“The Ceiling Is High, But We Need To Raise The Floor”: whiteGREY Chief Lee Simpson

“The Ceiling Is High, But We Need To Raise The Floor”: whiteGREY Chief Lee Simpson

He took charge of WPP agency whiteGREY early in 2018, and here Lee Simpson shares with B&T how he’s building “the agency model of the future”.

How have you found it being back at WPP? What’s changed since you were last working for the group?

It’s been really positive. I had a meeting recently with the WPP board to present my strategy for whiteGREY, and they were supportive and very encouraging,

When I look back to when I was working at Grey London, I felt like I was working purely for the agency. I didn’t feel that much of a connection to the WPP group necessarily. The difference coming back here in Australia is I’ve been surprised by the level of collaboration between the companies at WPP.

People have realised that the competitive set has changed around us with the consultancies, the in-house model, and even the holding companies reorganising their capabilities. There’s also a strong independent culture in Australia with multi-nationals like 72andSunny and Cummins&Partners. It’s a saturated marketplace that’s very competitive, and I think what people have realised is that the enemies are outside the building – not within it. That’s driven people to work together.

How are you positioning whiteGREY in the industry? How is it different from WPP’s other agencies?

When I talk about whiteGREY, I talk about it on a couple of different levels.

Firstly, I talk about the truth about how whiteGREY was born as an agency, which was basically through a collision of creativity and technology. How that plays out in my executive team is my head of technology has an equal voice as my ECD, which is probably different to a lot of creative agencies, and my strategic leaders are comfortable in brand just as much as technology. So, as an agency, we’re comfortable with getting in a client conversation about those two areas and anywhere in between.

Secondly, my positioning for the agency in three words is ‘tension creates extraordinary’. It’s the belief that in life, in business, in creativity, great things come from the right type of tension. When you look at the way whiteGREY was born – two agencies coming together – you’ve got this real mix of thinkers, and it’s this collision of perspectives that creates a tension point, which gets us to better thinking.

How we execute the whiteGREY business model is through platform orchestration. We take clients through brand platforms, media platforms and technology platforms. Value is created for brands at each one of those stages, but in the increasingly complex world that we live in, value is also created in orchestrating those experiences for them.

What’s the biggest challenge that whiteGREY faces? What is the agency’s biggest opportunity?

Prioritising what [accounts] we think we can really go after is one of our biggest challenges. Sometimes it’s better to go for the quick wins to keep the momentum up, but then you also want to land some of the bigger brands. We’re still an agency of two markets with 75 to 80 people, but when you’re an agency like Clems Melbourne or CHE Proximity with 300 people, it’s a lot easier to be in a lot of different places to pitch on a lot of different business.

The other challenge is that we’re still building a brand. White has a history and a legacy, and so does Grey, but I think we’ve made a lot of progress in creating the agency model of the future out of them. We’ve got really good clarity on our strategy, and we’re starting to show evidence of that by being involved in some really decent pitches lately, as well as being a finalist at the B&T Awards this year.

I think there’s opportunity in chaos at the moment. An economist recently said the advertising industry was under siege, and I think that’s where the opportunity lies – when everybody’s trying to work out what the future holds, we’ve already got a clear strategy and the shape of a modern agency.

What’s the key to a perfect pitch?

From an intellectual point of view, what we’ve found to be resonating well recently is obviously a sharp strategy and a really clear idea, but interestingly the experience journey – so, having that story through platform orchestration.

The practical point of view is all of the operational ways of running a pitch, knowing all the people in the room, never stopping pitching and understanding post-pitch the questions that may have arisen and that you can continue to answer.

The other thing that’s appealing to both our existing and potential clients at the moment is the size of our agency, because they know they won’t go missing within it, they know they have the senior people working on their business. However, we also have the ability to scale through the WPP network.

What are Aussie creative agencies struggling with at the moment and need to do a better job of?

The ceiling is high, but we need to raise the floor. When I was working back in the UK, the floor was a lot higher – there was a general level that was hit across the board. We need to make sure in Australia that all of our work is of a certain standard and that we’re not just trying to hit the high notes with a couple of campaigns a year.

What will the creative agency of the future look like? Will it even be called a creative agency?

The agency of the future will manage to marry and make sense of left-brain and right-brain thinkers, and whoever does that quickest and in the most compelling way will win. I mean, you could go out and hire a load of left-brain or right-brain thinkers tomorrow, but the challenge is how you integrate them from a cultural perspective.


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