5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Lee Simpson

Advertising Agency
Sydney, Australia
Creating value across brand, media and technology platforms for clients is the differentiating factor, whiteGREY’s CEO Lee Simpson shares with LBB’s Esther Faith Lew

whiteGREY’s CEO Lee Simpson likes it hot. Whether it’s learning hot new topics that feed his appetite to create change or applying himself to new situations that challenge and “stretch” his potential. “Tamara Ingram, now chair at Wunderman Thompson, once said to me, ‘You are the kind of person who needs to feel the heat’, suggesting I should always look to be stretched. She’s right; I’ve been looking for situations where I ‘feel the heat’ ever since,” shares Lee.

To say that he is inquisitive is understating it. Lee has studied myriad subjects ranging from sociology to blockchain technology to organisational change, but as he explains, what ties them together is the potential to use that knowledge to create change from a social, technological or economic perspective. “I enjoy the challenge of understanding these areas, and that they prompt me to think creatively about how to apply them to solve client problems.”

Since joining whiteGREY in 2018, Lee has pushed the boundaries in “bringing the extraordinary to the everyday”. Taking it further with whiteGREY’s philosophy that “tension creates the extraordinary”, Lee provides a leadership that extends both challenge and support. “Talented people want and need to feel challenged to excel at their chosen discipline. But that must be paired with the right support. That support comes in all shapes and sizes from a simple pat on the back to offering formal training, mentoring and more. Getting the balance right and really understanding the individual are key,” says Lee. "Thanks to Nirvik Singh for putting his trust in me," he adds.

Lee’s innate understanding of what makes people tick, coupled with his firm foundation on macro issues that shape an agency’s agenda, drive the mission of a man who does not just sit in an ivory tower. As CEO, he believes that a leader has to earn the influence and power of his position, says Lee, who stumbled onto a temp job stuffing envelopes at McCann in Birmingham. “Dean Lovett, then CEO, took a punt on me and offered me a permanent role. The rest as they say, ‘is history’!”

This opportunity led to his role as an account director at Grey in London, where the exposure left indelible impressions of the advertising world. “The agency went on an exciting transformation from being labelled as a dull London outpost to a creative force. It was a lesson on how to lead change and that you can’t beat being there when it happens,” says Lee. Since then, he has gone on to create impact with top agencies such as AMV BBDO and Clemenger Melbourne before landing the ‘hot seat’ at whiteGREY. 

Lee adds, “I get to work with sharp minds across a breadth of creative output which is always exciting. But ultimately, it’s about the impact we can make. We can build brands, get tills ringing, convince people to drive responsibly, help win elections, play a part in building a more sustainable world and more….that’s why I love being in advertising.”

It’s a passion that energises Lee, and it is his hope to eventually do Board work in the sustainability space; all while making sure he carves out personal time to see his daughters grow up to indulge in their passions. 

LBB> How have you walked the path as CEO at whiteGREY?

Lee> I’ve tried to have strategic clarity, so people know where the agency is going and their role within it. Then I looked to align the organisation to that strategy – the skills, the capabilities, the values, etc, to execute the strategy successfully. But ultimately, I’ve tried to focus on building an environment where people can perform at their best. When you do that, the individual succeeds, the output is elevated, and the money follows.  

LBB> In the past few years, how has the agency grown in terms of expanding new business capabilities and portfolio?  What goals were met?

Lee> The brief when I joined mid-2018 was to turnaround a failing business. We built a team that has achieved that. We’ve expanded our client list significantly with the likes of ubank, Meta, Scentre Group, Adyen, Red Rooster, The Fork, Danone, WWF, HSBC and Hawaiian Airlines. We’ve enhanced our capabilities in creativity, media, technology and experience and built deep specialisms in areas such as sustainability and health & wellness. 

Since then, the agency has been recognised as a top 10 Agency in the Pacific (Cannes Creativity Report); top 10 APAC agency for Effectiveness (WARC); Grand Prix winner for Effective Innovation (WARC); and number one Australian Agency for WordPress (WP Engine). We’ve also celebrated at the Fast Company Innovation by Design Awards and was a finalist for Campaign Asia Creative Agency of the Year. 

LBB> Why does “tension create an extraordinary” agency positioning? 

Lee> At whiteGREY, we believe “tension creates extraordinary”. Yes, tension can be awkward; uncomfortable even. But the tension created when diverse perspectives collide leads to breakthrough ideas in culture and in business. Furthermore, by exploring tensions in the lives of customers, we unlock growth for our clients.  This is part of our strategic process. 

The notion that tension sparks creativity requires a commitment to cognitive diversity and a culture where people are comfortable to challenge and be challenged. When you create that environment, you unlock the collective intelligence of an agency to produce extraordinary results. 

LBB> What is the “platform orchestration” agency model that provided the direction for whiteGREY’s turnaround?

Lee> We wanted to build an agency as fluent in technology as it is in creativity. A key part of that is our Platform Orchestration model. It recognises that value can be created across brand platforms, media platforms and technology platforms. But the additional value is created when an agency can orchestrate experiences across those platforms. It’s a model that satisfies a client need, we can evidence it with case studies and have the results to prove its worth. 

LBB> What is your formula for marrying technology and creativity in an agency model? And what do you think is currently lacking in the industry?

Lee> A model that allows all disciplines to see their role in creating extraordinary, connected experiences for consumers. Platform Orchestration is that model for whiteGREY. 

We also ensure that the disciplines are equally respected in the agency. For example, at the executive level, our CTO has an equal voice to that of our CCO. This respect for diverse perspectives gives the opportunity for everyone to thrive and that obviously impacts the work. 

One of the things our clients value is that we care as much about the performance asset as we do a TV ad or car configurator. The reaction we get during pitches suggests this is well received in market. 

LBB> What are the trends you have noticed coming from client briefs that make this an important criteria for any agency to move forward successfully?

Lee> It’s clear that ESG generally, and sustainability more specifically, are coming through strongly. We currently have active ESG briefs, in some form or other, for clients in automotive, fin services, lifestyle, retail and technology categories. It’s a cultural demand from consumers and it’s becoming more important for investors and boards. And, when it comes to sustainability, it’s humanity’s biggest challenge. We have four years’ worth of experience in this space and we will continue to expand on that. 

LBB> Do share more about your effectiveness agenda and focus on business growth and why you think it is pivotal for the advertising industry?

Lee> Growth, and increasingly, sustainable growth, is why we exist. Obviously, you need the impactful and effective work across all forms of creativity. But we also need to prove it to be a successful agency and industry. A focus on clarity of objectives, on measurement and robust data allow that story to be told. And telling it in compelling ways through the likes of the Effies is important. Not only to put a spotlight on the power of the industry, but to advance it through identification of best practice and to inspire the broader business community with what’s possible.

Work from whiteGREY
Red Rooster
The Magic of Believing
Feel Your Rhythm