Ori Mace (Acne Digital), Petur Mogensen (Acne Film) and Samantha Larsen-Mellor (Acne Amsterdam). Photo credit: Bart van Lotringen.

The famous brand Acne has recently opened a production company in Amsterdam and is about to launch its first local collaboration with 180. In the Netherlands Acne is mostly famous for its fashion, but the brand already has production companies in Stockholm, London, Berlin, New York and LA. At these places Acne is already known for distinctive campaigns such as this film for BMW or a very recently this digital experience for Virgin Atlantic.

We wanted to learn what makes the brand unique and why it chose for Amsterdam. So we had a chat with Ori Mace, head of Acne Digital, Petur Mogensen, head of Acne Film, and Samantha Larsen-Mellor, who will lead Acne Amsterdam. 

You flew in for this interview, are you visiting some museums next door or are you busy with work?
SLM: We combined it into a sales trip, so we’re fully booked.

Acne stands for many different disciplines under one iconic umbrella brand. How do all these brands relate to each other?
OM: Acne is a fast-growing marketing and communications group, focusing on building brands, while Acne Studios is a freestanding progressive fashion house. Both groups are still headquartered in Stockholm and have close informal ties. You could see us as one big toolbox that offers different talents for different projects within film, digital, advertising, R&D and design. Acne Studios however is today is under a separate umbrella.

The founders wanted to start something that revolved around trying out new stuff, without traditional structures and outside the advertising industry

So, just to be clear…
PM: Does it sound complicated? We are not trying to make it more difficult than it is. Maybe it helps to start at the very beginning. Acne started as a creative collective, founded by Tomas Skoging, Jonny Johansson, Mats Johansson and Jesper Kouthoofd in 1996. The founders wanted to start something that revolved around trying out new stuff, without traditional structures and outside the advertising industry.

Creating stuff for the fun of it?
PM: Yes. Any project that sufficiently appealed to them was picked up. With this vision they could even have started a hamburger restaurant.

Everybody always talks about the jeans…
OM: The jeans formed a milestone. When the collective had gathered some clients they wanted to give them a relationship present. It was during the denim wave in 1997. So they came up with jeans, obviously a difficult product and therefore very Ance. Jonny Johansson, who came from Diesel, had some knowledge of the market, so that helped. When the first batch was finished, people started to ask if they had more, and that’s when it became a product. It evolved into the fashion company – Acne Studios.

Is that the business model; just trying stuff out and hoping it becomes profitable?
SLM: Yes. The origin of the brand is ‘let’s just do stuff’. That’s why – apart from the success stories – our company has always left room for making mistakes. That’s part of our DNA.

Can you give an example of making mistakes?
PM: In the very beginning Acne made comedy sketches for TV. Then someone asked; can you make a commercial? Of course, they said. But back then the people at Acne didn’t even know what a PPM was. The end result turned out more or less ok, but our company really had to discover how to make a commercial.

We never wanted to work for a business model, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have one

Are there ever conflicts between making stuff just for the fun of it and making a profit?
OM: We never wanted to work for a business model. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have one. Today we know how to make money, but our ambition is to put our clients first, which means that the business model is never more important than the work we deliver.

PM: Creativity always needs to be driven by passion. But it is possible to turn this into a commercially viable system.

SLM: It is true though that when art and industry are equally important it is a challenge to enter a new market.

Have you ever quit an Acne brand because it was not bringing in enough?
OM: Yes, Acne Play. With this brand we made digital games. We ended it pretty recently because the introduction of the app store brought in too much competition from big game publishers. But it has given us lots of valuable experience in game development.

What kind of experience?
PM: Games are also about storytelling and entertainment, so they need to be scripted. Both our Digital and Film division benefitted greatly from building games. And, more importantly, it generated a lot of energy in our company. It lifted the roof up.

What does your R&D division do?
OM: This is something we feel very passionate about because it is about curiosity. We use innovation to create new revenue streams for companies. We fuse branding and advertising specialists with cutting edge technology experts and just see how the magic develops.

What kind of projects are you working on with R&D?
OM: One of our projects called “Curater” is a closed subscription based art system streaming the world best art in your home.. The art on your screen will be tailored by our curators into 10-12 exhibitions annually. We will launch the first 50 frames in August this year.

What a great idea!
PM: It is! And it even looks museum-like since we’ve worked hard on the screens, giving the surface, for example, a super matte finish, and materials with a high quality. This directly came from the insight that we wondered why you can’t enjoy the art from a museum in your own home. This concept makes it possible. Curater has lots of possibilities and will show photography, video art and paintings, with a focus on contemporary art.

Aren’t museums a little sceptical? After all, they might think people should always experience the original.
PM: They love it. And since 90% of their art is in their basements, they have enough to show even outside their regular collections.

Do you have another example?
OM: We are also working on an electronic ping pong racquet – called PingTronic. It has a sensor in the handle and can thus register your game. We have focused on two parts, playing statistics and games. It helps to improve your game and is fun as well.

What’s interesting about these kinds of projects is that they also force our different divisions to collaborate

One big playground…
PM: Indeed, but what’s interesting about these kinds of projects is that they also force our different divisions to collaborate. It teaches us how we can collectively push our boundaries.

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So why did you guys start offices in Amsterdam and Paris?
OM: Because these cities have strong creative cultures where we think we fit in.

PM: And in Europe you need to be present in a city to gain business there.

You’re opening flagship stores?
PM: You could say that.

So, Samantha you’re going to run Paris and Amsterdam, how did you get this role?
SLM: I called Kai in Berlin. I was running an agency for commercial directors and DoPs, working on the international market and I wanted a change and was already quite fond of Acne. We started talking and it evolved from there.

Why were you a fan of Acne?
SLM: It has this special universe. For me it began with wearing the clothes. I wouldn’t normally wear green, but when it’s Acne, I can let go of my initial hesitation. And then I discovered how the Acne signature can be discerned throughout the different disciplines. Whatever it produces, you feel the creativity. I could almost speak about Acne as a religion – without the fanaticism.

Really?
PM: It’s especially about integrity. We always keep true to our modus operandi, which is being passionate about the things we do.

OM: I have always worked in this kind of environment. I first started at Spray in Stockholm in ’95. It was the first digital agency there. But then, after a while it merged with Razorfish. Then I started Starsky and after some years it was acquired by McCann. I have always wanted to go back to the places I started; driven by creativity and high quality work.

Are their clients that don’t match with you?
SLM: No that would border snobbism. We’re a tool, for everyone to use.

OM: We don’t walk around with our noses in the air. We adapt to the client process and try to be nimble and flexible.

In our last interview Ewoudt Boonstra told us he saw a trend of production companies hiring conceptors, so that they can compete with ad agencies. Do you see that trend?
OM: Not really, but we do see advertising networks building their own production facilities.

Highly creative people don’t always want to work in a network culture

Does that work?
OM: Well, highly creative people don’t always want to work in a network culture.

Is this the same dynamic as brands hiring creative talent for in-house creativity?
OM: Not always. H&M, for example, has an internal agency. It is useful because it’s mostly used to work with the right creative partners. And these kinds of brands are attractive enough to attract talented people. Clients are also getting better at their own strategy. So, all in all, the landscape is becoming very non- homogeneous, which means we need to be humble and adapt.

PM: Indeed, you cannot standardize anything anymore. The landscape has become too complex. The most successful companies in the world are the ones that don’t want to have a standardized method. It’s what our Executive Chairman Victor Press wrote in his column for Amsterdam Ad Blog; big data doesn’t write love stories. In the end we’re talking about communication, that’s a human thing.

So you won’t bring in conceptors?
SLM: One of the reasons why we’re not overpassing agencies is that we love the craft. We’re the workers. We’re not good at doing the Powerpoint. We’re good at the execution.

How is the relationship with your Stockholm agency? Do you get work from them?
PM: Sometimes, but not necessarily. They need to keep their integrity. If we don’t have the right director, they should look further. Otherwise they lose their credibility. But of course we’re great friends.

Do you see digital and film merging? MediaMonks, for example, integrates more and more film in its productions.
PM: We’ve been doing this for several years.

OM: This trend is logical. In more and more projects you can’t say whether it’s lead by digital or film anymore.

Does that mean that your different departments need to merge at some point?
OM: No, having different labels is a way to attract the best talent within the different specialties.

PM: You always need specialities. When you’re building a house, you need electricians and plumbers – you want to separate the electricity from the water. So, underneath our big umbrella we can draw a house for you, but we still use our different specialists to actually build it.