Fewer, Bigger, Better with James Gregson

In this conversation, Ruckus’ Sr. Director of Marketing and Platform, Kayci Baldwin sits down with James Gregson, Creative Director for Lego’s internal agency, to discuss all things brand building, agencies, and creative problem solving. During this conversation, James shares his lesson’s learned, what brands can do to be more relevant, where he finds inspiration, and much more.

Below, James breaks down the ways brands can cut through the noise, and create genuine connections with their audience, both for their fans and skeptics.

Next, he shares his insights on what anyone can do to create great strong brand story telling. James points out that the key to good advertising lies in good storytelling, and that the key is to find and produce non-transactional content.

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About James Gregson

James Gregson is experienced with managing teams in a variety of marketing, creative, content and brand capacities – with success leading impactful, global, cross-platform campaigns. His recent focus has been on driving digital brand transformation across LEGO’s brand communications, their evolving owned channels, content, social media, brand and product marketing, community building, performance marketing, etc.

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Kayci Baldwin (00:00):
To the Bring Ruckus community that might be tuning in and listening to this conversation. I do just want to introduce James Gregson, who is the creative director of Lego’s internal agency. He’s been on the internal agency team at Lego since 2018 and leading as creative director since 2020, right?

James Gregson (00:21):
Yes. Yes. Well, what a couple years has been.

Kayci Baldwin (00:24):
A wild ride. I can only imagine. Yes. And yeah, I’m really excited to just chat more about it and learn more about you and your perspective. I would love to start by diving in to the internal agency side of things. I know those are yes. Words that everyone recognizes it’s a topic. Yes. but as someone who has done years on the agency side external agencies that is, and then now has a leading role at such an incredible internal agency. I would love to just understand, do you have any advice for like founders or executives that are scaling companies and trying to decide between like, Hey, is it time for us to build out an internal agency or should we continue with these external relationships? Like when is the right moment to make that? Yeah,

James Gregson (01:12):
That’s a, that’s a good question. I don’t know if I’m best suited to, to answer that with any strong foundation, right. Because I haven’t started an internal agency, but I can tell you listen, where, where, what value we can bring or what value an internal agency can bring compared to an external agency. And it’s pretty clear, right. You know, certainly at, at large organizations there is a clear trend of internal agencies and that they know a lot more of why than say I do, but I would, you know, I would say very simply is that you know, the, the onboarding of an external agency takes time. The churn at an external agency is a real thing. And at an internal agency, you know, we pride ourselves specifically at Lego as being the brand stewards right.

James Gregson (02:06):
We know the brand better than anyone else. Because we are you know, down the hall for marketing, so to speak and we live it and breathe it every day. And while yes, there are some wonderful external agency, client relationships and partners that exist. You know, there is a massive amount of efficiencies both from a process standpoint and a cost standpoint, most importantly with having it all under one roof. I, I think at the same time, you know there are some, you know, realities to competency gaps that you have within internal agencies, you know, and I think one of the most important things that we talk about is know what we know and know what we don’t know, mm-hmm and, you know, make sure that we are bringing in the, the best of the best from an external agency standpoint to fill the gaps when we have an opportunity you know, at our fingertips, right. And we’ve done that with some, some really interesting X tests campaigns that we’ve run. And that’s, you know, in, in the Americas partnering with you know a X specialized advertising agency just to make sure that we’re hitting on hitting on all the, the important points.

Kayci Baldwin (03:22):
Yeah. That totally makes sense. Especially the point. I mean, I love tapping external resources, and then also the point about even the, the bandwidth draining effect of onboarding a new agency, or managing an agency can take so much time. And even if you’re counting on that being external, relying on external agencies who internally is going to be dedicating all of those times to managing those relationships, right? Yes. do you ever, so like when you’re on an external agency, the client is, I mean, king mm-hmm, almost always, you just do what the client says, how in an internal agency, do you get to push back a little bit on the marketing teams that you’re partnering with or are they fundamentally your clients? And you

James Gregson (04:05):
Just say, yeah, I mean, listen, I think we, all we say internally, right? We all have the same email address, right. We’re all getting paid by the same company. You know, our paychecks all say the same name. So I think it’s really important to, to set that expectation and to feel and to build a partnership where it is less subservient right. And more supportive and strategic. You know, I think that that’s a really important piece to what we believe we can bring listen from person to person. It’s not always like that. You know, some people want us to do what they tell us to do. And, you know, there are reasons behind that you know, like any internal or any relationship anywhere you know, you pick and choose your battles, but the reality is, listen, we, we strive to be strategic business partners you know, on the creative side and the strategic side of the, of the fence. And that’s what we like to try and bring

Kayci Baldwin (05:10):
For sure. And then obviously Lego’s such an expansive company with so many, I mean, infinite product lines, as far as, from my perspective. Do you, does that give you like the type of variety that you would have at when you were agency side and working with lots of different clients, or do you find that you’re, you know, working on the same thing consistently as the brand steward?

James Gregson (05:34):
That’s a, that’s a really good question. I mean, listen, I’ve worked at every type of external agency you can think of start up boutique private, publicly owned right. Globally public, publicly owned. So listen, I got a super, super broad diverse you know, experience you know, from a client background standpoint in that agency experience. I think listen in, within Lego, we have a wide diverse sort of variety of problems we’re trying to solve. Now at the same time, it, it is very much principles in most cases around either getting the, the attention of shoppers or you know, business challenges like retaining customers or you know, bringing into audiences. So it isn’t as broad as an external agency, but there still is a, a diverse sort of a variety of problems that we’re looking to solve on a, on a regular basis. It’s not like the same challenge over and over again,

Kayci Baldwin (06:46):
Definitely in terms of, and that kind of brings me to my next question in terms of the challenges that you might have faced. So yes, you’ve been a creative director of like one of the most enduring toy toy brands in the world. Yeah. During one of the craziest times any of us have seen in our lives. Right. Yeah. So yeah. What have you learned? How has the last two years been?

James Gregson (07:11):
Oh, goodness. Where to start? What have I learned? One I’m wildly humbled to work in, in of, you know, in the course of the last few years, given what was happening around us to work for a company that one was wildly successful and has been wildly successful has been amazing two to to be because of that success. But also because of the responsibility we feel we have in, in the face of children across the world and supporting and donating to, to various causes over the last two years has been fantastic. So foundationally that is very important to and has been a wonderful sort of backdrop in what has been, as we all know a crazy last two years. Yeah,

Kayci Baldwin (07:58):
Not everybody can say either of those things that you’ve worked with, the company that’s done well, and that has actively done well for the world. So that’s huge.

James Gregson (08:06):
Yeah. I mean, I think you know, I don’t want to harp on it because I think everyone’s talked about it, but I think you know we all, everyone that was in a leadership position, whether directly or indirectly I think learned real quick, how to lead if they were a good leader and where they probably needed to get better at, because you know, everybody needed support in one way, shape or form. Right. I, I used to use the example of you know, I, my partner, my co co-creative director and myself oversee a, a, a large creative department, but my direct reporting, line’s a little smaller and you know, so we had team meetings or regular catchups, you know, in the heat of COVID. And I used to say know, out of the 6, 7, 8 of us you know, every single one of us had a different living situation.

James Gregson (09:03):
Right. So there isn’t like a one size fits all, you know, it’s everything from a single father. To me having three kids under four at home to someone living by themselves, you know, someone living with their, with their their mom everyone had a different living situation. There wasn’t a one size fits. All right. So empathy, trust, all those good things. Obviously again, with the foundational understanding that the business was doing really well. So we could really lean into that idea of trust and like, if people need time or space, give it to them. So yeah, it, it was a, it was a wild, it was a wild time, I think also being working for a brand that had a really interesting purpose in those last, in those last two years of, you know, someone similar to Netflix or YouTube where, you know, we were a core piece of people’s lives for the last two year in a, in a good sense, right? Whether its binge Netflix or puzzles you know, our sales really resulted positively because people needed entertainment. And thankfully our product does that.

Kayci Baldwin (10:14):
Absolutely I love that. I think we’ve been talking a lot about just how it’s never been so important to take care of your people. Obviously we’re all going through such a, I mean, a global crisis together yes. And experiencing it from such different points, but also still experiencing the same craziness. And as we have all kind of adapted to need more from our relationships from our work environments it’s definitely, it’s become a really interesting shift in terms of like what makes a great leader, what makes a great company culture. And how do we connect with our people through these screens?

James Gregson (10:58):
Yeah. It’s been you know, it, it, it is a wild ride. You know, I, I, for one, I think, you know, people often ask, you know, how, how does working remotely affect, you know, creative output and you know, I’m on the fence and listen, there’s, there’s hundreds of different theories on this one. You know, I really believe that you know, it’s a lot of like the, the employee profile you have, do you have extroverts, you do have introverts. You know, I tend to believe you know, a lot of creatives, you know, spread the spectrum, but I, I, I think most tend to skew on the introvert side, at least from my experience. And working remotely is wonderful from that standpoint. Right. I think there isn’t pressure to speak up in a conference room. I mean, there’s that awkward?

James Gregson (11:47):
Like who’s going to go in a, in a virtual conference. But you know, I think there’s a lot more time and space for introverts and, and for creatives to, to come up with ideas and, you know, work in a little bit less of a structured environment, let’s say, you know, an in office corporate environment at the same time, I think what we really miss is, you know, the onboarding of new people you know, or the, the collaboration within a broader team. Certainly like with new team members that’s really, really struggled. You know, we’ve worked with ex a couple external agency partners on a couple really exciting projects and the growing pains that we had of not just being in a room for two days. I think we would’ve cut off three weeks from a process standpoint. Absolutely. If we could’ve just gotten into a room and just, you know, not burned the midnight oil, but like really cut through the BS.

Kayci Baldwin (12:44):
Definitely. I feel like it created, I’m kind of a hybrid, you know, creative. Yes. A little bit of an extrovert, a little bit of an introvert, but I feel like it, it’s easier to get the heads down. Like just, I am creating something time, but what I have not found a replacement for is like the interactive brainstorming sessions. Like, I feel like it’s really hard via zoom to, to get in that space with people. And I could totally see how that makes a project take a lot longer

James Gregson (13:11):
Yeah, yeah, no, I think that, that’s definitely true. I think we have really, we’ve really focused and tested on like smaller team brainstorm. So, you know art director, writer style things so, you know, really getting closer to, you know, so it is much more of a partnership so that, you know, it’s not so many voices in a virtual, in a virtual space that’s been, that’s been really super helpful.

Kayci Baldwin (13:37):
Definitely. one of the things that we talked a lot about last year as a community that is heavily rooted in growth marketers was the decline of the efficacy of ad spend particularly on social media which has just been so interesting to see as someone who it has a marketing background or works closely with marketing is like mm-hmm, , we’ve, you know, built entire business strategies on these PPC acquisition plans. We can press a button, put a little bit more money behind it and get all of these new people and it’s not working anymore. So how do you see this shift creating more space for creative and brand marketers moving forward?

James Gregson (14:30):
Yeah, great question. And something that is very close near and dear to my heart given my, sort of my background in social listen, there is always going to be a place for social in some way, shape or form on behalf of, of brand communications or, or brand marketing. I think the world of it being 80%, 70% of your, you know, marketing budget, even if you’re a D TOC brand I think is over. And you know, I, I think you see a lot of D TOC brands scrambling a little bit but then also, you know, looking at things a little, maybe a little bit differently, right. You know, the value of email, the value, the value of your, you know, your own ecosystem is so much more valuable than it ever was. I used to tease a colleague who, who worked with Facebook now, meta saying like, are we going to start seeing like, Facebook like campaigns again, because that whole idea of like building an audience in a community so that then you can actually appropriately target them is so much more valuable than it was a few years ago.

James Gregson (15:41):
You know, I’m all for platforms like TikTok. I think the creativity and the content on those platforms is amazing from an advertising standpoint you know, I, I think they will benefit because the likes of, of meta Facebook, Instagram and others are, are struggling. You know, you seen, you saw the Snapchat’s stock prices. I think what up 40%, I believe after earnings and that’s, I think as a result of the main place being Facebook being hurt from a performance standpoint. So listen, it’s a really interesting place. I really think brands will start leaning into what their, their own digital ecosystem and their own digital audiences look like and try and build out that, that audience space that way.

Kayci Baldwin (16:33):
Yeah. That, no, that definitely makes sense. I when we were doing research to prepare for this conversation, we found a talk that you gave where you mentioned that social had become the dumping ground for all things, marketing communication. Yes. I really love

James Gregson (16:48):
That. Yep.

Kayci Baldwin (16:50):
And I mean, my question was like, what can brands do to create more of a genuine connection, more genuine communication with your audience? And you kind of sounds like you were kind of speaking to that.

James Gregson (17:00):
Yeah. I mean, I think listen, I’m, I’m a big advocate, you know, the world of, of social and brand communications you know, at one time was flood your channels, right? Flood your channels as much content, as much information and, you know, see what sticks and, you know, iterate and optimize. You know, I’m really looking forward to flipping that right. And fewer bigger, better, less is more, you know, whatever saying you want, you want to try and lead into because I think that’s where you start cutting through and, you know regardless of your budgets, you know I, I, I always you know, look at what we’re putting out on our central channels from a brand and, and say to myself, like, why, why as a fan or more importantly, why is not a fan? Would I, would I care about this? What, what would this do? How does this push me closer down the funnel? You know, and not everything has that that conversion based objective. But you know, it cost a lot of money had a lot of time to create really grand, a really great brand storytelling. And you know, I, I look to companies like Yeti who do just a fabulous job of telling like the most beautifully told brand storytelling now, not everyone has Yeti budgets, but they’re a really good example.

Kayci Baldwin (18:30):
Ah, I love what you said about fewer bigger, better. I think that’s, yes. Great approach.

James Gregson (18:37):
That is the goal

Kayci Baldwin (18:39):
For sure. And then in terms of brand storytelling, so what are some of the most important questions that you think if you are creative and it’s whether you are crafting a brand story from scratch, you know, like working with a new client or attempting to create from within an existing brand story, I’m sure that you have to onboard creatives to your team, all the,

James Gregson (19:04):
Yeah, no great question. You know, it, the fundamentals to advertising or storytelling are not that different. You know, I think attention spans are certainly shorter than they used to be. And distribution methods are certainly different. But at the same time, you know a human truth is a human truth, right. Or an insight is an insight. Right. And I think every good idea starts with that. And, and, you know, you’ve all, we’ve all felt it, whether you’re in marketing, in creative or in advertising or not where you see something and you’re like, yeah, that resonates with me. Absolutely. I think that’s ultimately the most important important component to brand storytelling. You know a little bit along a different side of the spectrum that I, I always say is like, why would a consumer care, like, you know listen brand right there, there’s reasons that creators influencers are, and some of the greatest creators and influencers are bigger than brands because they do a better job of telling stories because they’re not typically trying to Hawk product right. Because they’re focused on creating content. Right. I look at Kayci nice stat, right. I’m dating myself here, but like he was, you know, the first creator from my mind that really, you know, lent into storytelling as a product, and really didn’t lean into the merchandising that these new world of, of creators influencers have done an amazing job at doing. You know, so he was really, really effective at, at you know, a non-commercial driven message.

Kayci Baldwin (20:42):
I don’t know anything about him. Oh..

James Gregson (20:45):
Goodness. My fault. That’s fine too.

Kayci Baldwin (20:47):
What was the, what did he..

James Gregson (20:49):
What was the, so Kayci, Kayci and I sat was a, was a YouTuber based in New York. He was one of the bigger us based YouTubers as crazy Ray band glasses. He was just a, a videographer. I don’t think he graduated high school, let alone college, and he partnered with Samsung. And I always use their case study as a, you know, a prime example of what influencer marketing should be, where he had a relationship with Samsung over the course of, I think, three or four years you know, and created a series of pieces of content and commercials for them you know, all you know, to a crescendo of I think it was Grammy’s, he did a two in 2017. He did, did a Grammy’s ad. That was all about craters. And, you know, if you look at the ad now it’s the Samsung Kayci, nice that Grammy ad man, they were so ahead of their time. So it was all about creators were there are, are here to create not brands and Samsung gives you the tools to create your, your story.

Kayci Baldwin (21:58):
Wow. It sounds like I’m not sure about the timing, but I wonder how influential that was on Apple’s big, like shot on shot on an iPhone,

James Gregson (22:08):
An iPhone. I, you know, I I’m sure it’s pretty similar. It was Samsung was first

Kayci Baldwin (22:13):
For sure. It sounds like that’s very cool. And then my last question for you, we powered right through them, but what are some of the most UN unexpected places where you find inspiration?

James Gregson (22:31):
Oh, I love this question cause I like that’s natural curiosity. I think it’s the most important characteristic to my success. I certainly look at, look at it in others as well. Obviously there’s a balance between focus and curiosity as well. Listen, I, everything from TikTok you know, I, I find content and TikTok fascinating to me for a number of reasons. But also just how creative people get with their storytelling. I think it, it, it’s just, you know, it, it’s fantastic. Everything from you know psychologist that I follow on there that creates like overwhelmingly supportive and positive you know, pieces that are fabulously lit and just very moody. And like his name is he’s Seattle based. I can’t remember his name now. But you know, that really, really sort of inspires you

Kayci Baldwin (23:32):
Remember send it to me, I’ll link it.

James Gregson (23:34):
I oh, I will. Perfect. Okay. You know, all the way through to you know, the pre-rolls that I get served on on YouTube, for example you know, I, I always tell the story in, in presentations or in conferences where you know, I get so excited if I, if a pre-roll catches my attention, cause I know how difficult it is, right. Because whenever you are on YouTube and you see an ad, no one is like, Ooh, an ad. Yay. Right. And that’s my job. So that’s a little tough but also like go, when you go through that process and you don’t click skip that’s me, like that is the ultimate success on a number like across the board in, in marketing and advertising. Right. So I always really overanalyze, like why, what was it? That’s so great. You know, the New York times you know, truth campaign did such a great job of, of doing that on, on YouTube.

James Gregson (24:34):
There’s a whole bunch I’m trying to think what others, but yeah. So I take inspiration from weird places. It’s not like I go out and seek it out. Podcasts are a wonderful, weird place to get inspiration. I li listen to a lot of like business and financial based podcasts, nothing specifically to do with creativity. You know, but everything from, you know, a highly successful you know, billion dollar evaluated beauty brand where the entire executive leadership has zero background from from beauty, right? Yeah. You know, it’s oddity, but they have Il Makiage a handful of other brands underneath them. You know…

Kayci Baldwin (25:19):
Oh, I didn’t know that about them! That’s very cool.

James Gregson (25:21):
Yeah. So that’s like super, that’s the sort of stuff that I’m like, see, you know, not that, that gives me hope, but it it’s just gives me you know, interesting places to, to start my story and, and figure out, you know, how things happen, how the world works, all that sort of stuff.

Kayci Baldwin (25:37):
Listen business and finance podcasts are definitely an unexpected place to get great.

James Gregson (25:42):
I agree. I agree. If anyone, if anyone I can highly recommend group chat and Robinhood owned podcast which is called snacks daily, and it’s a 15 minute podcast. Listen one and…

Kayci Baldwin (25:58):
No, that one that one’s good.

James Gregson (26:00):
Yeah. Right. And it, it it’s much more, I mean, you want storytelling, like they take numbers and turn it into a story. And again, and it, it takes me outside of my category experience that I deal with on a day to day basis that I am so focused on and I really try and take those sort of experiences and those learnings and apply them wherever I can.

Kayci Baldwin (26:21):
Ah, I love it. I’ve definitely been trying to level up my financial knowledge. So the helpful finance podcasts are always welcome. And that’s a great one.

James Gregson (26:29):
Yes. Let’s not go to go down the Web3, NFT tunnel, please.

Kayci Baldwin (26:35):
Ya, not.

James Gregson (26:36):

Kayci Baldwin (26:38):
Well, James, thank you so, so much for your time. I’m so glad that we were finally able to connect and make this happen.

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