How Sweden’s Åkestam Holst Is Chasing Greatness in Its Work and in the Workplace

Inside Adweek's first International Agency of the Year

Executive creative director Magnus Jakobsson and CEO Petronella Panérus Courtesy of Åkestam Holst
Headshot of Tim Nudd

For years, Ikea positioned itself as “Unboring.” This was standard marketing speak—the notion that even furniture could be exciting. It made some sense for Ikea, a well-liked brand whose products, stylish for their price point, do provoke something of a low-key thrill among shoppers. Still, it was Marketing 101. Take the ordinary, and make it seem extraordinary.

A decade and a half later, in its home country of Sweden, Ikea takes a very different view of ordinary. Ordinary isn’t something to run from, its latest advertising suggests. Ordinary is real. Dressed up the right way, it can even be inspiring—after all, it’s authentic and relatable.

A campaign called “Where Life Happens,” created by Åkestam Holst in Stockholm—Adweek’s International Agency of the Year for 2017, a new award we’ve introduced this year—takes this idea and runs with it. Where most advertising presents idealized reality to which people might aspire, “Where Life Happens” does the opposite. It shines a light on the most unremarkable of lives, and in so doing, creates something remarkable.

A newly divorced dad decorates his son’s bedroom to look exactly like the kid’s room at his mother’s house. A single mom struggles to feel sane in a house full of messy teens. A would-be mother faces an ocean of uncertainty as she adopts a child from overseas.

There’s nothing glamorous about these stories. (Indeed, the plots would be taboo for many advertisers.) Yet they feel true, and unadorned. They also feel different than all other ads out there—even if Åkestam Holst’s creative chief, Magnus Jakobsson, balks at the idea that they’re revolutionary at all.

“There is nothing special about the concept, and perhaps that’s what’s so special about it,” he says. “Maybe Swedes can identify with this sort of emotional storytelling, focused on everyday dilemmas in an everyday world, since living way up north is not always very exciting or ‘out of this world.’ In the wintertime, the sun barely shows itself. That’s life. If you can tell a story about the real world in Sweden without people falling asleep bored out of their minds, then you’ve won.”

“Where Life Happens” accomplishes that and more. It’s showpiece advertising on a marquee brand by an agency that’s steadily built its creative reputation in recent years—particularly since winning the domestic Ikea account in 2013.

“It’s clear that this new concept makes people talk about Ikea in a way they have not done for some years,” says Patrik Nygren-Bonnier, head of marketing at Ikea Sweden. “It drives engagement and shows that Ikea is more than just another home furnishing company; we have a strong vision of enabling a better everyday for many people.”

Jakobsson will admit the campaign is bold in its own, quiet way.

“In a world where advertising obviously uses insights from real life, few big brands dare to dramatize reality in the way we have done so far,” he says. “I don’t really think ‘Where Life Happens’ rethinks advertising per se, but it most certainly rethinks the glossy, retouched ballpark that advertising often has to play in.”

A 20-Year Experiment

While Åkestam Holst has hit its stride in the past 18 months, it began in 1998 as something of an experiment.

Current CEO Petronella Panérus, who joined in 2015, says the original founders felt Sweden had just two types of agencies—“tough, hard-boiled agencies that did great work but treated their employees like expendable resources, or nice agencies that built pleasant work cultures but ultimately delivered only poor or middle-of-the-road work.”

Åkestam Holst was intended to be a “paradox,” she says, “an agency that did world-class creative work while still putting its employees first, and freeing them to focus on their lives outside work.” Twenty years later, she considers the experiment to be “an ongoing success,” with the agency growing as it continues to improve both its creative work and its workplace culture.

Revenue was up 8 percent in 2016, reaching 100 million Swedish kronor (about $12 million U.S.) for the first time, and is projected to grow by another 4 percent this year. The agency hired 11 new employees in 2017, reaching 68 total.

New-business wins in 2017 included telecom Tele2, brewery Spendrups, grocery chain Hemkop, makeup chain Kicks, lobbying group the Swedish Forest Industries Association, sugar-free candy brand Nicks and home security company Sector Alarm.

In the early years, the agency was known for its unconventional campaigns for small clients, working largely with alternative media, guerrilla and events. “We were doing viral, PR-driven advertising before it became a standard operating procedure,” says Panérus. It also built a strong planning department before many other shops.

Now, Åkestam Holst is among Sweden’s largest and most creative agencies. (Forsman & Bodenfors has long been considered the country’s gold standard creatively, though some local observers believe Åkestam Holst has now reached the same level.) The agency historically was independent, but in 2014 it joined The North Alliance (NoA), a collection of Nordic agencies that are independent and maintain their unique creative cultures but collaborate on key clients and projects.

Audi ‘Logo Switch’ The agency replaced the Audi logo with a license plate on Swedish skier Frida Hansdotter’s arm during the 2017 World Ski Championships, then gave a car to the first person watching on TV to spot it and report it in social media.

Work and Workplace

Åkestam Holst isn’t just known for its creative trailblazing. It’s also been a pioneer in office culture by promoting diversity and equality in its workforce. This has been a passion project for Panérus. Last year, the agency won the Golden Wave, an award for the Swedish shop that’s done the most to promote diversity and equality internally. It won the same award this year.

The agency’s senior management team, including the CEO, is 55 percent women. Some 63 percent of account executives, 48 percent of creatives, and 57 percent of new recruits in 2017 are women. Meanwhile, approximately 15 percent of employees can trace their ancestry outside the Nordic countries, and more than 5 percent are openly part of the LGBT community.

It’s not just window dressing, says Panérus, but a way to press a business advantage.

“I fully believe a sound culture will ensure outstanding creative work,” she says. “The advertising industry still has a long way to go until we see diversity in most agencies. I’m hoping Åkestam Holst can be a trailblazer in that field. If we are to make ads for all kinds of target groups, we have to make sure all those perspectives are represented in the groups that create that advertising.”

Åkestam Holst’s commitment to progressive values extends beyond its internal structures and into its creative output—most notably, with the Humanium Metal initiative.

Humanium, developed with fellow Stockholm agency Great Works for human rights group IM, is a material made of recycled metal from melting down illegal firearms. The initiative urges brands to buy the metal and use it in their commercial production, with profits going to funding for gun-violence victims and projects to rebuild conflict-torn societies.

Five brands have committed to the project, Jakobsson says, and almost one ton of Humanium has been transported from El Salvador to Sweden to be made into stainless steel powder. The first Humanium-based products will reach consumers in March.

The project snagged the coveted Innovation Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions festival in June—a huge honor for Åkestam Holst, whose best showing at Cannes previously was a spate of silver Lions in 2014 for a digital subway ad that showed a woman’s hair blowing around whenever trains arrived in the station.

“I think every human being has a moral obligation to help people in need,” Jakobsson says of purpose-based advertising. “If they can do so by inventing a new business model that uses metal from illicit guns to generate help for the those affected by gun violence, it’s great. Trying to make the world a better place can never be wrong.”

Freaks and Geeks

A superstar copywriter at DDB Stockholm for a decade, Jakobsson galvanized Åkestam Holst when he joined in 2016. Since his arrival, he has recruited 10 creatives, most of them juniors. He affectionately uses the term “freaks and geeks” to describe his merry band of pranksters.

“I’m proud that we have attracted a new layer of creatives—that seriously geeky and somewhat freaky layer that perhaps Åkestam Holst lacked a few years ago,” he says. “‘Surround yourself with freaks and geeks and you will never become the norm’ is something Confucius never said. But it’s something I would definitely agree with if he had.”

Jakobsson has also implemented “open briefs” on most major clients, giving any creative—senior, junior or intern—the chance to solve whatever is in the pipeline. The agency’s “Retail Therapy” campaign for Ikea—a bit of SEO genius in which Ikea renamed many products after frequently Googled problems that those products solve—came from an open brief.

“The creatives had never worked with Ikea on this level before,” Jakobsson says. “Given the chance, they took it and ran. The chance to shine is more constant at Åkestam Holst than at many other agencies, I think. There are no hierarchies when it comes to achieving creative excellence.”

Jakobsson is also proud that his creative team, and the ad industry generally, is now valuing ideas over image.

“I’m not saying it’s rocket science, but the days of ‘cool’ people bouncing ideas between them with their feet on some designer table are definitely over,” he says. “Raw talent, being nice and broad creative skills have replaced everything that was once ‘cool’ in the Swedish advertising industry. I always love it when being smart wins over wearing the right brand of pants.”

The Long Idea

Heading into 2018, Åkestam Holst aims to fine-tune its longstanding experiment of producing world-class advertising from within an agency culture that values diversity and equality.

Creatively, Ikea remains job one. The agency recently released “Irresistible Pointless TrueView Ads,” a preroll campaign that’s part of “Where Life Happens.” The prerolls, some of them almost 10 minutes long, are intentionally and insistently boring—showing people going about their everyday lives, even as they occasionally turn to the camera and plead with the viewer to skip the ad.

It’s inspired work in a campaign whose every evolution is special.

Ikea ‘Irresistible Pointless TrueView Ads’ These ingenious YouTube preroll ads were long and intentionally boring, with characters who dared the viewer to skip. But that’s what kept people watching.

“They have clever minds, and a curious and humble view on business and marketing,” says Ikea’s Nygren-Bonnier. “They spend lots of time to understand the customer and the business, and to find ways and ideas to change people’s perception and business results.”

Nygren-Bonnier adds that Ikea’s total brand communication awareness, or TBCA, is up this year after several years of declines—a reversal he called “truly a great achievement.” “We know that this communication is driving short and long-term business, and long term love of the brand,” he says.

In terms of workplace culture, Panérus says she will continue to effect positive change, and hopes other agencies follow suit—both internally and in their work.

“We’ve started talking about ‘the long idea’ instead of ‘the big idea,’” she says. “We want to challenge the industry to think more long term, to create ideas that last and create value over time, and take responsibility for how our work impacts society.”

For an agency mantra, that’s about as unboring as it gets.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.