When I was at AMV there was a bloke whose job title was something like Head of the Studio. So he was in charge of the group of specialist designers who were tasked with improving the looks and layouts of our print advertising.
Reader, that bloke was Nils Leonard.
After a while he went off to Grey, when it was still the punchline to all jokes about British creative advertising, to (I think) be the CD on Hugo Boss where (I think) he made some ads with Sienna Miller.
After that happened, I kind of stopped keeping track, although I’d occasionally read that he was still at Grey and seemed to be getting promoted on a regular basis.
Then one day he became the ECD.
Grey had become a bit more interesting by that stage, presumably somewhat thanks to Nils. They were now housed in an interesting building in interesting Farringdon, and were no longer the butt of the industry’s jokes. (To be fair, I think lots of other agencies had simultaneously become much, much worse, accentuating the improvements Grey had made, but also demonstrating that Grey’s improvement wasn’t simply a case of a rising tide lifting all ships. Doing well in an overall climate of crapness is even harder; after all, you can’t show a reel of all the great stuff happening across town in order to inspire/guilt your client into commissioning similar work.)
And now, if my cursory flick through Campaign’s end-of-year round up in WH Smith is to be taken seriously, Nils is the cats pyjamas of London creativity. I was already aware that Grey was the UK’s most awarded agency at D&AD last year, or the year before, and that they’d won a couple of Cannes Grand Prix (OK, for a campaign I have a lot of problems with, but, hey, this is a nice post and this is the last time I’m going to mention how awful I think Life Paint is).
So Nils has done something very impressive: he took a dreary, crappy dinosaur and turned it into the hotshop of London, and one of the most awarded agencies in the world. And he did it through a pretty unusual route; I mean, how many studio designers do you know who have risen to be ECD, let alone taken a moribund agency and turned it round 180 degrees? I’m going to guess that the answer is none. In fact, I can’t remember anyone taking on such a derided agency and making this much of a success out of it. He’s now so respected he gets to write ‘call to arms’ articles for Campaign, and, gosh darn it, he writes them well.
So hats off to Nils, not just for getting to the top, but for doing it the hard way. And for being or not being a cock.