Pelle Sjoenell: The Way I See It
Pelle Sjoenell, BBH’s global CCO, on lessons learnt from Trumpism... and Vikings
Growing up in pop culture-starved Sweden in the 80s, Pelle Sjoenell developed a hankering for cool, daring things; like advertising, which was not only banned on TV but – with Levi’s Launderette – was epitomized by a dude in his pants flinging rocks in a washing machine.
With the drive of his Viking forebears, he conquered top roles at Fallon and King, joined BBH NY in 2007, founded BBH LA in 2010 and became the agency’s global CCO last year. He’s amassed numerous awards for work such as Axe’s Clean Your Balls and Google’s Dear Sophie. He tells Carol Cooper about the ethics of wielding weapons of mass communication and lessons from that election
Pelle is a nickname, it’s ‘short for’ Per.
I was born north of the Arctic Circle in Gällivare, Malmberget, Sweden. A town where the main business was, and is, reindeer herding.
Back then my mom was a Swedish teacher and my dad was doing his residency as a doctor up in the north. Now my mother is a publisher of classic novels and also just got a gold medal awarded, by the King of Sweden, for excellency in textual critique. My dad is still a doctor – he was a TV doctor for many years, he’s also a D.Phil and an inventor with many patents. I’m sure it’s quite clear that I’m very proud of them...
I had a very happy childhood. We moved to Stockholm when I was little and our home became a gathering place for me and my brother’s friends. In my late teens/early twenties I played guitar in a grunge band called Tennis.
My family were all high achievers. My grandad, a professor, was one of the members of the Swedish Academy who award the Nobel Prize in Literature. Another grandad was a parliamentary politician. My grandmother was the first female CEO of a large insurance company. So, no pressure… my brother [Calle, also in advertising, now head of Facebook Creative Shop: Nordics] and I had to find our own thing. Something different.
At first I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. Not the boob kind, but one who can rebuild people.
I was no good at school – too immature to understand what it was for. My favourite subject was recess.
I’ve always been prone to obsessions with out-of-the-ordinary things. I studied Samurai so much I knew the different parts of the Samurai sword in Japanese when I was 12. I learned to breakdance in our basement after seeing Breakin’, the 80s breakdance movie.
To understand what it was like growing up in pop culture-starved Sweden in the 80s you have to know what it felt like for me seeing the film E.T. for the first time. I remember watching the scene where they were playing Dungeons & Dragons and then they got pizza delivered. I’d never seen anything like it; pizza, PIZZA! Delivered to the house! Then, when they took off on their BMX bikes, I blacked out with an overdose of severe Nordic FOMO.
I decided to go into advertising aged 13, after sneaking into a cinema and seeing the Levi 501’s Launderette ad. It was sexy and daring; I had to be a part of it. And back in 1985, the 50s look was so right. It was the first retro trend I can think of.
Advertising was banned from the two Swedish TV channels. We didn’t get commercial TV until 1987 with the launch of TV3, which was broadcast from London to bypassing the advertising laws. We had no rulebook on TV advertising in Sweden, so the work was fresh and different. There were no commercials directors around either, so the big filmmakers were hired to shoot ads – geniuses such as Roy Andersson and Lasse Hallström.
Sweden is the only Nordic country that feels left out, up in the frozen north. We need to shout loud to be heard. Denmark is connected to Europe and Norway has oil, so they’re OK. We have always been obsessed with what’s going on in the rest of the world. We eat pop culture like it’s IKEA meatballs. However, we did get the internet before most others.
The government implemented broadband for the whole nation in 1997 and that’s why the Swedes have such digital prowess. Also, due to labour laws, it’s near impossible to get fired in Sweden, so people tend to take more risks. This breeds a lot of bravery. All these things together means that advertising was, and is, a very exciting industry in Sweden. For such a small nation we’ve had a disproportionate impact.
I found my tribe when I went to study at Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm – it was amazing. We were the first year to use Macs – the last year to use blades to cut copy. I first thought I’d be an illustrator but everyone was better than me; then designer, same thing. I didn’t even try writing as I’m dyslexic so it had to be ideas.
My first job in advertising was as an art director’s assistant at Christer Brunkell. My dad’s friend in advertising got me in, he told me if I learnt the Mac I could be useful so I spent a summer learning Aldus Freehand – I didn’t have a computer; I just memorised the manual.
I’ve had many mentors: Christer Brunkell helped me get started; my Berghs teacher, Bosse Bergström, and my classmates there – Johan Olivero, Oscar Askelöf, Anna Qvennerstedt, Johan Eghammar. I’ve learned from people I’ve worked with, like Christer Mortenssen, Peter Fjäll, Frank Hollingworth and Paul Malmström.
In the early days of my career I didn’t see any boundaries. I was a bit of a smart ass, maybe. I always wanted to learn from the best but still go against the establishment somehow.
I absolutely love being global CCO. When I was asked to do it I thought it was a great opportunity to try and reinvent the role somehow; make it a role for today. BBH is a special place and coming after someone like Sir John Hegarty can be intimidating to say the least.
But I think I’ve found a way to do it differently. He used to be on top of our pyramid, whereas I have placed myself at the bottom, trying to lift everyone up, challenge people and find synergies between the different shops. It’s my mission to make the shops as connected as possible. The good thing with BBH is that we only have seven offices and we all know and like each other. We don’t compete like some other networks. Collaboration is built into the culture and is a huge advantage because we have experts on hand in different the offices – we have our technology spearhead in BBH Stockholm and we have our entertainment experts in Hollywood with all the personal connections they’ve built up over years.
John Hegarty is still mentoring me, which is all one can dream of. It’s funny how our industry is not built around the ‘master and apprentice’ system like many other creative professions, like art or fashion. We somehow like to think ‘out with the old and in with the new’. I want to continue the great legacy that John [Bartle], Nigel [Bogle] and John [Hegarty] started but take it to new places. Winning a BAFTA this year for Home [the refugee crisis short co-produced by BBH’s Black Sheep Studios] made me feel that’s possible.
I’ve never wanted to do anything else but advertising, I love it. It’s amazing what we do, but I think now is the time for the industry to prove its worth. We’ve got to figure out our future. It might sound cocky, but when I got the chance to do this new job, I thought I can’t see this role, or the CD role, being around for many years if things are going in the direction they seem to be heading. So I thought the only way to save my job is to save the industry first!
Media and creativity are both democratised now. Historically, the only route to mass communication was to hire an agency, that’s why we still bill by the hour like lawyers. But now someone on YouTube could make better ads than I do. They have the tools, the tech, the access and we have to compete with that. I do still believe that we have incredible skills and learning and strategy. I learned creativity in school so nobody should be surprised that me and and my peers can come up with great stuff – nobody’s surprised that a lawyer knows the law. It’s our jobs as professionals, but I think we have to prove that our expertise, our understanding of the audience, is of worth.
I am lucky that I am very positive as a person. Maybe I’m very naïve but I think the problems in our industry can be sorted. I’m driven to try to anticipate problems we might face in the future – creativity is problem solving.
We will find a way in advertising, because necessity is the mother of invention. There’s a part of Viking culture that might be relevant to this: so the Vikings would sail off to conquer somewhere, maybe sadly, England or Ireland, and to make sure that everyone was dedicated to the mission being totally successful, after they had arrived, they would set fire to their ships on the shore – so, no way back! They just had to keep going forward.
I think I have done that a few times in my career; I left a successful career in Sweden to take on the USA, starting from nothing again. Then I opened up in LA after working in BBH New York. To start over is to kind of create a ‘necessity’ you have to figure out. And I know I have to be inventive now, to lead us to something new.
I think intimacy is the key. Brands need to create intimacy with their audience, to build trust. We as advertisers have to put ourselves on the receiving end of messages, actions from brands, and to see what it feels like. For example with a tech brand, the only way to make people care about technology is to show that technology cares about people. We don’t care about how new tech works and who invented what first. We care about our friends, our families and the world around us.
Dear Sophie for Google Chrome was a great example of a simple product demo making us feel, because it simulated how we all use technology. It also gave Google Chrome a purpose. It was built as a doer not a browser. People don’t browse the internet, they use it to do things. That insight was what made it great. It had a very strong story too.
What is special about our species, is our stories. Animals are not able to come up with stories. So a dog will not say, “What if a few dogs started a company?” Companies all have their stories, so do religions, and nations. We are addicted to, steered by, affected by, and live and die by stories. We’re united by them, but sadly can be divided, too.
It’s stories that made what happened in Stockholm last night [Sjoenell talked to shots on 8 April, the day after four died in a terror attack in Stockholm]. It’s about believing in one story as opposed to another. So yes, I think stories are more and more important as we get into more and more diverse types of media.
I think if you’re involved in wielding weapons of mass communication, you have a responsibility to use it in the right way. I’d never work on tobacco or anything military. You might try and apply your own beliefs into whatever profession you have, but in advertising that’s not always easy – I do believe that, primarily, I’m in the service of brands.
In a way it is a brilliant time for brands to take a stand and act on their beliefs. It needs to be done with authenticity though, as audiences will spot any jumping on bandwagons. Obviously this isn’t always easy, if the brand is Greenpeace, then it’s pretty clear. With McDonald’s, it might be harder to know where they stand, but brands need to dig inside and find their purpose. It might be that it costs something to be seen as having strong beliefs. REI’s #OptOutside [the outdoor clothing retailer closed its shops on Black Friday, urging people to enjoy outdoor pursuits with family instead of shopping] is a brilliant example and Kendall Jenner for Pepsi isn’t.
I think creatives in advertising tend to be liberal as we have historically come from cities and have had money enough to go to ad school. But we really need to diversify. I think that is my biggest lesson from the US election. As a privileged white man, part of the coastal elite, I was busy trying to protect the minorities with my vote, I hadn’t clocked that there was also a huge suffering majority that needed help to be heard. If we as an industry need to prove ourselves, which I think we do, we need to diversify more. Diversity is broader than gender, race or disabilities; it’s political beliefs, origin and education. All those differences are important to understand if you claim to be a mass communicator.
The creative/entertainment industries have become increasingly globalised. Although we have been forced to do it due to costs rather than a desire to help make a smaller world. Apart from the UN, there are no global governments, but there are global brands. Brands span across markets and borders and have sometimes bigger budgets than entire nations. I think this also gives brands responsibility to unite and act, to create change for good that governments can’t. I don’t think a government will find the cure for cancer, I think a brand or organisation will. Same thing with space travel and so on.
This might be generalising things, but there are some interesting things in politics right now. It used to be that the privileged elite were more right-wing and the working class more left-wing. And it seems somewhere along the way, it switched; left has moved to the right, right has moved to the left; these are strange times.
If I could change something about myself I’d like to sing well. And have a better memory.
My biggest fear? Sinkholes.
Google Chrome: It Gets Better
The closest I’ve been to death was when I was 22 and I escaped being killed at the Stureplan shootings in Stockholm in 1994. Four people died and many more were injured. I was with friends standing at the doorway of a nightclub when the massacre started. Bullets were bouncing all around me. My friend and I ran into the men’s bathroom stall and closed the door, then it went quiet, we heard distant moaning and came out.
One of my friends had military training and I knew a bit of first aid from my dad so we tried to help people. I recall putting my thumb into someone’s wound to stop the bleeding. Strangely, in a way that showed me that when things get chaotic I can get more calm.
The best days of my life were the days our children were born healthy. I have three children: 15-year old twins, a girl and a boy, and a seven-year-old boy.
The worst days? Probably this last election.
I tend to go deep into hobbies in waves. I’ve had many…butterflies, samurai swords, breakdance, synth music, snowboarding, vintage clothing, furniture and jewellery, badass BBQ grills, massive Jeeps, pop art… God knows what’s coming next.
My heroes are, firstly, my wife, Pauline Sjoenell, she’s fantastic. Then… Sir John Hegarty, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Toshiro Mifune, Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, Kamala Harris, Angela Merkel, The Beastie Boys, Elon Musk, Le Corbusier, Ray Eames and John Lennon.
My dad gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever had – to marry someone smarter than me.
If I was US President for a day, I would do the opposite of the current one.
I’m ashamed to say I do Google myself. I care about people, so I care what they think about me.
Artificial Intelligence is probably both the single greatest, and worst, of human inventions.
At the end of the day, what really matters is family… and fashion.