Feature

The most creative people in town wear tweed jackets

...if you are to believe a 1987 profile of production supremo Laura Gregory.

The most creative people in town wear tweed jackets

#TellHerStory is produced in partnership with Publicis Groupe and Stylist

"More people are familiar with Laura Gregory’s unorthodox taste in clothes than Roger Lunn’s achievements as a commercials director. At a time when the Cannes Film Festival is going out of fashion, Gregory seems to epitomise everything it represents."

Cutting introductions don’t come much sharper than this Campaign story from September 1987. Entitled "Film duo’s rise to the challenge", the feature highlighted the very specific challenge of succeeding as a female producer when your creative output is routinely diminished to your wardrobe choices.

As an "unnamed creative" in the article explained: "If you look at the most creative people in town, they tend to wear tweed jackets, jumpers and cords. So naturally there is a suspicion when you see a couple of clowns jumping around. If you’re Roger Woodburn or Ridley Scott, you can come in stark naked wearing frogman’s flippers and you’ll still get the job. But Lunn and Gregory’s best creations seem to be themselves." Ouch.

Rereading the profile, Gregory can’t help but laugh. "I was over the moon I was in Campaign. I didn’t really care what it said," she says. "I’d always relied on the work to do the talking; people could not ignore the work. I’m not interested in the whole guys in tweed jackets thing – I never have been."

Creative space

Fast forward 31 years and it would be easy to dismiss the obsession with guys in tweed as something from "back in the day". But, truth be told, the myth of the "creative rockstar" has been remarkably difficult to kill off. But equally enduring has been Gregory’s energy and commitment to creativity and championing not just the art of production but the next generation of creative talent.

Today, she runs Great Guns, the production house she set up in 1996, and has racked up more awards than we can list here. But perhaps most importantly, she has achieved this success on her own terms. "When I started out, the challenge was very much no-one was doing what I wanted to do. I had come out of a male-owned and run production company. I looked at the companies around me and they were mostly director and producer partnerships, but no-one really wanted to work with me," Gregory explains.

Instead of feeling like there was no place for her, Gregory set about creating her very own creative space by launching a company when she was just 22. Becoming a founder was an obvious answer, because leaving the industry she loved was never an option. "I truly fell in love with advertising at Cannes," she says. It is a love affair she has maintained to the present day, even if the festival has changed beyond recognition. "When I first went, it was predominantly French and English production companies, and it is much more of a market now, but it has not lost its energy," she adds.

Screen time

Gregory attributes her enduring success to a relentless focus on new talent. It might be a tough and at times thankless task to put a young director on the map, but she has built her career on doing just that. "Connecting with young talent is key to me and always has been," she says. "Mentoring young people is vital." Even when she launched her own pub, The Great Guns Social, she championed young chefs – mentoring and connecting with people is a way of life for Gregory.

She urges the next generation of talent to get out from behind their screen for long enough to truly connect. "When I speak to young people starting out today, I tell them to get away from your computer screens and actually talk to the people you admire," she explains. Because while technology has empowered anyone with a phone to be a director, on a human level Gregory believes we risk becoming disconnected. "This whole Facebook friends thing is an illusion," she stresses. "You can never have as many friends as you can today, but unless you connect in the real world it means nothing."

The illusion of change is also something Gregory addresses when it comes to the impact of technology in the industry's creative output. "The fundamentals haven’t shifted," she argues. "In any period of time, there are always great technological advances but, ultimately, I’ve always been a storyteller – it does not matter what platforms you use to tell those stories. The truth is you would still be telling stories."

Telling her own story

So what if Gregory were to turn the lens inward? "If it were a film, my life would be a comedy," she says immediately. "My whole life has been a series of lucky moments and timings. My mother was a costume designer and I spent my life backstage; she did a sideline in making corsets for transvestites. My father was an actor who then became a publican, so my life was always about people – and it still is."

Yet maintaining her creative momentum hasn’t always been easy. "It was lonely at times, but now I have a brilliant team around me and no two days are the same," she says, adding: "I’ve just come back from a shoot in a swamp."

Building Great Guns has also empowered Gregory to build a culture where career progression and hands-on motherhood aren’t mutually exclusive pursuits. "When I had my daughter Ruby, I would take her everywhere with me, I would take her on shoots," she recalls. "We all do what we have to do and certainly now with my employees, I don’t expect them to work like nothing has changed if they become parents."

According to Gregory, being flexible is easier as a production company, since it's often a family-run business, so it's naturally a place in which individual needs can be respected. She talks about a time when she was wired up to breast pumps along with another senior producer so they could both put their milk on a bike to get to their respective nannies. "We used to call it the milk run," she remembers.

Like many working parents, there were times when Gregory felt the impossible pressure of needing to be in two places at the same time. "At times, I was heartbroken not to be home with her, but we all do what we can do," she says.

Force of nature

In the production community, Gregory’s career has become a blueprint for other creatives. Steve Davies, chief executive of the Advertising Producers Association, simply calls Gregory "a force of nature". He says: "To run a successful company for over 30 years as Laura has done requires many talents. Of those, two jump out with Laura: a constant moving with the times and embracing change indefatigably. Whatever challenge Laura has faced in business, she hasn’t sat back for one minute but picked herself up and ploughed forward relentlessly. As such, Laura is revered throughout the commercials production world."

Yet looking at Gregory’s legacy feels almost wrong when her influence is still so palpable today and she remains so focused on forging the future. "What is really exciting now is that you don’t need expensive equipment, you can start anything now and that’s exciting," she explains. "I see budding film-makers starting out who can make their own films and show me, not just tell me, what they can do."

For Gregory, the most important ingredient for success is find someone and something you believe in. To work somewhere you are celebrated, not merely tolerated. "Making your mark for me was always about being true to your word and there is no substitute for the work. You have to go somewhere where you believe in the work and that remains true to this day," she explains.

Yet she doesn’t sugar-coat the realities. "This business is so brutal, you are only as good as your last work," she says. "If you can’t make your voice heard inside the company you work for, make it heard outside – blog or create." Pointing to the rise of "side hustles" as a source of inspiration and creative outlut, she adds: "There are dangers to not being able to express yourself; there are outlets where you can be heard."

It is thanks to women like Gregory, who forged a creative path without compromise, that women today are afforded the promise of finding and believing in your own voice and building a career in an environment in which you will be judged on something more profound than whether you wear tweed.

Over the next five weeks, Campaign will be digging into its archives to rewrite the stories of some of the most trailblazing women in the industry successfully changing the narrative and achieving success on their own terms. Read more about #TellHerStory here.

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