AKQA’s Bastholm Surveys Digital Scene

SAN FRANCISCO In 2004, after achieving advertising success in his native Denmark, where, among other things, he helped launch Grey Interactive, ecd Lars Bastholm came to New York to open an outpost for San Francisco-based AKQA.

In October 2005, Bastholm, 38, led the winning pitch for Coke’s global digital account, and also won assignments from Smirnoff, Comcast and the New York Jets. In July 2006, he and his team rolled out a new global Web site for Coke across 40 countries, which they continuously update with content and video.

Their new Smirnoff.com work is set to break today.

Q: In February, AKQA sold a majority stake to private equity firm General Atlantic. Why wasn’t the company sold to one of the big holding companies?
A: The board decided to go with General Atlantic so we could retain the freedom to follow our own path. In this arrangement we can go after any client we want. We don’t have to work with clients already working with the holding company, and we aren’t prevented from getting clients because of conflicts.

What’s been your biggest challenge in terms of your global work for Coke?
When we started with Coke, the company had almost 200 Web sites around the world with no commonality. Basically, we had to start from scratch [doing away with the existing sites], building the digital framework for the brand and creating the look and feel of Coke’s global Web presence.

Who are your toughest competitors?
R/GA and Ogilvy. We seem to come up against them often for new assignments, such as Coke.

How is the interaction between multiple shops on integrated campaigns changing?
Before, the digital creatives used to get briefed after the traditional campaign was already done. Now, digital and traditional get briefed on strategy at the same time. Digital creatives used to be seen as the guys who helped out on a small piece of the puzzle, but now traditional creatives see us more as peers … we help build the whole puzzle.

What was your last big idea?
Not so much an idea as an insight. There is so much talk about user-generated content. To get amazing content by asking lots of people to contribute is like saying that 100 million monkeys with 100 million typewriters will come up with the works of Shakespeare. But that would take infinite time. We don’t have infinite time. So I think the notion that great creative will come out of the user-gen world is faulty.

What is the most exciting application in digital today?
Video. We get to figure out, what does interactive video mean and what are the most creative ways to make video interactive. Lots of clients and agencies want to make the Web into a big TV channel with video that is similar to TV shows and is not interactive. That is their comfort level. But the question should be: How do we make online video so consumers can interact with it? How can we use video in a way that is unique to this medium?

How do the instant metrics of digital marketing affect digital creative work?
When you build this huge digital Web experience, you can’t change the whole thing quickly. But you can fine-tune the little things. Based on user response, you can make it easier for people to interact with content or make it easier to understand. We once found, for instance, that if we added the words “click here” that the response rate went up 25 percent. Little changes based on users’ [behavior patterns] can make a big difference.

How do you get past a creative block?
I walk around the streets of New York. You go around a corner and you see another bizarre story. If walking around in New York can’t inspire you, you need to get in another line of work. Also, I go into a big magazine store and pick up a handful of magazines on a topic I know nothing about, like Truckers magazine or something. I think all good creative is a matter of shifting your worldview. Anything that is unknown or novel changes your perspective and improves your creative thinking.

What’s the smartest thing you’ve done professionally?
Leaving Denmark and taking this job. In Denmark I would never have access to global brands like Coke and Smirnoff.

And the dumbest?
The dumbest thing I ever did was a few years ago in Denmark. I pitched an idea that the client absolutely loved. When I got back to the office and told the tech guys, they looked at me as if I was insane. It was a complicated technical task that involved rewriting software and a lot of servers. They told me nothing like that has ever been done in the history of the world. We ended up doing a [version] of what I promised, but it was quite difficult. I learned to always ask the tech folks if a crazy creative idea is doable.

What three words describe how others perceive you?
Easygoing, solution oriented, stubborn.

And three words you’d use to describe yourself?
Not dead yet.

What are the creative differences between Scandinavian and American digital work?
Scandinavian design is cleaner and simpler, which is well suited for digital work.

What is the difference in client expectations between Scandinavia and the U.S.?
Clients in Scandinavia see mobile [phone] marketing as a natural element of what they do digitally, much more than they do in the U.S.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in marketing?
I would be a film critic for a magazine or newspaper.

What digital campaign that’s not yours do you admire most?
Cisco had a World Cup campaign that ran in Europe last year that married technology and entertainment beautifully. On the Cisco Web site a guy invited you to play [soccer] and told you to call a phone number. When you called the number on your mobile, the graphics and audio from the Web site appeared on your phone and it let you play the game with your voice, kicking the ball by saying certain words. It was so much fun.

How and from where do you recruit creative talent?
I go to conferences to meet people and we actively look for people from around the world. The 50 employees in New York represent 14 nationalities. We recently hired a Chinese man who was an assistant professor in digital design in Minnesota. We also get interns from Miami Ad School, the Portfolio Center in Atlanta and Hyper Island in Sweden, an ad school that focuses on digital. Sometimes we hire creative people from traditional agencies who can offer storytelling capabilities, but it can take a year to bring them up to speed in digital marketing.

What advice would you give to a traditional creative who wants to break into the digital world?
Familiarize yourself with what digital creative work wins awards. Also, look at digital agencies’ client lists and think of digital ideas for those clients. It shows what you have to offer. You don’t need to have huge technical knowledge—I don’t have a lot of tech expertise. But you need to know your limits and know who to ask and when to ask about the technical aspects of a project.

What was the last thing you did for fun?
I went to karaoke night with the staff last week. Last summer, I stayed in the Tokyo hotel where my favorite movie, Lost in Translation, was shot. I sat in Bill Murray’s seat in the hotel bar and had a whiskey.

What inspired you to get in advertising?
I worked for Warner Bros. in PR and marketing and decided I wanted to create the marketing instead of just distribute it.

Why digital?
I was working at Grey in Denmark in the mid-1990s and the office installed an Internet connection. A colleague and I were fooling around on it and it dawned on us, this would make a great marketing medium. We convinced the office to start an interactive arm.

What is the most overrated digital campaign?
The BMW Films on the Web. They were highly produced films that happened to be on the Net. They got so much attention. Everybody said let’s put film online, but the only interactive thing about those films was that you push “play.” I think it set the digital ad world back a few years.

What is the most disappointing creative trend in digital marketing?
That many people want to make the Web into a TV station, which is boring. They are not utilizing the strength of the medium, which is its two-way communication with the consumer.

What is your dream assignment?
I want to work with a client like Sony, which has great potential in the digital realm. It recognizes the strengths of digital and is willing to go to new places.

What’s the last book you read?
Bangkok 8, a crime drama. I read it when I was flying back and forth to San Francisco.

And the last movie you saw?
300. It was visually amazing and senselessly violent.