Alex Grieve on the secrets of great creative teams and why he’s trading AMV BBDO for BBH
As we reveal which creatives – from chief creative officers to copywriters – produced the best work in the world in our World Creative Rankings, outgoing AMV BBDO creative chief Alex Grieve shares his secrets on managing great ideas, creative colleagues and competitive urges.
”They don’t actually come along that often.” After almost 30 years in the business, there’s few people as well acquainted with great, creative ideas – and their rarity – as Alex Grieve, AMV BBDO’s outgoing chief creative officer (and the fifth best CCO globally, according to The Drum’s World Creative Rankings).
”It sounds a bit cliché, but you’re waiting for that hairs on the back of the neck moment,” he says. ”I guess it’s about trusting your gut.” While not every prospective campaign or activation makes it through to realization, ”there are a few that you see there on the page, or in the idea, that you’re pretty sure – unless something goes dramatically wrong on the way through – that you’re on to something that’s gold”.
Gold has meant bringing beloved literary feline Mog to life for Sainsbury’s and celebrating the Japanese pioneers of women’s rugby for Guinness.
Behind those pieces, he says, is a stubborn belief in the ’big idea’. ”It’s slightly unfashionable in some circles, but I am a big believer in it. Brands today need that foundation – the big idea is just a foundational idea for a brand.”
While he acknowledges that total devotion to the concept can lead creatives astray, Grieve says the proliferation of media platforms makes it more useful than ever.
”Because there’s so many different platforms and channels, it’s even more essential because you need that level of consistency. It’s fine to be different in all kinds of spaces and places in which brands show up, but unless you’re connected to something that glues all those things together – even if it’s just lightly sticky – then it will just appear random and disconnected to consumers. It’s more vital than ever that we believe in and understand big ideas.”
Solo creative work is a ‘myth’
Grieve is a keen cyclist who keeps a slender road bike in shot during our interview over Zoom. On the morning of our call, he has just returned from a cycling trip with colleagues in Spain.
He brings that peloton mentality to work, too, avowing that professional creativity is a ”team sport”. Collective thinking, he says, is essential to getting great ideas over the line.
”Really disruptive ideas are always on an edge. You go into meetings, both internally and with clients, and sometimes they feel a bit scared – they’re thinking of how it might be disastrous for their business, so you start compromising: ’I’ll let that go or I’ll let that go.’ Before you know it, you’ve taken 10% off and that 10% is everything. You still get something that’s good, but good isn’t really good enough because it blends into everything else.
”When you get to my position, all you’ve done is you’ve been right more times than you’ve been wrong over a period of time. You have to create a team dynamic where you decide to hold hands together and jump and do this thing.”
He continues: ”There’s the genesis of something, then a strategist will add a point of view that creates something new, then the account person has their experience and then, hopefully, a CD comes in and nudges it another 4%.
”There’s the myth that it’s this kind of solo act of creative genius when really it’s a team sport.”
Global roles and greasy poles
In April, Grieve will be joining a new team – or rather, returning to an old one. BBH, the agency he spent 14 years at, has appointed him as global chief creative officer. ”It’s always good to push the envelope and feel a little uncomfortable. The moment you start to feel too settled, you relax a little. Having a bit of fear and curiosity around something is good and necessary.”
While he says life at AMV hadn’t become too comfortable or complacent (”It’s a place that moves so fast that you’re always kept on your toes”), his new gig was ”an opportunity that arrived at, what felt like to me, the right time”.
A global role will push Grieve farther into managerial work and although he likens his own role on the creative team to a football coach (”they should be the ones getting all the accolades, and I’ll get manager of the month occasionally”), he says he’s had to come to terms with spending more time leading a team than scoring for it.
”As you climb the greasy pole and get into a higher position, you do get further away from the work. There’s more managerial things, more process things, more agency things you have to deal with.
”To be honest, when I started that [progression] eight or nine years ago, it was really tough at the beginning... there is a kind of grieving process, because the reason I got into the job was for that thrill of coming up with an idea and working with people. That starts out as 50% of your time and, by now, I’m lucky if I do one piece of work a year.
”A creative job is quite a selfish job. When you start, you’re ambitious, you’re competitive against fellow creative teams... and you have to evolve into something else where you feel that you have to become more generous and more pleased for other people’s success.”
It’s a crucial lesson he’s working to pass on before he leaves AMV. In the words of his colleagues and soon to be successors, Nick Hulley and Nadja Lossgott, Grieve is a player’s manager. ”He’s handing over and giving us his cheat sheets,” says Hulley.
”It’s a nice transition... to be able to get all that we can from our dear friend Alex,” Lossgott tells The Drum. ”We just adore him so much. So it’s nice to not be completely separated quickly.”
All that collegiality doesn’t mean he has entirely lost his competitive spark, however. ”Whenever there’s a pitch scenario, when you’re actually sitting in the auditorium waiting to see who has won, you suddenly get that thing and go: ’You know, I really want to win this’.
”A lot of creative people do have that competitive spirit... the thing to do is to channel it in the right direction and not get too obsessed with it.”