What sparked your interest in design and marketing? Growing up in Sweden where design and marketing hold a natural center stage in all of society, I was steeped in all things design from an early age. But in Sweden, we only had two TV channels in the ’80s, and neither of them showed ads. We would go to the movies and sit in anticipation as the commercials scrolled by, and I think I was more interested in the ads than in the actual movies. I remember much more about the Levi’s commercials before the film Stand by Me than I do from the actual movie.
How did Sköna develop into a tech company–focused creative agency, and what has it been like growing from a two-person operation to a two-location firm? We started out as a small creative agency in San Francisco working with regional brands like Alcatraz Island, the Palace Hotel and the San Francisco Examiner. In 2005, we stumbled upon a startup called VMware. Today, the cloud computing company has 31,000 employees, but back then, there were only a couple hundred. We worked with them for more than ten years and, in the process, met a lot of great marketers who went on to other tech companies in Silicon Valley. We were lucky enough that they took us with them.
About seven years ago, we looked at our book of business and realized just how many tech companies we were working with—more importantly, we loved the work. That’s when we officially made the decision to pivot and since then, we’ve focused entirely on the B2B tech sector.
Our company grew at the same time, and we had plenty of speed bumps. From the beginning, we were basically a mom-and-pop shop, completely lacking structure, process or hierarchy. Those were fun but crazy and chaotic days. After a few years, I realized that I needed a new challenge. I wanted to grow Sköna beyond what that nonstructured approach could support, which led me to the EOS concepts. Today, we are about three years into our implementation of EOS, and although we are in no way perfect, we are a completely different company now than when we started. Sometimes, I miss the freedom and impulsiveness of those early days, but I would never go back.
You’ve recently opened a second Sköna office in Stockholm. What are the differences and similarities between the creative industries in Sweden and the United States? The obvious answer is a hierarchy—or the lack thereof in Sweden. But if you dig deeper than that, you realize that in the United States, our teams, departments and agencies are larger with more people. And you need that hierarchy if we are going to function at all.
Swedish agencies are also allowed to be a little more unexpectedly creative. They are really good at creating and executing one-off ideas. I believe that’s because it is less common for them to work holistically with clients the way we tend to do in the United States. I’m going to also be a little political here and say that the Swedish employment system and high level of job security mean people are less afraid and more willing to take creative risks.
Why do you feel it is beneficial for creative agencies to take on pro-bono campaigns? As creative agencies, we live our lives in a bit of a bubble. We’re very privileged to work in the best profession in the world. Taking on pro-bono work not only opens our eyes to the rest of the world but also gives us an opportunity to give back. Selling virtualization software is intellectually stimulating but doesn’t exactly give us the opportunity to make the world any better than we found it. Helping the San Francisco–Marin Food Bank (SFMFB) get its message out to a city where 25 percent of the population doesn’t know where they’re going to get their next meal makes a real difference in the lives of others.
How does Sköna develop its relationships with nonprofit organizations? We probably shouldn’t put this on a public forum, but we try to figure out a way to work with all the nonprofits who knock on our door. As an agency, we’ve decided to dedicate 10 percent of our time to pro-bono causes, which, for us, currently centers around ending hunger and helping people with HIV/AIDS. We’re a progressive company and wouldn’t work with any clients whose values and beliefs don’t align with our own.
We work with pro-bono clients the same way we do with paying folks. That means we work really hard to establish long-term relationships. One example is the nonprofit AIDS Legal Referral Panel, which we’ve been helping out for the past eighteen years. To us, the pro-bono work we do is not about winning prizes; it’s about filling a need and actually helping people.
Tell us about your campaign for the SFMFB. What was it like to work on this project, and did anything surprise you during it? The transit campaign is an annual OOH campaign that circulates throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Its goal is to raise awareness and drive donations around the holidays and the end of the year. The campaign aims to share the SFMFB’s impact on the community. Since the pandemic, the food bank has had more donors than ever but also more people in need: Fifty thousand households currently receive weekly groceries. That’s 28,000 more households than before the pandemic. The horrifying statistic is that one in four households in the San Francisco area is food insecure.
How we worked this year was different. The pandemic made us rethink the way we collaborate, especially with photography. San Francisco–based photographer Alison Christiana partnered with us to bring our creative vision to life with real SFMFB employees, donors, volunteers and participants. Between professional work, nonprofit volunteering (including with the food bank) and running her own nonprofit—By And For, a Black, Indigenous and people of color–centered photo collective committed to social and racial justice activism—Alison went above and beyond to capture the campaign’s creative goals through her lens.
Have you learned anything new from creating public service work that has then informed your work for tech clients? A lot of our pro-bono work provides the team with a creative outlet and some creative freedom. Apart from learning about the actual issues we support, such as ending hunger, what we’re learning from our public service work is the beauty of authenticity. By featuring real people who rely on the food bank and hearing their stories, we are able to make something that could be conceptual into a real, tangible thing.
What is one challenge currently facing creative agencies that they need to address in order to remain relevant? When I started out in advertising more than 20 years ago, advertising as an industry was “dying.” It’s still the same today. I guess our industry is perpetually dying!
As agencies, we’re always fiercely competing against one another. And on top of that, we now also have to compete with Fortune 100 enterprises that are taking their work in-house—and our talent along with it.
In my opinion, what we need to do is what we have always done, but even better. We have to provide our employees with fun, healthy environments where creativity can really thrive. We have to stay abreast of the newest trends. We have to really understand digital and what drives our clients’ businesses forward. And I believe the age of the All-Powerful Creative Asshole is dead. It’s more important to be fun to work with and to have mutually respectful relationships with our clients than to go along with an inflated opinion of ourselves.
A lot of creative work often seems to be made purely for other creatives. I believe that the future belongs to those who use creativity to solve actual business problems. Creativity is a tool, not an outcome.
Where do you seek inspiration? Nature and travel. All my best ideas come from jogging or being on planes and wandering alone in new destinations. Solitude is the best way for new ideas to emerge.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? You’re going to work hard, but there isn’t a better industry in this world. I still am—perhaps naively—so excited that I get to do this for a living. I have seen what it’s like on the client side, and I can’t thank my lucky stars enough that I landed in the agency world, where creative ideas and quirky personalities are valued and even revered. My home has always and will always be in a creative agency. ca