Why Nils Leonard, Ex-Creative Chief of Grey London, Just Started His Own Coffee Company

When the creative becomes the client

At a dinner in Cannes last June, just weeks before he announced his exit from Grey, Nils Leonard was holding forth on the topic of ad creatives making their own products and building their businesses—not just doing so for clients.

Eight months later, he has his own coffee brand.

Nils Leonard

The former chief creative officer of Grey London has teamed up with several partners—who have a long history in the coffee business—to launch Halo, a brand that is producing what it says is the world’s first fully compostable coffee capsule for home coffee machines.

Its pitch isn’t just an environmental one, either. Halo, which will be sold online, says it uses some of the world’s best coffee, including the rare Kopi Luwak Diamond beans, available for the first time in capsule form.

Leonard fully admits he’s the “noob” in the business. His partners include U.K. Barista Championship judge Richard Hardwick; brewer David Foster; and former Nespresso director Andrew Richardson. But he’s learned plenty since joining them in the venture. And of course, he helped name the product and devise the marketing strategy around it.

An initial campaign leans into the green nature of the business, highlighting the fact that 13,500 non-biodegradable coffee capsules are thrown into landfills every minute. To illustrate this, Halo built a digital landfill online—and also bought space on digital out-of-home boards that showed 13,500 capsules filling up the screen in a minute.

There’s also a launch film (see below).

“My theory is that within a year everyone will be using biodegradable pods,” Leonard tells Adweek. “It should be fucking illegal. I mean, it’s insane. The stats are sickening. So, I think in a year that will be the case, and then it’s about who has the best coffee. And I’d say that would be us.”

From the beginning, Leonard didn’t want a traditional ad campaign. “I was desperate with the guys, when we sat down, to say, look, I don’t want to do advertising. I don’t really want to make any advertising at all,” he says. “What I want is for the product to be the advert for itself. And I think that’s where we are.”

The Halo name itself clearly evokes an angelic purpose. But to Leonard, it’s even simpler than that.

“I just wanted people, when they held the product, to think, This is good,” he says. “Someone once told me the best brands could make any product and you would know what it stood for. I would love for people, every time they pick up a Halo pod, to know and understand that it’s just a good thing. Not a money thing. Not an engineering thing. Just a good thing. It’s round. It’s white. We’re going to call it Halo.”

Leonard likely hasn’t left the agency business entirely. He is expected to launch some kind of venture later this year with two fellow ex-Grey London execs who left at the same time—former CEO Lucy Jameson and managing director Natalie Graeme. But after decades of building other companies’ brands, Leonard is clearly thrilled to be following his entrepreneurial spirit—and thinks others should try it, too.

“The ad industry is in a pessimistic mood,” he says. “It’s whinging at itself. It’s beating itself up about how we make money. Yet all we do all day is get given opportunities in categories that need filling. We beg clients in pitches, who don’t pay us, to make work that might change the world. And we have the power to go and get that money ourselves, and do it ourselves.”

He adds: “That might sound idealistic, but it’s not. If everybody with half a brain and some energy in the ad industry decided to actually go and make stuff, I think the world would be a better place.”