Chris Hirst of ad agency Grey London believes it's all about talent

 
Liam Ward-Proud
Chris Hirst thinks that media planners and creatives need a closer relationship in the new digital landscape
Liam Ward-Proud talks to Chris Hirst, chief executive of ad agency Grey London.
It's fair to say that Grey London is one of the hottest creative agencies around at the moment. After a spell in the wilderness, the WPP-owned company returned to the limelight in 2012 with a series of gripping pieces, including the British Heart Foundation Hard and Fast campaign with Vinnie Jones. Recent prominent work includes the Sunday Times Fashion Royalty campaign, where the likes of Kate Moss were given a royal makeover, and a dance track-cum-music video-cum-TV ad with DJ Fresh for Lucozade. Chief executive Chris Hirst, a Harvard MBA, tells City A.M. about the importance of creative talent, and where he thinks the industry is going next.
Grey’s straplines are “open culture” and “long ideas”. What’s that all about?
“Open” is an explanation of our culture, and “long” is about the kind of work we do – creating campaigns and ideas that allow people in earlier across multiple touchpoints and keep them there for longer.
A lot of people-based industries operate through command and control. But ad agencies are full of highly motivated, intelligent, creative people, and we want to create an “open” way of working that unlocks this. We’ve torn up process documents and a lot of departmental procedures, and got rid of the creative director sign-off process. Often, the people working on an account know the client a lot better than executives. Having a sign-off system just says to those working on the account that their opinion doesn’t matter. That’s not what we’re about.
Does this ever present issues around quality control?
People ask us this a lot – the solution is to hire people you trust. And if we don’t trust the people that work for us, we’ll get somebody we do. Just don’t try to compensate for not trusting your staff by having some kind of dead hand that tries (and fails) to control them from afar.
What’s the secret to producing ads that really stand out?
Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula or secret for that. I think it partly stems from having a culture that unlocks the potential of the people in our company. But it’s also about being clear with clients and staff over the kind of work we want to create – pieces that have real cultural resonance. All great creative ideas come from a fantastic relationship between the agency and client. It’s about having a clear sense of shared ambition, and a group of super-talented people.
So talent is very much at the front of your mind as an agency executive?
I’ve recently been toying with the idea that we’re first and foremost in the talent acquisition business. Essentially, if we’re able to have more than our fair share of the most talented people (provided they fit within our culture), perhaps that’s the secret to the best work.
Most people look to hire when they have a vacancy, but I’m starting to think about it the other way round – just hunt out brilliant people, and when we find somebody exceptional, hire them first and worry about what we do with them later. I can’t go around hiring people willy-nilly. But every time we have snapped up an exceptional individual, they’re so busy within a few weeks that we’re already asking where the next hire might be.
Grey has done some interesting work in the content space. Could content marketing displace traditional ads?
Content is obviously the “hot” word of 2014. People want to engage with things that they enjoy and are relevant to them – and that’s always been the case. Even traditional ads like the famous Levi’s one where a man takes his jeans off in a laundrette, that’s effectively content marketing.
Will it replace the traditional 30-second ad slot? I don’t think so. Even some of the most successful multi-channel campaigns at the moment have a TV element at their heart.
And if it’s a YouTube clip that’s not on TV, many of the views will likely have been bought, rather than earned. Very few are getting 15m views organically – they’re being paid for, which is an alternative way of achieving the same objectives.
You were a planner in a past life. Do you see media and ad agencies reuniting in the future?
I think it’s one of the most important questions in the industry at the moment. Because of the proliferation of new media channels, there’s more of an opportunity to be creative with the placing of ideas. And to an extent, media planners and creatives need to be closer together because of this.
But I find it hard to imagine the two being under one roof as a norm. If you look at how the bigger holding groups are organising themselves, it’s about stressing cooperation between planners and creatives. That’s what WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell calls “horizontality”.
There’s also a piece on top of that, which is the wider convergence of creative ideas and creative media plans – you need the two sides bouncing off each other.

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