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How Åkestam Holst got people to fall in love with ‘unlikeable’ IKEA products

Award-winning international creative agency Åkestam Holst made people care about, and fall in love with, seemingly-banal IKEA products by convincing consumers beds, chairs and even forks had emotional value, the executive creative director Magnus Jakobsson has told the audience at Mumbrella360.

Jakobsson also revealed that lots of its acclaimed work has been done by employees at the agency who aren’t even assigned to the IKEA account.

Jakobsson said working with IKEA wasn’t always easy, but was worth it

The agency has done award-winning work for IKEA, including ‘The Pee Ad’ print ad which doubled as a pregnancy test and ‘Retail Therapy’ which renamed IKEA’s products as common Google searches about relationship problems in Sweden, which Jakobsson noting it wasn’t an easy path.

“IKEA is not a shoe, it is not perfume, it is not those things that makes you feel like a king or a queen for a day – it is more or less forks, a chair for $20 or it could be a lightbulb.

“IKEA product liking had to go up with this concept, so our creative strategy was in a way quite simple when you think about it, but it was just to attach emotional value to all these things, attach something for people to like, take these unlikables and make people like them,” he said in Mumbrella360’s opening keynote.

“In a good way finding the way to just highlight why the hell you should like these things that we don’t really think about.”

The experienced creative said the agency took this approach because it gave them the chance to attach emotional value to the brand and its seemingly-banal products.

“Basically not by glamourising it or exaggerating it or being price worthy or functional but by attaching real emotional value to the product,” he said.

Jakobsson: “They are not easy to work with, it is not an easy path through everything.”

Transforming an international brand, and getting people to care about it, means a lot of hard work, taking risks and dealing with client demands, he said.

“IKEA, they will call you in the middle of the night, they will have 100 meetings and then 100 tissue sessions and then 200 workshops and then cancel everything and then everything is off just like any other big brand like that will do, so they are not easy to work with, it is not an easy path through everything.

“People want to work at our agency from all over the world but everyone thinks ‘Oh my god you did an ad that you can pee on, so let’s do this, I mean I want to work at your place’. It is not like that at all –  it is really hard, really really hard, but then again it is because they care, because they want the unexpected, they want the amazing and real advertising.

“They want advertising, so they were not expecting what we presented when we presented that concept … instead we focused on real life like the bitter-sweet symphony that is our lives in a way that is seldom done in advertising. It is sort of flat and the IKEA products are applauded almost like applauding IKEA products for just maintaining our ill grim real life, like being there for you in the end after all. So this concept was sort of a hard sell because it is so real,” Jakobsson said reflecting on the agency’s award-winning IKEA work and its now two-year-old ‘Where Life Happens’ brand positioning.

Åkestam Holst CEO Petronella Panerus told the room running an award-winning agency wasn’t about winning the big clients, or changing a business and its processes – it’s instead about chaning individual minds.

Panerus said an award-winning business comes down to the agency’s culture

Becoming an award-winning, creative and highly-regarded agency isn’t something that happens overnight, she told Mumbrella360.

You don’t change organisations or processes, you change individual minds. You need structures and rules and everything, but you need to change the minds and by exploring people, cultures and the purpose of an organisation in an emotional context you can align the organisation with its employees.

“So it is about increasing awareness and changing attitudes and behaviours. It is not about injecting happiness initiatives, it is about creating a foundation or environment for people to flourish,” the CEO, who has been at the helm of the agency for nearly three years, added.

Panerus, who joined Åkestam Holst in 2015 from her previous role as the CEO of Great Works, said the ingredients for a strong culture are love, leadership and values.

The CEO emphasised that “love” doesn’t mean an agency can never have conflicts, noting they have conflicts everyday – “but you have to respect each other”.

“Everyone doesn’t like me but they respect me and I respect them,” she added.

Panerus said being a leader within an agency means contributing to a culture where everyone can learn from their colleagues.

“If we as leaders can contribute to a culture where we let everyone be themselves, that we truly want to learn from each other, we are in a better position to be inclusive and have great company cultures.”

Despite its inclusivity and loving environment, Åkestam Holst’s culture, Panerus contended, is not “nice” or “wimpy”.

“But good is not nice, we are inclusive but not cosy or wimpy, we stick to our principles and we are persistent and when the situation requires, we fight for what we believe in.

“We collaborate but do not seek consensus, we believe that good collaborations or collaborations with our clients makes weak ideas sorted out faster and good ideas, bright ideas, see the light of day much earlier and becomes a reality,” she said.

“We are always doing our part to help improve society just a little bit.”

Apotek Hjartat’s campaign to drop taxes on sanitary items by 25%, created by Åkestam Holst

The agency – which has clients including IKEA, convenience store chain Pressbyran, insurance company Felix and pharmacy chain Apotek Hjartat – was the most awarded Swedish agency at Cannes last year, an achievement which wouldn’t matter if the agency was not creating “deep business results” for its clients.

“It doesn’t matter if you win all these fancy awards and creativity awards if you don’t see the results from the bottom end,” the CEO said, explaining how the agency has a strong focus on science and data which enables the company to gain a deep understanding of its clients’ business.

Although the agency has placed an emphasis on culture, creativity is still at Åkestam Holst’s core.

Jakobsson said within the creative department the agency is “transparent in a way that maybe is quite unusual”.

“When it comes to ideas at Åkestam Holst you have to show your ideas and you have to be totally open about everything you do and everyone has to be able to have opinions about your ideas and in that way we also apply it to briefs, so when there is a brief we give it to everyone, if there is a chance something great might happen with a client, everyone gets the chance to do it.”

Jakobsson noted that this way of working is not the way most agencies do it.

“[Other agencies] are nagging that you have closed teams and people always say they never get the chance to do great work, but at Åkestam we turned that over and gave everyone the chance to do it, but you have to give it the time and ambition to really want to do it.”

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