Swedish adman Pelle Sjoenell shepherds a global band of ‘black sheep’ alongside a tight-knit team in Los Angeles.
Company: Bartle Bogle Hegarty
Staff worldwide: 1,000
Offices around the world: 7
For many people in advertising, pitching to a client in a sauna on a tiny autonomous Finnish island – naked, drinking vodka and eating pizza – might be the pinnacle of their career. Not so for Pelle Sjoenell, the worldwide chief creative officer at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (bbh), a global creative agency originally founded in London, which has made a name for itself bolstering the fortunes of megabrands such as Johnnie Walker, Absolut and Levi’s.
Indeed, 44-year-old Sjoenell has risen a long way since that unusual – and successful – in-the-buff pitch for new business to a group of ferry-liner executives. Originally from Sweden, he moved to Minneapolis to work for ad agency Fallon before landing at bbh, first in its New York shop before venturing out to Los Angeles to set up the West Coast office in 2010.
Sjoenell acts as a link between bbh’s network of offices – which spans London, New York, LA, Stockholm, Singapore, Shanghai and Mumbai – and its individual chief creative officers. “I come up with ideas for communication or action for brands to help them sell products,” he says, which also involves navigating the intersection between advertising, entertainment and technology.
Despite having a global leadership role at bbh, Sjoenell is reluctant to embrace hierarchy – something he says is part of the Swedish DNA. So winnowing down his most valued advisers to just a few people for this feature was fraught, as it meant leaving out some “black sheep” (a nickname for bbh staff inspired by an early Levi’s advert that brought it worldwide attention). “[bbh co-founder] Sir Nigel Bogle used to say, ‘None of us is as good as all of us,’” says Sjoenell. “As a Swede that makes perfect sense.”
Sjoenell insists that all of the agency’s global creatives, executives and staffers could be considered part of his cabinet. Yet he concedes that in bbh’s hectic world it’s his core team that helps marshal the LA office, makes sure he doesn’t miss a flight, acts as a sounding board for ideas – and yes, if needed, ensures he’s ready for another sauna pitch.
Sweden didn’t allow adverts on television until 1987 but Pelle Sjoenell remembers seeing a Levi’s spot in the cinema aged 13 – he has wanted to work in advertising ever since. He served as creative director and ceo at Stockholm agency King until 2006, when he joined Fallon in Minneapolis. He was hired “as a package” with his brother Calle, a partnership that continued at bbh in New York from 2007. His brother returned to Sweden as Pelle went on to found bbh’s Los Angeles outpost in 2010. He was named the agency’s worldwide chief creative officer in 2016.
Zach Hilder Executive creative director, BBH LA
“He’s a returning black sheep. I worked with him in New York and later got him to run BBH LA so I could do my wider job. I feel that BBH LA is in good hands whenever I am travelling. I missed working with him. He wears obnoxious T-shirts; he’s very much a black sheep
Frances Great CEO, BBH LA
“She really represents the BBH values. She worked in London, then did 12 years in Singapore and then I finally got her here. She’s been running this place ever since – and she’s fantastic.”
Agathe “AG” Guerrier Head of strategy, BBH LA
“Her last name means ‘warrior’; creativity is nothing without s trategy.”
Calle Sjoenell Pelle’s brother
“Five years sitting next to each other every day – we still miss it.”
Tim Harvey Global business development director, BBH
“Tim is the glue of BBH. He handles our global relationships with all clients – he’s the connector.”
Will Swann Head of entertainment, BBH LA
“To have someone from entertainment of his calibre is a big deal for an agency like ours. So when we need to package things to sell a TV series he knows what writers we need, who’s going to produce it, which network is interested in buying it and how the deals work. All these things are very new to the brand space.”
Suzy Lambert Executive assistant, BBH LA
“Suzy makes things work. She’s not under me; she’s on my side.”
Isobel Thomas Communications director, BBH
“It’s a huge job to not be opportunistic when it comes to PR and gaining fame. I absolutely couldn’t balance all of that without Izzy.”
Pauline Sjoenell Pelle’s wife
“As a family there has always been one plan: get to LA. We have three kids and she helped take them across the world and make this possible.”