The year ahead for advertising agencies

The most successful businesses will be those that remove their self-imposed shackles and aspire to make culture, not just 30-second ads.

Nils Leonard: the little things can become our biggest obstacles
Nils Leonard: the little things can become our biggest obstacles

When I joined Grey, there was someone who was ordering ten white lilies a day to their office. The agency hadn’t made a memorable piece of work in years. And we hadn’t won a pitch in months.

I have nothing against flowers. Or against the person ordering them. A bunch of flowers might seem small. But they became a symbol of something bigger for me. A symbol of shitness. Of worrying about the wrong stuff. That someone chose to tend over this floral spurt, every day, rather than look to the hard stuff, freaked me out.

To me, the ten white lilies nicely arranged every day had become a symbol for the dangers of comfort. Client or agency, you can find these symbols in most offices. These symbols of average can creep in, like the crap voodoo sculptures from The Blair Witch Project.

This may be my lunacy. But have a look. I’m betting you’ll find something. What’s the small thing that’s actually a big thing? What is standing in your way? What queue have you found yourself in? What things have to die so the good stuff can happen?

These are the barriers stopping you making the things you dream about. And working the way you really want to.

The little things can become our biggest obstacles. And our biggest danger this year is that we settle for what we did last year. 

Creativity isn’t a formula or category. It is an alchemy of people. It is the space between us all.

Creativity isn’t a discipline. True creativity needs no searching out. It’s there already. But it’s often held back by stuff. Held back by old rules and ego. By insecurity. Often buried under saggy shelves of dusty awards. Stuck behind fat white blokes wanting you to wait in line. Silenced to a whisper under comments like: "Oxford or Cambridge?" Paying lip service to process, hierarchy, preciousness and the past.

It is OK to be frustrated by this stuff. Because frustration makes excellent things happen. 

Music was ripping us off so Spotify happened. Drinking got boring so we created Jägerbombs. The naughty maverick admiral Francis Drake, when fighting the Spanish Armada, set fire to his own ships to defeat an enemy far more powerful. This is creativity. His ship was called Revenge, by the way. 

We have a quote on the wall at Grey London. It’s from Death Of A Salesman and it reads: "I’m not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, you understand? There’s a big blaze going on all around."

The woods really are burning. In our business model. In our agencies and industry. But mostly in the real world.

The days of advertising as we know it are numbered.

While Christmas may be our Super Bowl, where for a brief moment people look forward to ads, most people in the real world actually hate what we do every day.

It wasn’t just the frustration of missing the first five minutes that made on-demand TV happen. Most ads piss people off.

Banksy pinned our wanted poster to a wall when he said: "They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are the advertisers and they are laughing at you."

The truth hurts. 

But don’t be daunted, this is our Armada. A true call for originality, innovation, usefulness and visceral entertainment.

With the cannons aimed at us, whether we’re client or agency, we’d better find a new way. A new way to connect with people. Ways that surprise, inspire, wet pants and split sides. Ways that genuinely help.

The stuff at the white-hot heart of pop culture is the stuff we have a chance to create now.

The best ads don’t look like ads any more. They look like Manhattan grocery shops that sell guns, hoverboards, buckets of ice that ease suffering, life-saving paint that glows in the dark and Kim Kardashian’s arse.

Kim’s butt was the most viewed image in the world last year. And arguably the most famous ad for a magazine no-one had ever heard of.

The ads that don’t look like ads will play out in a two-minute slot on the news for free, not in a 30-second spot on ITV that cost a small fortune, and they’re more likely to be seen in a vertical screen than a landscape one.

2016 is the year we make a choice. Make ads or make culture. They’re rarely the same thing. And I know what the talented ones would rather spend their time creating.

We, and the brands we partner, have a chance to matter. But first we have to get angry. To want change. Because making this sort of work isn’t easy. And it needs a new breed of creative company. That works in new ways, with new roles and disciplines.

No-one really knows what this year holds for us lot. But if you’re reading this and you’re a creative company in the UK, you need to know that the last two years at the Cannes Lions festival were dominated by multiple-Grand Prix-winning UK creative agencies. That UK agencies lead The Gunn Report’s top 20 ads. That UK agencies won two of five infamous black Pencils at D&AD. That you currently share a creative cultural space with heroes like Heatherwick Studio, Channel 4, Peter Saville Associates, Christopher Bailey, Perry Nightingale, The Mill, the IPA and D&AD, and you and your creative brains play a part in contributing £76.9 billion to our economy.

So stop worrying about how things were before. Leave comfort, the old model and the past far behind.

Strategist or suit, creative or client, regardless of discipline, experience, age, sex and colour, I hope you had a good rest over the break. Because this year we set fire to some ships.

Nils Leonard is the chairman and chief creative officer of Grey London

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