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Creative Conversations

Creative Conversations With Laura Jordan Bambach

We sat down with the president and chief creative officer of Grey London to talk about life at the agency

By Elliot Leavy

Laura Jordan Bambach talks to us about her first year as the president of Grey London. She quit Mr President, the agency she co-founded, to join Grey London as its chief creative officer in April 2020. Less than a year later she was elevated to the additional role of president, reporting to Grey's worldwide CEO Michael Houston.

We caught up with Laura in Grey's new offices in the new WPP campus and chatted about life at Grey and the creative processes that galvanise her work.

Laura discusses the trials and tribulations of her first year as president of the agency, the importance of creativity, Nick Cave, solving the dick-pic epidemic, Dungeons and Dragons and, of course, that Grey/AKQA merger.

As Laura herself says, tales of Grey's death were greatly exaggerated, and the relationship with AKQA is more akin to "two sisters stuck under an umbrella in the rain".

Watch the interview below.

This transcript has been edited for clarity

Creative Salon: Congratulations on your first anniversary as president of Grey London. How did you celebrate?

Laura Jordan Bambach: Nothing too big. But I think the celebration is just being here in the new office and coming together again, and joining the great D&D [Dungeons & Dragons - a fantasy tabletop role-playing game] club. So I've been making my character this week, a really nerdy thing to do. So doing a particular kind of mission, which means you can drop in and out if you happen to be busy, like you're just taking a rest in the local pub. So it makes it a bit easier for me to actually get in there and play.

CS: In this age of huge change and jeopardy, how would you define your role in your first year?

LJB: It's been, it's been really interesting and really quite exciting. Obviously, I joined during Covid, and took this new role during Covid. And there was a lot of work to be done here, both in with my chief creative officer hat on - really ramping up the quality of the work. But then with my president hat on, and actually kind of the reason that I moved into that role, is looking at the things that underpin the making great work.

I said, on my first day here, I'm not here to make best work in my life, I'm here to make everyone else make the best work of their lives. And there's a lot that has to be done - structurally, financially, in terms of our process and operations to really allow for that to happen. Every agency I've been at that has done exceptional work - there has been a feeling in the air, there’s a way of being there's that creative energy. That kind of feeling of being a pirate crew heading out into the creative unknown, with excitement rather than fear. And I would like to think that actually, that builds in that culture that not only allows you to change and move without fear, and take on new opportunities, but it also leads to better work.

Everyone's really clear. They know what their roles are, everyone's roles are important. We're all in it together. We're gonna go adventuring. So I've really spent a lot of time doing that - building the culture, putting the backbone of the processes, the framework, the operational stuff in place, and making sure financially we're doing okay. And then if you're going to bring some excitement, and you're not afraid of the client, and you're not afraid of what's happening around you, you do really exciting work.

CS: Do you think being a creative leader gives you an edge then? It’s still quite rare to see a creative leader become the head of an agency.

LJB: I think it's certainly it good, because I really have a deep understanding of everything end to end, and I have a really deep understanding of the product. And I know as a creative, what it takes to make great work, and conditions that have to be around you in order for you to be able to do it. That has helped hugely and I think maybe I also approach things from a different point of view, you know. Creativity is all about problem solving at the end of the day, and being able to come at a more operational problem or a structural problem is you know, it's an interesting way to run an agency.

And we’re replicated this across the network. Francisca Maass [president and chief creative officer at Grey Germany] is my counterpart in Germany and John Patroulis [Grey Worldwide chief creative officer] who's a creative Chairman has very much got one foot in the business and one foot in the creative.The global creative council are very responsible for the shape of the business as well as the work.

CS: What differentiates Grey from other advertising networks within WPP?

LJB: I would say, within this portfolio, you know, I'm gonna say that we're super creative, of course. We feel like a big boutique agency in a network. Yes, Ogilvy make great work and all the different parts of WPP make great work. But we’re compact. We are like a little pirate crew. We are the guys kind of going off in in the other direction. I think it allows us to take more risks, which is really, you know, which is an exciting place to be. And I think, you know, having AKQA there as the sister agency as well, I have to say their attention to detail and their craft is banging. It’s exciting to be part of that stable - it's really about like the craft, and the creativity.

CS: So let’s talk about the Grey/AKQA merger? What can you tell us about that? What do you think that has been said about the merger that’s correct and things that have been said that are not correct?

LJB: That's a really good question. Because I think unfortunately, when it got out the gate, it was really misrepresented, and actually was awfully representative of Grey's point of view. It was like RIP Grey. You know, we're part of the AKQA group, of which AKQA is an agency. There are mobile agencies in there, architecture firms, product design. Including, now, organisations that are part of the Grey Group.

We’re like two sisters under the same umbrella in the rain.

And certainly, we have different kinds of levels of expertise in different areas. We work together sometimes on clients - like on Volvo, it's very much an integrated team. On Helly Hansen, we're very much kind of working as one, even though we're two distinct agencies. And then on other kinds of projects, we don't work together at all, because there's no need for those specialist skills. Coming from a digital background myself - I’ve always had massive respect for those guys. It’s lovely to be part of that team.

CS: I have theoretical question for you. Say the business growth is less than you want it to be and there are two large opportunities in front of you. One of them is large in revenue, but completely devoid of purpose, while the other is large, only in terms of significance, and purpose, which ones you pick? And why?

LJB: That's a really good question. The first thing I would do is research and study both of those opportunities. I don't believe that there's ever a brief that's devoid of purpose. And even on a claim that is sometimes seen as difficult or maybe not quite right there, there's always some space for actually creating really positive change within that organisation. And on the other side, brilliant, but you can't sink the livelihoods of 250 people by going after something just because it's really exciting. So I think you do have to find a balance.

We have turned down big briefs here in the last six months, because after doing that research we realised that there was no way to do something really positive with that particular client or the framework that we were asked to play with. And so we didn’t go for it.

CS: So did you find that clients became more insular during the pandemic in a way or was it the complete opposite?

LJB: I think I've seen both in some ways, the relationships have never been closer because you're speaking to a client in their living room with their kids on their laps. So there's a breaking down of that kind of business relationship, which has been really good I think. But the separation has meant that the collaboration is harder.

We had a face-to-face workshop with one of our giant clients yesterday, and it was so fun to do it in a room and have the work up on the walls. And getting to a really, really interesting point really quickly, whereas, you know, we have spent the last six months just amending PowerPoints. I do like the fact that I've got to know my clients, families, their kids and dogs.

CS: Who or what is current creative muse?

LJB: I always fall back on music. Music is the thing that has always gotten me excited, always full of emotion and helped me find great ideas. Even when I'm writing presentations and I get stuck, I might actually start with looking at song titles and going in some weird lateral way backwards into what it is that I'm actually trying to say.

And I'd say if I had to choose a muse, that would probably be Nick Cave. He's been someone that I've absolutely loved since I was probably about 14 years old.

CS: What is the best piece of work from Grey London this year? Your favourite?

LJB: Oh my God, it's like saying which of your children is your favourite. It takes so much effort to get a great piece of work out to the world, you get so emotionally attached to them all. But I would say I think the thing I'm most proud of is actually a piece of work that we did with the sexual health charity Brook, to launch a campaign pushing for unsolicited nudes to be made illegal.

Our creative department here is way over 50 per cent female. And a lot of them were seeing, over the course of Covid . so many dick pics. And they were all getting really frustrated. It's really gross. And so we thought there's a real issue here to be solved. Also here was an issue that's affecting my staff, it's upsetting them and and to get such pics is like sexual assault. And it's all to do with power. Sp we thought why don't we do something about it.

Last summer we worked through the problem with the client and got to a really brilliant piece of work that almost let you feel a little bit of what the what it's like to receive a dick pic, but in a really, I guess, non triggering way. And it resulted in it being picked up by a couple of Conservative MPs and brought into parliament and written into law. [‘Cyberflashing’ has become a new criminal offence with perpetrators facing up to two years behind bars.]


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