Close-Up: Leonard sets out grand vision for Grey London

Grey's creative department has come a long way, but the agency's new ECD says there's more to achieve.

To many in the industry, the name Nils Leonard probably won't mean that much. He's not an example of a big-shot creative who has made his way to the top by undertaking an award-laden ascent up the creative rungs, grabbing headlines, plaudits and large lunch bills along the way.

In fact, for much of his creative career, the self-confessed "outsider" lingered around the edges of adland, dipping in and out of agency life (starting in typography before moving into an art director role) while building his own design/ad business, Leonard Associates.

However, those who know him believe that not only is his promotion to executive creative director of Grey London unsurprising, but also that his name will very soon be known throughout the industry.

Jim Kelly, who gave Leonard his first job at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and hired him at United, says: "I'm just surprised he hasn't made a name for himself sooner. He's as close as you can get to the perfect modern ECD. He's proficient onand offline, a great designer, a fantastic judge of great creative and, even more importantly, an exceptional salesman."

Lofty praise indeed, but you get the feeling from talking to Leonard that it might not be exaggerated. He certainly has a lot of confidence and is not afraid to voice his opinions on where the industry needs to go. His vision for Grey is simply put: "I want people to say: 'I wish I'd been at Grey in that time.'" Getting there, however, may be a bit more difficult.

His plan, though, needs a bit of context.

Three years ago, Grey was a very different beast to the agency in Hatton Garden today. It was a UK outpost of a huge network, with the main goal of servicing its global accounts, such as the mammoth Procter & Gamble business. Then, in March 2007, David Patton took over as chief executive and restructured the entire agency, with a more domestic leaning, and hired Jon Williams (who was the digital specialist at Beattie McGuinness Bungay) to revolutionise the creative department.

Leonard says: "It became very exciting very quickly when David took over."

Almost three years on and the agency has restructured its creative operation by breaking down the barriers between the creative disciplines while fostering an atmosphere of collaboration, which has worked to some extent.

Williams has now moved on to become the digital creative director for Grey across Europe, following Patton, who has been made the European chief executive. Some say that change was dictated by a desire to make room for Leonard, who was keen to take charge in London.

Leonard is now aiming to instigate his own changes by radically altering the hiring policy and extending the notion of integration into every department.

He says: "It's about working faster and unlocking the creative potential of everyone in the building - from TV producers to planners - and re-educating everyone about the potential an agency has.

"I want the most ambitious department in London. Formulaic award-chasing campaigns don't work any more. There used to be rules but now we're looking at a blank piece of paper. It's our duty to make advertising loved again."

And this doesn't just mean consumers and staff. Grey is now also moving towards a model where the client is included in all areas of the creative process.

However, at Grey, remnants of the old days still remain and the agency continues to handle a number of accounts that are historically based around structure and processes, and will be very hard to convert.

Although Leonard accepts that there is some "network stuff" he has to "deal with" as part of his remit, he has an unshakable optimism in his plan for moving the agency forward. He says: "Network clients do have formulas, but that shouldn't stop you performing little bits of magic." But, despite a couple of small glimpses (with Toshiba and the British Heart Foundation), that magic has yet to be regularly forthcoming.

Leonard points to last year's Allianz pitch as an example of how clients at big institutions who would classically be seen as safe and unexciting don't have to conform to that perception.

"They were pushing us to be more flexible and look at how we can develop our offering. And these are the sorts of clients we're attracting now," Leonard says. "However, this doesn't mean our existing clients aren't interested. They've seen, through what David (Patton) achieved at Sony, that a good marketing director can now become the rock star of the industry."

Leonard is also desperate to extend the skill base within his department while also bringing the average age down by hiring from outside of the normal talent pool.

"I want to surround myself with like-minded people, who maybe have their own businesses or work in a different creative field - a training in advertising isn't essential these days," he says.

Obviously, this sort of claim has been made before, often with limited success because it takes a skilled hand to make these types of hirings work, and far more experienced creatives have failed to implement such a strategy.

To some, who point out that this is only his first ECD job, Leonard's confidence may come across as arrogance. His youthful and almost evangelical belief in where Grey can go could also be seen as naivety by some of the older battle-weary creatives in the industry.

However, Chris Hirst, the chief executive of Grey, is adamant that this is not the case: "He's not naive. He's relatively young but he has been around. He knows that nobody has the right answer, he just firmly believes that he can make his ideas work for Grey."

Leonard joined the agency following WPP's decision to merge the dying United business into the network. At first, he worked as the creative director on the beauty and fragrances brands, a job that fitted in well with his own business, which involves design and advertising solutions for the beauty and music industries. His latest job for Leonard Associates is to create the artwork for the new Feeder album.

"Some people think it would be a conflict of interests, but I think, more and more, my job and my business should be merging together. I've always been interested in album covers and naughty fashion ads, such as the stuff Benetton was doing, and don't see why I, or my agency, can't do similar stuff."

With all these bold claims, 2010 is going to be huge for Leonard, who has a lot of promises to live up to at an agency that has traditionally been big and uninteresting. But if he has the skill to back his belief, then this relatively unknown creative could be making some big noises by the end of the year.

Age: Young
Lives: Crouch End, London
Family: Charlotte (wife), Jack (wizard) and Finn (Tombliboo)
Most treasured possession: The gigabytes of digital photography/memories
that exist in constant fragility on my Mac
Favourite ad of all time: Benetton "baby"
Most inspiring person: I have four today: Olivier Zahm, Stefan
Sagmeister, Terry Richardson and Leonard Cohen
Motto: What would Flynn do?