It’s time to round up the year in more ways than one. Our advertising agency Honesty’s first fiscal year just ended a month ago, and I’ve been treating myself to some well deserved vacation on a sailboat in the Stockholm archipelago. And for those of you who have never been here, it’s quite a place:
It has been a strange but amazing year. Definitely tough. Probably the toughest year of my life. In February 2009 I had just left McCann (been fired is probably a more accurate description actually, I was a bit of a pain). I was on the street with no job, no financial stability to speak of and, in the typical ironic style of the game of life, no voice since I had throat surgery planned for the day after I left McCann. I couldn’t even call anybody to tell them about my predicament. Probably just as well as I was pretty high on painkillers as you can see below. Nevertheless it was what one could call bad timing.
At this point all options were open. I guess I could have joined another agency, I could have left the business altogether for something else, or… I could start something of my own. But as I was laying there in the hospital bed, I made a decision. I knew the concept we had at Verymuchlogo (the agency I left) was basically right, though somewhat crude, but the project was slightly off center in the staffing since we were missing an important piece of the Ocean’s 11 team and we were lacking the right production philosophy. Now was the time to make it all perfect from the start. But it was not going to be an easy ride.
In February 2009, still with pain in my throat and strong painkillers to fight it, I filed all the papers to start the advertising agency Honesty. To this day, I still have the original sign on the door of my apartment.
Shortly thereafter I moved into Honesty’s first office located in Forsman & Bodenfors’ old office on Hötorget in Stockholm.
Here I was hanging out with amazing people like Louise Hamilton and Daniel Jouseff, ping-ponging ideas and meeting tons of people.
Great meetings were held with everything from creatives and strategists to potential financiers and clients. The office was an expensive place for only one person to pay for, but looking back, it turned out that it actually paid for itself many times over.
And it was an important time, albeit painful – being on my own like that was a quite scary experience since I had nobody but myself to rely on for basic stuff like food and rent. It was important because it forced me out on the ledge. If I would have taken the safe route, Honesty would have been dead and gone a long time ago. Instead, I spent time digging through our industry and surrounding industries, like SEO, social media consulting and business consulting, to figure out what was being done right and wrong in our industry, or put into business terms – where the inefficiencies were that could be exploited. I saw (and see) the music industry as related and wrote a lot about that too back then. Check out the walternaeslund.com blog posts from February here.
Besides doing some smaller consulting gigs to stay afloat, my persistent bloggin was starting to pay off with more readers coming in every day and public speaking gigs starting to pop up, both in Sweden and abroad. I fell in love with the stage and it’s still a great marriage!
I also helped out as a consultant where I could. One of these gigs that I’m really happy and proud to have been a part of was the “Sweden’s Most Swedish Job”-campaign that Syrup planned for during the spring and executed in the summer. It was an awesome campaign, not least PR-wise, where we sent around a guy all over Sweden to rediscover the country and stay at STF’s (the client’s) hostels.
It was also an opportunity for me to work with the fantastic Henrik Frenne who is, by the way, a one-man-agency in himself. (Grab him if you can afford him).
My lifestyle at this point was anything but luxurious. All my money went to my expensive office and pitch projects and living expenses. There was one exception however: Our oyster Thursdays. Here me and my friends met up for oysters and discussed life. These Thursdays did chip away on my lean budget, but still I really think they helped keep me sane.
Around this time we started to throwing the epic Daniel & Walter-parties at the Stockholm club Collage. At least we thought they were epic. We always had a great dinner at the club before firing up the turntables and partying until 2-ish. Also a great way to keep my spirits and creativity up (we had a new theme every week).
Summer came. In many ways this was a huge frustration. The ad business slowed down and went into vacation state. All I wanted to do was work, but things around me were slow. Looking back I can see that this was actually really good. I fixed up my apartment and read up on a lot of stuff that I didn’t have time for before, like evolutionary psychology and the psychology of attraction, themes that are now at the core of my lecturing and overall strategy.
In September I wrote a blog post that exploded like a bomb. The post was about Forsman & Bodenfors’ campaign for The Church of Sweden and was intended as a clear and good example to show what happens when you design for man as man was fifteen years ago, in the pre-Google era, rather than designing for man as man is today, including the augmentation of the mind that search engines provide. Over the course of that week, my blog traffic doubled, tripled and quadroupled before hitting the Swedish advertising press in the form of an article in Resumé. At most I had six times my ordinary traffic on the blog going to that particular article. A week later I wrote about Lowe Brindfors’ new site, just to show that it is really not a Forsman & Bodenfors problem but an industry problem. Agencies need to get on the bus and design for man as man is today! During those two weeks, we had tons of traffic to the agency site as well, with all the big agencies topping our visitor charts. That week several of the biggest agencies where out searching for SEO-experts to hire. Ironically, we ended up on the top list of SEO-consultancies only some weeks later. The question I always get asked is whether the posts were a PR-trick or not, and my answer is: not really. I just told things as they were. Including screen shots. Sometimes a simple truth carries a long way.
Later that fall all the remaining 5 partners in the planned Ocean’s 11 team had signed on to the project, had gotten on board and received their shares. By October we were up and running. The old place was now way small and we moved into Honesty office #2 in Hornstull.
We were pitching small stuff and bigger stuff and were on a winning streak. To date we have withdrawn from two pitches and won the rest. Such an amazing payoff for all this hard work.
One of the ones we withdrew from was for, wait for it, the presidential campaign in the Philippines. That’s one you don’t do every day. This amazing ride was a great adventure including a week long very intense trip to Manila.
Instead we got to work on a dream project with one of my favorite designers Stefan Sagmeister and went over to New York to meet up and do workshops.
I’ve been a fan of his work on stuff for everything from superstars like Lou Reed and The Rolling Stones to small fun projects for a long time and also felt much appreciation for his philosophy and view on life. You can check him out speaking at TED.com here:
As a bonus, I also discovered and fell in love with Ace Hotel in New York. Fantastic place and a place I keep coming back to.
Things were starting to pick up speed now at Honesty. We added two employees to the staff, one art director and one account manager, and some freelancers and just pushed on full speed ahead. Before long we had outgrown Honesty office #2 as well.
This was a perfect stop for us where we could regroup and search for a perfect space without being too crammed. We have a couple of ideas for where our next space Honesty office #4 should be but haven’t quite decided yet.
Our first fiscal year, which was actually a year and a half, was closed on the last of June. Most of our real business has taken place from February, and that was an important lesson: it takes some time to start an advertising agency from scratch without financing. But when I got those books in my lap I was real proud, of myself, of my partners, and of everybody else who have made this happen. It’s just f*#!n cool that we could make it happen.
Before summer started I bought a piano. I was worth it. That’s where I sit down when I come home from work to clear my head before writing to you. It’s been an amazing year and an amazing ride. If you ever get the chance to do something like this, then do it! And if you don’t get a chance like that, make one.
When I got fired I called my mentor Magnus to tell him the news (well… I couldn’t talk remember, so i mumbled and whispered). I remember very clearly his reaction: “Walter – that’s GREAT news! It’s probably the best thing that has happened to you since puberty!”.
I guess he was right.
Have a great day!