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Adam Kerj

Adam Kerj Adam KerjChief Creative Officer

Where were you when the lights went out?

This past February’s Super Bowl XLVII was memorable for a number of reasons, from having two brothers as opposing head coaches, to a highly praised halftime show. But the most unexpected surprise came when the stadium suffered a power outage in the third quarter. While most fans just sat there, waiting for the problem to resolved, one quick thinking advertising agency churned out an ad for one of its clients and sent it out into the Twitterverse within minutes of the blackout. The agency was 360i, and the ad was the now famous “You can still dunk in the dark” image for Oreo. The ad proved that being extremely nimble — both on the agency and client sides — could trump a multimillion dollar media buy.

This of course, was just the latest in a series of successes for New Yorked baed 360i, successes that truly began with the May 2012 hiring of Swedish-born Adam Kerj as the agency’s first Chief Creative officer. Adam’s career has spanned nearly two decades and two continents, but it appears that he’s only getting started. IHAVEANIDEA sat down with Adam to discuss his past, from Stockholm to Tribeca, and to share insight on Swedish and American mindsets.

IHAVEANIDEA: How did this whole crazy world begin for you? I always say that no kid ever says “I want to be a creative director when I grow up.”

Adam: (laughs) Actually, my daughter said that a few months ago. “I want to be a creative director, Dad.” I think I’ll try to convince her to stay out of it.

But for me, it started when I was taking accounting in school. My teacher was nice enough to say “Adam, I don’t think you should be doing this. You got to do something like marketing.” That’s how I got into marketing, and I found myself really enjoying it. Then I went to the now famous Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm, and after that studied literature at Cambridge in England. After that I ended up getting my first break at Forsman & Bodenfors in Gothenburg. This was in the late 1980s, right when the agency had started winning national and regional awards.

That was a great experience, but I wasn’t there long before I got this very strange late night phone call from this writer all the way in Chicago. I don’t know if he was drunk at the time, but he sounded very energetic. He said, “Dude, you and I, we’re going to work together and you’re going to be in the intern program at Leo Burnett!”

IHAVEANIDEA: Out of the blue like that?

Adam: Pretty much! You see, my father, who doesn’t work in advertising, had a chance meeting with Jerry Reitman, who I believe was Leo Burnett’s VP of Integrated Marketing at the time. Jerry and his wife were at this party in Sweden, and they got to talking to my father. When the subject of jobs came up, my father said “Oh, my son is in advertising. I bet he would love to work in the States!” (laughs) He had no clue if I actually wanted to move to the States, but hey, he put it out there.

So Jerry told my father to have me send my portfolio to these creative directors. I did, and sure enough, a few months later I get that phone call. I packed my bag, and I quit the best agency in Sweden to work in Chicago.

IHAVEANIDEA: That must’ve been a major change. What was it like, coming from another country?

Adam: It was incredible. I don’t think I grasped just how big Leo Burnett was. I remember arriving at Leo Burnett that first day. I walked into the building and asked somebody to direct me to Leo Burnett. “It’s right here,” they said. I’m like, “yeah, yeah, but where?” And they said “no, this whole building is Leo Burnett.” The agency had 2700 people at the time, with over 400 creatives on four floors. I could barely comprehend an office that big.

Everybody at Leo Burnett was really super friendly, and because Jerry was executive management, I was placed in one of the best creative teams at the agency, the ones doing Altoids and Sony digital products. That team alone was as big as a large sized agency in Sweden.

IHAVEANIDEA: Did that make you feel small, going to a place where you are just one of hundreds of creatives?

Adam: On the contrary, the agency was very welcoming and made me a real part of the team. Two weeks after I got there I was already out at Kraft in Glenview, Illinois, presenting TV scripts alongside the CCO of Leo Burnett. They threw me into the water and really believed in me. Mind you I don’t think I sold a single ad, but it certainly was one of the most eye opening experiences in my career.

IHAVEANIDEA: After Leo Burnett you decided to go back home to Sweden. You must’ve been bringing back a totally different mindset than when you left.

Adam: Definitely. My time at Leo Burnett taught me that advertising is first and foremost a lot of hard work. In Sweden, at least back then, advertising was perceived to be a cool, funky field of business. Chicago stripped away a lot of the glamour, but it also made me feel very comfortable working with clients and seeing things and understanding things from their point of view.

When I returned to Sweden I worked for a number of years with Scott Goodson — this was some time before he founded StrawberryFrog. I had also kept in touch with a number of people from Leo Burnett. One day I received a call from Chicago. They asked me “would you be interested in taking over our Danish office in Copenhagen?” At the time I was only 26, and was a little bit intimidated by the offer, but I was foolish enough to not know better. After they made the offer, I asked what my salary would be. When they told me, I said “I’ll gladly take half of that, and for the other half I want to bring my partner that I worked with in Chicago.”

And so it was my turn to call this guy, Charlie Fisher, and bring him from Chicago to Europe, instead of the other way around. He arrived with just a nylon backpack with some CDs, jeans and underwear inside. We headed to Denmark and headed up Leo Burnett Copenhagen, alongside David Adams, this brilliant strategist. We were pretty much given carte blanche. We got lucky and we worked really hard. We won a couple of Lions and Clios, which was unheard of in Denmark at the time.

IHABEANIDEA: Not too shabby, and I guess ultimately a good move by Leo Burnett.

Adam: It definitely put us on the Leo Burnett international radar. And after some time, my girlfriend and now wife wanted to move back to Sweden. Her friends were having children, and she said it was time to have more of an easy way to meet her friends and hang out with them while they moved into that phase in their lives. And so I moved back and I became Executive Creative Director of Leo Burnett Sweden. That was… okay.

IHAVEANIDEA: That “okay” doesn’t sound too convincing.

Adam: (laughs) Well it was just at the first dot-com bubble burst, and they had a lot of dot-com clients. The world had gone crazy with the dot-com hysteria. There was so much venture capital, and a lot of grants that we worked on were inflated and built on borrowed money, so many things were just vaporware. We had McDonald’s and Scandinavian Airlines, but overall the culture was built on ‘don’t look in the rear view mirror. Whatever we’re doing now is going to go on forever.’ But it didn’t. It just came to an abrupt halt.

At the same time, some friends and I were approached by TBWA to launch TBWA Sweden. The four of us — okay, the three other guys at least — were what I still consider to be perhaps the most talented people ever to work in the industry in Sweden. We couldn’t turn that opportunity down, so we launched TBWA. We became one of the top three most awarded agencies in the TBWA network.

After a few years of TBWA, my friends at Leo Burnett called again to ask if I’d want to return to Copenhagen. I really wanted to work with Charlie Fisher again, and I felt that we hadn’t accomplished everything that we wanted to do there, and so I said yes. But this was only a short stay, as my family, which was growing then, really wanted to return to Sweden once more.

That was a great, great, great experience and then … We’re doing that and doing a lot of … Then, Leo Burnett, again Denmark, called me and asked me if I wanted to come back to them. I came back to Leo Burnett Denmark because I wanted to work with Charlie Fisher again, my partner. I felt that we had something going on there that we hadn’t really finished. I went back, but I only went back for a year-and-a-half. Then we realized that my family and I should really get back to Sweden.

IHAVEANIDEA: This is when you founded Saatchi & Saatchi Sweden, correct?

Adam: Yes. This was in 2002, when we were coming off of a really bad recession, as well as the dot-com burst. This was a perfect time to start something new because, well, the world and the clients will give you the benefit of the doubt when listening to what you have to say. Everybody was looking for new ways to do things in order to dig themselves out of the recession.

IHAVEANIDEA: You were at Saatchi & Saatchi for ten years, your longest stay in a single agency during your career so far. What kept you there for so long? What was special about what you built there?

Adam: Well first of all we were very lucky early on. In a very short time we landed some very big clients such as 3, the mobile operator owned by Hutchison Whampoa. We landed the biggest bank in Sweden, we landed an online premium subscription channel. With clients like these, our agency was profitable from nearly Day One. This meant that we could actually invest in people and hire young talent. We became Agency of the Year twice. We did a lot of great, great, great stuff, and the last four or five years, I think, we were fully, fully integrated. We had a much more media agnostic approach than any other place I had known, but this time from a more participatory, social, digital aspect.

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But again, after some time I really wanted a new challenge. Saatchi had wanted to give me a new job which was 50% Nordic Executive Creative Director and a part European Creative Director with focus on the Swedish market. But it wasn’t the entrepreneurial aspect that I love about this business. I really love building ideas and culture. That’s what I’m really good at I think and that’s where my strengths are. I felt that this new opportunity didn’t really offer me that.

IHAVEANIDEA: You’d be less of a doer and more of a delegator.

Adam: Exactly. It was a great job if that’s your type, but I’m not ready to be that guy sitting in airport lounges and flying himself on airplanes all the time. I’m still too young to do that stuff! (laughs)

I was approached with a couple of really interesting job offers in Europe and here in the US, but they were a little bit traditional. ECD jobs and CCO jobs, the kinds of places where I knew how to do that job in my sleep, you know? They weren’t on what I’d call a future proof, innovative, digital centric platform. That’s what I wanted. I wanted a digital platform with a completely future proof capability offering.

IHAVEANIDEA: And that search for such a place is what lead you here to 360i?

Adam: Yes. When I first heard about this opportunity it sounded like such an entrepreneurial environment. I said to myself ”This could be a fantastic success. If I do it right, this could be awesome, it could be kick ass.” Then I started discussing it with Bryan Wiener and Sarah Hofstetter here, and they laid out the vision, the roadmap for what they wanted to do and why it could be successful, and how they felt that I could fit in into the plan of building the most curious agency on the planet.

It was almost like starting an agency based on ten, brilliant, huge, global clients with a fantastic platform; digital at the core, huge social capabilities, big insights departments, a great tech department, a great production department. What the true opportunity is that I get to elevate the strong platform they have and refine and create a data driven creative approach that includes all the agency capabilities which is much more than a traditional creative department.

IHAVEANIDEA: The tools were there, but not necessarily the mechanics to use them.

Adam: Exactly. That’s the reason why I felt nothing could be better than this opportunity for me. For me it felt like this is something of a cultural fit and the entrepreneur aspect of it, to have the opportunity with a lot of brilliant people, create a culture that it hadn’t had in the past. There’s no blueprint, there’s no “this is how we’ve done it in the past and you’re stepping into so-and-so’s shoes.” This was a white canvas. That’s what really attracted me.

IHAVEANIDEA: But were you ready to leave Sweden again? That seemed to be a sticking point for you and your family in the past. What made this time different?

Adam: I discussed the opportunity with my wife, and we flew out here a couple times. New York is always New York. New York is the most amazing city on the planet, if you like that kind of stuff. It’s intense. It’s intense and it’s always on and it’s brutal, I think, in a great way. And so together, the family and the kids, we said, “This is an adventure and an opportunity that might not come along again, who knows? Let’s do it. We packed up and we left and that was almost a year ago.

We’ve been very lucky. Things have gone better than I could anticipate. That’s because of a lot of factors, a lot of stars aligning. One is getting a lot of talent at joining here. We’ve had some big breakthroughs on very iconic brands, such as Oreo and Coca-Cola. We have been very lucky, and we work very hard because the harder you work, the luckier you get. And of course, having very passionate clients who truly believe in the power of social, curious ideas is crucial, and we have outstanding clients at 360i. And all our capabilities work together when we ideate, that’s when great ideas come to life. It is the best and by far the most efficient silo killer – a collaborative ideas process. And crucial today where the lines between online, experiential and off-line are totally blurred. It is and will always be about great storytelling. Then amplifying them. And have great talent for that here.

I also had an incredible experience here that sort of brings my entire career around full circle. I was here for about three months, and I had to present to a number of executives at Kraft. And so I found myself travelling to Chicago, to Glenview… and presenting while standing in the very same conference room that I presented in nearly 20 years ago when I started at Leo Burnett. Not only was unexpected and a major feeling of déjà vu, it made me reflect on my entire career. Had I not been given that break, had somebody not had the confidence to put me in front of clients all those years ago, I might not be where I am today.

Oreo blackout Adam Kerj

dailytwist Adam Kerj
IHAVEANIDEA: A few years back, you were participating in the Stockholm leg of our Portfolio Night, and you had mentioned something, a philosophy of sorts, that you seemed to regret being a part of Scandinavian culture.

Adam: Ah yes, Jantelagen, or Jante Law. Jante Law is Swedish and Norwegian. In essence Jante Law says that you shouldn’t think that you are someone important, that you’re better then someone else. There are good things and negative things about that. The negative thing about it is that people don’t really want to stand out, and they have a tendency to be overtly humble. This does not play well when it comes to working in an environment where you really have to find the best ideas.

Here in North America, people will stand up for their ideas, whether their ideas are brilliant or whether the ideas are really bad. Whoever presents it makes it sound like it’s the best thing that ever came out of that person’s mouth and brain. But people in the Nordics will have an idea and they will downplay it, they will almost excuse themselves that it’s not going to be so good.

Don’t get me wrong. Jante Law also leads to very good collaborative efforts, because everybody is thinking of the collective. That has led to brilliant Swedish creations such as IKEA, Skype and Spotify. But at the same time, I fear that the Jante Law mindset might’ve have held back a lot of great people. It’s OK to be good in Sweden, it’s better to be good then great.

IHAVEANIDEA: Jante Law aside, what do you miss most about Sweden?

Adam: (laughs) I miss that there are no traffic jams, that you can get home from work in a car in 15-20 minutes. I miss the long, long, long nights in the summer, when the sun never sets. It’s so beautiful.

IHAVEANIDEA: What do you think you would be doing if you didn’t catch that advertising bug? What if your teachers didn’t point you to Berghs?

Adam: I think I would probably be some sort of journalist. I like the curiosity of finding out what’s behind the stories or what’s behind behavior. It’s also a decent profession, you know? I’ve always respected and admired good journalists and good articles. I still read tons of paper magazines. The New York Times magazine is the best in the world.

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baconbarter Adam Kerj

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Interview by:

brettcreditpic Adam Kerj

Brett McKenzie
Content Producer
Art Directors Club

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