Interviews

Rob Gray, Co-Founder & Managing/Strategy Partner, Squad

"In our job it’s important to put your phone down and look around you. All the insights you’ll ever need into people’s behaviour are right in front of you."

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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Rob Gray believes that when it comes to seeking inspiration, “you’ve got to look up, as an idea can come from anywhere.” As Co-Founder of Squad, Gray spends his days building a business that has longevity. The idea behind the agency was “a partner that would bridge the gap between business consultancy and creative agency. One that would be highly strategic and highly creative.”

With an artist for a grandfather and a businessman father, Gray’s interest was torn between designing and business. “I was doing an A-level in Business Studies but also in Art so I had these dual interests.” The final decision came when Gray realised he “didn’t have the patience or artistic skills” to be a designer but that he “loved the environment of the creative industries.”

You’ve got to look up, as an idea can come from anywhere.

Rob Gray

He started out on the graduate training programme to be a planner at TBWA Manchester, something he says was a “fantastic learning curve. You really do get chucked into the deep end.” He worked on an “interesting mix of the commercial side, the business side but also thinking very creatively about how can we reinvigorate this brand”, a mix he took with him when it came to founding Squad.

Although initially inclined to move to London, Gray realised that, “I like going to London but I like coming back again. I like living out in the hills.” Based in Manchester, Squad, Gray says, has “evolved over the years” and it is a source of immense pride for him when he sees people both come through the business: “creat[ing] a business that has helped other people develop in their career and achieve other success of their own in the industry…hopefully Squad’s played a part in that.”

Hopefully every project we do should move us on and we should be constantly pushing to do better and bigger work than the last.

Rob Gray

Gray doesn’t believe that there is one piece of his agency’s work that stands out from the rest “because they’re all a moment in time.” Rather he is proudest of the most recent piece they’ve done: “Hopefully every project we do should move us on and we should be constantly pushing to do better and bigger work than the last.”

And when it comes to tackling a tricky brief, Gray likes nothing more than to go running, citing a recent jog along a coastal path as providing the answer to a seemingly uncrackable project. He, like many of his peers, believes that “the industry can be too insular” at times. What we need to do is “take inspiration from being out and about in the world…paying attention to people, being nosy and eavesdropping in cafes.”

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Creativebrief: As Co-Founder & Managing/Strategy Partner at Squad, what is your primary focus?
Rob Gray: First and foremost I’m the Strategy Partner. Since founding Squad with David I’ve worked more at the business or brand level. Much of my time now is spent helping clients articulate their vision and values or brand positioning and then looking at how this comes to life inside and outside the business. This could be in the form of branding, campaigns, innovation or culture. We’re a boutique firm offering a partner-led service, so I’m directly involved in the delivery of any live strategy projects supported by a small team of associates. I’m also the Managing Partner of the business. This means I need to carve out time to focus on the operation and growth of our business, alongside David, across areas like culture, people, marketing, relationships and finance, although we also have team members specialising in some of these areas.
Creativebrief: What has been your agency's best work in the last year?
Rob Gray: That’s a hard question to answer since there are many ways of defining what’s ‘best’. If my arm was twisted I’d say two pieces of work stand out. We’ve started rolling out the new pub designs for JW Lees as well as some exciting beers, including a micro brewery named the Boilerhouse. This is the continuation of a new vision we helped them develop to put the brewery back at the heart of the business. Seeing the business transforming itself and delivering some strong financial results is very satisfying. On Boxing Day the television advertising we developed for Eurocamp went live, the result of a new brand strategy we started working with them on in April of last year. The brand has been battling with perception problems relating to its heritage as a camping holiday. The Eurocamp experience has evolved massively and only a small percentage of customers now stay in tents. The advertising was the first incarnation of the new positioning, which we’re currently translating into new branding and other marketing activity. The measurement that’s in place for the activity is already showing that it’s changing perceptions very effectively.
Creativebrief: Industry wide, what work has excited you most this year?
Rob Gray: It tends to be brands doing something new or transformative that catches my eye rather than specific pieces of work. For example Carlsberg have made a big investment in relaunching and repositioning their brand this year. There are so many small and interesting brewers popping up now; how does a big global brand compete with companies like these who are so inherently interesting and much more agile? In autumn last year they revamped their packaging revealing a direction that focused more on the brand’s Danish roots. The packaging is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but it probably has to be because if they’d changed everything over night they’d lose their existing audience. Some of the work that predated the packaging is what I find most creatively interesting like Happiness Brusells bringing the Carlsberg founder back from the dead to deliver a TED talk. This was inspired. I notice that they’ve just launched a major above-the-line campaign. It will be fascinating to see whether they’re able to walk the tight rope between appealing to new audiences without alienating their current market.

What consistutes ‘advertising’ will continue to evolve and agency skill sets will continue to change accordingly. Brands are now built on the service or experience they provide as much as the advertising they create.

Rob Gray
Creativebrief: How do you see the advertising industry evolving over the next few years?
Rob Gray: The advertising industry has been through a major transistion in the fifteen plus years since I started at TBWA\. I don’t see any sign that this change will slow. I think the skills that exist within the industry, which used to be focused on above-the-line campaigns, are still incredibly valuable but the way we apply ourselves needs to adapt to changing client needs. Clients will continue to take more work in-house. This creates opportunities for businesses that specialise in this area, like Oliver, but also companies like us who focus on providing high-level strategic and creative expertise to complement in-house teams. The traditional above-the-line mediums will still be effective, more so than they get credit for, but big communications ideas also need to live in digital and social channels. What consistutes ‘advertising’ will continue to evolve and agency skill sets will continue to change accordingly. Brands are now built on the service or experience they provide as much as the advertising they create. This creates more opportunities for our creative and brand-building skills in areas like culture and innovation and there are also upstream opportunities helping clients work out how they should go about this.
Creativebrief: What are your ambitions for Squad over the next few years?
Rob Gray: First and foremost we plan to continue growing our business. We want to do this in a particular way though. We intend to be bigger than we are now so that we have more financial muscle to compete for larger projects and more capability to invest in the skills and culture of the business. But David and I still want to be working on our clients’ business, not spending all our time on managing Squad. We also want to further our strategic and creative reputation; growth musn’t come at the expense of this. The upshot is that there’s an optimum size we want to grow to, which is probably no more than 30 people.
Creativebrief: What piece of advice do you give to the junior members of your team?
Rob Gray: After University I landed a short-term contract with TBWA\. Before starting, someone in the industry gave me some excellent advice: make yourself indispensable. This industry thrives on energy, ideas, proactivity and making things happen. I see too many students coming through our business who spend all day sat at their desk with their headphones on. You’ve got to show your hunger and passion, which can be as simple as offering to clean up at the end of meetings or making the brews. I don’t want to give the impression that juniors are glorified brew makers, but you need to take easy opportunities to show that you have the right attitude so people want to have you around. Another piece of advice that’s stuck with me was a snippet relayed to me by a graduate trainee at BBH when we were on an IPA course together. He’d been running up the stairs and was stopped by Nigel Bogle who said: ‘Planners don’t run!’ In our job it’s important to put your phone down and look around you. All the insights you’ll ever need into people’s behaviour are right in front of you.

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