POV: Interview with Christian Steen, Managing Director, SMFB
Christian Steen, managing director/account director/partner in SMFB (Shnel & Melnychuck & Forsman & Bodenfors). I am 36 years old, married with two small princesses — ages four and seven. I was born and raised in Oslo, Norway, and studied at Boston University. As a kid I used to be a talented soccer player, but decided to go to college on an athletic scholarship instead of going pro. I figured it was smarter to develop my brain to do more than tackle opponents on a soccer field.
I began my career on the client side, and at a rather young age I became head of marketing departments in telecom and media. But the advertising business had great sex appeal, and I quickly started dreaming of managing a great ad agency. It seemed to have the perfect combination of teamwork and passion, much like soccer. It felt like an everlasting adventure into new territories, which would continuously challenge me. I have now been managing SMFB for more than six years, and I love working together with smart people and trying to solve difficult problems.
Tell us more about SMFB and the type of work you do.
SMFB is a creatively driven agency working across all media. We firmly believe in a flat, organizational structure and the power of working together. We thrive on collaborating with other creative professionals who can help us produce and execute our ideas. We are a no-bullshit agency, consisting of surprisingly friendly, but fiercely competitive people. Sometimes we jokingly tell potential clients that our letters stand for Serious Mother Fucking Business. If the client laughs, we know that we are a great match.
SMFB is fortunate enough to work with some great brands, such as IKEA, Diesel and Kraft Foods, and we do all kinds of work for them. Everything from product innovation, design and web, to traditional media such as TV and print ads. For us it is always about finding the best solution to any given problem. We like to think of our client’s brand and their money as our own, hence our approach is always, “what would we have done if we were in charge?”
Tell us about the Berora Kit. Where did the idea for this come from and what was the client and public’s reaction?
Great ideas often come from simple briefs. Such briefs can yield a playfulness that ends up as something completely different than what you had expected. IKEA asked us to launch their catalogue on the iPad, and a banner campaign is what they had in mind. However, great IKEA communication is always able to engage the consumer and provide them with a small taste of what the IKEA-concept stands for: common sense and smartness executed with style. Being from a cold country and with a mid-winter campaign, our solution was to create a sewing kit with a special conductive thread to sew into the index finger of your favorite gloves, so people could use their iPads without freezing. It was a challenge to create a “new IKEA product,” since IKEA upholds such high quality standards. In fact, the project ended up costing the agency money, but sometimes we like to invest in our clients and their projects. Luckily our efforts paid off, and the campaign generated fantastic results. The Beröra-kit was gone from the IKEA warehouses within just a few days, and the IKEA iPad catalogue launch was a great success.
What have been some of your favorite campaigns or projects you’ve worked on? Why?
My favorite campaign is always the next one. And right now I´m fired up about a couple of really exciting projects for some major international brands.
Our most current campaign is a global launch for GEOX. The innovative Italian shoe brand has developed a new waterproof technology called Amphibiox, and we have created a digital launch campaign. We went all the way to Cherapunjee, in Northeast India, to test the shoes in the world’s rainiest place.
Another campaign is our international launch of Vektr headphones, a co-lab between Diesel and Monster Cabels. The end result was something very different from what we usually do. The experience of working for two major international brands, one Italian, the other American, while engaging French directors, was an interesting and funny cultural challenge.
Do you think there should be a separation between traditional and digital creatives? What advantages or disadvantages does this cause?
No, I definitely do not think it should be separated. Innovation and creativity should not be defined by format; it will only reduce your opportunities. There is a reason why it was not a mobile phone company, like Nokia or Sony Ericsson, who managed to create a revolutionary smartphone like the iPhone. You need different perspectives in order to create real innovation. Great digital work always starts with a great idea. In-depth technical know-how is not a prerequisite for completing this task. However, all creatives need help to execute their ideas, no matter what media they’re using, and this is especially true in regards to developing great ideas into great digital solutions.
As an agency, I believe that you need to choose to either be an architect of ideas or a producer of ideas if you want to be great at what you do. This is especially important in regards to digital work. The speed of change within technology is so rapid that no agency will ever be able to attract the cutting-edge technical competence all the time. The best creative agencies need to have the flexibility and the opportunity to work with the best digital expertise at any given time, because you never know where or when the expertise will arise.
How does an agency’s culture affect creativity? What continues to make SMFB one of the top agencies in (not Sweden) Norway?
The ability of any team, no matter what setting, is set by its internal culture. How you view yourself and the world at large will always define your actions. Your culture will set your limitations and opportunities. It will establish norms and habits and ultimately determine your success or failures. Hence, the most important asset an agency has is its culture. From my soccer experience I learned much about team culture and dynamics. I have experienced many times that the sum of the whole is much greater than each individual part. However, the culture in an agency is a complicated matter because people in great agencies are very emotionally connected to their work. They have real passion, and passion is fueled by love and hate. It can be a roller coaster ride sometimes and difficult to manage. You’ve got to give every individual the opportunity to excel and succeed, but at the same time you have to make sure that nobody ever believes they are more important than the task at hand or the agency. I deeply believe the current and future success of SMFB is all about our strong culture.
What types of advertising campaigns resonate most with the Scandinavian consumer?
I believe that Scandinavian consumers are rather sophisticated. They are well-educated and informed as well as technologically advanced. They demand high value for their money and take no bullshit from anybody. In order to succeed you need to use relevant creativity — ideas based upon real insights about how the brand connects with the target group, executed with excellence. When I think about it, maybe the demanding Scandinavian consumers are the reason why the creativity among Scandinavian agencies is so high?
Tell us about your relationship with F&B and your sister companies.
F&B owns 50 percent of SMFB, and nine local partners own the rest. It´s a lot of partners, but it works well. We are all different individuals, but we share some fundamental core values and attitudes. Our collective passion for our work propels us forward and gives us a competitive edge. Our way of operating our business is not for everybody. I believe that our Scandinavian cultural heritage and our social democratic approach give us an opportunity to successfully manage our business this way.
What trends in the advertising industry are you most interested in? How do you see the discipline evolving over the next three to five years?
I have a very positive view on the future of the advertising industry. We are an industry that sells creativity and innovation in a world that is addicted to new ideas and constant change. And as opposed to other consultants who only sell advice and keynotes with strategies, the advertising industry is actually producing them. Smart, original ideas brought to life, is very likely to be a lucrative business in the future.
I find it impossible to try to predict future trends and a waste of time to be honest. You’ve got to be ready for everything! However, the only thing I know for sure about the future is that an agency’s ability to handle TIME will be crucial. The task of making great communication is becoming more and more complex, yet the time agencies get to develop and produce it is getting shorter and shorter. So I believe the great agencies of the future must be able to be creative while holding a high pace. The only way to do that is to be creating a dynamic organization, which has the flexibility to take advantage of new opportunities quickly. So speed and flexibility are two key words for the future, in addition to creativity of course.
One reason that you love what you do: Tackling new challenges every day together with smart and inspiring people.
Mentor: Attitude: Bruce Springsteen. Lifestyle: Rolf Stokke. Creativity: my kids.
Must read book: “From Good to Great” by Michael Collins.
Music that gets you in your zone: There can be only one…The Boss.
Anything else you’d like to add? “No retreat. No surrender” (Springsteen quote).
Connect with Christian on LinkedIn.