5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Suvi Lähde

Advertising Agency
Helsinki, Finland
The SEK ECD on how a tearful episode led to a creative happy ending, her belief in work with impact beyond just business and why her fellow Finns inspire her so much

Working as an executive creative director at SEK in Helsinki, Finland, Suvi Lähde finds her motivation in creating things that make a difference to people, building mutual value between businesses and the humans that form society. 

Having become a copywriter almost unintentionally, she’s carved out an impressive career over the years, developing local, internationally focused brands like Visit Finland, Finnair and Finnish Lapland, while also applying her thinking to companies such as Coca-Cola, Valio and Paulig, both in the Finnish and global markets. 

With SEK shortlisted for five awards in the Finnish Effies this year, the agency seems to be doing the business for its clients, despite (or maybe because of) the exceptional circumstances of the past two years. LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Suvi to talk all of this and more.

LBB> Where did you grow up? What were you like when you were young? And how do you think that shaped the creative you became professionally?

Suvi> I spent my childhood shuffling between the suburbs of Helsinki and our summer cottage in the countryside, which made me form a strong connection with nature. To this day, the connection is very visible in my presence as a weird mixture of being a free spirit, getting excited easily and having a down-to-earth, reasonable approach. 

But what really shaped me as a creative the most, or at least shaped the way I approach new entities, was the Montessori school I attended from an early age. Montessori emphasises independence, and views children as naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning. The combination of systematic thinking and creative problem solving was rooted in me since I was three years old and it has made me the professional I am today. 

LBB> How did you first get into advertising? Was it a straightforward path or did you come at it from a more unusual angle?

Suvi> It’s a story including tears – but a happy ending. My dream was to become a Finnish language and literature teacher as I’ve always loved writing. While taking the university entrance exam, instead of doing the assignment as told, I really put my soul into the spirit of the poem and started to sob. Due to the sobbing, I missed the last task totally and as one can guess, I did not get in. I had to come up with a plan, and then spontaneously applied to the Institute of Art and Design, with the idea of spending only a year there until I could apply as a teacher again. In the end, the studies ended up being so inspiring, that four years later I graduated as a copywriter. Never have I regretted crying in the entrance exam. It was meant to be.

LBB> What campaign or brand from early in your career helped you to grow in your creativity and/or career the most?

Suvi> I still vividly remember the first international pitch in my early 20s: it was for Coca-Cola’s Nordic lead agency. The creative work was led by our agency’s new Canadian CD. The massive scope of the work and the front row seat in the “pitch game” was a real eye-opener for what creative work on an international level is all about. The learning curve was steep but in the end our young team ended up winning. This win and working with the account introduced me to the global creative family that set the course of my future career.

LBB> What principles guide the way you approach work for your clients?

Suvi> Today it’s more crucial than ever to work as a team together with the client. It all starts from mutual understanding of the current situation and setting up the right goals. Open, well-structured creative work beats bustling behind closed doors, trying to hit the bullseye while blindfolded. Concentrating the whole team’s energy and competence towards one clear goal leads to creative effectiveness.  

LBB> Your ‘Rent a Finn’ work has had a huge impact and been celebrated for that impact. What do you think others can learn from that project? And what do you love most about it on reflection?

Suvi> Rent a Finn is living proof of achieving a wider impact with creative work when the whole team is working together towards clearly set goals. What made it so meaningful, not only for me personally but also for the team, was its impact and ability to create value on the client’s business, for travellers and even for society. And this was not something we discovered in retrospect. It was a clear goal that set the way to the strategy and creative solutions. 

LBB> What other work have you recently been proud to be involved in and why?

Suvi> I would love to list plenty of cases here, but to me as an ECD it’s been rewarding to help our creatives at SEK to unblock the patterns of yesterday’s thinking and create a real impact beyond tomorrow’s short term business goals. Especially now during Covid-19 restrictions it’s been important to reinvent the ways of working and keeping the culture alive. In our daily work I really see that creativity is one of the most impactful ways to craft a better future.

LBB> You also served as jury chair of the Effies Finland in 2021. How did that experience develop your perspective on effective creativity?

Suvi> Setting up clear and truly meaningful, sustainable goals already in the beginning is something that came up, once again. Effies proved that Finns’ innovations and our can-do attitude has huge potential. Still many brands are stuck on the idea of marketing being just a way to boost their business. When you aim for a wider impact that creates value to the right target groups, the society and even the environment, the positive impact of your actions will grow. By doing this, you also have huge potential to change the industry standards – and when your brand is the game changer setting up new rules, you will start creating a whole new value to your business that carries in the future. Creating these coherent narratives, evolving from setting up the bar high enough, measuring the impact on a wider scale and ending to a value creating success story, are still quite rare. I would love to see it more, as it’s only a matter of taking a wider perspective.

LBB> Most of the clients you work with are Finnish, even if they are international-facing brands. But I always think no matter how local a brand is, there are universal lessons from the creative and strategic thinking it relies on. Can you think of anything you’ve learned from one of your Finnish clients that could be applied all over the world?

Suvi> One thing combining all the success stories I’ve worked with, is always putting the people first. Knowing your audience and building the strategic thinking from real human insight makes the creative work universal. It fades out all the boundaries, affects all of us in some way and generates action. This is when you really start to create mutual value to both businesses and people, and see measurable impact by bringing these two together.

LBB> Part of working in a creative industry is about the creativity that inspires and informs you. What have you been loving in culture recently and why?

Suvi> 5.5 million resourceful Finns. We have a strong connection with nature and you can see it clearly in our daily lives – it’s something that has carried us through the difficult times throughout history. Now during the Covid-19 the outdoor culture has risen to a whole new level, and brands and people have invented new ways of spending time outside. We have a lot of room to roam, and the imaginativeness of Finns truly amazes me. It’s been fascinating to see creative problem-solving spark so many great innovations and ideas to give us a break. And most importantly, keep us happy. 

Work from SEK
The Panenka
The Finnish Cowboy
The Finnish National Lottery