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5 Minutes with… Ann Ýsten

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The Perfect Fools CEO talks innovation, Swedish style and why creative leadership is like watering plants
5 Minutes with… Ann Ýsten

With a name like ‘Perfect Fools’, you’d expect a playful approach to creativity from the international creative agency with offices in Stockholm and Amsterdam. And that’s exactly what you get with CEO Ann Ýsten at the helm – she sees the business of creativity more in terms of playgrounds than process. Having joined two years ago, she’s been busy driving the company’s evolution from a digital-led creative studio to a full service agency, building on the agency’s ambition without losing that essential Perfect Fools culture. As CEO, she is, of course, no fool. Instead she’s the agency’s joker in the pack, bringing incisive client-side insight from her time at Absolut Vodka, Sweden’s largest food and drink export. And, as someone who cut her teeth as an account director – a role she sees as part strategist, part nanny, part psychologist and part fighter – she’s also very much a people person.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with her to learn more.

LBB> How did you get involved in the advertising industry?  

AY> I have a degree in law and business administration. I gravitated towards marketing because I wanted a job that challenged both my analytical and creative abilities. I got recruited from a job as marketing director for a beer and soft drink company to the agency that I worked with, Lowe Brindfors, which at the time was Sweden’s largest agency.

LBB> What advice do you wish you’d had when you were starting out? 

AY> There is no job description for an account director. Be a strategist, be a nanny, be a psychologist, be a fighter. Just fill in the gaps. Whatever is needed. And always be willing to take one for the team.

LBB> You joined Perfect Fools two years ago – what’s that journey been like? 

AY> A tough but amazing transformation from one of the world’s most lauded creative studios to a full service agency fuelled by a lot of new biz meetings. It would not have been possible without the great culture and positive attitude of all the Fools.

LBB> What were your ambitions for the agency when you joined and what are your goals for the future? 

AY> Full service whilst keeping tech and digital expertise. I always believed it would be possible to run an agency based on fun and engagement rather than fear. I believe that Perfect Fools is such an agency, an agency that wants to be the best not the biggest.

LBB> Perfect Fools always strikes me as a very innovative agency – how is the agency organised internally to achieve that? 

AY> All competences are involved from the start in every project, minimising linear processes. It makes us much more agile. We talk about playgrounds rather than processes. Strategic playground, creative playground, production. And everyone is encouraged to play.

LBB> What does your typical day look like? 

AY> In before anyone else at about 8am. I answer emails (mostly job applications and sales pitches) when the office is quiet. Internal and external meetings, a lot of new business presentations. Walking and talking around the office. Eating sushi. Extinguish any small fires before they catch light. I leave around 5:30pm to have dinner with my boyfriend and/or friends. If I am home I watch a series on Netflix and retire around 11. I’m unhealthy, never go to the gym, I smoke like a chimney. But I’m happy and I could never stand anyone telling me how to live my life.

LBB> As a leader of a creative company, what do you see as the key to getting the best out of people? 

AY> My way is not your way. Clarify goals and encourage people to find their own route. We are our own worst critics. Everyone wants to do their best every day and they need to feel it is possible. No one gets out of bed with the mentality that “today I’m going to do a lousy job”. When people doubt themselves it is my job to encourage and make them feel that they can achieve everything. I favour watering plants rather than pruning them. Conformity is boring which leads to similar solutions not innovation.

LBB> Which recent pieces of work have you been really excited about and why? 

AY> The engagement app we created for the Swedish Eurovision contest called Melodifestivalen. 10% of the Swedish population have downloaded the app and the engagement in the show increased more than 1000%. It’s an example of innovation that really works and delivers results.

LBB> You’ve spent time in agencies and on the brand side of things – what’s the one thing that you think that agencies (in general) don’t understand about being a client? 

AY> The buyer is normally more concerned with his or her own success rather than the brand’s. We need to make the client a star whilst at the same time doing what is best for the brand.

LBB> You were at Absolut for three years, what were the highlights of that time? 

AY> The cultural journey. When I was there Pernod Ricard bought Absolut from the Swedish State. It was very interesting to follow the cultural journey, which turned out to be an invaluable experience for me now being a CEO of a company in transition.

LBB> Internationally, Sweden is very well known for its innovation, but tell us something that people might not know about the Swedish market? 

AY> We have the highest number of unicorns in the world after Silicon Valley. What people might not know about Sweden is that we are very much into fashion and style. Come to Stockholm in the summer and watch the Swedes pass by, they are all very stylish. I believe the combination of style and innovation lies behind a lot of the Swedish success.

LBB> There is much talk about the way the industry is changing and the agency model. What are your views? What do agencies need to do to survive the super-changeable market and tech landscape? 

AY> What we hear from traditional clients is fear of disruption and that they look at start-up companies’ ways of working, where product development, communications, marketing and ecommerce are totally integrated. What they ask for is senior understanding of how all of this functions together, as well as a deep understanding of tech and data. 

I believe a lot of the network agencies have processes poorly adapted to this new reality. We need to turn the processes upside down and change the way we look at traditional roles and teams. Perfect Fools has, for example, innovators / developers and PR specialists all involved in a project from the start. Not just planners and creatives.

LBB> You’ve written about the tension between data / insight and creativity – the perhaps misguided fear that data might terminate creativity when in fact it can enhance it. Where does this misunderstanding arise from? And do you think this is still the case or is the creative industry getting its head around how to make the most of data? 

AY> I believe that AI will soon handle all types of data. The only thing that currently we can compete in, as humans, is creativity and critical thinking. Data and analytics will be a commodity, which I believe will make creativity even more important. It doesn’t matter if a message is targeted towards me as an individual, I must want to receive it. We are not rational beings, we just want to rationalise emotional decisions. Creativity is built on understanding humans, not only human behaviour.

LBB> We’ve noticed a trend for agencies to talk more about business transformation and less about advertising – where do you see Perfect Fools on this spectrum? 

AY> I don’t really feel it’s a relevant spectrum but if I must place us there it would be advertising. I'd prefer to call it communication but never the less we deal with innovation and creativity to solve business challenges. What we do can stimulate the clients to take a wider and deeper look at what they do and how they do it but McKinsey we will never be.

LBB> Outside of work, what excites and inspires you? 

AY> Amazing people regardless of field. Could be a priest, a gamer, a carpenter, a chef, a 27-year old, a 65-year old, preferably all at the same time. They are all interesting when you scratch the surface. I never feel more energised and fulfilled than after a great dinner, loads of wine, laughs and philosophical conversations. I am blessed to have a great mix of people in my life.

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Perfect Fools, Thu, 09 Mar 2017 16:25:55 GMT