Honesty Part 2 – The Story of Starting an Advertising Agency

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So I finally got my first day off from work in what feels like a lifetime. It also feels like a blink of an eye. So amazingly much has happened this year, and at the same time, I have never had a year pass this quickly on me before.

I’m sitting here at one of my favorite cafés on Skånegatan in Stockholm trying to write some sort of re-cap of one of the craziest years of my life.  (Read part 1 here). Here it goes:

How 2009 Was Like a Bad Action Movie and Almost Brought Me To Bankruptcy

The difference between 2009 and 2010 was almost ridiculous. 2009 was probably the toughest year of my life. It started with a throat surgery and an extremely uncertain startup existence where I borrowed the 100 000 SEK necessary to legally start up Honesty AB and went on to setup Honesty’s first office at a cost of over 20 000 SEK per month. You can imagine what that did to my private economy.

I rented Honesty’s first computer with my apartment as collateral because I couldn’t afford to buy one. I ran out of money completely twice and had to leave the first office and move back home to my apartment to which my very dedicated project manager intern Emelie Evenstedt had to come to work every day despite the fact that it didn’t even have a kitchen at the time. I even had a real estate agent come to my apartment to tell me how much it was worth so that I would know if I could sell it to bail me out of my loans (It could. Barely). Needless to say, starting up Honesty was pretty bare bones. I guess hardcore is a better word actually.

Towards the end of the year the Honesty story had taken me from getting close to personal bankruptcy to having meetings with presidential election committees in Manila and weapons traders in dark hotel restaurants (yes, all this sounds completely incredible but is true. I should probably mention too for the record that these people were closely related to democratic governments and VERY far from thugs that you see in movies).

These particular meetings completely shattered my prejudice about weapons traders. At least the ones I met were very warm, caring, friendly and smart people with whom I had late night philosophy discussions and developed friendships. I decided not to work with them in any way professionally since I don’t want to work with tobacco or weapons for personal ethical reasons, but there was always total understanding about this and never any pressure. It’s strange how something like this expands your view of the world. There are so many worlds out there that we don’t have a clue about but that are inhabited by people like you and me with very similar minds, dreams and emotions.

How 2009 Generated No Cash But a Ton of Value

In the face of all challenges, Honesty survived. Last year at the end of 2009 we had the christmas party for Honesty at Carmen, a local (very) low price range restaurant where the beer is half the price from well… everywhere else and where the atmosphere very much reflects just that. Did we go there because that was all Honesty could afford? Not really. In fact, Honesty couldn’t afford even this at the time. Everybody had to pay for their own plankstek and 29kr stor stark.

That is where 2010 started. But even though the treasure chest may have been empty, a ton of other value had been created. We had managed to put the Honesty brand on the map (even if sometimes in a provocative way). We had managed to bring together an amazing dream team of people who all came in to start work in October (for this reason we use this date as the official launch date of Honesty), effectively putting an end to one of the loneliest periods of my life. We had managed to get invited to pitches. And we had managed to set up a new office in an old garage.

2010 Started in Style!

The new year 2010 started in style with me and Martin putting up our brand new sign on the door with our first logo. It was a pretty emotional moment which gave at least a symbolic sense of stability. We realized when preparing the window that we hadn’t invested in cleaning products for the office yet, and you can actually see the bottle of Absolute Vodka that we stole from the neighbor and that we used to clean the window in the bottom left corner of the picture below.

Besides style, the year also started in Cava (one step up from cheap Carmen beer) with the Stena Metall account landing at Honesty. I must say that I’m am incredibly happy and grateful to the open minded and courageous marketing department at Stena Metall for having faith in us despite our lack of other major clients at the time. We have since delivered creative that we really believe in for Stena Metall, working towards charging the brand with emotional values and have picked up a couple of awards along the way. And while awards are fun, I’m most proud of the results we have seen in the metrics. This works. The Stena team will always be part of the Honesty heart and story as something of a modern Medici family who saw potential and invested in Honesty before anybody else. So Ninni, Katrin, Carina, Peter and all the other awesome west-coasters, I want you to know that you have played an important part in the history of this agency!

How Johan Carlsson Led Me To a Hero of Mine

Another important person in this story, at least for me, has been Johan Carlsson. This is a guy who literally walked into our garage office and smacked a brief on the table. “Solve this in 4 hours” was his pitch to us. Johan, besides being a client, has been an important support and inspiration for me personally as we have similar crazy entrepreneurial minds. We also have very different backgrounds so we complement eachother creatively really well. He’s the kind of guy who simply calls up people like designer star Stefan Sagmeister just because he liked what he saw him talk about on TED.com and books a meeting. Me and Johan actually went to New York together to have Stefan as a designer on the team. I’ve always admired Stefan as a designer and person, so needless to say, this was a big moment for me (though, as you can see in the picture, I was jetlagged to death).

In these workshops we created the new brand PFO which is one of the cooler brands I’ve been involved in creating. The product itself is an amazing GPS positioned assault alarm bracelet which looks like a fashion bracelet until triggered. When triggered, a SWAT-like team from G4S finds you and saves you within minutes. All this, which sounds very much like extremely high end celebrity security actually exists today, is patented, and comes at a low price that sounds completely impossible when you first hear it. Not any mind could make something like this happen. And PFO? What’s that? It’s just an acronym which looks cool… until you trigger the alarm. Then it changes into PLEASE FUCK OFF. It’s a wording equivalent of the product.

How Honesty Turned Into a Real Agency

Around February we had started gaining momentum in production and sent off our first invoices. As some cash started to come in we could start investing in very basic stuff like a server (no, we didn’t even have that before), a printer and studio materials. It’s almost hard to believe today that we didn’t even have these things back then.

Honesty’s fiscal year is broken on the last of june which means the first fiscal year of Honesty is actually a year and a half between February 1 2009 and June 30 2010. This also means that we closed our first fiscal year 6 months ago. The first year ended with a turn-over of about 4 000 000 SEK with 2 480 000 SEK in profit. At this point none of the partners had received a single salary, hence the large profit margin. For me personally, this meant almost a year without income and I had survived on my new speaking career that was spawned out of necetity and sheer survival instinct. Looking at this financial result gave me a ton of hope. Indeed, this would be a tiny step for a normal agency but it was a giant leap for Honesty.

The Halebop Story

Besides making sure to really deliver results to our main client Stena Metall, we literally worked our bums of for another key project in the Honesty story – the pitch for mobile network youth brand Halebop. I have made a promise to myself to never count the actual number of hours we put into that pitch, but it was A LOT of hours!

We also put in a lot of people on the case and the garage office was becoming very very very crowded as you can see in this picture.

We decided to move and ended up in a much bigger place slightly closer to the city.

In May of 2010 – Halebop stepped into our new office with huge smiles on their faces and two magnum bottles of Champagne. We had won!

Halebop was a major turning point for Honesty, and today, there is a lot of love between the two of us. We are similar in culture in a way since we’re both underdog challengers, and perhaps that is part of why we can push the envelope quite far in what we do for them. We have created advertising that’s so far from convention we seem to have shocked the market into a renewed interest in the brand. The interaction around the Halebop communication is fantastic as you can see in the linked post and all across the web if you try for example a YouTube search for the brand name. And it’s just as much thanks to the marketing department at Halebop who had the vision to see where all these crazy sketches that we showed early on could land with the audience. Annika, Karolina, Åsa, Rune, and all the others bad ass marketing minds in the magical bat cave on Ringvägen – I applaude you for your courage and vision! You are the ones who made the metrics we have both seen possible.

We have also won several smaller accounts over the year and one major new account recently that I will tell you about soon. We are also involved in a few pitches. And of course we are looking at some new hires to manage the new accounts. We are not rushing new pitches at the moment though, because I believe that priority number one always has to be to take care of our current clients. Our regulars. They made us happen. They’re family.

How Setting Impossible Goals Creates Impossible Results

Next week we’ll be half way through Honesty’s second fiscal year and we did set a bold goal for this second year. We said that we were going to grow at least 500% and I did get a lot of mocking comments about that in Dagens Media when I said it in an interview. I have no hard feelings about that. I would perhaps have thought the same, but we are now half way through the fiscal year already and are starting to see something crazy on the horizon.

We actually seem likely to not only reach that goal of 500% growth, but surpass it. We are ahead of the curve and are now looking at close to 600% on a linear prediction. And as a lover of bold goals, I’ll hereby revise my goal up to 800% just for fun so my critics can have something new to mock me about. It really doesn’t matter. 250% would have made me just as happy. Looking back at where I was a year and a half ago – broke, without an office and with my home up as collateral – I think that I will now head off to enjoy my first day of vacation in a long time and perhaps treat myself to an extra large hot chocolate.

Drop me an email or something if you want to meet up with me during the Christmas holidays. I’ll probably stay in town and  always enjoy meeting new people.

Merry Christmas and a ton of love to all of you who have been a part of this! You know who you are. I love you all!


Ps. Update: Thanks for all the amazing support, emails, SMSs and comments on this post (and during these two years of course)! It really warms my heart. One of the most common questions has been what we chose to replace Carmen for Christmas dinner. The answer? Dinner party at our office actually. It has become quite a comfy place these days. And the food? Catered from Bistro Voltaire of course. 🙂

About the Blog

This blog is written by Walter Naeslund and has been around since 2007. The blog is about the journey of starting an advertising agency and a sneak peek behind the scenes of what goes on at the Honesty HQ in SoFo, Södermalm. It is also a blog about communication & technology. The blog has gathered almost a thousand posts over the years with several longer and shorter breaks. Welcome and enjoy.
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