Conrad Persons

Meet The CEO

Grey London's President On The Agency's Goldilocks Effect

Conrad Persons discusses the agency's legacy, his predecessor and wanting a crack at the biggest creative opportunities

By Sonoo Singh

Conrad Persons is not your typical adman. And not least because he happens to be a black American man running a London agency - a rarity in itself in the ad industry. He's, in fact, unlike most suits. Persons is what his mentor the late, great Jeremy Bullmore called an ‘ambidextrous brain', meaning that more than in most occupations, to be successful in advertising you need not only to have unrestrained imagination but also the ability to scrutinise concepts and ideas with a forensic rigour. For those who know Persons, they agree that this is what defines him best. An "entrepreneur, storyteller, strategist" is how the new(ish) Grey London president describes himself.

Grey London President is perhaps a slightly pompous title for someone running a London ad agency - a claim Persons doesn't quite dismiss, but he flatly refuses the bait and instead is keen to talk about his aspirations for the agency. He is excited about being given the keys to something that he views as having the "Goldilocks Effect" – both a boutique and network agency - somewhat of a nonpareil position within the WPP group. And he should know. He has spent a lifetime working across WPP, and even managed to sell his start-up to the holding group.

A former global strategist at WPP, Persons was appointed to the role in September last year, when Laura Jordan Bambach (LJB) quit Grey London. Based in London since 2010, Persons has worked at various WPP agencies including Kantar and Ogilvy, and ran his own shop called Mash Strategy Studios from 2010-19 when it was acquired by WPP. He's also worked in New York and Tokyo during other stages of his career.

But he joins Grey London at a time when WPP continues to grow the AKQA Group by merging Grey into it, in what the WPP CEO Mark Read calls an "efficiency drive". Most recently Grey merged its capabilities with AKQA across five markets - Italy, Belgium, China, the United Arab Emirates and Australia. Not one to be distracted, Persons says that the move is yet another opportunity for Grey London to expand its thinking around using technology in service of creativity. And he wants to bring to bear his entrepreneurial and international "atypical" experience to the role and grow the London agency to become a creative jewel in WPP's crown.

And indeed under Persons' predecessor, LJB, the agency once again experienced a creative awakening - especially around its Pringles work (which recently put its global account up for pitch after 27 years with Grey Global) - and a lot of the excitement centred around her creative hire David Wigglesworth, whom she brought over from Droga5 in 2022. And rightly so.

That is a triumph that Persons is more than appreciative of - lavishing praise on LJB and her masterstroke of putting creativity and culture at the heart of the business and making some of the most "brilliant" hires. "When I arrived at the agency I found myself inheriting a wonderful creative leader in Wigglesworth, a strong new CSO in Tarek Sioufi, and amazing female talent - which LJB brought in. The business has retained this ability to focus on being creatively led, and celebrate creativity with clients and within the building," he adds. Persons says he's now trying to build on this sense of creative revolution, this time with more breadth and depth.

Some people in this world seem to be able to sniff which way the wind is blowing before the rest of us. And you can pretty much guarantee that we'll all soon be trailing in their wake, hoping to catch a lift on the bandwagon they've started rolling. A kind of belief Persons engenders, when he talks eloquently about both his failures and successes. "I started a digital entertainment business that failed spectacularly. And I founded an agency that was acquired by WPP. Both experiences taught me a lot. [They taught me] about ambition, finding hungry people, understanding ideas aren’t powerful if they can’t be operationalised, and it gave me a very high tolerance for risk and discomfort. But the most important thing it taught me was very simple – I learned a lot about how to grow."

For a man who started his career as a journalist in the States, where he was assigned to follow Barack Obama - albeit a somewhat unknown senator at the time- Persons comes with the promise of hope. The industry is certainly in the mood for it.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Creative Salon: What made you say yes to Grey London?

Conrad Persons: It was a combination of the heritage of this business - which I’ve admired for some time -but also its potential. Grey London is an agency that has the Goldilocks Effect – both a boutique and network agency, both a proud heritage and a radical openness to change, a creatively-led business but one that’s underpinned by famously effective strategy.

We have the chance to be a business with the scale and might of a network, but the spirit - creative and entrepreneurial - of an independent. And that's why I'm here. The combination of those factors and the tension they create is enticing.

CS: But the recent talk around Grey network has been largely around efficiencies - with AKQA and Grey merging operations in five markets as part of WPP’s efficiency drive. Has that been a distraction for you as the new London CEO?

CP: When I arrived at the agency I found myself inheriting a wonderful creative leader, a strong new CSO, and amazing female talent - which my predecessor LJB brought in. And yes, there were a lot of headlines elsewhere - be they operational or at a holding company level – but this business has remained focused throughout on its clients and a fantastic creative product. The business has retained this ability to focus on being creatively led, and celebrate creativity with clients and within the building.

I do think that we've got a really unique opportunity to be a creative jewel within the group - based on our size, based on our heritage, based on the way that we collaborate, within and outside of the group, and based on the sheer creative ambition that we have for our clients. Nothing we’ve announced operationally or otherwise, changes that.

CS: Let’s talk about you. You've had a very interesting trajectory yourself - not at all conventional. Do you think that's what the world of advertising needs today?

CP: Agreed, unconventional.

But I see that as a strength. First and foremost I’m an entrepreneur. I started a digital entertainment business that failed spectacularly. And I founded an agency that was acquired by WPP. Both experiences taught me a lot. About ambition, finding hungry people, understanding ideas aren’t powerful if they can’t be operationalised, and it gave me a very high tolerance for risk and discomfort. But the most important thing it taught me was very simple – I learned a lot about how to grow.

I’m also a writer – I’ve followed Obama for The Guardian and published fiction. A love of stories informs so much of who I am, and I’ll always see storytelling as essential to our mission – whether that story is data-based, for investors, or on social.

Lastly, I've sat at the nexus of a massive network as a global strategist for WPP itself. Each of these things – entrepreneur, storyteller, strategist – are core to who I am. I’ve aspired to have what my old mentor Jeremy Bullmore called an ‘ambidextrous brain’ – but that’s always a work in progress.

The hope is that this journey – which is atypical – is worth something. I’ve been forced to develop different muscles, and see things through different lenses.

CS: The irony however that you've actually landed yourself in one of the more traditional agencies.

CP: I’d argue we’re not one of the more traditional agencies. I know for some people Grey is famous for films, but some of the work I’m proudest of is in gaming or experience or legislation changing work (including helping change the law in the UK around cyberflashing). So much of what we do is non-traditional – is about earning attention instead of paying for it.

Grey’s heritage makes me feel like a custodian of a treasured brand. But it’s also a brand we’re pushing to grow, change, and adapt.

Do I want to play on the biggest stage possible? Yes. And do I want a crack at the biggest creative opportunities? Of course. And I want to work with the absolute best talent in the world. And I've been afforded the opportunity to do all of those things at Grey. I've also been given an enormous amount of freedom and flexibility.

CS: Is there a different shade of Grey London that we're going to see under your helm?

CP: In a nutshell I hope we continue to look more like an agency of the future than one of the past.

I am keen to expand how we think about us in deploying technology in service of creativity. And a lot of the work that I started to do within WPP was focused on how we think about just that - I want to bring that to the heart of Grey London.

I also want us to have more business and growth conversations with clients, not simply conversations about what great ads look like. This means being an even more ideas-obsessed business versus an ad-obsessed business under my tenure.

And I want to build on the legacy of my predecessor in terms of putting creativity and culture at the heart of the business as well. A type of creativity that is inclusive and open, and always in service of growth.

"Famously Effective" will always be a critical part of our DNA and I have no intention of abandoning that. I think it’s more relevant than ever. But we’re also interested in how they become Famously Effective. You’ll hear us talk more about the role of influence – how influencing category norms, cultural conversations, or hair-trigger decisions at point of sale – how this kind of influence is essential to our work, and to building Famously Effective brands.

CS: For any new agency leader, one of the first tasks is to look at building a strong sense of who the agency is, who its people are, and what they believe in. Talk to us about your crew.

CP: I value my people so much and I also know my survival is dependent on them. I feel exceptionally fortunate that I have a group of people that are as hungry, as ambitious, but also as creatively-gifted as I hope to be. David (Wigglesworth), Tarek (Sioufi), Johnny (Tennant-Price) are some of the best in the business.

Also, one of the reasons that we've enjoyed any success until now is some of the fantastic female talent that we have - our head of production Maxine Hose, and our head of account leadership Ayesha Datoo – they are whip smart, steely, and have that rare mix of both talent and temperament.

I've massive aspirations for Grey London. And I'm infinitely more confident that we'll achieve them based on the leaders that I've been able to surround myself with here.

CS: You also happen to be one of handful of black men in leadership role in advertising in the UK. Do you, therefore, bear a sense of responsibility when it comes to creating more visibility for others who are different?

CP: I do. It's an unfortunate statistic. And I’m proud to be one of those people, but also slightly despondent that we even have to have this conversation.

That’s why mentoring is important to me. It's why being present in the marketplace is important to me - not from my own ego or visibility, but so that someone just coming into the industry sees people who look like me in positions of influence. If that makes this business seem even a fraction more accessible to someone who thought it wasn’t – I’ll be happy with my work.

When I walked into my first job in New York, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. It unnerved me. It made me wonder, will I be seen as different? Are the cards stacked against me? Is there an institutional issue that I may not be able to overcome? When all I should have been thinking about were the clients, the camaraderie, the team.

I haven't worked in a country or visited a market where inclusivity is not an issue. I’ve noticed that some places like London are more willing to have the conversation than others.

Conrad Persons' Favourite Work

A look at a few creative campaigns that have inspired Persons.

Aquafresh 'Perfect Teeth Are Just Healthy Teeth' by Grey London

When I was growing up, I had a playground accident that resulted in two of my front teeth being badly damaged. I wore this like a scarlet letter, and it had a huge impact on my self-esteem. This is why I’m particularly proud of our beautiful Aquafresh work.

This work – inspired by the distressing statistic that one in two kids feel low self-confidence because of their teeth – helps to reposition what ‘perfect’ teeth mean and empower kids who have felt on the outside looking in. The work has earned more attention than was paid for, with everything from social media to gallery exhibitions helping to move the needle on a narrative of what perfection looks like. The story of how this work came to be – with the depth and passion of our creatives, partnering with the wonderful Rankin, and a set of truly brave clients, is as exciting as the work itself.

British Heart Foundation Vinnie Jones' hard and fast Hands only CPR by Grey London

One of the most famous pieces of work to come out of Grey was the work with the British Heart Foundation [featuring ex-footballer and actor] Vinnie Jones. It’s the work itself – but also its effectiveness in making an obscure but lifesaving issue salient again – that won it such plaudits. There’s a nice coda to this with some recent work we’re extremely excited about with SkyBet. It’s fronted by a ‘Restarting 11’ – players who've either come back from a cardiac arrest or played the hero in saving someone else's life.

Nearly 23,000 people have started to learn CPR in just the first week of the ‘Every Minute Matters’ campaign, which is incredible. It’s a future classic.

Orange - la Compil des Bleues by Marcel, Paris

I have a daughter at a school where there is a boys’ football team but no girls’ football team. It’s infuriating, and she rightly can’t understand why. I am a big proponent of female sports – as well as those moments when technology helps unlock a great creative idea. So some of my favourite work from this past year is the Orange work for Les Blues – which used deepfake technology to showcase the jaw-dropping talent of female footballers. The rug-pull is great – you think you’re watching a male icon until you realise you’re in fact watching female talent at play. It’s beautiful work – effective, fame-grabbing, and sure to produce a real emotional response.


LinkedIn iconx

Your Privacy

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. Please let us know if you agree to all of these cookies.