our values."

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Jennifer Faull

Jen Faull is Brands Editor at The Drum. Based in London, she has interviewed major business figures including top marketers from Mondelez, Unilever, Tesco, and Lidl.

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