Jazz Shaper: Nils Leonard

Posted on 03 July 2021

Nils Leonard is an advertising and design industry innovator and the co-founder of Uncommon, a creative brand-building studio.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, it is where Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues.  My guest today, the very last Business Shaper of this season, is Nils Leonard.  Advertising and design industry innovator and the Co-founder of Uncommon, a creative brand-building studio.  He is also the Co-founder of Halo, makers of home compostable coffee pots.  After falling in love with cinema adverts as a child because, as he says, “They were weird and didn’t have story lines but they just moved you” Nils saw advertising as an escape and chose to apply for summer work in the industry rather than to University.  He went on to spend over eighteen years in the most recognised, influential advertising and design agencies in London, including as Chief Creative Officer of Grey London, where he oversaw the most profitable award bestowed years in the agency’s history.  He became one of the youngest agency chairmen in the world, leading its brands globally and locally but cynical and weary of what he felt were unoriginal ideas, Nils sort to create more purposeful projects.  He left the company in 2016 with colleagues Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme and together they Co-founded Uncommon, a creative studio building brands that make positive and national impact, such as delivering an anti-racism advert for ITV and helping create BrewDog’s idea to mass produce free hand sanitiser in its distillery.  It’s really good to have you on the programme, it’s the last one of this series so we’re going to go out with a bang, not a whimper – it doesn’t say that anywhere but apparently that must be happening, Nils because you’re here.  Tell me what it means to make stuff, I’ve read a fair bit about Uncommon, I’ve read a fair bit about the number of awards you’ve won, the accolades across the industry, not just in this country but internationally.  An extraordinary thing has happened over the last few years, you’ve become relatively famous and I say that, I don’t mean that in a disparaging way but fame is probably beyond the industry itself.  So, what is it to make stuff?  Let’s start there. 

Nils Leonard

Well, thanks for having me first of all, it’s brilliant to be on.  I’ve always believed that making things is powerful.  I have a strange relationship with dependency but you’d be surprised how many creatives, agencies, studios, they’ll have an idea and the very first thing they’ll say is, well who should we get to make this for us?  And it always struck me is, if you have that immediately sort of dependent relationship on putting things out there, it’s just a barrier to reality, you know, someone said the difference between a, you know, a good idea and a brilliant one is very, very simple, it’s reality.  Did it actually happen?  I sort of just thought to myself well god, wouldn’t it be brilliant to be in the world, putting things out there that might become reference points?  A gentleman once asked me a question really that is behind all of this, which was how do we go from being – he was a client when he was trying to entice me with a pitch, you know, which is what you do in trying to excite the creatives so they work their asses off – and he said, how do we go from being a brand that sells stuff to people, to being a brand that people wish existed?  And I thought that was a really powerful question and I sat there and burnt myself on his pitch and worked my ass off and then I stopped and I thought, well hang on a minute, how do I, never mind you, you know, name an agency that the real world is glad exists, we are in the queue for hell with lawyers and estate agents.  And so I was moved by that and I thought to do that, to be alongside the Pixars and you know name any other company that the real world is glad exists.  We had to be additive, we had to be positively impactful, place things into the world that were remarkable, needed, wanted, referred to and so really that’s where our obsession comes from and we try to do that in as many guises as possible really. 

Elliot Moss

To be discontinuous in the world of advertising or in the world of anything actually and for you to say, I want to create a product which is as good as Netflix and Pixar, that takes some doing.  The three of you all came from the world of advertising.  Is it that you simply say the take on the industry was wrong, we’ve always believed in something else?  Or was it deeper than that?  Did you have to say, if we were to going to create something, if we are going to create a brand called Uncommon, what does that look like?  I’m just trying to ascertain how much of a distance it was from your past life because advertising people are masterful at repositioning what is actually exactly the same thing. 

Nils Leonard

Yeah, you are absolutely right.

Elliot Moss

Have you done that or is there a bit more depth to it?

Nils Leonard

Yeah, that’s right, there are two answers to your question though.  It’s kind of a question of two parts, I thought.  Part one is, you’d be so surprised how many agencies and studios don’t have their own brand so, despite the fact we walk into every room telling everyone what to do with theirs, you suddenly look back and you kind of go well, what are you?  Just a homogenous bunch of people with a kind of logo on the door that you didn’t make probably, you inherited from a network.  So, actually I’ve always found that to be frustrating and annoying and kind of, you know, a catalyst for what we’re doing.  One of the only agencies previously to have done that was BBH of course, you know, I thought to myself well, they’re onto something there with their take on the world and I wanted Uncommon to have its own viewpoint regardless of any brand that we work with.  The other answer to your question is, advertising at its best, at its best very rarely does speak to people and move things forward, it changes things, it challenges our view or our behaviours or it places something into the world that means we are all more aware of an issue and really at its best when we make things that are more than just a film or whatever, it genuinely is additive in that there are reference points in culture that people refer to and go, god I remember that, that opened my eyes to, you know, a certain issue.  So, a great example of that in the past is, the Paralympics campaign from Channel 4.  We’ll all remember that, right?  Meet the superhumans.  And I’ll eulogise that bit of work all day because it didn’t’ just say, which every campaign around disability had said before, it didn’t just say, these people are good as you are, it says people are better, you know, and so the insight alone puts the hairs up on your arms but then that piece of work attached to a hip-hop track, attached an energy and a sex actually, to the whole thing which no one had ever seen and I think that genuinely just change perceptions of disability and that whole world and so you look at that and you look at some of the bits we’ve done previously at Grey with my other Co-founders and we sort of said look, at our best we can do that stuff so what if all we did was that stuff and it doesn’t all have to be world saving or, you know, attached to the climate or whatever but we do look for something to be positively impactful, we prioritise those projects and brands. 

Elliot Moss

In fact, one of my favourite campaigns ever, that’s superhuman as well and it was public enemy but originally, Shirley Bassey with Jezahel, there you go.  If you knew that because I looked back and just went, that’s an amazing track.  You’ve run a lot of stuff, Nils, over the years, you’ve had these really big corporate jobs and you’ve moved into them from the craft skill of being a designer up to the lofty heights of being a Chair and all the management stuff that comes with it.  Did you always eventually want to run your own gig, whatever that was?  I know you had another couple of interests on the side but this feels like the most meaty, real business that you’ve created.  Was it in you and if so, why do you think?

Nils Leonard

Yeah, I did.  I mean, I spent years at Grey which was the network agency that I was running alongside a couple of others, basically kidding myself that was mine too.  I think any successful business, there has to be a level of personal investment, I have never, you just can’t go and do a job if you want to run something very special, in my experience, is what I’ve realised.  And what I realised at Grey was that it was mine, apart from twice a year when we had to report the numbers and they had to tell me who I had to fire or not, and it was mine until I wanted them to invest in things that weren’t the day job and then suddenly of course cynicism comes knocking and all those other things start, you know, putting an itch up your back and I started to go, hang on a minute, this isn’t mine is it, I forgot, and so had to go off and do that.  But, you know, I wasn’t sat going, I’m a natural born entrepreneur, I just can see a gap or could see a gap and thought, I’m very passionate about that, you know, and thought that it should exist.

Elliot Moss

Is it hard though when your brain is wired to see the gaps, to make stuff, to visualise and that’s what creative people do, whatever walk of life, you know, creative people are more just, officially creative people, there’s creative people everywhere and I get to meet tons of them in all sorts of different guises but at the heart of a creative person is frustration, is vision, is why is there any gestation between the idea and it happening in the real world, as an entrepreneur and running a business, you’ve got the P&L, you’ve got the toilet paper to buy, you’ve got the rent to pay, you’ve got a whole bunch of other stuff.  Have you found people that take away some of that – and by the way, I don’t demean any of those things, they are critical, you know the properly importantly mundane is really important in running a business – but for you personally, have you managed to find joy in some of those things you probably didn’t think you would? 

Nils Leonard

Yeah, definitely, you know, you are right, the mundane is kryptonite to a new idea, you are absolutely right, you know, it’s brilliant for a week and then suddenly, oh we have to do this.  Have you ever thought about that theory of why everyone has all these great ideas and they kind of half make them happen and they don’t make all of them happen?  I had an idea a bit like that years ago, for an outdoor brand, I won’t say what it was, it was a concept, it was absolutely brilliant, it definitely should exist and then I realised, I don’t want to wake up every day and just sell picnic blankets and I was like, oh that’s what it is, you actually have to love doing it so much that you can face down the emails every day because you believe in something bigger.  So, yeah, that is right.  I mean, I love the subject matter of creativity, I think so many people talk about it with fragility and this sort of moustache twirling sort of nonsense and I’ve always believed that the most creative people are essentially responders to frustration or to a crisis.  All the companies we eulogise, all the entrepreneurs we love, come from a place of, I really hated how that was, you know, so I wanted to put a dent in it or change it or move it forwards or why are things like that and I think that as long as you’ve got that nugget, that garlic in the sauce, then I think you will get through stuff, you know the trick is keeping it, that’s the trick at this point I think, and the trick at any point in a business. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me to find out if Nils Leonard is happy with keeping the trick, the garlic, as he says, that’s going to be in the sauce.  He’s coming up again in a few more minutes but right now, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all of the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Martha Averley and Matt Robinson talk about equality, diversity and inclusion with regard to recruitment and how employers can recruit in a fair but diverse way. 

All my former Business Shapers are available to join you this summer on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again or if you have got a smart speaker, you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers, and there you will find many of our recent shows.  But back to today’s guest, it’s Nils Leonard, advertising and design guru and more recently, the Founder of Uncommon, the creative brand building studio, and Co-founder of Halo, makers of the home compostable coffee pods.  So, part of the schtick of Uncommon is to, as I mentioned earlier and you responded to, is to make stuff and I love your articulation of, you know, the creativity, the responders to stuff that isn’t working, something, you know, the problem to fix as it were, to the frustration.  Tell me about these products that you are getting behind and these ventures and where does that fit in the global domination plans for Nils Leonard et al?

Nils Leonard

There are lots and lots of new products, new brands, all day every day coming out.  Some of them are good and the majority of them are a lot like other ones, they’re the same and it dawned on us that we wanted to come from a different place every time, a far more motivated place.  There’s a quote from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, which is, “I’m not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind.  The woods are burning.”  That’s always struck me as a brilliant quote for our industry but for creativity in general.  The idea that the woods are burning, I mean, has there never been a more tender time to be a human being, you know, ecologically, politically, the whole thing and we look for and are drawn to the woods burning in every scenario and we look for how we can positively impact on it so, an example of that, for H&M recently, you know, global clothing retailer, we looked at it and we said look, during the pandemic, you know, we were given a brief around then and we realised that actually more men, particularly of a certain age, were out of work than ever before and then it’s not a level playing field so we created something called the One/Second/Suit for them, where you can rent a suit for 24-hours for free if you have an interview, you know, and those things aren’t, we’re not suggesting these things are, you know, going to solve the whole world’s problems but I do know that I’d rather a brand existed that did that, than didn’t and I do think that that will be a reference point for other brands if we are talking about the future of clothing rental as opposed to purchase, you know, in the circular economy in that sense. 

Elliot Moss

I saw it on the Tube actually and it was intriguing, it was kind of… and I watch when I am on the Tube whether people are looking because often ads are just wallpaper and they were actually looking and reading which is kind of fascinating to me.  Can I ask you a question about the team that you’ve built because obviously back to the Pixar analogy and being able to, you know, you look around and you go we can make it, we don’t need anyone else to make it.  How have you managed to find the right people?  Have they come from your old world?  Have they come from a bit of that and a new world and if so, where? 

Nils Leonard

Yeah, a bit of a mix, I mean, I want to want people, not need them.  So, we still use external partners, we still use a director or we use whatever but we use the best in class ones, you know, as opposed to most agencies I think you go, we just need somebody who does everything.  You know, if we want to make an edit, I need somebody, if I want to make a presentation, I need somebody, you’d be surprised the level of dependency in all these companies.  So, we essentially started a Hollywood model which was a black book of, you know, makers of all sorts, be it 3-D modelling, be it voice, be it you know low cost film work, the experienced product design, you know we’ve done it all, we made a hairdryer that looked like Piers Morgan, you know I’ll explain a bit more about that later but when you want to get into that stuff, you want to build a retinue of people that you know you can trust and count on and it dawned on us that if we had the right relationships with those people, we only brought them work that was going to matter and was going to be famous then we’d be able to ensure their loyalty and their time so that’s sort of how we work. 

Elliot Moss

Your own style, Nils and what you bring to the party so, I imagine that obviously the ideas, there’s a primacy of ideas and the currency you deal in, is ideas, it’s in making it a reality, it’s in bringing people with you.  How have you developed your own style of leadership through this period where it’s actually your own shop?  But I imagine you also want people to feel part of it because as you said, it was almost yours and then you remembered twice a year, it wasn’t.  How have you made sure that those people don’t feel like that? 

Nils Leonard

Yeah.  I think we all start out, maybe, or I certainly did, just trying to be clever, believing that being intelligent and trying to make the right decision would draw people to you and make a company go okay.  I once had a conversation with a gentleman called Robert Saville who started and runs Mother, the other creative shop, and he very kindly told me the difference between the things that he’d read of mine or that I had said that were good and the difference between the ones that were rubbish, was that when I was good, I was speaking to talent so I wasn’t trying to impress clients, I wasn’t trying to speak to, you know, the intelligence of brand building as a massive theory, he was like when you are natural and it comes out of you and you are just talking directly to talent and believing that they, like you, just want to get out of bed in the morning for something bigger, that’s when you’re good, and I thought to myself, okay, I’ve got to stop trying to be someone else. 

Elliot Moss

So, how do you do that?  Just give me a quick example of talking to talent rather than talking to…

Nils Leonard

Okay, so you talk to, you know, does anybody get up in the morning and want to go and sell cheese in a banner ad?  No one ever wrote that on their gravestone.  No one ever wrote to their mum and said I’ve done that.  They want to get out in the morning and try and be additive and matter in the world no matter what you do, even if you day job isn’t that currently, that is why you would want to get out of bed.  Uncommon, our entire ethos, is about trying to build a brand that people wish existed.  Would you like to contribute to that?  Do you believe that creativity can move things forward?  Do you believe that your ideas might matter in the world and become a reference point?  If that’s what you are interested in, come work here. 

Elliot Moss

And in terms of the gene pool that you think created around you, does it matter what kind of person can respond to that?  Is there a type or is it broader than that?

Nils Leonard

No, well, yeah, sort of.  Or there’s a state. 

Elliot Moss

Okay.

Nils Leonard

It’s not a type of person, there’s a lot of very different people but most people who come here are frustrated.  So, they are either frustrated with how the industry has treated them, they are frustrated that they haven’t been able to, you know, translate their ambitions in their careers so far.  We attract a lot of people who have a chip on their shoulder and I like that because really the energy it takes to do what we do, I would argue demands a certain level and I think you can have that level if you are driven by something, you know, I don’t think that comfort actually breeds creativity, I have never believed that, I think the most impactful people in the world are driven by something, let’s be honest, darker, you know, be it being overlooked or revenge or frustration or even fear, you know, are you afraid of where you started that you’ll end up there?  All these things, they tend to be common themes of the people that we work with here.  Certainly a common theme in me and I think if you share those values with people, you’d be surprised how little you have to say, you know, you just give them a look and they know and you all know. 

Elliot Moss

You look menacing then.  Final chat my Business Shaper today, it’s Nils Leonard and we’ve got a serious touch of magic from the one and only, Herbie Hancock, that’s in just a minute, don’t go anywhere.

Nils Leonard is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes and we’ve talked about all sorts of stuff.  I’ve read that your own background Nils was, I think you may have described it as rough, Council estate and all that, and I’ve met a lot of people on this programme that say, ‘I never want to go back there’.  You kind of touched on it before, you sort of said people might be driven by a number of things, one of them might be fear.  Is that still something that drives you every day, that sense of the future can’t be what my past was?

Nils Leonard

There’s a bit of that, I mean that’s a… I had a loving family and I don’t want to dismiss the entire thing as, you know, something I’m running from or something but I think we are driven by stuff, you know, sometimes and I geographically and the sort of life we were leading and the level of frustration I saw in my family, you know, from our circumstances, I just wanted to fix that, like any child does, desperately, desperately wanted to sort that out and couldn’t and I saw the nature of being powerless, I saw, you know, my mother in particular was like, you know, none of our family have ever gone to Uni and she just didn’t know what she didn’t know man, you know and how do you teach your kids confidence and a path and progress and stuff if you just don’t know it?  And she was trying, she was kind of going, god it could be all out there for you but I remember looking at that and just thinking well that’s the thing to put a dent in for me personally, I’ve got to find a way to not end up back here, people have patterns don’t they and I sort of thought, I don’t want to run from the whole thing, I don’t want to run from the graft and the support but I don’t want to end up back there and, you know, a bit of that does drive me.  I saw a really weird Western, this is the way I view it though, there was a Western where, you know, classic brother died situation in a Western, his brother gets killed and instead of just going on a revenge story to go and avenge his brother, to remind him that his brother has been killed he pulls his brother around in a coffin tied to his ankle for the entire movie.  Now, I’m like that’s sort of how people feel I think about stuff like that, whatever your stuff is, it comes with you and it can either pull you back I suppose or it can project you and I am hoping it’s the latter. 

Elliot Moss

And I imagine if you are metaphorically pulling the coffin around, that means you never get comfortable because that, as you said, is the… that’s the enemy of creativity as well, it’s the enemy of doing well probably in life if you suddenly go, I’ve arrived.  How do you ensure beyond metaphorically pulling the coffin around that no one around you in Uncommon gets comfortable?

Nils Leonard

I think you just, I mean look, I don’t want to say that my management style is driving people into their demons to succeed, it’s not that but I think there’s a larger mission which is, that’s my stuff and that’s behind me and that’s where I’ve come from but the place we’re headed, is important as well, and powerful and may not happen, the jeopardy of a future you haven’t made yet, is a powerful motivator and so I am looking at it going, well guys we have this dream of Uncommon and you have this dream of you as a part of it and we might not make it so, if you really believe in what we’re trying to do here and you really believe in your part of it, then we’ve got a really go at this and that spirit is very evident here, even three years in, you know, and that’s evident in the partnerships we create too, our clients feel the same by the way, this isn’t just our talent, you know, we tend not to work with clients who want, you know, a 1% uplift or a whatever, they tend to come going I’ve read that thing, I feel like we need wholesale change or we are going to die and those tend to be our ideal clients. 

Elliot Moss

Listen, good luck with the wholesale change, both the continuous wholesale change of Uncommon and of your clients’ businesses and of making, as you said, a dent and an impact in the world, it’s a brilliant objective, I hope you can continue to get there.  Great talking to you.  Just before I let you disappear, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Nils Leonard

It’s Ted Hawkins, Sorry You’re Sick, I think it’s called that.  It’s a track I love.  All I’d like to say about it is, it’s incredibly dark but like the best, best songs or the best writing, he leverages it in a way that’s absolutely palatable for everybody but when you get under the skin of it, even its sort of joyous chorus and you hear his voice strain, you are like oh, it’s a story about someone who’s going to die and he just wants to get him some booze and fill up their belly with it and it’s a story about family, I think, and love and tragedy but it’s just brilliant.  He’s also ferociously repetitive, doesn’t give you anything, no space, just goes at it, shuts the, you know, it’s the equivalent of shutting the laptop at the end of the track, thank you, out, bang, and I just think you’re left with it man and second time around in the chorus I think that’s where the peak hairs on your arms moment happens, it might just be me but you’re like oh he means that he’s going again. 

Elliot Moss

That was Ted Hawkins with Sorry You’re Sick, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Nils Leonard.  He talked about the creative disposition being a sense of being a responder to frustration, he talked about “the woods are burning,” the Arthur Miller quote and how true that is in literal and metaphorical terms for all sorts of problems that we face right now.  And finally, and really beautifully and eloquently, he talked about the jeopardy of a future you haven’t yet made is a huge motivator, it’s what keeps him going, it’s what keeps Uncommon going.  Fantastic stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, be well and have a lovely weekend. 

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

He is also the Co-founder of Halo, makers of home compostable coffee pots. After falling in love with cinema adverts as a child, Nils saw advertising as an escape and chose to apply for summer work in the industry, rather than go to university. He went on to spend over eighteen years in the most recognised, influential advertising and design agencies in London, including as Chief Creative Officer of Grey London, where he oversaw the most profitable and award-winning years in the agency’s history. He became one of the youngest agency chairmen in the world, leading its brands globally and locally. However, cynical and weary of what he felt were unoriginal ideas, Nils sought to create more purposeful projects. He left the company in 2016 with colleagues Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme and together they co-founded Uncommon. A creative studio that builds brands that make a positive and national impact, recent work has included delivering an anti-racism campaign for ITV and helping realise BrewDog’s idea to mass produce free hand sanitiser in its distillery.

Highlights

I’ve always believed that making things is powerful.

We all start out just trying to be clever, believing that being intelligent and trying to make the right decision would draw people to you.

Advertising at its best speaks to people and moves things forward –  it changes things, it challenges our views or behaviours, or it places something into the world that means we are all more aware of an issue.

I think for any successful business, there has to be a level of personal investment.

I love the subject matter of creativity, I think so many people talk about it with fragility.

It dawned on us that if we had the right relationships – and we only brought them work that was going to matter and was going to be famous – then we’d be able to ensure their loyalty and their time.

I think the most impactful people in the world are driven by something, darker, be it being overlooked or revenge or frustration or even fear.

The jeopardy of a future you haven’t made yet is a powerful motivator.

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