“I can’t quite believe it, you have to pinch yourself,” says Alex Grieve in a style parodying the most inane kind of post-win sporting interview. Of course, advertising isn’t exactly the Olympics or the World Cup, but wins don’t get much bigger for an agency like AMV BBDO than what they’ve achieved in 2021: Agency of the Year at three of the biggest industry award shows - The One Show, D&AD and Cannes Lions.
While cautious of clichés, the chief creative officer of the London-based agency is naturally thrilled. “It is a delightful shock,” he says. But it’s a strange time to receive such a big win as an agency. “It hasn't quite resonated because we haven't all been together. Normally you'd be at Cannes, cracking open the rosé and staying up all night celebrating, but we haven't really celebrated at all. We're just on Zoom going "yay we won". Then you click off and go back to the kitchen and have a coffee. So it's not very rock and roll.”
Winning on the international stage is great for both AMV and the BBDO network, but it’s also brought out the patriotism in Alex in its reassurance that the work his team have been doing in the UK has been recognised beyond its post-Brexit island borders. “You're never quite sure how work from other places will go down. And you know AMV is big but we are in the UK - a relatively small market compared to some others. Just for a UK agency to win is pretty extraordinary. That it should be us? Yeah, it's been great.”
Right now, Alex is “hugely proud” to be “flying the flag for the UK”.
“This is one of the things we're still world-class at doing: advertising. The more as an industry we talk about that, the better. This time it's AMV leading that charge and next time it'll be another agency. All mutually recognising that will really benefit this industry and help us get a level of swagger and confidence back, that I think has taken a bit of a hit both in the pandemic and in some of the things previous.”
AMV BBDO's recent work for feminine hygiene company Essity (and the Libresse/Bodyform brands depending on the market) is clearly a major contributor to the global recognition the agency is getting. The agency-client relationship has been busting up category cliches and speaking home truths about female bodies consistently for years now, but the raw and ambivalent message of 2020’s #wombstories and 2021’s #painstories picked up deserving gongs across categories.
Alex is keen to stress he wasn't “directly involved” in the work on Essity - the account is led by creative directors Toby Allen and Jim Hilson, with Alex and ECDs Nadja Lossgott and Nicholas Hulley pitching in at key moments. “At all of those points we're adding hopefully three or four percent to get to the final thing,” he says. “I think the work for Essity has a kind of righteous indignation about it. It's quite angry, in a good way, because it's been authored by people who are living those experiences and then putting them out into the world.” As AMV BBDO copywriter Augustine Cerf told me a few months back
, the #painstories campaign could only have come from engaging with the lived experience of people who, like her, are living with endometriosis.
“I think we've learned a lot from Essity,” says Alex and he feels that in the past year some of the other brands they’ve been working with have started to feel just as punchy. “If Essity was sitting on the throne, there were quite a few brands that were the kingmakers or queenmakers. That's gratifying because in the past we were slightly too reliant on expertise and there wasn’t enough underneath that. We're looking at the model of how Essity has worked within the agency and then trying to apply that to other brands.
“What's good is when the agency does key bits of work, it sets the bar for everyone. That doesn't always mean that people are going to reach the bar of Essity, but it shows them where they need to get to, so it does become this virtuous circle. It can be really good.”
At Cannes Lions, the agency’s other client wins proved the success of that process. AMV BBDO also won the Lions Health United Nations Foundation Grand Prix for Good for The Central Office of Public Interest's (COPI) ‘addresspollution.org’ campaign, and various Lions for campaigns from Bombay Sapphire
and Macmillan Cancer Support.
“I'm very excited about the work we're doing for Macmillan. Again, we saw the start of something but I think we'll go on to greater things. In the past, AMV did a lot of work around charity and perhaps lacks the focus around doing one thing really well. So the decision we made was to double down and really find the cause that we're all equally passionate about and do that, which we're doing with Macmillan.”
As it has been for some time, Mars Petcare has been a strong client for the agency to flex its creative muscles around, with SHEBA’s Hope Reef
being a particular recent highlight.
Having won ‘the triple’, Alex is keen to stress that 2021 is a “year of years” for AMV BBDO. He’s realistic: “I don't think it has ever been done before. And the truth of that is we're not going to do that again next year. And we might not ever do that again in our lifetime.” But he believes there’s a momentum that the agency can maintain if it does things right. “You have to recalibrate and act like it's year zero. It's about continuing on and trying to do the very best work. As thrilled as I am about it, I think one of the most important things is to remain level headed, grounded and calm. When you get to these kinds of positions; you're never quite as good as that suggests and when you get down to the bottom, you're never quite as bad as that suggests. Awards are kind of great but also kind of silly. So you recognise that and then crack on.”
Although it’s been a year of years for the agency, Alex has just passed his 10-year anniversary working there, so he knows the groundwork that’s been put in to get here. “There has been this gradual progression in our performance at some of the big award shows over the years. In 2018 we finished second at Cannes. We were beginning to do the kind of pieces of work that resonated with international juries, putting ourselves in the running for a shot like this. It's not easy to pull it off and convince clients to do it, so it's lovely to see that four or five years down the line, it paid off. It's a lovely endorsement of the kind of policies and principles that we put in place.”
Those principles are at least partially shaped by AMV’s place within the BBDO network.
“At its heart, BBDO does believe in the power of creativity,” says Alex. My boss David Lubars in New York certainly does and I respect him immensely. He doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk. He's a proper creative's creative. A leader like that is quite inspiring. He can be really challenging and he sets the bar high when he says ‘you need to do X’. But I know he's got my back and supports the way that we do things. It's a healthy relationship between the network and the agency.
BBDO’s culture is famously centred on ‘The Work. The Work. The Work.’, but Alex notes that there's also room for AMV's culture, which is different and unique to the London agency. “I think there's something that's been right there from David Abbott, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers that all I've done is continue. It's a culture of kindness, really. It's people based. It's funny because we don't really write it down since we don't really believe in mission statements. But it's the kind of belief that you start with the people rather than the work and if the people are happy, then they'll create that work. It's a bit soft and cuddly but actually quite revolutionary within the marketplace. The way we deal with people comes from trying to create the very best conditions for them. And if you do that, that'll be paid back by them doing their very best work.”
When Alex began at the agency in 2011, the agency was the same but different. “When I joined, AMV was at the height of its big-ness,” he says. “I came from quite a small digital agency as well where I spent a year just to experiment which was quite interesting. It felt to me almost like I was joining some kind of government ministry. I remember going down the corridor to the CEO at the time who was very impressive, but quite scary.”
Now from his C-level perspective, Alex feels like there’s less deference to that sort of hierarchy. “I think other people's voices are coming through and being listened to a lot more, so it's changed in a good way. I think the collective of AMV is bigger, better and more appropriate to how we work now.”
In practice, that means putting less weight on titles. “I'm the CCO and I think they're still important. But although there are those titles and we have our own responsibilities, there's not really a hierarchy. I'd describe it much more as a kind of creative cabinet. It's the combined influence and expertise and talent of all of us that helped create AMV BBDO's success over the last few years. I don't think you can do it with one person anymore. There's this myth that's kind of played out in lots of different industries, which is the myth of the solo, genius creative leader. And it's a good narrative and it's easy, but it's just not true. I think by embracing that collective model and challenging one another, we use each other as a brain trust.”
Alex has also learnt the power of creating a small, empowered team around a brand client, giving them autonomy and “letting them get on with it. They can work out their own model of how they want to do it, so it's not really a top-down control thing, it's much more bottom up. That flexibility is helpful and it's more respectful - much more adult to adult.”
One thing that might seem grown up but is in fact nonsensical is the unreasonable expectations that some agencies heap on their people. Going back to the kindness at the company’s heart, burnout is something that Alex wants to prevent at all costs in the agency.
He’s had personal experience of it, working at agencies that were “very competitive, quite abrasive and really tough.” In a way, it had its benefits. “It was great because you really learned your craft, so I couldn't have been schooled better anywhere on earth, but I wasn't waking up every morning and punching the air thinking I've got to go in. It was quite an intense culture where there was this expectation that you would burn the midnight oil and work weekends. I don't operate very well like that.
“So I immediately felt a lot more comfortable when I joined AMV and I think that allowed me to become better. I work much better in short intense bursts, before having quite a lot of time to recover. And then I go again. I'm not very good at doing the 36-hour shift. I can't work through the night. And I think there's some people who can, and they get on with it and that's fine, you have to respect that way of working. But I think most people are basically like me. Rest and recovery should be seen as just as important as this constant narrative that you have to work harder.
“A while back there used to be this thing where you got this badge of honour if you worked an 80-hour week. But I think you should actually be given a dunce’s cap and told to stand in the corner because it's not a good working practice.”
AMV BBDO has tried to build space for its employees’ rest and recovery. Alex doesn’t want people working weekends. On summer Fridays staff can stop at 4pm. “Having a culture like that - where people don't feel that they have to be present all the time - liberates them and allows them to work the way they want to work. That's really the most important principle.”
Additional reporting by Josh Neufeldt.