Uncommon Founders on Year Five
Nils Leonard is taking a picture of a barrel. He's spotted the type font and wants to keep a record of it. The co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studios is early for Campaign's interview and photoshoot at restaurant St John's – a stone's throw away from the agency's office in Farringdon.
Leonard and his co-founders, Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme, are still on a high after winning Campaign's Agency of the Year and Independent Agency of the Year. The trio puts the success down to simply setting off with a very clear vision of what they wanted to do.
"I think lots of other people start agencies and have to kind of try and figure it out," Jameson says. "Whereas, when we started, we already knew each other. We had a year out, which allowed us quietly to be thinking of what we thought the industry needed to do differently. So I think we were able to start a lot faster than most other agencies.
"When you start with that, you end up quite quickly attracting people who also agree with that [in terms of] talent or clients. It has set us in good stead for making sure that we're continually trying to push ourselves and the industry to do things slightly differently."
The story of Uncommon is well documented. The trio resigned from Grey London in 2016 in a move that shocked the industry. Beholden to their watertight WPP contracts, Graeme and Jameson had about a year off and used it to learn from other companies. Leonard, however, didn't get out of his contract until 1 August 2017.
Then, when they launched in September 2017, they were clear that the basis of the shop was to focus on brands and creativity rather than advertising. And they definitely didn't want a Grey 2.0.
"A lot of people start companies and they try to start good versions of what they do," Leonard says. "We had the time and distance to start something that had not that much interest in the industry as it was at all. At the same time, I know it sounds weird, we were just looking at – never mind, the industry – the world.
"If you look back five years, there's always been stuff going on. But we've never been so acutely aware; climate change had become a genuine concern for everybody.
"And I think in the last five years everything has just peaked in that way. The world's never felt so tender and so in need of new thinking. We wanted to be a company that played a part in the world, in the advertising industry.
"Hopefully a side effect of that is all the work you make and all the efforts will create something far bigger than just a good ad. I'd like to think all that's responsible for the Agency of the Year and we're very grateful and really humbled by it."
The trio reminisce about wanting to win Agency of the Year when they started. Leonard says that Jameson pulled a list of things they wanted to achieve. One of which was to work for British Airways – an account the team won last year, after a final shootout against WPP.
They say their premise was to work with brands that were known to be a national treasure; ones that "are a reference point in culture".
"If you can change those brands, how people feel about them, then you know, you're kind of doing something," Jameson explains.
Leonard adds that it's not just about the brands that they work with, the trio also wanted to create Uncommon into a well-known creative brand.
"We don't just want to be working with brands and help them with their problems. We all have a problem. Creative companies – our reach and our influence – have a chance to change those things will play a part."
Fast-forward five years and Uncommon's success has meant there are constant rumours circling the agency about a sale. Adam & Eve for one sold to Omnicom after four years.
But the trio are quick to say that it's not about money (they earned far more at Grey) and a sale is "not something that we are madly interested in" – as Leonard puts it – as they've a lot more they want to do with the shop. That's not to say that they haven't had approaches from a couple of holding companies.
"It's hard because all the choices you make, they define you," Leonard says. "We could really fuck things up if we got that wrong. Or we could make it amazing."
Jameson adds that the trio are planning a move into PR and is looking to set up shop in the US. "We've got stuff we want to do," she says. "We want to go and try in the States, because over the last two years we've had so many more approaches from clients in the US, because it's been a much more virtual world."
She is referring to the Covid-19 outbreak that changed the way everyone worked and opened up global opportunities for smaller businesses like Uncommon. "Suddenly they were as likely to work with an agency in London as they are with one in New York if they are based in San Francisco," Jameson says. She believes that no British agency has ever "really cracked it" over the Atlantic.
"What we realised is that there isn't an Uncommon in lots of other places [like PR or in the US]," Leonard adds. "By that I don't just mean our name, I mean our view. And that I think has attracted a lot of clients but other talent too. We want to have a sphere of influence that's global, not just local."
At some point the trio may need more money to help achieve these goals but "that's a different conversation versus getting to five years and cash out", Jameson says. "That's not been the mindset."
Leonard adds: "We haven't built a replication of the industry at its best in order to fix something for someone. We haven't built it for sale. We've built it to change things and I look at it and think, 'the more we see the evidence we are doing that, the less we want to sell it'."
Jameson explains that the trio did not set out with a vision to sell – as some industry sources suggest they may have done.
"When you set out to build the best ad agency, the word best has a time limit," Leonard says. "That's an energy game, it's unsustainable. When you try to make something – and we're trying to – that's different, and has a different level of impact, I'd argue we're nowhere near where we want to be.
"So that has a different type of energy and a different type of fuel and so we're not playing this game where we hopefully can stay quite good for a couple of years before we cash out."
A quick glance at Companies House will show that the business officially changed its name from Uncommon Creative Studio to Uncommon Creative Studio Holding in March. Graeme explains that it is not a trading entity in the traditional sense.
"It's essentially a way for us to be able to work with the very best talent in different ways – that's part of the studio model," she says. "We can get into feature films and what have you and create vehicles that allow us to monetise and invest in those sorts of things; that's far better done under a group structure than one entity."
Jameson adds that is a "signal that we don't just want to be an ad agency".
Creativity is at the core of Uncommon and they're of the opinion that adland's holding companies have "done a terrible job of defending the value of creativity", as Jameson puts it.
She explains that, when she started out in advertising, the salaries were slightly lower than her pals who went into finance or consultancies, but now the salary gap is so much larger. "That really winds me up," Jameson says. "We need to find new ways of defending how brilliant creativity is."
Leonard poses the question: "Are you in the business of creativity or in the business of client services?" He explains that these are very different things.
"If you're in the business of client services, there's all sorts of clues there why your value may have depreciated because you need them [clients]," he explains.
He adds that if creativity is removed from the holding companies, they will still make a profit because they are in the business of "speed, deliverables and content".
"Now if you said that there were a group or collection of companies fuelling and servicing each other and were in the business of creativity at its most radical and powerful form, that would be of interest," Leonard says.
"But, arguably, none of those holding companies are – no matter who they hire or what words they use, they're not in that business. And that's the key to why we're all dependent, why the industry is eating itself."
Graeme's view is that holding companies have forgotten how to add value for clients. "Ultimately the bit they lack is creativity, it's those leaps they can't do themselves," she says. "That's the chats we find ourselves having daily."
Perhaps these comments are telling in themselves as to whether the trio would sell to a holding company. But as one industry executive points out, there are many mini holding companies popping up, such as Candid, which recently bought Creature.
This person believes that Uncommon will definitely sell, but notes that a lot of its clients are project-based, which can put potential investors off, because they would be looking for recurring income from the retained account.
The British Airways win, for example, is a step in that direction. Although, ultimately, the investment would be in the brains behind the shop – Leonard, Jameson and Graeme.
However, former Grey colleague Vicki Maguire, who is now chief creative officer at Havas London, disagrees that there will be a sale soon. "They were highly successful at Grey and they didn't need to jump so it wasn't a money thing, it was a drive to do things differently and not be beholden to anyone," she says.
This has led to work for ITV (pictured above), H&M Man and Google – all of which struck a chord with the Agency of the Year judges. This year (since the awards) the Studio's highlights include B&Q "Flip", where it literally flipped a house – craft at its finest.
So, as the business grows (Uncommon had 95 staff at the end of 2021, up 36% year on year), how does the agency maintain a high level of creative output? First, Leonard says that this doesn't just sit with him, creativity is something that everyone is responsible for.
"Our version of it [creativity] and the level at which we play is something we've all talked about from day one and something that we talk about everyday," he adds.
"The way we hire and the way we teach when we hire and the way they learn about our culture and our reviews and the questions that we ask, and the level we play at and the references that we use – all of that is stuff that we actively try to keep building and enriching."
The trio are also quick to act when they feel they've hired people who they don't think are right for Uncommon. "That isn't necessarily just about talent level," Leonard says. "Often that's about whether they see the world the same way you do.
"Lots of companies are guilty of hiring people who aren't right and thinking: 'They'll be alright, they'll get there.'" He explains that often hiring the wrong people can mean that something else may suffer in the meantime.
This mentality also extends to making sure they are working with the right clients. "These are things to keep an eye on and the industry has forgotten about this," Leonards says. "There are passenger people and passenger clients."
Maguire points out that Uncommon turns down a lot of clients, more so than any other shop in town, which she says is testament to a "strong ethos".
Rebecca Nunneley, lead consultant at intermediary AAR, echoes this. She says that the most successful agencies are able to "recognise which pitch opportunities they are wrong for, not only what they believe they are right for".
It means that when an agency does pitch, they can put their all into it which Nunneley says "allows them to show up better".
She adds: "In terms of how Uncommon performs in pitches, they show up well. Clients buy into an agency team and culture, and when that team clearly enjoys working together to make great work, it is a very powerful combination. The real test will be how they protect that culture as they scale and grow with new clients like BA over the next 12 months."
Having worked together for the past decade, the trio do come across as true friends. The photoshoot is filled with laughter as they make jokes about each other. At the end, after learning that it is one of Campaign photographer Colin Stout's last shoots (he retired last month), they rally around to pull together a gift for him. They really have charmed Campaign.
Maguire explains that their charisma is based on a "genuine interest" in what people have to say and that it's not all about the new or latest fad. "They are genuine and it comes out in their work," she says.
For next year's awards, they have their sights set on Digital Innovation Agency of the Year – that is on top of Agency of the Year and Independent Agency of the Year.
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