What's the next big thing after digital influencers?
Pelle Sjoenell gets a glimpse of his tattoos whenever he brushes his teeth. A heart, four-leaf clover, diamond, and ace of spades run through his lower right arm. The symbols of love and luck are pretty self-explanatory, while the diamond, according to the 45-year-old Swede, means "a stand-up person, authentic". This brand of authenticity isn't just inked onto his skin; it also bears its mark on Sjoenell's view of advertising.
In the Singapore BBH (Bartle Bogle Hegarty) office for a few days, the global chief creative officer is far away from the "mother sheep", as he wryly put it (a black sheep is the icon for the advertising agency). "I'm a Swedish guy working for a British company owned by the French and living in LA. It's an amazing time in globalisation". In our short time, the father-of-three gushed about Singapore's many draws: How his stay at PARKROYAL on Pickering exemplified Singapore's mix of nature and culture; his recently-purchased wrist strap from Little India; and how the sci-fi 1982 film Blade Runner could have been shot in "futuristic" Singapore.
Sjoenell's visit to Singapore comes at an exciting time in his career in advertising, and for BBH Singapore. Now in its 21st year, they've recently won a Webby for Nike Unlimited Stadium — an activation in Manila to launch the brand's LunarEpic trainer by creating a shoe-shaped LED virtual running track. Internationally, BBH has worked on campaigns such as H&M Loves Coachella, Google Chrome, as well as Levi's. In June, Sjoenell will be on the jury for Lions Entertainment, a part of Cannes Lion that showcases the best work in branded content.
Yet for someone whose world you'd assume revolves around advertising, Sjoenell shares that he's not an ad junkie. "I'll get to see thousands of pieces of work, which is really educational to see what's great right now," he said of his Cannes Lion appointment. "But I try to avoid advertising like everyone else."
First things first: What makes a good ad person?
Compassion. The only way to make an idea effective is to be able to know the reaction to it. We're the absolute opposite of an artist. Artists express themselves in a painting, but you think it's about something else. Everyone can interpret art. But what we do has to be interpreted the exact same way —mass communication. To do that, you have to know how a lot of people think, and not just what you want to say. We engineer culture.
You've mentioned in previous interviews that the first ad that really impacted you was one of Levi's, which you watched at a theatre in Sweden when you were 13. What was special about it?
We didn't have advertising in Sweden back then. Sweden is a dark cold place...
But a lot of good music comes out from Sweden. ABBA, Lykke Li, Robyn, Roxette, Peter Bjorn and John...
Yes, there's good reason for this. We adapt to the world. We're the only Nordic nation who knows that we're f*cked, that we're insignificant in the world. No one sees us, no one hears us. So we eat pop culture. We're Francophiles, we're Americanised... we're all these things in one place.
When I saw that, I saw something that came from the rest of the world. I felt that this was for me. Someone made something for a 13-year-old guy who wants to be cool in Sweden.
Did you end up buying a pair of Levi's?
The Levi's spot was set in the desert with Tatjana Patitz in a bar. A guy comes down the stairs with no pants on, corners her and then reaches for the fridge and takes out his pair of Levi's, puts them on and drives off in a motorcycle. I was like, "That's so f*cking cool". But to have cold pants on in Sweden was not the best thing. But it affected me. Someone at that time — BBH London — knew what it was like to be a 13-year-old guy. I felt that a great ad was for my generation. It made me put my jeans in the fridge.
You're BBH's youngest global chief creative officer and have been in the business for 25 years. What's one thing that has evolved in the way you work?
I'm old enough to know what I believe in. As a creative in advertising, there's a lot of chasing fame and achievement. You put your ideas on your table for everyone to stomp on everyday. I feel like I'm not chasing anymore. I'm trying to shape and see where we can take it.
You've worked a fair bit with celebrities, and even launched perfumes for Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. There's been a lot of critique around brands who mindlessly use influencers and celebrities in their marketing. What are your thoughts?
What brands want by default is their distribution and fans, and they want their attraction. But what happens is an audience knows when someone is bought. So if you look at YouTube stars who do makeup, obviously a lot of makeup brands make sense there. But when you throw in a car, it doesn't.
When does it make sense for brands to use influencers?
When it's authentic and real, it really works. Some influencers are not authentic and you can tell when they do it for free stuff. They don't really have a point of view — they just look great. The ones who are going to go further have an opinion. For me, the big thing is to seek authenticity when it comes to influencers and celebrities. You can't fake it anymore. The audience is too sophisticated.
It's interesting to look at brands that are helping, instead of buying fame. How can we help you? Redbull is a great example of a brand helping athletes achieve their dreams. "What can we do as a brand?" That's a better way than to say, "We'll pay you to wear stuff." You shouldn't look at influencers or celebrities as endorsements, it works when they're co-creators. Give them creative freedom to take your brand and do things with it, then it becomes more real and trustworthy.
"You shouldn't look at influencers or celebrities as endorsements, it works when they're co-creators. Give them creative freedom to take your brand and do things with it, then it becomes more real and trustworthy."First came the bloggers, and now comes the influencers. What do you think is next?
Every wave hits the shore eventually and comes back as an anti-reaction. Celebrities and influencers are out of proportion in the world. We see it in politics. This obsession with fame is going to hit the shore soon and come back as something else. I think there are too many celebrities and influencers. I believe that's going to lead to us being less interested in them.
With celebrities and influencers, we live in feeds and bite-sized content. At the same time, we are looking at long form more than ever. We look at television seasons, we binge things... we seek depth, knowledge and expertise, as opposed to the latest influencers or the coolest things. I've seen that before. But what do they know? What's their passion?
You say that good advertising is when advertising doesn't feel like advertising — when it's on the level that people actually care about it. How do you think technology has aided in this?
An example is the Nike Unlimited Stadium, which is the world's largest LED track. You have your own avatar on the screen where you can run against yourself. That's the warm part of technology. I'm trying to beat my own record. Technology that wins is something that makes things more human. The biggest win for any brand is intimacy. Technology can connect the brand to users as opposed to viewers.
You're also the co-founder of The Creative Studio with Scooter Braun. I have to ask: Are you a Belieber?
I like the new album. He grew up musically at that point.
I'm interested to know what an ad head like you consumes regularly. What are you currently reading, listening to and watching?
I'm reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and I love reading Swedish criminal novels — it's a way for me to be back there in my head. I'm mostly listening to podcasts. I like the NPR politics and Stuff You Should Know podcasts. I'm watching Big Little Lies, that show with Nicole Kidman.
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