Nils Leonard, Grey London’s chairman and chief creative, is not a timid man. But when he publicly declared that he’d streak along Cannes’s Croisette if his agency’s work for Volvo won a Grand Prix, he must have felt reassured that he was facing long odds on having to get naked.
And why not? Go back ten years and you might have secured odds on a Grey London Grand Prix similar to those offered on Leicester wining the Premier League. But Leonard’s arrival in 2007, followed by a talented management team that included strategist Lucy Jameson and chief executive Chris Hirst, heralded a change.
First, the agency’s print and TV ads – for the likes of The Times and McVitie’s – improved while a campaign for Ryman’s stationers, for which Grey created the world’s most economical font, showed a glimpse of the agency’s innovative new spirit.
But the true scale of Grey’s creative renaissance only became clear with the release of its Life Paint campaign for Volvo in March 2016. Life Paint saw Grey collaborate with Volvo and a Swedish start up called Albedo100 to produce a spray that glows in the glare of headlights, making cyclists’ clothes and equipment more visible when riding at night.
For years people had prophesised the death of traditional advertising, urging the industry to save itself from irrelevance by switching its focus to making things that people would willingly engage with. Life Paint ticked all the boxes – it was a physical product that helped people and it felt true to safety-obsessed Volvo’s brand. It also generated enough media coverage to sustain a Kardashian for a couple of days, all at a cost of £65,000.
Even still, it was a sharp shock when the campaign won two Grands Prix at Cannes in 2015, in the promotion and activation, and design categories. Leonard would later say of the wins: "It felt like something I’d dreamt about for seven years had finally happened, on a global stage – and some of the phone calls I had off people… I’d been waiting for those phone calls to happen for years."
Like most things that Leonard does, the campaign courted controversy. Advertising veterans on the Croissette dismissed the campaign as a PR stunt (only a limited number of cans were produced); others accused Grey of appropriating an existing product (the paint had already been made – Grey just noticed it) and hogging the credit. Grey would later tackle the first of these criticisms by securing a product number for the device; the latter was written off as the grumblings of those who were behind the curve.
Post Cannes, Grey was adland’s hottest property. Agencies came calling and picked off several key members of staff, including Hirst, who joined Havas. David Droga is rumoured to have offered Leonard seven figures to join Droga5 but Grey’s creative chairman has so far resisted leaving and his drive seems undimmed.
As for his promise to streak naked along the Croisette… Campaign was never able to get a clear answer out of an uncharacteristically timid Leonard.