BBH’s global chief creative officer on being a digital magpie, a black sheep and a Chief Zoom Officer – and taking the BBH flag into the future
Joakim Borgström – or JAB as he’s known to most – has spent his career building a gift for future archaeologists. Over 25 years he’s built an archive of hundreds of folders and hard drives packed full of interactive experiences, websites, images, films that he’s come across and loved. He calls it ‘downloading the internet’. He likens it to taking notes at university, just as the act of writing commits a piece of info to memory, so too does the act of archiving and organising and reorganising his digital vaults. It’s a habit that goes back to his childhood in Sweden – when ads started running on the national TV channels, he would record the ones he liked onto VHS tapes.
It’s a solid and varied foundation – and an endearing ad nerd habit. Joakim loves what he does. He says he’s never moved for position or money, and indeed resisted early offers for ECD roles. He wanted to wait until the time was right. And the time, now, is right. As global CCO of BBH, a mantel he took up a year-and-a-half ago, after running the network’s Singapore office, Joakim has been steering the network through the challenging Covid world, while also nurturing a flurry of stellar creative ideas from his herd of Black Sheep.
LBB> You’re half Swedish, half Argentinian – what was your childhood like and how immersed were you in each culture?
JAB> My mother’s from Argentina and my father was Swedish, but he met my mother in Argentina and he grew up there. When they were students, in their early 20s, they went back to Sweden and I was born a year later, in a student apartment in Stockholm. They were babies. I always spoke Spanish at home, so Spanish is my mother tongue, Swedish is the second language and English the third.
I look Swedish on the outside but I’m warmer inside. A friend of mine told me: “You have the worst of both worlds. You have the worst of Latin America and Argentina, with the egos and the worst of Europe and Sweden, so cold and boring. You’re a mix of opposites.”
So, home is basically nowhere. It’s where you are right now. My family is quite spread out: my brother still lives in Barcelona, my sister lives in Italy, my mother is still in Stockholm, we are in Singapore and all my uncles and cousins are in Argentina, and on my wife’s side they’re all living in the UK.
LBB> How do you think having all of these languages and cultural understanding shapes your work? Given how central copywriting is to the industry, we don’t often talk about the specifics of writing in different languages.
JAB> Language is an amazing thing. You see words and you start to understand the roots and deeper meanings. It’s interesting for me because I’m also dyslexic – so imagine being dyslexic in all those languages, trying to make sense of things. For a creative person, it’s amazing because you don’t read the words you look at them and make up your own meanings. And that’s the best formula for creativity, you mix things up. I always loved the idea that I can understand languages and speak and mix and learn. It’s perfect for a creative person.
LBB> And when you were little, was creativity a big part of your childhood?
JAB> I always liked to make stuff, not only with my hands but with my fingers in the sense that I got a computer. I don’t know how old I was, 11 or something. I started to learn how play with code.
At the same time, my father was an architect, so he was already very visual. When I was young, I used to like to use the blueprints and so I had a spatial sense when I was quite young. I always loved to play with my father.
His architectural firm had a copy machine. I used to go there to do my schoolwork and I would play with the photocopier, do experiments with textures and hands and my face. And at school it was really important that my schoolwork and presentations looked good.
At that time, I started to notice advertising. There was no advertising on TV, but I would go to the cinema half-an-hour before to sit eating popcorn to watch the ads before the film. When the state TV channel started to show advertisements, I started to record the TV ads that I liked on VHS. Same with print magazines, I’d cut out ads that I liked and would collect them.
LBB> So it seems quite natural that your next step was to study advertising – you went to Barcelona to study, where you also got your first advertising jobs. Tell me about that.
JAB> My first job wasn’t for an advertising agency, it was at a company that organised events. I worked with an artist who was making an installation for a stand at a Barcelona car exp. It was almost a virtual sculpture where you could explore a theme using teleprompter technology. You could see through it and it looked like characters were walking on the car.
Then I went to DoubleYou in Spain, where I was the first employee. It was quite amazing. In the beginning we had this belief that we were the underdogs fighting against a big industry. Clients let us do what we wanted to do, so we started to do websites that were concept-based websites. The first site that we did was for a basketball association – and you’ve got to remember this was 1997, before social media or Flash – you’d enter the site at the bottom and scroll up to a slam dunk and it was all about jumping, that the players didn’t have time to walk with their feet on the ground.
Everything changed. Actually, I can make advertising experiences on a platform, it doesn’t need to be just information. It was a Wild West and we did all sorts of interactive experiences. By today’s standards it was probably very intrusive, in your face, inventing all sorts of banner formats, using more sound and animation. That whole journey was amazing.
LBB> And jumping forward, where did you go next?
JAB> I’ve been quite lucky. From Barcelona I got the chance to go to Amsterdam, and then four years in San Francisco, then back to Amsterdam and then London for a couple of years.
I was a creative director and not stepping up to be an ECD or leading an office. I’d had many opportunities to do that, but I was always conscious about choosing the right moment, the right time to do it. I never ever moved an agency based on money or position – it’s always been about people and the project. So, when my boss Pelle Sjoenell said there had been a change in Singapore and asked if I wanted to run it, my wife and I didn’t take more than five minutes to decide to go.
I wanted to do it, but I knew I had the backing from the people in BBH London and I knew some of the people at BBH Singapore too, so there was a bit of hand holding, it wasn’t just like I was thrown into the cage with an ‘off you go!’.
I’ve never been afraid to change or try new things. In Spain I was doing really well, in the first ten years in the company and we started winning all the awards in the world, travelling, speaking at events… then I moved to Amsterdam and nobody knew me. You have to start again and reinvent yourself – it’s happened two or three times. It’s good, I get to invent a new JAB or a new version of myself and that transcends into my personality, my leadership.
LBB> From a creative point of view, what have been your highlights?
JAB> There’s so much. In Barcelona I think I did 600 projects. I think the best work we did was for Nike’s running campaigns. We were doing interactive videos, games, campaign sites.
In Amsterdam, the thing I’m most proud of was for Electronic Arts and FIFA, the launch of FIFA 10. The whole idea was ‘how big can football get?’ And we compared the online games with the real games to show how big the online game is. Imagine that, 10 years ago! We did a big ad with famous players and that was incredible, and we did a big website called FIFA Earth, where you could visualise all the games that were played in real time. It let you explore all the stats and games and EA tried to put it in the game as a way to play with other gamers around the world.
When I moved to San Francisco the best thing I produced was my daughter! And the second best thing was launching the Chevrolet Sonic car. We did all these crazy things; we launched the car online by making the car bungee jump. We had OK Go make a music video with the car. It was about giving the car all these experiences and they all ended up in a Super Bowl ad.
I went back to Europe to be a global creative director at BBH London on Johnnie Walker – yay! And after two weeks we were told we needed to pitch on Johnnie Walker. I spent my first three months pitching. Then I lost Johnnie Walker for BBH after 17 years. But that was probably the best thing that could happen because I worked with everyone around the network. Then I worked on The Guardian, I worked on Barclays, I worked on Google and Samsung. I did a small project called Samsung VR Bedtime Stories that allowed parents who were travelling to read bedtime stories to their kids.
LBB> In Singapore you really did step up to that leadership role. How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be?
JAB> My first year was about listening. Basically, get to know everyone, understand who they are, where they’re coming from. Listen, listen, listen. At the beginning people are asking ‘what’s your vision? What are you going to do?’ I don’t know, we’ll figure that out together. I organised creative tasting sessions within the departments and the agency to figure out exactly what the creative taste was. It’s easy to say, ‘let’s make a Spike Grand Prix-winning piece’, but what is that good work? What does it look like? It’s very subjective right? We did an online creative questionnaire that was a bit like a restaurant menu of creative work, and then we took the work that was selected and showed it at a restaurant. It was all about educating the juniors and talking about why work is good or not. It was really inspiring training the agency, which is really important.
That helped us figure out the vision and the kind of work we wanted to do. One key thing is collaboration. It’s easy to say I want to do the best work in the world. Everybody wants that. But here in Singapore when I started, there was a little bit of a feeling of ‘wow look at those amazing agencies in New York or London doing great work’. I’ve been lucky enough to work in some of these big offices in big cities and it’s the same thing everywhere – it’s all about the people. It’s all about making people believe. I think that was the first two years. When you have the confidence, you can actually do great work and you believe, wow, we could actually be the best office in the world. Two years ago, we became Ad Age’s International Agency of the Year.
There was an ambition to create great work, but I wanted to create an ‘era’ in advertising, so when people look back to 2016-2022 they think ‘what happened in Singapore? How come they did so many great things?’
LBB> It’s also been really cool to see how other BBH offices in the APAC region – India, China – have really stepped up. It feels like the network is a bit more balanced around the globe now.
JAB> I always talk about the old world and here we are in the new world. We are the future; you are the past. We just break the past and try to live in the future. In Europe, you try to hold onto how things work, don’t mess with the legacy. Here they build skyscrapers in two years. This country wants to have the fastest internet, the best schools, the best subway system.
LBB> Talking about creative taste, how did you cultivate yours? And how are you able to spot the rough, unformed ideas that have the potential to be great before they’ve been developed or realised?
JAB> This might be controversial but it’s quite easy to have good ideas. It’s hard to make them happen. It’s very hard to commit, it’s hard to push them through internally. You have to convince people to make them and produce them and that gets in your way. A friend of mine once said, an idea never gives up on you, you give up on an idea. The ideas are out there, it’s up to you to grab them.
We give up or abandon ideas because it’s difficult to make them, so how do you stop that? How do you know when an idea is good or not? You feel it. It almost hurts in your gut. It makes you smile, it gives you goosebumps. As soon as you have it, it makes you smile, everybody gets it. It’s there, you can take it or leave it, but it’s there.
That comes with experience and that goes back to my point about training, training, training. Keep training your mind, your team and your client to be able to spot when an idea is good. We’ve done a lot of initiatives, from studying how to make case studies, to deconstructing ideas, to these creative tasting sessions. We have open briefs we all work on, training the whole agency to understand ideas quickly.
Another thing for me that relates to this is the gut feeling. It’s like a cocktail. The more ingredients you have, the better cocktail you can make. More inputs make better outputs.
LBB> What sort of inputs?
JAB> I’ve been downloading the internet since 1996! I’ve been downloading everything that I like, my creative taste for 25 years. Everything I like, I save and then recreate it so I can take advantage of it. I was saving this before YouTube, before social media. If I like an image or film, I’ll save it.
It’s become my personal source of inspiration. The act of saving is like in university when you write things down to remember them. So I remember all these things. I have them in hundreds of folders and hard drives. And I have a lot of things. I love advertising so I have saved, for example, all the Cannes Lions Cyber Gold winners from 1999.
LBB> Moving forward to this new global role. You’ve taken it on at a time of cataclysmic change! How has that transition been?
JAB> I’ve been zooming around the world! I have a new title, Chief Zoom Officer. I’ve been zooming morning, night, zoom pitching, zoom panels, zoom judging. It’s working. You adapt. There are some good things and some not so good things. I miss meeting people in person. We are lucky in Singapore, we are allowed to be in the office 50% of the time. It’s been interesting. I’ve changed creative leadership across the offices, I hired Wolfie [Stephen de Wolfe] in London without ever having met him physically. Everything is happening online. You can even shoot remotely now. You can make it work – though obviously it’s harder.
LBB> Which creative projects from around the world have you really enjoyed this year?
JAB> There’s a lot there and then you have the highlights and the stuff that has potential or things that people are talking about or are jealous of. In no special order I think I have four or five things.
From a pop culture point of view, the thing that BBH New York did to celebrate Kamala Harris’s vice presidency where they were showing her as a glass ceiling breaker. That was an amazing initiative that was launched within BBH, an open brief around the network to try and do something interesting. There are lots of interesting components, from the glass sculpture to the AR technology.
One good Covid idea from Singapore that’s been talked about a lot is Virtual Sentosa. We’ve been promoting an island using Animal Crossing. It was very, very cool and the production was done in-house. I donated my Nintendo Switch to the project so they could actually mine and collect and cut the wood. It was a one-month long project that is all about ingenuity and hacking gaming.
I’m also proud of the global campaign for Absolute that we ran from Singapore, It's In Our Spirit. It took more than a year, had to work on all the markets to sell it and then shoot it remotely.
LBB> It’s amazing that piece was devised before Covid because I thought it had a very relevant message about breaking free, connecting online versus connecting in real life which I think is even more pertinent in today’s world.
JAB> That was conceived right at the beginning of Covid. There was lots of conversation about our point of view as a brand, that meeting people IRL is better than online, hugging them, touching them. And then suddenly Covid struck and we realised, no, you can’t say that. We changed the whole line of messaging at the end, that we can’t wait for that moment to come together IRL. That was a really special campaign to pull off, running it globally on every time zone from Singapore.
There was another small quick campaign they did at BBH New York for Google on Black Friday that was with black-owned businesses. That was quick, proactive work that we made happen. Another big brand we worked on from Singapore was Riot Games’ Wild Rift mobile game. They organised a live YouTube countdown where you actually killed one of the monsters in the battle. Once the monster – The Baron – was killed, the game was launched worldwide.
And then the other project I wanted to talk about was Running Stories. The product was born here three years ago. People asked why we didn’t sell it to Nike, but we didn’t want to just give it away. We thought maybe if we prototyped it here first, we could then go to a client and talk about licensing. But we own it. We launched it two or three months ago. I love storytelling and I love technology, but this also solves a problem. Exercise and running are quite boring. So this puts you directly in the centre of the story as the protagonist, it directly trains you and guides you. The more you run, the more you understand where the story goes. It’s fun for runners and it has opened a lot of doors for us.
LBB> And looking forward, what is your vision for caretaking such a respected creative brand like BBH?
Being a Black Sheep for me is important, it’s a responsibility and honour. In a way, my responsibility as a year-and-a-half ago when I took over was to take that Black Sheep flag into the future. Where do we go with that legacy? The future is exciting. I think about it a lot and I ask myself, ‘what would a black sheep do?’ And the answer is I’m going to do exactly the opposite of what I’m asked to do. When you have that thinking that Hegarty and everyone had starting out, when the world zigs, zag. If you see a really annoying display ad on Facebook, what would you do to solve that. The problem shouldn’t be solved by White Sheep, the White Sheep just follow. They do things as they’ve always been done. The Black Sheep will do something different. I like the fact that we are allowed to break things and make them better.