The Marketing Rebel Who Went Full Circle

Pelle Sjönell. Photo: Paul Stone

Pelle Sjönell has become an admired name in the global communications industry for his disrupting creative work – currently as BBH’s worldwide chief creative officer – but also his commitment to driving positive change in the marketing industry and society at large. 

He is actively working to support global female leadership as part of The Wilson Center’s ​Women in Public Servic​e Project, and he has chosen to donate the proceeds of his latest book – ​The Art of Branded Ente​rtainment (co-authored with the Cannes Lions Entertainment Jury) – to the Four A’s diversity project in the marketing industry. 

The current edition of the phenomenon Pelle Sjönell shows a man who has gone full-circle in his career, but at the same sets the direction for where the marketing industry is headed in the future – and it all started in the darkness of a Swedish movie theatre back in 1985.

Born and raised in a family of academics, but with a rebel mind who couldn’t stand the limiting structures of the school system, Pelle found his calling when he snuck into the local movie theatre to watch a James Bond movie at the age of 13. Before the movie started, Pelle got to experience a piece of content that would instantly change his life – a Levi’s commercial made by the British marketing agency BBH. The emotional response of the ad blew him away. Today, Pelle refers to this as his ”Beatles moment”. He had just seen something that he instantly knew he wanted to do himself. He wanted to communicate through entertainment and emotions. 

The road from that night in a small Swedish theatre, to taking over the very office of Sir John Hegarty (founder of BBH) 22 years later, has been long. Pelle started out as a kid who had big dreams and a skilful way of moving through, and mastering, various parts of pop culture. He has been both a rocker, a breakdancer and techie.

​This ​fingerspitzengefühl for shifting trends in society, Pelle attributes to his Swedish heritage. He thinks Swedish society has never seen itself as truly European, and that his northern homeland somewhat lacks a soul of its own, which has lead to a culture built on tapping into the cultures of others and then tweaking it with creativity. Growing up in Sweden turned Pelle into a creative who was never boxed in, but rather spent his time in-between the boxes of various subcultures. It also made him brave as creative leader. With the Swedish society being one built on social support and kindness, Swedish leaders tend to be both kind and brave enough to try new ideas. Having a ”bad” idea in Sweden won’t get you fired from your job, and, thus, Swedish creatives learn that it’s safe to both innovate and make fast decisions. 

Pelle brought that management style with him from the hallways of Stockholm’s Berghs School of Communication to the global brand boardrooms in LA and New York. His work has fine-tuned the branding strategies of brand behemoths such as Absolut, Google and T-mobile, but he is far from done. Looking to the future, he is making the prediction that marketing will once again go through radical change, but also become even more true to its core.

In our age of automatisation and big data, Pelle says he knows his job as a creative is in danger and that the more complex the world becomes, the problems will arise in society. To him, however, that doesn’t have to neces​sarily be a bad thing. ​”I love problems”, he says, and continues to explain how ​”creativity is problem solving, so without problems there is no creativity. The more problems ​in world, the more creativity will be unleashed.” 

He agrees with the industry that data-driven marketing automation is a breakthrough that will change how brands communicate, but he does not think marketers necessarily must become data wizards as a result. ​”When you did TV commercials in the olden days, you didn’t have to learn how to build a TV”, he explains. In the same way, modern marketers won’t have to know all aspects of the algorithms and machines running modern society – they just need to learn how to evoke empathy and emotions through those media. He fears brands that build their future on automation will soon be in big trouble unless they combine that strategy with a great deal of empathy for people and society. 

As an example, he mentions the rise of self-driving cars. When promoting smart self-driving solutions, companies must take into account all the jobs which will be lost in the process, and find ways to both communicate empathy and offer hands-on support for those who end up on the ”wrong side” of innovation. Brands shouldn’t just say that they offer AI or big data as part of their solution – they must also show that they still care about people.

Pelle Sjönell is convinced that the empathy and emotional response which the Levi’s commercial evoked in him, will still be the key ingredient for creating great communication. Just because technology changes doesn’t mean people do. He also sees the need for empathy as a key part of figuring out how to succeed in the future machine-driven society. ”Today marketers are learning to sell with the help of machines, but soon we’ll need to learn how to sell to machines. The machines will have similar empathy needs as people do – they just take on different forms, such as energy, updates, batteries and algorithmic relevance.” As a result, the future of marketing will be one characterised by even more empathy – for both people and machines.

And perhaps Swedes will keep paving the way for the future of marketing as they have for decades now? At least Pelle Sjönell will.