CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - DAVE ALBERTS. The radical creative chief who may brighten up Grey's output

Dave Alberts' background sits well with Garry Lace's ambition, John Tylee says.

Brussel sprouts sum up what Dave Alberts, Grey Worldwide London's executive creative director-in-waiting, is all about.

Not the ones you pick out of the supermarket cabinet. Alberts' sprouts are metaphors for life's little pleasures that you enjoy now but might have to forgo in a cash-strapped old age.

His trademark has always been rigorously researched work, which doesn't necessarily win creative plaudits but strives to be effective.

And no campaign has better encapsulated this than the curiously titled "Every Australian deserves sprouts" advertising produced by MojoPartners, Alberts' employer for the past three years, for ClearView Retirement Solutions.

ClearView's campaign was targeted at a supposedly neglected segment of "middle Australia" aged between 50 and 64 who are expected to retire with modest amounts of superannuation.

Mojo's work has been sneered at within Australia's creative community but applauded outside it as a potent piece of communication. Its strategy has catapulted ClearView into one of the leaders of its sector with response rates that far exceeded its expectations.

The ClearView story, a significant pointer to the way Alberts will want to work at Grey, evolved out of an approach called "adcepting".

Its aim is to present new-business prospects with workable ideas. Pitching creatives are told to come up with as many approaches to a brief as they can. Executions aren't allowed. Just concepts.

The resulting "adcepts" go before research groups where those that provoke only a neutral reaction are filtered out. The rest are worked through with prospective clients, allowing them to get involved at an early stage and be part of the development process.

Equally radical is Alberts' penchant for "fluid creative departments" constantly refreshed by freelance input. At Mojo, about 30 per cent of the creative resource is drawn from outside the agency.

"Creativity isn't just the domain of the creative department," he asserts.

"Many planners and account people are creative in other fields and we should be just as open."

The upside of such methods is they not only keep creatives on their toes but provide clients with a range of creative options. The downside is the lack of continuity with freelancers leaving before the work is fully evolved and too few people with knowledge of the business accumulated through experience.

Moreover, there's a question mark about whether this approach can be successfully replicated at Grey, whose huge multinational clients (Procter & Gamble, Mars and GlaxoSmithKline) are perceived as creatively conservative.

Many have tried to move Grey's work on but have found the effort exhausting and dispiriting. Not least Tim Mellors, who swept into the creative director's chair in 1998 on a wave of enthusiasm. At one all-staff meeting he illustrated his point about the agency being a "sleeping giant" by laying on the floor, curling into a ball and refusing to get up until everybody shouted "Wake up, Grey" loudly enough for his satisfaction.

When Garry Lace arrived as the chief executive at the end of last year with an agenda for change, it seemed clear a catharsis was unavoidable.

Last week the agency shed one-fifth of its workforce.

Lace believes the Alberts approach is perfect for what he hopes will be the gain that follows the pain. Not only will it generate the plethora of ideas today's clients demand but re-energise the creative department and move Grey away from the safe centre ground to which it has clung for too long.

What's more, it offers the opportunity to reduce the agency's fixed costs.

"That's not to say we'll end up with a creative department full of freelancers," Lace adds. "But I don't expect clients to pay for people sitting around doing sod all."

Alberts' background fits well with Lace's ambition. If his down-to-earth approach to creativity hasn't always led to Mojo sweeping the board at awards ceremonies, the agency's new-business record is second to none.

Nike and Nescafe are among the blue-chip names recently added to its client list.

"Dave will do well as he understands people," says Peter Souter, the Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO executive creative director, who got to know Alberts when the latter was the regional creative director for BBDO Asia-Pacific. "Grey can be turned around creatively and Dave might be the one to do it."

Dave Droga, the Saatchi & Saatchi executive creative director soon to take creative command of the Publicis network, is one of Alberts' oldest friends. He says: "Dave is a true planner's creative with a reputation as a pragmatist and for being a very good leader of his department. He's besotted by ads and everybody who meets him feels his enthusiasm."

Alberts isn't intimidated by the task of transplanting a creative heart into an agency that has traditionally rejected one. "I've never met a client who didn't want work which will perform better," he says.

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