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Why an overhaul of working culture lured Alex Grieve back to BBH after 12 years

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By Ellen Ormesher | Reporter

June 9, 2022 | 7 min read

After an illustrious stint as AMV BBDO’s chief creative officer, Alex Grieve is back at BBH. It wasn’t an easy decision, deterred by its former “elite performance culture” and potential lockdown burnout. He tells The Drum how a cultural shift lured him back to his alma mater, and how he wants to give the young talent working under him their autonomy back.

Grieve didn’t have the most conventional route into the advertising industry. “I didn’t go to any advertising college like Kingston or SCA,” he explains.

“I went to university, studied English and politics and then went to Channel 4 as a researcher for a number of years. By the time I was 26 or 27, I was in between jobs. The program I had been working on wasn’t recommissioned so I was waiting on another gig that was three months away. During that time off I really started to question whether I was on the right path.”

alex grieve

Alex Grieve recently took up the position of chief creative officer at BBH after a decade at AMV BBDO / AMV BBDO

A chance encounter with an advertising headhunter lead Grieve to Adrian Rossi, who would become his long-term creative partner, and a stint at M&C Saatchi where the duo managed to “hide away, work on some things and eventually get hired.”

Off the back of that, they joined BBH around 1996. “At the time it was widely considered the best agency in the world,” says Grieve, “and the truth is for the first 18 or so months we were there, we were massively out of our depth.”

Grieve describes the atmosphere at M&C Saatchi as “anarchic and chaotic,” versus the tight ship run by John Hegarty at BBH, where “everything had to be at least a seven out of 10.”

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Despite the challenges, he stayed for 14 years.

Being a place that produced extraordinary work made it “a very hard place to be – not because it was nasty, but it was an elite performance culture. You constantly had to be at your very best and it was hard to ever relax or take a moment to enjoy the success. When you did have success, it was a challenge to do even better.”

Grieve left the infamous culture at BBH behind for digital agency Glue, and then moved on to AMV, which he calls “the most successful chapter” of his career to date. “It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

He puts his success at AMV down to its “nurturing and slightly less intense culture – I think it suited my character more, and allowed me (and Adrian) to flourish.” And flourish they did. The duo rose to become executive creative directors and then chief creative officers of the agency. Under their leadership it became the second most-awarded agency in the world, primarily for its work with Bodyform and Libresse – it won three Cannes Lions Grands Prix and three British Arrows, and was three times appointed D&AD Agency of the Year. Grieve himself was also appointed the world’s number one creative director at Cannes Lions in 2019.

When the call from BBH came, asking Grieve if he wanted to return as chief creative officer, his first instinct was to say no. The position had never really been filled since Hegarty’s departure in 2012 and the agency’s previous “insistence on excellence” worried him; “It would be like returning to a pressure cooker – especially after two years of lockdown and the impact that had on all our wellbeing.”

Yet Grieve commends BBH’s wider leadership team for their overhaul in the last few years, crediting them with being key in his decision to return. “Karen Martin is a world-class CEO, the strat team [Simon Gregory and Will Lion] are great, and the focus on craft and production that has always been an obsession at BBH has been continued by Stephen Ledger-Lomas.

“It’s a good, solid, kind and talented leadership group, and I think that’s as much as you can ask when you join any agency.”

He says that now, his ambition for BBH is not to replicate the same culture that drove him away all those years ago.

“There’s a whole generation of talent coming through who have the choice to go to lots of different places and who have values that don’t necessarily align with the old guard. They simply won’t be treated poorly, and that’s good. If I look back at my time now, yes it builds resilience, but at a cost. Agencies won’t get away with that any more.”

Serious concerns are currently building in the industry around recruiting and retaining young and mid-level talent. Leaders say they are missing out on key development time working from home, while workers say they are not being challenged or given enough opportunities.

Grieve says it’s the distance between words and action that’s the problem. “It’s less about having an airy-fairy vision, and more about having a plan about how to get from A to B.

“At the end of the day, people crave autonomy and the feeling that they’re in control of their own destiny. You have to have room to fail as well as succeed, and you can’t just cut people fast and loose. There have to be support systems in place. My goal is to create small, empowered teams that have the tools they need to just get on with it.”

Grieve says his mantra is now that he works for his people, not the other way round. “I follow the model of servant leadership. My job is to inspire, understand, empathize and cajole – when necessary.”

And whenever he feels stuck, “I just ask myself, what did I want when I entered the industry? I think I would have said, just give me the responsibility. If I fuck it up, I’ll take it.”

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