James Gregson is the Head of Social Studio at LEGO Group’s internal creative agency. In this episode, James talks about how he first started in advertising and details his experience transitioning from starting his own branding agency to working at LEGO. He also dives into the ins-and-outs of his current role at LEGO, shares insight into how he balances family and work, and provides valuable advice for those looking to break into the industry.
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Nate Watkin: Welcome to the Creatives Offscript podcast sponsored by Assemble. I am your host, Nate Watkin. So who doesn’t remember playing with LEGOs growing up? One of the most recognized brands of generations past and present has continuously reinvented itself from one era to the next. And that’s in no small part to the leadership of James Gregson, the head of LEGO Social Studio, part of LEGO’s in-house creative agency. James heads up digital content for this iconic brand, producing dynamic digital campaigns across social channels, and continuously engaging with the next generation of builders. Welcome to our podcast, James.
James Gregson: Thanks for having me. Looking forward to it.
Nate Watkin: Great. So you had a somewhat unconventional career path at the beginning. Tell me about how you found your way into advertising.
James Gregson: Yeah, you could definitely say that. I think I wasn’t an academic in school by any way, shape, or form. I went to school to play sports, not to learn. I’m sure my parents were thrilled to hear, but were very evidently aware. I didn’t want to go to college. I was very much just not overly engaged by learning about math, English, science. I also wasn’t very good at it, so I think that probably helped. But I ended up going to college due to some sage advice from my dad, who said I have the rest of my life to work. What’s delaying it for more years? So I did go to college, and I bounced around from liberal arts major to liberal arts major. I started doing advertising design. Didn’t find that very interesting. Finally settled on the very transferable skills of a computer animation major with a minor in painting. I’m being facetious, there. Not transferable skills.
But to cut the story short, I was in college when Facebook came out. And I ended up getting an internship at a marketing firm, and they were pitching a new piece of business that was basically a unique social network that was from Europe. And I’m originally from England, and the chairwoman of the business at the time was walking the halls going, “Who knows anything about social networking? Has anyone heard of this?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I raised my hand. I knew about what it was. The social network was a Scandinavian social network at the time. And long story short, I got taken to the new business pitch as an intern. I had a fake title, a fake bio, and we ended up winning the business. And I very quickly realized that I had a knack for this sort of stuff. And not only that, I knew more about what was the early days of social networking than most senior executives in the marketing world, purely at that time because it was a new thing.
Nate Watkin: Wow. That’s an amazing story. So it was a fake it until you make it type of scenario at the beginning of your career.
James Gregson: I will not lie. It is absolutely a fake it until you make it. But it was also similar to what Malcolm Gladwell talks about in The Tipping Point, where it talks about the fact that Bill Gates, while obviously an incredibly smart person, was in existence and around when the home computers and PCs were becoming of age. So it was serendipitous timing as well, I think.
Nate Watkin: Absolutely. You then founded a branding agency early on in your career. What are some of the biggest lessons you learned about starting your own business?
James Gregson: Yeah, it was a risky undertaking, definitely. But I had also reached a point in my agency life. I had worked for agencies of different sizes, independently owned, publicly owned, startups. And I think I was frustrated with a number of things. But primarily, it was at the time when the economy was going through a pretty significant recession and budgets were being squeezed, and I was asked to do more and more with less and less. So I did the very unstrategic thing of quit without a plan. Again, not something I would overly recommend anybody do. And yeah, just started networking. I had a solid network of people within the industry, within the marketing space, and was lucky to pick up my own client very quickly.
I think what I learned quickly was the stress of having your own business is completely different. Having to chase people and chase clients, as nice as you can, for the third late payment that is probably going towards your mortgage, your health insurance, and whatever else it is. It’s a very different stress to the day-to-day stress of working at a business where you’re getting your salary every two weeks or every month and that sort of where stuff. So it was a different mentality, and also the habit of never settling.
So I learned very quickly that even at a time where I had my workload full and I had a good, solid number of clients and projects in a given month, that could change immediately. And irrespective of how much work you had or what your work would looked like, I forcibly made sure that I reached out to someone new or someone that I hadn’t spoken to in a long time every week, just to keep dialogues going and keep my name top of people’s minds. Because you never know what a client’s going to fire you or move on or close up shop or go a different way. So yeah, I think it’s a different type of stress, is the main thing that I learned.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Certainly a lot of pros and cons with entrepreneurship. I can attest to that. So how did you find your way over to LEGO’s social media department?
James Gregson: Yeah. So through my digital consultancy that I had, I offered a range of services. I had my own clients where I was running community management or social media advertising. But I also white labeled my services to smaller agencies, PR agencies, agencies that didn’t have the social media competencies at the time. Which at that time, roughly seven or eight years ago, that was pretty prevalent. There were not a lot of… There were specialist social media firms, but not a lot of generalist marketing firms that also did social. And so I started working with, at that time, their PR agency of about 15 years, Flashpoint, that was based out of San Francisco, and helped them with a number of projects. And they brought me into a couple LEGO projects, and then the role opened. And I guess technically my clients… Well, technically not my clients, but my client’s client, I guess. So the PR agency’s client let me know about the role at LEGO and recommended me for it.
Nate Watkin: That’s awesome.
James Gregson: Yeah.
Nate Watkin: And how was that transition from your own consultancy to LEGO? Was there anything that surprised you about the way things worked at LEGO?
James Gregson: Oh, yeah. That’s a loaded question, seeing as I still work at LEGO and I do love the company. Yeah, obviously there’s massive differences to working for yourself, making your own decisions about how you run your own business, to working for a massive business like LEGO. So yeah, the first six months were incredibly challenging for me, just in terms of accomplishing something. It sounds silly. But when I worked for myself, I was able to make a decision, execute that decision, and see the fruits of my labor, whether positive or negative.
I think in a large organization, a matrix organization as well, that is truly global, where over collaboration and over alignment is part of the culture, it was honestly very frustrating. And it’s still somewhat frustrating, but I understand why. They’re the brand they are today because of that over alignment. And there’s a lot of stakeholders that feed into making a decision at a brand like LEGO, and for good reason. But as I said, coming from my own setup where I got to do what I wanted to do because I thought this was the right decision, that was a challenging transition. A very long, challenging transition.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. And so speaking of accomplishments, what would you say was your first big accomplishment at LEGO?
James Gregson: Ooh, good question. I think it’s going to sound silly, but LEGO is a complicated organization. We have, I think, more acronyms than I would ever recommend. I see it as small wins. I think at an organization like LEGO, it is challenging to have a massive win that you can solely feel responsible for because, as I said, there’s so many stakeholders involved in a process. But it was everything from…
Probably the major win would be… So I had a new team that never had a manager before, or never had an in-person manager. Their manager was remote. So I think after the first three months or so, getting my team to really buy into me and to believe in what I was doing was always going to be a challenge, understanding that they had never had, as I said, an in-person manager. So I think around month six or seven, I really started feeling like the team believed in me, respected my opinion, and felt I had their back. And that, to me, irrespective of the work and the output, is always going to be the most important element. Because you are nothing without the people that report into you and your team around you.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, that’s a great accomplishment. Getting your team to believe in you is the most important thing. I 100% agree with that. Awesome. So you have an internal creative agency at LEGO. What does the structure of that look like?
James Gregson: Yeah. So for us, the global social media team has gone through a pretty significant change. We were a standalone team within the organization. And since it’s about a year and a half old, components of our social media team are now part of our internal creative agency. So I think prior to moving into the internal creative agency, we had everything from channel strategy to channel management to some creative production to editorial planning to publishing to media buying to analytics and performance marketing, all within one team. Which was incredibly effective to be agile as you needed to be within social. But it wasn’t truly scalable and didn’t really support our regional marketing partners. So it’s evolved now where there are social studios that live within LEGO’s internal creative agency, where we are responsible for creating a lot of the organic social content you see on LEGO’s own channels.
We also play a consultative role on a lot of the campaign content and larger product launch campaigns. How that content plays out on social channels is critical. And then we have things like there’s a strategy team within the agency and our social strategy. There are social strategist specialists within that department. We have social analytics specialists that are within our data and analytics teams now. So that’s how our engagement team is now. Those roles now live within customer service, and we primarily primarily focus on customer service-like engagement across Twitter and other channels. So that’s how it evolved now. And it’s a super exciting set up, and a set up that gladly makes a lot of sense.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, it sounds great. And what kind of in-house production capabilities do you have?
James Gregson: Yeah, so I think we strike the balance of wanting to be agile in the ability to produce social content that should not take a lot of time. I think we’ve got several cases of very high performing content that took no more than three hours of in-house time from conceptualization to greenlighting to designing to publishing. That’s obviously the gold standard. Not every output on our social channels takes three hours. I wish.
So we have a range of capabilities within our social studio teams. We have video producers and video editors, because video is such a critical component of the social world. But we have an internal creative resource pool that we pull in for various needs. And then of course, for anything at scale or outside of what we feel we need to bring external expertise in, whether that be a long form YouTube series or something along those lines. We’ll continue to art direct it as a lead agency model, but bring in specialists for those larger, longer term projects, just to make sure that we’re not always relying on what we have internally, but balancing it out with external resources as well.
Nate Watkin: Definitely. And what tools do you use to manage your team’s collaboration workflow, especially now in this new remote landscape that we’re in?
James Gregson: Yes. So my boss, the genius that she is, she is not the tech savviest, and she’ll be fine saying that. She actually, pre-COVID, I’m trying to remember when it was, but I would imagine… I think by January 1st of this year, we were all on Microsoft Teams. Very simply, it was an IT approved system. And just with the file architecture, our historic server set up, and the way that we wanted to really properly collaborate, it made sense. So thank goodness she made that recommendation, because obviously, in this day and age, given that we’re all working from home and have been since March or however long it is, I lost track, I have no idea how we could have gotten anything done without something like Teams.
So Teams will be a critical part of how we do our business and how we collaborate and how we get things done. And I think it’s certainly been a fascinating part of working from home for an extended period of time, how it’s evolved ways of working. And I think there’s potentially brand new roles that have opened up in terms of what a Teams assistant and Teams manager looks like, and that community management role of what needs to happen on Teams and what doesn’t need to happen on Teams and that sort of stuff. But Teams is a massive component of our day to day.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Yeah, it’s incredible how critical these tools are becoming in this new world to enable teams to collaborate.
James Gregson: Yeah. Yeah. It’s fantastic.
Nate Watkin: Definitely. In general, how would you describe LEGO’s marketing vision?
James Gregson: Yeah. Okay. How would I… That’s a big question. I think LEGO’s marketing vision is to establish itself as more than a toy company. And I think it was a first step with the movies to establish us as an entertainment brand. And we’ve got a really strong catalog of entertainment content for kids on Netflix and traditional TV, Amazon Prime, et cetera. But really taking it to the masses with the movies was the first step. I think we often talk internally about becoming an experience brand, similar to an Apple. There is that premium, very clear branded experience with everything that you touch with Apple. I shamelessly got the Apple credit card for no good reason. I didn’t need a new credit card, but I wanted to see what that experience was like, and the premium experience of the physical card itself, but even the mailer that the card was in.
I think you talk about Apple as the prime example of an experience brand. And I think we are constantly looking at how to establish ourselves as an experience brand, from going into our LEGO brand retail stores to buying a product to then how do you experience that product digitally and physically. As I said, we want to become more than just a toy brand.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. And building off that, how would you say that LEGO is uniquely positioned to engage with your audience on social media?
James Gregson: Yeah. I think it certainly helps having a widely loved brand. It sounds obvious. It certainly makes my job and my team’s job and the teams across the globe, our job increasingly easy. And I think it also, it reinforces the purpose of what we try to do in social. So our brand vision is to inspire the builders of tomorrow, and I think that is a foundational strategy to our social content. It should inspire people at a very basic level. And I think that’s a really critical component to what our social channel strategy is.
So if you look at it on Instagram, it is obviously nuanced across social channels because we believe we want to have specific expressions across those different social channels. So on Instagram, you’re going to see a much more visually strong, bigger lean into UGC content because our fans are so fantastic at creating really strong visuals. Whereas on Facebook, you’re going to see a lot more news-related social video first type content. So yeah, I think that the best way to summarize it up is that our goal is to always inspire people. And hopefully, you see that across a lot of the content that we create and publish on our channels.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, absolutely. And what do you think are some things that people take for granted about social media marketing in general?
James Gregson: I think social media marketing and social media in general has, unfortunately, become the dumping ground for all things marketing communications. Because it is, air quotes, so easy. Everyone’s got a Facebook page, everyone can publish something on Facebook. I think there is an expectation across stakeholders and marketing specialists, or anyone that wants to leverage an audience on social media, that you can reach a lot of people really easily. And I think it’s about being a lot more strategic of that, and a lot more specific and purpose driven behind that.
I use this example all the time of, I’m not going to go into specifics, but let’s say I am a video gamer and I want to publish my content on an entertainment channel. What percentage of that audience on that, let’s say, entertainment Facebook channel are gamers? You can find that out for free very easily. But what people don’t understand is the organic reach. Let’s say the rough percentage of organic reach on a given post is, let’s just say roughly, it’s usually below 10%. let’s say it’s 5%. But if we know that the audience on your Facebook page, only 20% of them like video games or have an interest based on Facebook’s insights in video games, that organic post is reaching a very small percentage of the actual audience that is actually going to have an interest, or that you know will have an interest in that piece of content. And that is rarely considered. And it’s also a critical component of why paid media is such a critical component to social.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. And what are some good rules of thumb to consider when creating a social campaign?
James Gregson: Yeah, broad question. I think the audience. It’s got to go back to the audience. So when you’re typically picking… All social channels are not created equal from an audience perspective, number one, who’s on there. As well as from a content consumption perspective. How someone consumes content on YouTube is a very different to how someone consumes content on Pinterest. And one creative campaign is not created equal across social channels. So it pains me when I see a traditional a TV commercial being run on other social channels. Even to some extent, a TV commercial being run on YouTube, although that is more traditional than, say, on Facebook.
So I think it’s being very specific about what you’re trying to achieve, who you’re trying to reach, defining a channel strategy off of that, and then ensuring that you are producing content specifically for those channels, specifically for those audiences. Sounds super basic, but I think people tend to consider what they are trying to achieve from a brand marketing standpoint or from a communication standpoint, rather than taking into consideration what works for the channels and what works for the audiences within those channels. So that’s part A, B and C.
And then finally, even more nuanced than that, when we talk about paid social media, and creating what does your marketing toolbox or your asset toolbox look like across a given campaign, I often use… And this isn’t created by me. I don’t want to take credit for it at all. But Facebook is very specific about creating a series of ad units across an attention span, or a series of post types across an attention span. From everything from gifs to image posts, all the way through to an instant experience ad. That’s probably the deepest dive and deepest experience you can have from an ad unit on social. It’s really important that you create content across that spectrum of attention spans. So making sure that you have different content types that will hopefully reach and engage with different audience types across that attention span. Because there’s no point in going all in on a long form video, just based on what we know of social media audiences and how they consume content.
Nate Watkin: Definitely. Yeah, that makes sense. So what is a recent campaign that you’re proud of having worked on?
James Gregson: Yeah, so probably the most recent campaign I’m most proud of is our response to the stay at home orders as a result of COVID. So Build At Home, Let’s Build Together. It has a couple names. But basically, once the one stay at home orders were being pretty globally spread, we decided very quickly as a business that we had a responsibility to lean in and support parents, kids, and adults that were stuck at home desperate for things to do. Now, there could be an argument made that we wanted to sell more products and drive awareness to our product and all that. But we made a very strong statement internally that this was not a commercial message. This was about really driving awareness and creating content that was engaging to parents and kids and adults, as I said, they were stuck at home looking for things to do.
So it was just a really exciting opportunity. I think it was because external production challenges, and just traditional distribution methods were hampered because of the COVID, we, as an entire global organization, really galvanized across our social channels. It was great to see a singular effort across global and regional teams towards one objective. So it was everything from building instructions to live build sessions with LEGO designers from their home to daily build inspirations to a series of different things. And we really leaned into that expression in the Americas on Pinterest, given that Pinterest is that activity hub for a lot of parents.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Yeah, that was an excellent campaign. I was also a big fan of the Bugatti, where you built a actual working Bugatti out of LEGOs.
James Gregson: Yes. That was a super exciting execution. I would agree.
Nate Watkin: Definitely. Can you tell me a little bit more about your social media newsroom and how you engage with trends online?
James Gregson: Yeah, certainly. One of the biggest challenges, and opportunities, depending on how you look at it, is because LEGO touches so many categories, whether it’s IPs like Star Wars or Marvel, to Friends or Big Bang Theory, there’s a lot of opportunity to lean into trends at a basic level. We’re a pretty well-known brand, if not a very well-known brand, so there’s a lot of opportunity. I think for us, we spend a lot of time ensuring that the juice is worth the squeeze, per se, and that we have a business reason to why we’re doing this. Now, that business reason may just be that this is too good of an opportunity not to lean into. I think if you look at the Tesla Cybertruck as a great example of that. A lot of people remember the Cybertruck announcement. And I think the, being neutral here, the awe of the design of the Cybertruck, and it doesn’t take an expert in social to understand that that’s a trending topic.
Now, do we have a 24/7 listening set up? No, we don’t. But do we use listening and data to confirm instincts around a concept? So in that instance, it’s very important we confirm that either the spike, the volume of conversation is on the rise, or it hasn’t dipped too far to the point of not wanting to engage, or that we shouldn’t engage. And then it’s understanding what the size of the overall conversation is and determining whether it’s worthy of jumping in.
So it’s a pretty standard approach. I think people are probably a little bit surprised that we probably tend to say no internally to a lot of things more than we say yes. Just because primarily, we don’t want to exhaust what that real-time marketing muscle looks like. We’d much rather have two or three Cybertruck-like moments, or Oreo Superbowl-like moments, rather than a higher volume of more average moments.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And so let’s talk about family life for a moment. You have three kids. How do you manage to balance the responsibility of family with your job, especially in this new remote working environment?
James Gregson: Yeah, okay. So I have two six month old twins, six month old twin boys, identical twin boys, and a two and a half year old daughter. I think in any world, that’s a challenging life set up, let alone staying at home. I’m very lucky that I have my mother-in-law here. So she’s a great big help. And I’ll be very honest that we also had a nanny or a babysitter through COVID, because frankly, we needed one.
But there was a time… I vividly remember the Let’s Build Together brainstorm that started in Denmark at, it must’ve been at 10:00 in the morning. So for me, that was 4:00 in the morning. And I knew this was a big initiative that I really wanted our team to be part of. So I was up at 4:00, and I think I had, because I was on the night shift looking after my twins, I think I had gone to bed at 1:30. So it’s been very challenging.
I think, though, on the flip side, I’d much rather be surrounded by my family in this environment than being a single guy living in my Brooklyn apartment, like I did once upon a time. I think that would be a very different reality and a far more challenging reality. And I am concerned about how this plays out for that audience, as we’re working from home for a longer and longer and longer time.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Pros and cons, once again.
James Gregson: Yes. Yes, definitely.
Nate Watkin: So just a fun question here. What was, or still is, your favorite LEGO set of all time?
James Gregson: I will have to break that up into two things. As a kid, my fondest memories of my father, who is still alive… I say that, and I always think it makes it sound like he’s dead, but he is still alive. It was playing with the medieval castle sets. I loved those sets so much. They were awesome. I had a basement with a carpet, which is not conducive to playing with LEGO. And I never forget the greatest gift of all time was this massive sheet of plywood that my dad got from the hardware store that we throw on the floor. So yeah, castle set. I think now, it has to be a set that isn’t even out yet that was announced fairly recently, which is the NES Nintendo set. That just looks so cool and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.
Nate Watkin: Maybe a little marketing plug there for the new release.
James Gregson: Yes, but I also will say that set’s going to have no problem selling.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. No, that does sound very cool. So lastly, one of your key messages personally has been enjoying what you do. What advice would you give to young people out there trying to break into the industry?
James Gregson: Yeah, it’s a question I get a lot, and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to speak at a few colleges. I think, listen, when I was out looking for a job, it was a very different world than what it is now. I had a lot of job experience, luckily, going out into the workforce after I graduated college. But now, as I understand it, kids in high school are wanting to do internships and wanting to build up their work experience resume, which is terrifying from a competitive standpoint. I understand that it’s significantly more competitive than it was when I was… So I’ll set that as an expectation.
I think enjoy what you do sounds like a really obvious thing. But for me, not being an academic, not really enjoying school, I was only ever going to do well and get good grades if I enjoyed what I was doing. Case in point, computer animation with a minor in painting. I was never going to go work at Pixar and I never was going to be the next Picasso. That was never the expectation. The expectation was I needed to get good grades. A GPA is far more important, at that time at least, a strong GPA was far more important than the details of the GPA. Obviously, I’m not trying to be a lawyer, I’m not trying to be a doctor. So it’s different there.
I just think you’re inherently going to want to work harder and take pride in what you do if you enjoy it. And I think it’s just a really critical component to what it is, especially when you’re in an environment like being stuck working from home and you’ve got three young kids that really need personal attention and time, and you’ve got to make extra time and sleep less to do what you want to do. You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t enjoy what you did.
Nate Watkin: Absolutely. Great advice and something I live by myself. So thank you again for joining us. This was a really great conversation and I appreciate you being here.
James Gregson: No worries. Thanks so much for having me.