Why the best things in life make you sweaty

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Grey London's former creative chief explains why we should be looking for the ugly during Cannes Lions next week.

"The Best Things in Life Make You Sweaty." -Edgar Allen Poe 

Some of you have come for rosé.

Some of you have come purely to tear the arse out of it and I salute you.

Some of you have come to walk among the greats. Some of you, that think you’re one of the greats, have come to be the party – not attend it – and I hope to bask in your glow.

You can have five completely different Cannes Lions. But there’s an unspoken tingle we all feel on the easyJet out worrying too much about the work that went wrong.

A hope more than a promise. 

A rare fantasy of Cannes that comes around once every few years.

That we might feel that rarest of things in our game, shock, and that the world hurls us sideways so our panorama widens.

That we might find what we really came for. Something new.

We want to find a piece of work we don’t understand and we want it to spank us.

To hurt us. To move us. Then teach us. 

But that isn’t easy because truly great work is hard to see.

Before anything astonishingly good is good, it’s ugly. 

Then scary. Offensive even.

Mad.

Then beautiful.

We all know how it works:

"Oh well that’s just stupid."

"Well ok, it’s not stupid it’s mad."

"How arrogant are they?"

"Must be a scam."

"Oh, hang on."

"No I heard this guy from Ecuador just gave it a Grand Prix."

"Yeah, I loved this when it first came out."

"Holy shit, this person is a genius."

Then the true endorsement of anything special comes a week later in a lazy briefing:

"That’s what we need. Something like that thing that won everything, put that in the briefing and tell them we’re going to create the version of that but in the spreadable cheese market."

That’s how "new" works. That’s how Cannes Lions works.

From a punt to the industry example in one sunny week.

The shock of the new is attractive.

And that’s the stuff I’m hoping to get behind as I’m sat judging.

But why isn’t there more work like this? 

The best thinking in our game right now is coming from a different place.

Lately, like all of us, I have overused the C word. Culture.

Fame has previously meant success and it is commonplace to open our case studies with quotes we lift from news channels. But as judges, fans and actual humans, we now hunger for something far more real – importance.

I wish we’d all worry about mattering before we worry about marketing.

Because at our irreverent, dangerous, hilarious, audacious best we can make things that matter. We’re running out of excuses not to and we need to face our industry’s biggest lie before we can free ourselves.

The client isn’t stopping you making great work. You are.

Sometimes the world gives you the slap you need. I left Grey London a few months ago, but I remember a moment that changed everything for me. A brilliant planner and I were talking. He was recounting the story of how one of our best pieces of work took "a year to get the client to agree to, but we did it!" This comment, referring to a Grand Prix-winning idea, was made with triumph and pride, as if the year we’d spent working to give the idea away was all worth it.

We spent an entire year begging someone else that cared less than we did to make something we could have launched ourselves. 

Shock! We have the power to make the best ideas happen for ourselves but we don’t.  

With the ethical coffee company Halo in full flow, I can tell you there is no mystery to starting something yourself. Whether it’s an ad, an experience, a product, or a service, just like our game, it all starts with a great idea and a pitch. Only when you win the pitch you get to spend the money how you like. And then when your idea works you actually make money back. And it’s yours. 

Creating a business is one thing. Creating landmarks is another. Tourists are having their photo taken with the excellent Fearless Girl (pictured, above). Couldn’t McCann, in its full resurgent swagger, have just made that itself?

How would you feel if suddenly we stopped seeing brand partners next to our best ideas? There used to be a conversation in our industry where if an agency had done something by itself then it was "scam" work. Well, how are we supposed to become companies that the real world wants around if we’re all measuring each other in such a dependent way? You don’t hear Pixar trying its hardest to give its best work to other people.

This isn’t about removing clients from the process, it’s about matching their genuine ambition. Some clients will continue to bring the best and most original ideas to life, understanding the impact it has on their businesses. These clients will still seek out the most ambitious minds to partner them. Some won’t. That’s cool.

But the truth is that making some excellent things happen yourself won’t push clients away, it will draw more clients to you. Independence is sexy.

So as you lounge-strut down Le Croisette this year, make sure to look for the ugly. The new. The uncomfortable. And let it mess with you. Let it get under your skin and annoy you when you’re back.

Let’s go looking for trouble.

Nils Leonard is former chairman and chief creative officer at Grey London and the founder of Halo, an ethical coffee brand