Partner and CCO at TBWA\Helsinki on an addiction to music, a Spinal Tap moment early in his career and happiness at a decline in buzzwords
Jyrki Poutanen’s first foray into advertising didn’t quite go to plan – a mix-up at the printers left him with indoor displays for McDonald’s one tenth of the size they needed to be. But it was all uphill from there. He’s now a partner and the chief creative officer of TBWA\Helsinki, arguably one of the hottest shops in the country at the moment, after a career that’s taken him through stints at McCann, Ogilvy and Accenture.
The work that Jyrki and TBWA\Helsinki put out is very much rooted in digital and technology – we once flew to Stockholm to test out a Nissan car that they’d turned into a PlayStation controller for the Champions League – but also emotive and powerful, namely its work for Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper.
LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Jyrki to chat about ‘80s hair-dos, a love of comic books and the importance of balancing traditional storytelling with innovative technology.
LBB> How did you get into advertising in the first place? Was it always the plan or more of a happy accident?
JP> Both I guess. I was an exchange student in the States at 16. I had always liked and been good at music and fine arts so I naturally did well in high school arts as well – so well, in fact, that after a student art exhibition that included my work, a local bank issued me a scholarship to the local junior college where I then continued my studies for another three years. Being your typical, a bit lazy teenager, I remember picking commercial arts as my major because it seemed less theoretical than the fine arts studies and majoring in music just seemed harder in general. So I guess that's where the lucky accident came into play and had already sort of directed me towards advertising. Living in marketing's promised land, the great US of A. to begin with was of course already subconsciously preparing me for the industry.
LBB> What was your childhood like? Would you say that you grew up in a creative household?
JP> My dad's side of the family was very creative; his mom was really good at hand crafts and music and my dad himself was into photography and painting. My mom on the other hand loved popular arts – entertainment, film and powerful stories. She was also the liberal parent out of the two that never said no to my crazy ideas, unless there would be harm or danger involved of course. So, for example, out of my teenage plea, within just a year I went through the hair styles and colours of most ‘80s pop artists, all the Duran Duran members, and so on. And she was all-in with my constant change of styles and minds.
At seven or eight I also really got into comic books. Marvel and DC heroes mainly. And sci-fi movies. At 11 we also formed a band. I first played keyboards, later drums, then vocals. Back then living in a restrained and un-liberal industrial town with a population circa 8000, I was definitely an oddball combination of a nerd and a "that cool kid in a rock-band". I guess I never cared about categories or moulds to fit in to. Or even really realised there were such things – thanks to my free-minded mother.
LBB> What was your first job in advertising?
JP> It was an internship for DDB here in Helsinki. I worked on the McDonald's account - the little things. And I mean that literally as the first actual gig I got went south big time. I got a brief from one of the ADs to finalise some ceiling mobiles for the McDonald's restaurant. I got the scale totally wrong and what came out of the printing house were mobiles only one tenth of the size they were supposed to be – sort of like what happened in Spinal Tap with the Stonehenge sculptures. Luckily there was a nice producer that took my tiny epic fail upon herself. From there everything went on nicely. I learned my lesson.
LBB> Do you remember any particular projects that helped you develop as a creative?
JP> I think once I got to work with the Finnish National Railways at the second ad agency in my career, I really started to figure out conceptual thinking and how to sort of keep creativity in form and within a concept. It was also my biggest client thus far, so the size of it all taught me a lot, especially as it was run with quite a small team out of which most were senior partners and/or senior creatives delegating a lot of responsibility for the rookie-me. Besides the brand work and PR, that client also forced me to get familiar with the tactical side of communication as tickets sales were naturally the main KPI.
LBB> When I look at TBWA\Helsinki’s work, a lot of it feels very rooted in digital / technology - Project Controller, the dog loyalty programme, Murder on the Orient Express, etc. Is that something you’d agree with and is it something you aim to do consciously at the agency?
JP> Totally agree. It's in our DNA and it's what the network has come to even expect from us. We've become quite good at these sorts of things. But there's a point in our history when that sort of flourish came with a price. I mean, when you build up such capabilities form ground zero and come to terms with things like the amount of time it takes to design a product as opposed to putting out a campaign for example, you may have already lost other expertise in the process. When I joined the focus had been on several lengthy – but mind you, really cool – product development or tech-centred projects that had taken on a lot of focus, leaving other types of communication capabilities untended to, for example your general storytelling, including film, design, craft, PR work, even basic campaigning. These are all cornerstones of the modern agency and communications, and good communication is a sum of them – one needs to maintain expertise in all of these areas. That's where we're at now – re-broadening our skill-set and creative offering, but not losing what we're good at and famous for.
LBB> Would you say that approach to work is a reflection of Finland as a country (and possibly the Nordic region as a whole)?
JP> Definitely so. We're a tech savvy nation for sure. A lot of tech start-ups and gaming companies reside here. We have Slush, the world's biggest start-up event, expanding in Helsinki every year. Nokia was born here and so on.
LBB> On that note, how do you see the Finnish advertising industry at the moment? Is it healthy? What are the biggest trends and issues affecting it?
JP> I think it's quite healthy now. The industry and clients have understood the need to shift the focus back to what actually makes the difference in marketing to get results; communication that is disruptive and truly creative through real human, cultural and data insights. I'm happy to see less buzzwordy talk and more creative outputs and action this past year than the previous.
LBB> What do you look for when hiring new talent into the agency?
JP> Diversity in gender, age, ethnic background, educational background, etc. These aspects all enrich our creative culture. Of course one must accept the realities – as a nation we're not yet as multi-cultural as, say, the Netherlands is. We've also managed to create a culture where people feel they do meaningful stuff and enjoy their work and working environment. That's why we are really keen on 'cultural fit' when hiring. We aim to maintain the creative spirit we've achieved together.
LBB> Tell us about the most recent work for Helsingin Sanomat - it’s really powerful. What inspired that approach?
JP> Thanks. As with many other clients, the creative outputs for Helsingin Sanomat spawn from close co-operation with the client. In the best cases the client-vendor barriers are erased entirely and we're just one team looking to create meaningful communication and work. We've set the tone together with them and from that starting point it becomes easier to find distinctive stories that are daring to take a stand for something. When creating something that strikes, it's vital to look for the 'enemy' of your brand. In this case we found it in the abundance of information we live with today – all the while true understanding is sparse. When we want to understand something, cold mechanical data is offered in return by our 'digital companions' as the explicit answer. However, to truly understand we need to feel – be empathetic. Something as inhumane as data alone cannot generate empathy let alone compassion. Delivering understanding as opposed to just knowledge is at the core of Helsingin Sanomat.
LBB> Which other recent projects are you most proud of and why?
JP> All of them! Well, if I have to choose, I'd say that in tone and depth the work we do with Helsingin Sanomat. In lightness, playfulness and joy, the stuff we do for pet retailer Musti & Mirri (the Biscuit Smart Collar for example
). In thorough reasoning and excellence in conceptualising and execution, our #LIFEINHEL campaign for Helsinki Airport, and in true entertainment value our Escape Train campaign for the National Railways.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
JP> Oh there's so many. Being from TBWA, I must say that Lee Clow could even have had a bit of an influence on why I joined the agency – I love the work he and the creatives in his footsteps have done for Apple. Many of my heroes are from outside the advertising industry. David Lynch pops into mind. Also Ed Catmull from Disney Pixar. Then some musicians that have managed to stay innovative, relevant and/or energetic, such as Thom Yorke and Eddie Vedder.
LBB> What do you like to do outside of work? Any current obsessions?
JP> I 'collect' new bands, meaning I constantly scan various magazines for new exciting artists and bands. It's an addiction almost. I still also collect comics and collectibles. And now vinyl too.
When I get a chance, surfing is the thing for me. The best combination for the nerd, surf and music guy in me is to visit my friends in San Diego during the San Diego Comic-Con. There and then I get the best out of all these worlds.