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‘I’ve seen the renaissance of LA’

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Feature by Michael Canning

When Exceptional Alien first spoke with highly respected creative leader Pelle Sjoenell, he was the Worldwide Chief Creative Officer of Global Advertising Agency BBH. Originally from a town in the far north of Sweden, he has been a visitor to Los Angeles for more than a quarter of a century.

Following stints in Minneapolis and New York, however, Pelle moved to LA properly to launch the BBH office there with a focus on the intersection of entertainment, technology and brands. Today he oversees creative work in LA, NY, London, Singapore, Shanghai, Stockholm and Mumbai. We spoke to him about life and culture in LA, his inside tips for the city and the creative road ahead.


On where you’re from

I’m from a place called Gällivare, in the very north of Sweden; it’s north of Iceland, north of the pole circle. My parents were from Stockholm but my dad had his residency as a doctor up there and my mum was a Swedish teacher. There were people there who didn’t even speak Swedish, because it’s so far up north. I grew up later on in Stockholm. So today I’m a Swedish guy living in Los Angeles and working for a British company owned by the French

On where you’ve lived around the globe

I’ve lived in Sweden and the US. I moved from Stockholm to Minneapolis in my transition to the US working at Fallon, and then New York for almost four years before I moved out to LA to open the BBH LA office in 2010.

On where you live in LA

I live in Bel-Air, which sounds very fancy. In LA, I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets.

On your motivation for moving to LA

When I was in advertising school, I was 20 years old, and I met my now-wife who had gone to grade school in Los Angeles. She’s half-Persian and the first summer in ad school she was wondering if I wanted to spend it with her and her family in LA. I said of course. Since then I’ve spent all of my summers for the last 25 years — some of them living here, of course — in LA. And what I remember seeing even back then with the entertainment industry, was that the advertising and entertainment industries were going to merge one day and I want to be here when that happens. So I’ve only had one plan. I’ve had one job in my life, which is advertising  and the plan to end up in LA.

Nike 'Hypecourt' work from BBH and Google. Above: Painted basketball courts shot from above, which act as an on-court digital platform for players to tap into via mobile. Below: Pelle Sjoenell presenting at a Publicis conference in Paris. Images courtesy Pelle Sjoenell.

On how you’ve seen LA change

I’ve seen the renaissance of LA. I think it’s really come back culturally in terms of the entertainment industry, art and advertising, especially with tech moving down from Silicon Valley and Hollywood opening up for collaboration after being torn down by digital. I’ve seen it year by year, and actually back then there was almost nothing here for me; I had to wait for different possibilities. In advertising, there was one car brand per agency and that’s basically how many agencies there were.

On entrepreneurial spirit in California

When people first came to the USA, they came mostly from Europe, through Ellis Island into Manhattan. Some who fit in stayed, some kept moving west. The Swedes, for example, dropped their bags in the cold of the Midwest and they were like, ‘This is home, it’s perfect.’ And then there were others who kept going — dreamers, misfits, the luck-seekers and the weirdos. I think it makes sense that LA has entertainment, and San Francisco is full of start-ups, and many civil rights movements started on the West Coast, because the misfits needed to get loud. What’s lovely with LA is that there are these incredible, entrepreneurial people who live here who don’t see any limit to ideas, but also the weirdos, and you have to figure out who’s who (laughs).

'I still get inspired here everyday, honestly... What I love about having lived here for eight years, it’s 88 cities interconnected; there are so many pockets of different cultures and worlds that you can be part of.'

On a popular topic of conversation in LA

A big topic is LA itself, and how LA has finally come back, in a way. People are speaking proudly about LA. During a lot of the ’80s and ’90s — I think it’s called the ‘plastic fantastic’ era of LA — I feel like that vibe moved to Miami (laughs). It’s the rise of the craftspeople — the amazing talent in music, art, storytelling or technology — that’s what’s rising up. All the writers are back from New York and other places because of the rise of amazing television. 

But I think the most popular topic is still traffic (laughs). It’s weird, I find myself less caught-up in traffic here than a lot of other places I travel to, but we’re always going to be known for it because of the big freeways. Another new big conversation is the legalisation of marijuana, the rise of an enormous industry here. It is a very interesting market opening up in front of us; the market has been so quick to react. It’s big and fast.

On work culture in New York and LA

The differences between New York and LA are striking in that, in New York, you kind of work for a company, and you are the company that you work for; in LA, the entertainment industry is built on people and any new production is a group of people coming together. It’s more like you’re working and finding connections, which builds very entrepreneurial, close connections, and everyone is helping each other out in a really nice way. It’s breeding a very collaborative and fast-moving place. A consequence of that is that it’s almost impossible to have a bad meeting in LA because everyone is keeping their doors open, so you have to figure out what people actually mean (laughs).

Above: Pelle on a panel forThe Women in Public Service Project; A Project of The Wilson Center. Below: On stage with legendary co-founder of BBH, Sir John Hegarty, at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. Images courtesy Pelle Sjoenell and The Women in Public Service Project.

On how LA inspires you

I’m incredibly inspired by Los Angeles in so many ways. Part of it is from growing up in Sweden, which is a bit of an isolated place in Europe, so we always look out for inspiration, and we’re super Americanized. I think all the movies and pop culture I grew up on are still part of what shaped me in many ways. I still get inspired here everyday, honestly. It’s mesmerizing that I live here, it’s almost like I’m on a work vacation. 

What I love about having lived here for eight years, it’s 88 cities interconnected; there are so many pockets of different cultures and worlds that you can be part of. I live in a canyon with crickets and owls, and then I work on Melrose, which is pop culture central. You can see so many different walks of life. There’s big city lights downtown, hipsters in Silver Lake, the Hispanic community in Echo Park; there’s The Valley, Glendale with Armenian culture, China Town, Koreatown, beach life in Venice, and that on steroids in Malibu. I live next to Westwood, which is an American college town — like small-town America in a way — just a couple of blocks away, and then Santa Monica is a beach town. There really is a diversity of the landscape. Every weekend or even on weekdays going to meetings, I still see new parts of the city. 

There’s a great saying that New York is heaven to visit and hell to live in, and LA is hell to visit and heaven to live in. And I think there’s truth that a lot of people come to LA and don’t know where it is; there’s no center, really. You can feel lost and intimidated. That’s the amazing thing: when you live here, there are so many pockets. I love that.

On where you find inspiration

Lately, I’m really excited about the mountains; I just started mountain biking, which is amazing. Right above where I live, where Mulholland Drive becomes gravel, you can ride trails all the way to Malibu. I just rode this Sunday and saw two rattlesnakes in a place called Eagle Rock. It’s a new place of inspiration for me because it’s real big nature right next to a city. If I was to still live in Europe, the equivalent to living in LA would be to basically have a house on the Riviera but then work in London in the daytime. In LA, you have both those things but within a 25-minute drive, and there aren’t many cities in the world where you can do that; maybe only Sydney, Rio, Barcelona and Los Angeles, which are beach towns but are also big enough for big business.

“A big topic is LA itself, and how LA has finally come back in a way. people are speaking proudly about LA... it’s the rise of the craftspeople — the amazing talent in music, art, storytelling or technology — that’s what’s rising up”.

On something you adjusted to working in America

Two things. First of all, I had to switch languages. I had a headache for the first couple of months because I was translating in my mind, and also learning advertising lingo that is new to anyone. For instance, someone said we need to ‘push back’  on the client, and I had no idea what that meant. Culturally there was a major difference, which was that the US is more or less built on fear, and I’ll back this up: in Sweden, it’s really hard to get fired — you have to really work on it and it’s almost legally impossible to fire someone. This is really great for a creative profession because there’s a lot of bravery that comes from that. My clients also couldn’t be fired, so they’d say, ‘Well, let’s try it, and if we fuck it up we can try something else.’ Sweden has a really good work ethic, which translates into Swedish creativity, because there is less risk in trying brave things. But in the US, corporate America is very much about saving your own ass, and rightfully so because it’s such a big society that you can fall through the cracks pretty easily because legalities are so important here. An interesting difference is a stat that there are 20 doctors to every lawyer in Sweden, and 20 lawyers to every doctor in the US. So it was completely different for me to start to understand fear and how to navigate that with brave ideas, which is an amazing challenge. It made me better. You have to back up your arguments more.

On what defines the role of worldwide Chief Creative Officer for you

The UK is quite a hierarchic society. In BBH, there was a knight on top of a pyramid — there was a fantastic creative leader at the helm, a clear North Star. Then, when I presented what I did, I turned that pyramid upside down. The way I saw it was that I’m at the bottom of the pyramid trying to lift everyone. I see myself as having a supportive role to connect our offices around the world, connect our talent around the world, but I’m not a filter that everything has to pass through.

With my role I want to really try to make it mean something. The risk with this title is that you become elevated to irrelevance. You can get detached from the work and the day-to-day if you’re not careful. I want to reinvent that title to see if it can be a really useful one for today, and I think the way to do it is to be empathetic — be the connective tissue between people — and to have creative ambition. I think we can modernise that title and my hope is that is what I’m doing. I think if you can really get involved with clients and their business problems from a creative point of view across the world and across offices, then that’s the most helpful thing.

On something you’ve learned in your role

I’ve learned a lot from John Hegarty (co-founder of BBH). He’s my mentor and friend, and it’s fantastic to have his experience to learn from. It’s interesting, in our industry...most other creative industries have a master/ apprentice approach — if you want to be a great chef, you study under great chefs to eventually become a chef; same thing with the arts. But in our industry we’re somehow just ‘out with the old and in with the new’, and what I’ve learned is that there is so much to learn from history — history is the future, as always.

The other amazing thing in this role is that because I oversee our seven offices in Mumbai, Shanghai, Singapore, LA, New York, London and Stockholm, and travel between all those markets year round, I get to see seven markets simultaneously developing. So I can see how technology changes, how culture changes, how politics change; I get to calibrate over seven markets. That has been absolutely amazing, to see the nuances of change that happen, and it moves quickly.

On modern creative leadership

The landscape has changed. I started in the ’90s, and at that time you had to protect ideas. Now, to be part of anything big you have to work with others, you have to form partnerships and collaborate, and I think that type of leadership is necessary today. And that’s a great thing. It’s not that there’s a better or a worse way of doing it but it’s what’s working today.

On the creative industry in 2030

I think today everything is the same as it ever was in one way, and then everything has changed. What’s the same is that you have to understand an audience, you have to understand how people think, you have to figure out what moves them. Empathy is our most important talent because in our job you have to figure out how to be the receiver of a message to understand what is going to be effective. And I don’t think this is going to change for 2030. 

What’s going to change are the tools we use. When I opened BBH LA, I was asked what the agency model of the future is by Sir Nigel Bogle (co-founder BBH), and I was terrified. How do I tell him what the agency model of the future is? I dodged the question a bit but I said there’s only one agency model of the future and it’s the one that can change. And I think as soon as we try to build structures, they get old as soon as the structure is built, so we have to adjust. 

In 2030, I think the creative industry is still going to be driven by the audience. It’s still going to be that we love brands, but we hate advertising and we have to figure out that equation. I think the principles are going to stay the same, but the technology or the tools are going to be completely different. Bring it on: it’s going to be super exciting. Creativity is what got humanity to today, and I think it’s what is going to get us further. I’m also looking forward to a much more diverse industry long before then.

On some favourite spots to eat

My favourite lunch place is called Mauro’s Cafe. I used to visit it as a kid, and I put the office right by there so that I could have lunch there as often as possible. Because my family is half-Persian, we always do Sunday dinner at a Persian restaurant called Darya on Santa Monica Boulevard. And there is an amazing little restaurant that I love in Santa Monica Canyon close to the beach called Georgio Baldi.

On jet lag remedies

I’m almost embarrassed to say this but I just don’t have time for jet lag. That sounds so bad and kind of ’80s to say but I always just think about the time where I am. If I land somewhere and it’s morning then that’s morning for me; if it’s evening, it’s evening for me. Just detach yourself from wherever you came from and think about where you are.

On something from Sweden you need a fix of in America

Crawfish is something that I have every year around August because it's a Swedish tradition - it's really hard to find here but I love that. Zlatan Ibrahimović too; but he just came to Los Angeles to play for LA Galaxy so I'm super happy about him. And then a general thing I miss is humbleness. I try to raise my kids that way and I try to stay that way myself.

On your favorite form of LA entertainment

Listening to the crickets at night.

On window seat or aisle

I’m a window person but sometimes, when I need to go to the restroom, I wish I was an aisle person.

Above: 'The Art of Branded Entertainment', a book co-authored by the 2017 Cannes Lions Entertainment Jury. Below: Downtown LA shot from the LA hills. Images courtesy Pelle Sjoenell (above) and Josh Saldana (below).

On how you would best describe LA

Pop Culture capital of the world.


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