Welcome to Views of Visionaries, the new series from Wix Partners where we talk to today’s most influential creatives about their journey, work and secrets to success. Views of Visionaries is unearthing insights from industry leaders that are transforming the way great ideas go from ideation to execution for agencies around the world.
For this installment of Views of Visionaries, we talked to Richard Agerbeek, Chief Creative Officer and Co-founder of Sweden Unlimited.
In the mid-’90s, you could find Richard Agerbeek (and his Casio keyboard) playing gigs around NYC with his electronic pop trio called Sweden. It’s now been 20-plus years since Agerbeek and his former bandmates Leja and Alex Kress ditched their synthesizers for the agency world, an artistic pivot that has certainly paid off. The three are co-founders of the digital-first creative agency Sweden Unlimited, and have created content for notable brands such as Tory Burch and W Hotels. (Despite their naming habits, Agerbeek and the Kress sisters are American.)
The connection between being a musician and being a designer might seem like a stretch, but Agerbeek says it’s more common than the casual observer might realize. In fact, he’s come in contact with many web designers who are also musicians; both disciplines blend qualitative and quantitative skill sets, as well as one vital ingredient: fearlessness.
“Talking in front of people is scary,” Agerbeek says, recalling that he was as passionate about his band’s brand as he was their performances. But it was in those performances that Agerbeek honed his skills as a presenter, something that came in handy when he led an early Sweden Unlimited pitch for Diane Von Furstenberg. “Being a musician is great for shedding those inhibitions,” he says. “If I can do it onstage, I can do it in front of these 50 people.”
From electro-pop to eCommerce
Sweden Unlimited designed their first few projects out of the apartment they shared in Tribeca, learning as they went and leveraging their network in the art and fashion worlds. In the decades Agerbeek has spent presenting to clients rather than attending soundchecks, Sweden Unlimited has grown from a small DIY operation to one of the industry’s most innovative agencies. They embrace a digital-first approach to branding and content, and keep up with the lightning quick changes impacting the branding world today.
“We used to design a flyer, make a bunch of copies, then go out and walk around town to promote,” Agerbeek says. “The most significant paradigm shift is that every person or company is their own media outlet or publishing platform. You used to rely heavily on a magazine to be the cultural epicenter of influence, trends and content. But now, brands are that.”
The Sweden Unlimited approach to running an agency
Agerbeek and his colleagues have made following their intuition a principle, something that has only served to amplify their knack for understanding a client’s needs. That wasn’t always easy, and their initial challenge was bridging the gap between their instinctive design aesthetic and the buttoned-up skills needed to package ideas to clients. Sweden Unlimited’s beginnings relied on plenty of perseverance and research, a dedication they rely on to this day. Agerbeek emphasizes the discovery phase as a vital way of immersing the agency in a brand, industry or problem they need to solve.
“The process and documenting the process are something I think about a lot,” Agerbeek says. “After doing hundreds of projects and clients, patterns emerge.”
Agerbeek documents everything. He makes copious spreadsheets, process docs, charts and graphs to notate patterns, and also relies on a thorough company handbook that chronicles lessons learned. Sweden Unlimited takes into account how each team member learns best—whether it’s through seeing, hearing or doing—and ensures that they’re set up for success. Ultimately, as chief creative officer, keeping the team happy and motivated while fulfilling their clients’ wishes is top of mind for Agerbeek.
“It’s a balance between intuition, taste and skill,” he says. “Taste is something you can’t really teach.”
Skill, however, can be taught, and Sweden Unlimited creatives are a tenacious bunch. The team is committed to a collaborative learning experience, and understands that everyone performs better when each person is listened to and given the chance to learn, expand and improve.
Part of improving is taking feedback and critique into consideration. Agerbeek strives to be very intentional and clear about the feedback he does give other members of the Sweden Unlimited team. “When giving a critique, always give a ‘why,’” Agerbeek says. “Why are we making this decision?”
Clients, of course, do not always give a “why.” Sweden Unlimited encourages its team to ask the right questions to get to the core reason that their clients give the feedback that they do. Deeper, targeted questions help team members understand the client better in the long run, remain open minded to solutions they might not have initially considered, and gives them ideas of how to approach future projects. Agerbeek compares it to the “Yes, and...” rule from improv comedy. “It’s always ‘Yes, and how about this?” he says.
Don’t sleep on the power of your site
Even in an age defined by social media, Agerbeek maintains that a brand’s website is the epicenter of its story. Despite the cost of building and maintaining a site and the relatively paltry audience it may see compared to social media, a brand can really show its depth on a showcase site. Dynamic capabilities and expansive options open websites up to be whatever a brand wants them to be, letting them tell their story with hyper-customized multimedia onsite experiences.
“I think there is so much potential that most brands haven't touched on when it comes to their sites,” Agerbeek says, adding that he thinks web design is flourishing during a new phase of creativity and benefiting from lower barriers to entry when it comes to creation.
“I feel we are going to see an explosion of creativity and storytelling on websites,” he says.
Inspiration should come from anywhere
Agerbeek draws creativity from everything from Chanel fashion shows to NASA launches. He absorbs architectural eras, classic films, disruptive new apps and design movements like Brutalist UI. “I like to look at huge or dangerous projects and think; if they can do that, we can certainly build a website interface,” he says.
Sweden Unlimited is dedicated to preserving ambiguity, a design technique that aims to avoid making assumptions or implementing constraints too early in the design process. The idea is that anything is possible, so that concepts can flow without prejudgement, sometimes resulting in successful executions that seemed improbable at first. Sweden Unlimited has built a reputation for beautiful, boundary-pushing content on that freedom, and they’re not concerned with where that spark draws from -- whether it’s pulled from the studio archives or inspired by a New York City stage.
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