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

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.

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This story first appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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