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Agency Profile: Volontaire

Posted on January 17, 2013 and read 3,563 times

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brettihaismall Agency Profile: VolontaireBrett McKenzie
Content Producer
Art Directors Club

 

Whenever I visit agencies, I’m usually served a beverage at the beginning of our meetings. Most of the time it’s a coffee, a tea, a water, or just maybe a Coke. But this was the first time I had been offered a lemonade to kick off our conversation. And not just regular lemonade, but one of three varieties: the usual lemon, sugar and water variety, raspberry lemonade, and something called “päronad.

Pear lemonade?! Now that sounds very different.

It was very different. Much like Volontaire itself.

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The sun hung low in the sky as I arrived at Volontaire’s office, located in the southeast area of Stockholm’s Vasastan district. I was very anxious to visit this agency; I knew that the judges of our own Tomorrow Awards had just selected ‘Curators of Sweden’ as one of the five top entries, and I really wanted to see what this Swedish advertising agency was all about.

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“I don’t look at us as being a Swedish agency or an advertising agency,” responds David Orlic, creative director and co-founder of Volontaire. “First, the Swedish. I would say that we are more of an international agency, rather than a Swedish one. One day we calculated that the team here has worked in the industry in seventeen different countries.” An impressive number, considering that Volontaire only has sixteen employees, half of which are equal share partners.

“Secondly, yes we are an advertising agency, but we like to complicate things a bit by calling ourselves a news agency, because that’s what we do,” continues David. “We believe in fully integrating creative with PR, and we have PR strategists working with creatives from the very start of a project. Our goal is to make an impact on the news, not just on our clients’ sales figures.” David cites the aforementioned ‘Curators of Sweden’ as an example. “Was that a Twitter campaign? No, it was a news campaign, one that showcases Sweden’s progressiveness in the world.”

“It’s very easy to start an agency here in Stockholm,” says Carl Unger, Volontaire’s CEO, citing the country’s high-tech infrastructure as a big benefit to start-ups. “But the problem is, most of those agencies don’t last. You’ll find that most of the time you’ll have a few co-workers at an agency who enjoy working together, but they think their boss is an asshole, so they leave and start their own thing. They survive for a short while, but soon realize how tricky the business side of things are, and then they fold and go their separate ways. This is why the list of the top five agencies in Sweden hasn’t really changed in the past fifteen years; start-ups don’t last long enough to shake up that list.”

But hold on a bit; Volontaire isn’t exactly ‘the old guard’, having been around for only four years or so. What makes them stand out from other young shops? “Well when we started the agency, we all believed in the same thing,” replies Carl. “We believed that because of the internet, there was a power shift in the world. This is nothing new today, but back then we were screaming and shouting about the fact that everything we do, we now need to do differently, in order to help our clients do their things differently. A lot of industry people were scared about that, and most clients didn’t get it, but we have held true to the same beliefs that we started with, and being awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes for what we call ‘action marketing’, well it shows that we are doing the right thing.”

When you are a small agency that excels in reacting and anticipating real-time hurdles, it pays to be nimble. One of the ways Volontaire stays agile is by keeping the permanent roles in the shop to a bare minimum. This means that the office doesn’t have any production people on staff. “We felt that bulking up with a production department would inevitably lead us to taking on clients just to ‘feed the beast,’” says Carl. “By outsourcing our production needs, we can focus on what we do best. It also allows us to be choosy with which clients we take on.”

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The Volontaire team is fairly tight-knit — “the secret is we all like each other, but we don’t necessarily love each other,” jokes Carl — and group activities are fairly organic, with nothing planned too far in advance. The closest thing to having a “planned” activity is the agency’s extended lunches on Mondays, where people are encouraged to add an extra hour to lunch in order to do whatever they wish. Some people use this time to visit the gym, or to go for a walk, and a few staff members are fencing enthusiasts, and they use that time to stage matches In one of Volontaire’s corridors. “It can be a bit unsettling at first, to be working and all of sudden have guys swinging fencing foils at each other,” says Klaus. “But it’s a part of who we are.”

Some agencies are known for keeping their people inspired by bringing in fascinating guest speakers, most of whom aren’t in the advertising industry. This provides the staff with different perspectives from which to tackle problems. The gang at Volontaire has taken this a few steps further by initiating “The Desk.” The Desk is a program where the agency provides a desk in their office for a person to work from for a month, free of charge. The catch: that person cannot work in fields related to advertising. So for one month at a time, Volontaire has access to a complete outsider, a person who can offer their honest opinions about their strategies and work. “Sometimes there is little interaction, and sometimes great things happen,” says Klaus Hahn, Volontaire’s COO. “We’ve had everyone from a psychologist to an artist who loved to knit. The whole concept makes us realize that advertising is just a really small part of life.”

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desk Agency Profile: Volontaire

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Volontaire has also reached out to young people to see their perspective of things. In their first year, the agency created the “Volontaire 100”, a summer program that brings together 100 students — ad school kids, journalism majors, business school phenoms and others — to tackle various problems. The challenges were varied, from trying to figure out how to increase egg donations in fertility clinics to coming up with ways to prevent a controversial extreme right political party from building power in the Swedish parliament. “Engaging with smart people from all walks of life can only make us stronger.”

So what’s in store for Volontaire in the months and years to come? “I think the next big challenge for us is to get clients to learn that they have to give something back to society, as a company and as a brand, if they want their business to grow,” says Carl. “They can’t just cut a check for charity anymore, because like everything else, companies can’t control perceptions anymore.”

“Another mission of ours is to capitalize on the successes we’ve enjoyed this past year,” adds Klaus. “The pressure is definitely on, and we don’t want to be seen as a one-trick pony. The thing that allows us to be confident moving forward is that the method that led us to “Curators of Sweden” is exactly the same thing we’ve been saying since Day One.”

Two things that definitely aren’t in Volontaire’s future plans are joining a network and massive growth. “I can see why some shops get bought by bigger networks, but that’s not for us,” says Klaus. “We’re of the belief that the say you sign that paper is the day you start counting down the days to the death of your agency and the things it stood for. Here in Stockholm, you need not look further than the agency Farfar as an example of what joining a network can do to a once stellar agency.”

“We are at a great size right now,” says Carl. “If we get any bigger, it won’t be by much, and it won’t be something we specifically plan for. I’m always puzzled by agencies who say they are going to hire a specific number of people, as if having more staff is the goal. Our goal isn’t more staff, our goal is great work.”

Special thanks to Klaus, Carl and David for inviting us into Volontaire. An extra special thanks to Getty Images for making this visit to Volontaire possible.

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