5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Natalie Graeme

London, UK
One of the three founders of Uncommon Creative Studio on their ‘Uncontract’ approach to talent, the power of unconscious bias and the creative allure of London
There’s a lot of intrigue and excitement around Uncommon Creative Studio. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call it something as cringe-inducing as ‘London’s hottest new creative shop’. But in the 17 months since founders Natalie Graeme, Lucy Jameson and Nils Leonard announced their new business - complete with bold claims about doing things differently - the business they’ve attracted and the work they’ve put out is evidence that they’ve got a lot more than rhetoric. They get shit done. 

Whether it’s convincing an energy company to pair their TV ad with the aural assault of Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood’, taking a snapshot of a generation for ASOS’ new Youth Brand COLLUSION or quietly emphasising the power of well-written characters for ITV, each of Uncommon’s campaigns has surprised and delighted.

Natalie Graeme, formerly managing director when the trio worked at Grey London, is a key force behind getting all of this over the line. LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with her to try to understand the dynamism that she brings to the creative studio.

LBB> Where did you grow up and what were you like? Were there any clues as to what you’d end up doing?

Natalie> I’m from Kent. I come from a very close family. As a child my parents embraced anything I naturally gravitated towards. They were very supportive, whether it was dancing or trying my hand at being a bad actor. There was never any pressure to do anything that I didn’t want to, but a sense that I could take on anything I wanted to.

LBB> What were your early thoughts on advertising? Did you ever have it in mind as a career?

Natalie> I never knew advertising WAS a career. That’s one of the things I’m really passionate about now as we start to expand - the importance of shining a light on the industry for people that maybe don’t even know that it’s a career. It’s very easy to just end up fishing in the same pool for the same people and there’s lots of talk about on that. I’d never known that there was a big industry there. 

I was thinking I wanted to be on the telly, acting or dancing and played around with going to theatre school. I thought maybe this was my way into getting closer to that mythical box in the corner of the room that’s quite exciting. It felt like an impenetrable career. You were either on the telly as an actor or I didn’t know what else there was.

My school didn’t really see the creative industries as something you should pursue. When I was 15 I was given the opportunity to go and do work experience. They were offering two-week work experience placements. I think there was a gap in the market for needing people to work in government so it was: “do you want to be a community advisor?” One person got offered to shadow a bus driver for two weeks, which, at 15, meant sitting in the front seat observing a guy driving a bus!

I didn’t know what nepotism was at that point, but I went back to my parents and said “surely there’s something else I could do. Do you have any friends who do something interesting?” And they had a good friend who was a creative director at Ogilvy. 

I went and did work experience there at 15 when they’d just moved into Canary Wharf. I got a speedboat to work every day. That’s when advertising was glamorous! Because I was taking Spanish they asked if I’d like to come on a shoot to Spain. It was a lot of fun. I think that turned my head.

LBB> So eventually you turned that into a career?

Natalie> When I got to university, I remembered that experience and went to BMP for a summer placement, then worked at Red Bull on the side for one of their brand managers.

I did take quite a traditional route into the industry. I went into D’Arcy on their grad scheme and at the time they said it was a shame I had a psychology degree, but at least I had a degree. I thought that was a bit bonkers because I’d just learned how people think. But I was actively encouraged to forget all that nonsense I’d learnt at university, that I’d never need it.

I came into the industry and was 'sheet-dipped' into learning about radio and print and then TV - that cookie-cutter approach of just working your way up. You’ll go from doing Wickes trade ads and Sun Goals all the way through to doing EMEA advertising for pantyliners (which I did) and then you’ll end up on TV shoots. It seemed to be this natural progression. 

What I love about the industry now is that it’s everything, all at once. It’s like a hairdryer in your face. That’s exciting. But it requires a very different mentality - the ability to see the wood for the trees and not think that if you just have your head down the whole time you’re going to be able to get there.

LBB> Has that shaped how you approach talent as an employer at Uncommon, with your more flexible ‘Uncontract’ approach?

Natalie> It’s different than when I started in the industry. I definitely worked too hard. I remember my mum trying to encourage me to go out and have a bit more of a life. I was a bit of a goody two-shoes for a bit too long. I thought that just working super hard would always play out. It does to a certain extent, but the thing you always miss - and the thing that the industry at large now misses - is that you can’t just mechanise this stuff. You’ve got to leave space for life and inspiration and head space. And that’s easy for me to say now that I’m more senior. But the most interesting people that I come across, even at a more junior level, are the people that stop to look around, that give themselves space to breathe. 

It’s the biggest thing I learnt in that enforced year out [of gardening leave]: The importance of headspace and driving it into your day, every day. And it’s the thing I’ve fought for most in starting this place up.

LBB> Speaking of which, in 2016 you took the plunge with Nils and Lucy and resigned from Grey to start what eventually became Uncommon. What motivated that?

Natalie> It’s a big old meaty decision to leave a safe job. Friends, parents, everyone was questioning each of us: ‘What are you doing that for?’ But I think it’s something that you go on instinct with. You realise there’s an itch you can’t scratch around wanting to start something yourself, which I had always wanted to do. But what form that takes obviously depends on the market context. And we picked THE most disruptive time - three days after the Brexit vote. 

When you start you have a theory as to what you think the industry needs. What clients are you looking for? What you want to spend your time doing? 

We’d all got to senior positions in different places in the past. They always say you should start when you know nothing or everything. I definitely don’t think we knew everything, but we certainly knew what we didn’t want to be doing anymore.

So we bought ourselves the opportunity to play and try things that we felt that the confines of existing structures just didn’t allow us to play with. I guess you're seeing the output of that.

It’s very easy to write a thesis on it, but until you dive in you just don’t know what’s going to work. And I think we’ve been quite lucky that in the work everyone’s seeing, that’s starting to prove that some of the stuff that we were hoping was right is coming to pass.

LBB> Going back to the ‘Uncontract’, how have you made sure that people have that time and space they need to fulfil their potential?

Natalie> The first thing is everyone’s different as to when and where they need that space. It’s about being flexible enough to appreciate that not everyone’s the same as you. You have to allow people to self organise. There can’t only be one way of doing it and when you trust a core team to come up with the answer you have to trust that they’ll also recognise that they’ll know when they get to the answer. 

Part of it is believing that you bring people in because you really want their perspective on something. And so you have to give them the space to come to that point of view. Otherwise I could do it all myself! But that’s not going to get to the best answer. 

It is harder. But I think that’s why a lot of companies haven’t done it. To build a team on that can lead to what seems like chaos. You can’t know that everyone’s at their desk and you can’t expect that they’re all going to arrive and leave at a certain time. But we wrote the Uncontract on purpose to make sure we didn’t wake up in six months time finding that we didn’t work for the people we were hiring. We ask people to call us out on it.

In that Uncontract it says that life’s more important than a pre-production meeting. If you’ve got stuff going on at home the chances are you’re not going to be concentrating at work. So be honest with us about when that’s happening and we’ll help you navigate that. 

What it results in is a team that recognise what you’re trying to help them do. And it means they work harder and smarter when they’re in it because they really value the time they get to do the rest of the stuff you need to do in life.

LBB> You’re not taking a conventional approach to how you work with clients either, choosing to work on more of a project basis than as an agency of record. How have clients responded to that?

Natalie> We’re lucky so far. Our view on the world has been quite a good filter for the sorts of people (and it IS about people, not logos) that value what we’re doing. Everything we choose to do is something else we’re not choosing to do because there’s a limit to how much you’re able to get across when you’re this small. So we’re clear, up-front and don’t feel embarrassed about being honest about where we add value. 

I’m quite surprised at how many clients have put their hand up and gone: ‘If you are truly what you say you are, we’re in.’ A lot of it tends to be clients with a moment of change. They want the seniority they get from the way we approach it, but they probably need it in quite a fast, collaborative way. 

What’s been refreshing is that a lot of clients have recognised that the pitch system is broken and it’s far better for them to select people that they trust and think are smart, interesting and have a different take on it. Get in a room, pay for that time, then we can fully commit to it. That might be for a short period. It could be for a project. But when you have an output-based mentality it’s really galvanising. When it’s a real thing, rather than a pitch, that’s often a bit of a mythical brief.

LBB> You make it sound like a really smooth process, but I’m sure you personally had something to do with it. Nils told us you were the “door kicker of a generation".

Natalie> [Laughs] OK, I’m gonna kill him for that! What I love about our partnership is the three of us are very different. Three works incredibly well. I love that the discipline borders aren’t hard. Nils is very interested in the commercial side of things, as is Lucy. Creatively, I have a point of view on production. We all merge into each other’s jobs but we’re clear where we each add value. And at that point we respect each other and get out of the way.

Yes, the core of my discipline is 'door kicker'. If I didn’t get things done, we wouldn’t be sat here. But it is a bit more than toilets and bins. You need someone who drives the momentum. 

When we started I talked a lot about what I call ‘faff tax’, which is the ability to call clients out if they are wasting my team’s life. Let’s not call it time; let’s call it life. That endless ‘doing the dance’, both clients and agencies become complicit in that.

The momentum also comes internally. You have to build the machine to sit behind all that so you can create space for people to do the thinking. 

LBB> You pointed out in your original announcement back in 2017 that of the three founders, the majority of two is female. Has that had an affect on how Uncommon has grown?

Natalie> Yes. I’m on the Creative Equals advisory board. I never had female mentors when I was coming up through the industry. I always worked into founders who were all men. I was very lucky and I learnt from the best, but I didn’t have any female role models.

It wasn’t an active decision. We just felt like the three of us made a really good team. But the thing I wasn’t prepared for was that when we started, that unconscious bias massively kicked in. Within six months we were probably about 20 people and about 80% were female. And at that point I was very aware that I’ve never seen an agency team make-up like that before. Ever. I’ve definitely been the only woman in the room before and not really thought it was unusual. But for there to be just Nils in a room, regularly on his own [as the only man], was interesting. All three of us giggled about that unconscious bias; firstly, it’s a thing and secondly, all the nonsense about there not being brilliant women out there… they were out there!

It happened very fast. We’re now more even, at 50-50. Still more women, from a management point of view. I’m really proud of that. 

LBB> Since you launched in September 2017, what are you most proud of so far?

Natalie> The team. Partly because I didn’t know most of these people before we started. Also because a lot of people have started working at Uncommon who were quite frustrated with the industry and, I know, weren’t going to be in the industry any longer. I’m glad we attract the sorts of people who don’t feel they have a home elsewhere and clearly have huge amounts of talent.

Ultimately it just comes down to people. I think the industry’s forgotten that. When you’re asking the question about diversity, whether it’s flexible working or making sure people have space to think or work-life balance, the reason we’ve been able to attract interesting people is because that’s ALL that matters. If we can make sure people are excited about what they’re finding to do every day, that’s great.

Working with freelancers, every day they work here they are re-signing their contract with you. They don’t have to be here. There’s a very adult dialogue between the person and the company around what they want to do and why they’re here. To have that conversation with employees and freelancers every day is a healthier way to work.

That mentality has spilled over into the way we work with clients because it means you end up speaking to clients about projects. And, business model aside, if we enjoy this then maybe we’ll do another project together. Maybe we’ll keep this going. A retainer is mythical, ultimately. So that mentality of ‘why stop a good thing?’ works both with people and clients.

LBB> And outside of work, what do you spend your time on?

Natalie> I’ve been trying to spend a lot more time in galleries. London’s just so amazing. When we first had a little bit of money, one of the first things we were able to do was buy everyone Barbican passes. It’s just around the corner. So if there’s a great exhibition just pop down there - go and have a meeting walking around a gallery. Isn’t that a better way to review work? Who doesn’t want to do that? 

I’ve got back to a lot of that because I think London’s such an incredible city. There’s all the doom and gloom about where we’re at politically right now, but culturally, London’s so exciting.

It keeps you open minded and fresh. I went to the Bill Viola and Michelangelo exhibition [at the RA] recently. The link doesn’t quite make sense. But there are some lovely quotes. Nils was gushing all over the quotes I’ve found. They’re on my Insta. I think Bill Viola’s my favourite film artist. He’s got ‘Five Angels for the Millennium’ there, which is a really good piece.

LBB> How do you feel about London as a creative city in 2019?

Natalie> I’m excited by it. There are some incredible minds. I still think it’s a bit of Mecca. I really worry about Brexit, for the ability to practically to get people to come to London. Not because it will be less appealing culturally, but just because the mechanics of it could be a little bit harder. And financially it might be seen to be less attractive.

I’m meeting more and more global clients who do want what we’re selling in London. And that’s not just an Uncommon thing. There is definitely an allure to London that is inescapable. I think it’s our best export, whether it’s Matthew Bourne’s dance or the Royal Academy, there’s so much to be very excited about. 
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