LBB’s Addison Capper speaks with Visit Iceland’s Sigríður ‘Sigga’ Dögg Guðmundsdóttir and SS+K Stevie Archer and Lenny Stern for full lowdown on an “A+ case study” of a client-agency relationship
Stevie Archer, executive creative director at SS+K, which is part of the M&C Saatchi Group, wrote in Little Black Book last month that all of its work for Visit Iceland is united by a clear strategy. “Iceland is the antidote to whatever the rest of the world throws our way.”
M&C Saatchi Group, spearheaded by New York-based SS+K, won the Visit Iceland account in June 2020, when pretty much the entire world was under some form of travel restriction. But at a time when a lot of travel brands were - understandably - scaling back advertising, Visit Iceland and SS+K were straight to it, producing their first campaign within weeks of signing.
But, as Stevie alluded to, it wasn’t just work that blindly said “come to Iceland”, which would have been intensely annoying at a time when that wasn’t possible. It was work that had a place during that time and that was aware of the problems people were facing, which is what has underpinned the work since under the brand platform ‘Looks Like You Need Iceland’.
That first campaign was ‘Let It Out’, which involved Iceland giving would-be travellers a luscious place to let out their pent-up frustrations as cathartic primal screams. It generated 2.5 billion impressions in just two weeks and made Iceland the number one preferred travel destination among the target, despite being outspent by other destinations eight to one.
“We've been working with an agency to market the destination since 2010 but in 2020 we wanted to look further for new collaborators,” says Sigríður ‘Sigga’ Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland. “Simply, we liked SS+K the most. They had a great idea for a campaign and they really spoke into our long-term vision for the destination and the brand pillars that we want to base our message on, such as nature, of course, but also the people, culture, tradition and sustainability.”
Lenny Stern is the co-founder of SS+K and co-chairman of M&C Saatchi US. He felt positive from the moment the pitch process with Visit Iceland began because of the fact that it was looking for a true “agency partner” as opposed to just being wooed by one shiny idea. “What was unique and refreshing about this pitch is that they were really looking for an agency partner,” he says. “They were looking for great ideas, but they were also looking for a partner who both understood how to build a longer term platform, but was fast and quick and agile enough to take advantage of cultural moments and innovative enough to make ideas go further than budgets.
“We're not for everyone,” Lenny adds. “But if you are a brand or a business that is going through change and is looking to disrupt, that's our type of client. They were looking for something we were and they are perfectly the type of client that we really at our best excel out. That's what made that pitch so amazing. Every once in a while magic happens. The platform 'Looks Like You Need Iceland' was all part of that pitch and we were immediately producing it within weeks after winning the tender.”
The two years that have followed have seen the launch of four campaigns. After ‘Let It Out’ there was ‘Sweatpant Boots’, which was the first big post-lockdown campaign for the organisation. It was centred around the idea of turning one of the most universal lockdown garments, the sweatpant, into hiking boots. Then there was ‘Icelandverse’, a wonderfully reactive parody of the metaverse that was launched just eight days after Mark Zuckerberg’s big rebrand of Facebook to Meta and vision of our multidimensional future. The Facebook founder actually went to Iceland in May and posted an Instagram album captioned ‘Photo dump from the Icelandverse’. Most recent was ‘OutHorse Your Email’, a commentary on our inability to truly switch off in the remote work normality that we find ourselves in. SS+K enlisted some very special Icelandic horses to type people’s out-of-office replies so they could actually enjoy a proper break.
What’s more, the work has performed well on the award circuit, picking up three Cannes Lions, two ANDYs, five Effies, one Pencil from the One Show and five New York Festivals including one Grand Prize in the PR category, among other goodies.
There’s an empathy that drives all of the work but as is demonstrated by that list of work, there’s also an enjoyable, slightly off-the-wall humour with it all. “We're a small country but we are now playing in the big leagues when it comes to destinations,” says Sigga in response. “But we don't have the budgets or resources as the destinations that we are competing with, so we really need to think creatively, we need to do things differently than other destinations. That has maybe given us the freedom to do campaigns that other destinations maybe couldn't do.”
But it’s not just a way to circumvent smaller budgets. The humour is authentic and a perfect representation of Icelandic people, believe Lenny and Stevie, and the team at SS+K enlist the thoughts and ideas of their clients to ensure that the work is as authentic and true to Iceland as possible. “Getting to work with Visit Iceland has been a firsthand perspective on how funny they are,” says Stevie. “Even in our meetings, we have fun together. As we've gotten on the phone to work together on a lot of the campaigns, we're working collaboratively even when we make scripts and develop the work to make it fun and funny and reflect an Icelandic perspective on the world that's just a little bit dry, very self aware and smart. We try to be as reflective as we can of our experiences as outsiders to the people that we've had the privilege to get to meet and bring that to life and in the world.”
“There's nothing worse than someone who's not funny trying to be funny, or someone doing it in an inauthentic way,” adds Lenny. “What's wonderful about the through line of all this work is that there is an authenticity. This is a country that takes itself and its beauty and what it offers seriously, but it doesn't take who they are too seriously. There's a wink, there's a nod, there's a reverence to who Iceland is. I think it tells everybody that you're gonna come here, you're gonna see beauty but you're also gonna have fun, and you're gonna have people who will make you feel welcome and make you laugh as well as be in awe. That's allowed the humour to feel very real and authentic.”
That collaborative way of working has also allowed work, such as Icelandverse, to be made much more quickly, which is an important part of the strategy in tandem with a longer-term vision. “Trust is the key,” says Lenny. “To be able to look a client in the eye and say, you have to make this and we have to make a decision tomorrow. Of course, they're great judges of the work, so they're not going to do something they don't want to do, but sometimes when you're on the fence, if you have that trust, and you know we wouldn't be pushing if we didn't believe it, that's how things happen fast.”
“There's so much trust and collaboration, and kindness and friendship,” adds Sigga. “That also means that we have the strength to be reactive and actually do things quickly, like we did with the ‘Icelandverse’. That came up and eight days later we launched a campaign.”
SS+K is the spearhead of all of the work Visit Iceland but the account also marks somewhat of a success story for the M&C Saatchi Group as a whole and what a modern day agency network can achieve. People from the London advertising creative department helped in the pitch process, reporting into Stevie in New York. M&C Saatchi Talk, the group’s PR agency, were and still are involved, as is M&C Saatchi Performance, which specialises in digital media strategy, and M&C Saatchi One to One, a CRM specialist. SS+K also works hand-in-hand with Icelandic partners Peel for account management and production on the ground. That collaboration further ensures the work always reflects the Icelandic perspective and every campaign is made on location with Icelandic production and talent.
“It's really helpful,” says Stevie. “M&C Saatchi Talk and our PR partners in key markets are in the virtual Zoom Room with us from the first moment that we're doing creative work and earned conversation is part of it. When they start putting together press materials and pitching to markets, we're also able to get a sense how the narratives are going to impact each area and they give us feedback about what they're hearing in Germany or the UK, etc. that might be slightly different based on how those different markets perceive the work as well as travel. It's really critical for us to be able to get those and have them involved really closely as we're developing it to get the work right.”
But from a client’s perspective, Sigga never feels like she is working with many different entities. “It’s always very seamless,” she says. “They’re working very well together.”
“One of the great things about the M&C Saatchi Group is that it's agile and incredibly collaborative," adds Lenny. "There is an ethos of checking your ego at the door. We can stand up teams on a moment's notice. It [the relationship with Visit Iceland] is an example of an agile network that isn't just about dots on a map, but people who know each other and understand each other's talents, strengths and weaknesses.
"When you really think about the right clients for the right agencies, forgive my humble brag but the M&C Saatchi Group is ripe for a certain type of global client. It's a client that wants close connectivity among people in different markets. It's about really wanting people who really understand local audiences particularly well. And it's about being able to move fast and quick, and as Sigga said, feel as one versus working with 10 different agencies. Iceland's been like an A+ case study for that.”
In terms of the future, a long term vision was always part of the brief from the earliest days of the pitch process. The next phase of the work is still in early stages of production but dubbed ‘evergreen’. It’s a continuation of ‘Looks Like You Need Iceland’ but will consist primarily of online video that asserts, ‘Sometimes you don’t know what you need until you feel it/taste it/hear it/breathe it’. It will showcase all seven regions of Iceland, with a specific focus on adventure, wellness, and Icelandic arts, food, music and culture.
“Our goal is to deepen the understanding of the diversity of experiences in Iceland, reinforce that it is a multi season destination, and ultimately to encourage travellers in our target markets to visit and explore more,” says Stevie. “A lot of it [the original strategy] has remained our focus. Nowhere is for everyone and that includes Iceland, so it’s about being very clear that we're not trying to just have anyone and everyone, but people who want to experience Iceland in the right way, who are into a little bit of adventure and want to really explore something unique and have that type of experience. Then, as we pivot into the more ‘evergreen’ approach, we are starting to talk about potential other target countries now that it is a little bit more free again in terms of travelling from certain parts of Europe and Asia. Visit Iceland is super smart about it, too, in terms of not overreaching for what we know the budget can allow and the country can sustain.”
“There's a social force that we track as part of our Social Forces Monitor called the Great Reevaluation,” adds Lenny. “These last two years have forced everybody to rethink how they work, live, parent, educate themselves, and so on and so forth. When you think about travel, in the past, it used to be about the bucket list and then more ‘everyday’ travel. And the bucket list is all great, but you often would put that off - but in a moment of great reevaluation, people are not putting that off, they want to do that right now, so we're trying to take advantage of that moment. Now that people are travelling again, it's not just business as usual, we actually have more of an opportunity because people aren't putting off big trips like Iceland. The work has almost allowed us to take advantage of that and accelerate.
“And lastly, we'll see what the moment in time brings us because we're always looking to take advantage of that. Iceland has been part of the cultural conversation and we're going to keep trying to do that.”