In praise of Grey: the agency with the shittiest name that proved doubters wrong
A view from Nils Leonard

In praise of Grey: the agency with the shittiest name that proved doubters wrong

In spite of its dubious name, there were some things that made my old agency (soon to be merged with AKQA) great, not least that I learned more there than I have anywhere else in my career

It is the shittiest name for an agency ever. Grey. Literally the opposite of colour, far worse than the painful crimson of hell, only a tepid indifference comes to mind with the mention of the colour. 

How the fuck does a creative enterprise end up with that name? 

An ingenious curse perhaps, the idea of forever scoring an invisible five out of 10, far worse than hate, the very idea of not being noticed. 

The truth is that the founders, Lawrence Valenstein and Arthur Fatt, were looking for the least offensive name at the time, not wanting commotion in a world rife with division, and landed on the colours of the walls that surrounded them.

And yet here we are 103 years later, and I’m writing some words to try to get you for one last time, to think about the name, Grey.

“Mate, it’s where you go to die.” That’s what they said to me when I decided to say yes and go there in 2007. 

Other talented folk from United HHCL, where I was working at the time, didn’t agree to join, which was understandable.

One joined, then left soon after, telling me he had to “look after his brand”, which told me quite a bit about him, also, to be fair. 

I joined. And in the following months and years learnt more than I had ever learnt in my whole career. 

I learnt that disdain, ridicule and doubt are more motivating than any bean bag or dusty award ever could be.

I learnt that energy beats talent. Dan Wieden and John Hegarty have bad days. Great teams don’t.

I learnt that you lead by example. And that your behaviours as a leader become the culture of a company. 

Removing offices removed ego. A venomous desire to give BBH a bloody nose at the time was contagious, I remember. 

I learnt that offices literally slow ideas down. Never make a good idea knock on a door.

I learnt candour. That you can be critical and a good person at the same time. 

I learnt that you can work a year taking a client from a six out of 10 to a seven out of 10.

Or you can pitch and win a nine out of 10 in two weeks flat.

I learnt that an “overnight success” can take five years.

I learnt that some people can’t be brought along and found the best quote ever: “Arguing with idiots is like playing chess with a pigeon, no matter how good you are the bird is going to shit on the board and strut around like it won anyway.” 

The secret of Grey’s success was being doubted and ignored

People often ask how the team at that time made Grey great. 

The secret wasn’t comfort. Or on-going success. 

The secret was being doubted. No, more than that, being ignored before you’ve even begun. 

As 2020 has taught us there’s nothing more powerful than an angry mob. 

We were legion. Years of crap work, overpaid cynical leaders and fearful subservience all mixing the cement that made a slippery hill to climb for anyone wanting to make the place better. But climbers need mountains. 

Agencies are just buildings full of people. So human rules apply here. 

The only person to give your name meaning is you.

The only people to give an agency name meaning are the ones that turn up every day inside it to make it what it is. 

So I’d ask you to remember Grey as one thing only: a lesson in change.

One genuine example that making your mind up about something is a fool’s errand.

That a bunch of people in the right mood can turn anything on its side. 

Anywhere can be good. Anyone can make it happen.

The final lesson: if you can have the world’s most depressing colour on your business card, your front door and on every deck, right next to every idea you’ve made, and still succeed, you can do fucking anything. 

In my short eight years at Grey I was lucky enough to meet some genuine and incredible people, some of whom are now leading our industry and some of the world's coolest brands globally. 

I met my talented co-founders, Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme, there, and Uncommon Creative Studio would not be what it is today without recognising the lessons learned good and bad for all of us within those walls. 

I would like to thank every one of the people I worked with in that time for their energy and wisdom.

Nils Leonard is co-founder and chief creative officer of Uncommon Creative Studio. He is a former chairman and chief creative officer of Grey London where he worked from 2007 to 2016.