The former Grey London CCO on setting up a new kind of creative company with Natalie Graeme and Lucy Jameson
“I’ve always believed that we are more fuelled by frustration and panic and danger than we are by happiness, and I think if that’s the case then our industry should be the most fuelled it’s ever been,” says Nils Leonard ahead of the launch of Uncommon Creative Studio
For one thing, the company is built on a spirit of self-reliance, a place where creative people can build their own brands as well as working with some of the best in the world. Indeed, the founding clients are self-generated projects – there’s Halo Coffee, a biodegradable coffee pod created to reduce the 13,500 single-use coffee pods that fill landfill every minute and a disruptive recruitment algorithm called Headstart, which matches people based on passions and frustrations rather than old school ties.
The reason for this is very simple.” Part of the reason we want to start great brands, not just work with them, is that a lot of talent want to make their own thing. The best creatives, they’re not leaving and going to Facebook and Google like everyone says they are – they’re leaving and starting their own things, products, magazines,” explains Nils. “How do I create an environment where these people get to do that and also get to work on some of the best, most important briefs on the planet? And that’s the kind of company I want to start. I figure if that all appeals to talent then we have a better chance than most.”
What’s more Nils argues that the dependence on paying clients to bring every great idea to life breeds a overly reliant, sluggish culture. With creatives who complain that their clients won’t buy their idea, Nils asks, “Why are you so dependent? Why is that the only way that idea can live? That’s what really kills me. We have a statement here which is ‘are you dependent on people less ambitious than you to make your dreams come true’.”
On the flipside, building and launching a brand of one’s own allows creatives and strategists to understand the problems and frustrations of their clients more profoundly. “It’s one thing agencies saying ‘we want more clients to be fucking brave’… but unless you run your own bottom line, and you know what it’s like to launch something, you kind of don’t get to say that. It’s an old conversation that but one that we all need to address more.”
It’s a philosophy that seems to be paying off as conversations with clients – Uncommon call them partners – are happening and they’ve just done a handshake on their first.
But ultimately the whole set up is built around creating a place that’s appealing to the best talent in the business (and beyond). It’s not just the emphasis on self-generated projects, but the whole language the team uses around employment.
“Why are most companies and agencies set up in a way that’s almost anti-talent?” asks Nils. The growing use of freelance talent in an increasingly fluid industry seems to have given businesses leave to treat both their freelance and permanent talent pretty poorly. The words ‘freelance’ and ‘permanent’ have become ‘dirty words’, he says.
“You look at them and think, Christ no one wants to be a freelancer. That word’s become code for ‘we’re going to absolutely shaft you and give you the worst briefs, you’re going to get no time then we want you out the building’. And then permanent is, ‘we own your brain, we’re going to farm you out and bill your hours’. And we thought, ‘that’s not what it’s about at al’l. You look at Hollywood and no one’s referring to Christopher Nolan as a freelancer.”
Fair point. And so, looking to how Hollywood brings talent together around a film project, they will draw from a network of makers and collaborators to put together dream teams. Some people, Nils explains, might be there all the time, some might only come in on a project. Ultimately, though, it’s about creating terms that work for the talent. And respecting that talent.
This, in turn, should help drive greater diversity. “Some of the most talented women I know have kids and frankly can’t return to the working day because the way agencies are currently engineered just doesn’t work,” says Nils.
And if all this sounds really nice and idealistic, there’s a hard business reasoning underpinning this ‘Uncontract’ approach.
“We were brainwashed in this school of thought years ago but the best people really are the best people and they shine wherever they are… and all I learned was that the best briefs follow them, wherever they are,” says Nils. “What the best clients I’ve met are after is alpha level thinking, ambition way outside the norm. And those people are leading the advertising industry.”
This week, all that clever thinking and inventiveness gets put to the test as Uncommon Creative Studio launches for real. At a time when the industry is beset by an almost paralysing neurotcism, Uncommon is part of a breed of new agencies that truly sees the opportunity available for original businesses. Nils credits the likes of Joan (the New York-based agency run by Jaime Robinson) and AnalogFolk (which supported the trio with as they prepared to launch) as part of this wave of brave and exciting new companies.
Ultimately, Nils is just totally pumped and excited about the future Uncommon. It’s built on the foundation of a solid team, forged in the crucible. “We know we are a team because we’ve been through the fire. There isn’t a guess or gamble there,” he says of his trust in and admiration for Natalie and Lucy.
“I’d love to believe that they think I’m ok at what they do, and I believe that they are brilliant at what they do. Lucy is the best strategist of her generation. I’ve never seen anyone unlock problems or opportunities or brands or systems like she does. I think Natalie – and I don’t know if she’d like me saying this – is the door kicker of a generation. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone that I trust more to open a door, to get things delivered, to make things happen – in any variety of ways.”
It may be week one, but if one thing’s for sure: it is an uncommonly interesting prospect.