Coffin-dragger, designer, outsider, transformer: Trevor Beattie meets Nils Leonard
As guest editor of The Drum for one issue only, co-founder of BMB Trevor Beattie interviews a series of bold, troublesome, fearless, provocative and influential individuals from the worlds of advertising, media, science and art.
Never mistake Nils Leonard for an adman. Even if he wants you to. He’s not. Nils’ meteoric rise and dazzling recent success have come, I believe, because he is anything but an adman. He’s primarily a stranger. In a strange land. His design background and mindset have shielded him from the clichés of creative directorship, chairmanship and all the other tripey tropes of adland; and given him a clarity of vision. His skill has been to bring everyone else on board.
To make people believe in his mission. Above all, Nils Leonard has done what people have often (unsuccessfully) challenged José Mourinho to do: take charge of a mediocre, intrinsically grey but well-meaning team and turn them into rainbow-coloured, glow-in-the-bloody-dark world beaters. In two seasons. Someone who is capable of that can only be a good influence...
Trevor Beattie: You appear to be a man in a hurry. Let’s see if you can answer the first three questions in three words or less...
TB: Who are you?
Nils Leonard (NL): Man on fire.
TB: Why are you?
NL: Life won’t wait.
TB: What the bloody hell do you think you’re up to?
NL: Ride or die.
TB: You’re a designer by trade. How big a role does design still play in your thinking?
NL: Ive is a designer. Heatherwick is a designer. McQueen was a designer.
Designers actually make things. They’re not dependent. And the best ones matter outside the industry they work in. The best ones have changed how we live or given us memorable, remarkable, powerful moments.
They don’t see the answer as the same every time. They are empowered, and remain open to influence and change. Advertising agencies are bad at that, so I try to bring that.
TB: Who (or what) has been the single greatest influence on your career?
NL: A man named Simon Fairweather took me from being the bloke that pasted runouts on to boards in a spray mount cancer haze and gave me the rope to be a typographer and designer that believed in himself.
He taught me design. Taught me to choose wine. Taught me to blag my way into The Player after midnight.
Then David Patton did the same at a higher level when I first came to Grey. There is always someone who can see inside you.
Both of these people have taught me that unswerving trust and belief in people can make powerful things happen. Really what I learned here is that trust is the single most motivating thing on the planet, and that it’s also something agencies are terrible at on the whole.
TB: The Volvo ‘Life Paint’ campaign has put you (and Grey) into orbit above adland. It’s ‘advertising’, Nils, but not as we know it. Explain yourself...
NL: The best ads don’t look like ads anymore. If you’re trying to communicate a purpose or promise to the world, often an ad is the last thing you want to do. Just like people, the actions and creations of brands (not manifesto promises) can say the most.
When we launched Life Paint some people called it bullshit. They couldn’t understand how making a life-saving paint could reach people the way an advert might. It needs new skillsets to make this sort of work. You need to package your ideas differently, create assets that people can share and be a part of. It’s like leaving a hole in your ideas for people to fill.
Life Paint has a part number now. It’s sold in every Volvo dealership globally. That feels good.
Grey London's 'Life Paint for Volvo. watch the case study video here
TB: Are industry awards still relevant?
NL: I hate what awards can turn people into. They can breed monsters inside the creative department, the ones asking you to ‘look at that shelf up there, son’ as they attempt to appraise ideas they most likely don’t understand.
But whether I like them or not, we wouldn’t have the department we have now if we hadn’t picked up a Pencil or two. They speak to the world’s best talent. Choose the awards that define you. That will take you to new places and help you chase the right dreams.
Winning the most awarded UK agency at D&AD was a real thing for Grey, and Cannes is a path to global recognition, but it’s the awards from outside our industry I’ve always chased – the British Comedy Award we picked up for The Angina Monologues meant a lot.
It’s the most powerful briefs we covet now. I’d like Grey to design the next Olympic torch.
TB: Given the remorseless shape-shifting of ‘ad agencies’ in recent years, how on earth can a young person seeking their first job hope to showcase their work? And what form should that work even take?
NL: The best thing a young person can do to get noticed is create something famous without needing a budget or platform of any kind. Which isn’t easy but speaks volumes.
If we discover someone who’s managed to make an impact in culture without all of the support and mechanics agencies depend on, we snap them up.
It doesn’t matter what form that takes. A still image. A product. A stunt. It’s a rare skill. I’d chew my arm off for more people like that.
TB: As you’re doubtless aware, you’ve had your doubters. Have they ever made you doubt yourself?
NL: If you are doing something different, there will be haters. Despite the title ‘creative’ our discipline can be the most cynical, the least open to change. And, of course, doubt can sting. But it can also motivate.
There is a Western where a guy goes around with the coffin of his dead brother tied to his leg. He pulls it around to remind him constantly and physically of the revenge mission he is on, and to stop him deviating from killing those who put his brother in the box.
My coffin is a dumped shopping trolley from a green in Wealdstone Zone 5 where I grew up. My coffin is the arseholes drunk by 3pm in offices telling me to respect the chain of command. And it propels me.
A friend sent me a quote I love: ‘Sometimes I feel like giving up then I remember I have a lot of motherfuckers to prove wrong.’
TB: Does the omnipresent ‘This girl is powered by girl’ theme-du-jour have any substance, or is it just a shortcut to a bauble at the Grosvenor House?
NL: We need change, Trev. We need more women in the mix. We need more youth in the mix. We need more people that haven’t been to uni in the mix. We need more ethnic backgrounds in the mix.
Otherwise it will continue to be the way it is. And that, on the whole, is slow and lacking in original thinking. Change will widen what is possible. But yes, alongside the powerful intention, there is a load of spaff written by literary ambulance chasers.
A clever man named Faris said recently that we live in the age of outrage. People love a cause right now. The things we share have gone from being things we love to the things we hate and want to kill. Bullshit overwritten hashtags aside, this isn’t a theme-du-jour, it’s a barrier to progress. Our white, male dominated industry needs a bit of a kicking so that things can move on.
TB: Sans or serif?
TB: Saul Bass or Peter Saville?
NL: Saville. A more tender, flawed aesthetic. A grottier, sexier lifestyle to aspire to.
TB: Punch in the face: Trump or Putin?
NL: Trump. I’d make Putin look like an accident.
TB: The words ‘skip-ad’ and ‘adblocker’ have struck fear and fatalism into adland. The output of an entire profession, dismissed in 3, 2, 1... (can you imagine the outcry ‘skip-doctor’ or ‘electrician-blocker’ would cause?) Is there any hope for advertising?
NL: Did it take adblockers to tell us that most people hate ads? If it’s not motivating enough to create entertainment, to create cultural platforms, stunts, apps, shows, products or experiences that people love, then use adblockers (these totems of us at our worst) to force you to readdress what you spend your day doing.
If the world is blocking ads, let’s stop making ads. Let’s make entertaining, useful things. Things that matter and contribute to culture. Stuff that takes our industry out of the shadows.
A client once asked me: ‘how do we go from being a company that sells stuff to people, to a company that people are happy exists?’ Never mind the clients or brands we partner with, we should be asking ourselves this question as an industry.
TB: Who would you most like to influence?
NL: The ones that really matter in the world make the people around them shine. And their influence lasts long after they have left.
I’ll start with that. Anything else is a bonus.
TB: If I gave I you a (return) ticket to space, would you go? And if so, where to..?
NL: I’d go high enough to look back and see the planet we live on look small. Then, thrilled and lost, I’d come back and grip everything I love with white knuckled fists.
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