Nils Leonard: ‘More agencies need to have marketers in their mix’

Nils Leonard has gone from chief creative officer at Grey to launching his own coffee brand, a move that he says has taught him a lot about the job of a marketer and what needs to be done to improve client/agency relationships.


Many would describe Nils Leonard as the archetypal ad man having spent his life agency side, latterly as the chief creative officer role at Grey London. That is until earlier this year when he crossed the divide into marketing by launching Halo, a premium coffee pod brand.

His move brand side put him on a steep learning curve, exposing him to some of the nuts and bolts of marketing that at times seemed a million miles away from the celebrated creative work produced by Grey under his stewardship, such as Spacechair for Toshiba and Kiss for Vodafone.

“I feel like there is a weirder space between my temples now that starts to talk about e-CRM and all those other things. Before I was literate around such things, I would have been able to tell people that this marketing behavioural idea will allow your e-CRM to do XYZ, but I would never really have to sit down and look at what it all meant,” he tells Marketing Week.

It’s also led to him having a much greater appreciation for marketers who have to balance creativity and commerce, a capability he thinks more agencies need.

“It’s easy for me to say it, but more agencies need to have in their mix [people] that have been and done it [launched brands] because until you do you can’t look someone [clients] in the eye and say that this will change your business.”

The problem with most agencies is that they will meet a client and say we have to define your purpose.

Nils Leonard, Halo

Halo is valued at £6m just three months on from launch and is currently in the middle of a fresh funding round, moving it from a “bit of a punt” to a “legitimate concern”, Leonard says.

Halo is an ethical coffee brand, claiming to offer the first fully compostable coffee capsules. Its purpose is two-fold: to offer an alternative to the brands that contribute to the thousands of pods that end up in landfill every minute, and to provide an alternative to the “average” coffee sold by the likes of Nespresso.

Brand purpose, however, is a notion widely misunderstood by many in the marketing world. Leonard believes too many brands are stretching for a wider brand purpose that does not exist.

“The problem with most agencies is that they will meet a client and say we have to define your purpose. Defining the purpose of a fucking cheese brand, their purpose is to make really nice cheese and the problem is that you start to try and see your way to driving irrelevant moral shit. It’s ok if you’re purpose is excellence,” he adds.

Rebuilding the client agency relationship

Leonard spent almost 10 years at Grey and there is mounting speculation he will soon launch his own agency. It seems Leonard thinks a new breed of agency is needed, one that can offer brands “a different solution” in the face of ad blocking. He believes it is their failure to do that that has contributed to the much discussed breakdown in client agency relationships.

“Agencies offer all of this myriad stuff. I think clients turn up at agencies and they are not able to say what they are really in that room for.”

Leonard is sober in his assessment of the future. Marketers and their agencies need to spend more time thinking about their brands’ “place in the world” rather than thinking of new ways to push more ads to them on more occasions.

He concludes: “Consumers won’t say ’Here’s more ads, thanks!’ They think ‘I thought I’d got rid of you with the skip ad button but now I find that I haven’t because you’re in my friendship circles’.

“We need to go back to what we think our job is. I don’t believe my job is to find more irritating ways to force more coffee down people’s throats. I would love them to want us in the mix.”