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Fredrik Carlström is the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Creative Director of Great Works America, a full-service digital marketing and communications agency that represents a diverse range of clients including[…]

Fredrik Carlstrom talks about his entrepreneurial beginning

Fredrik Carlstrom: Being in school was never my thing, because I didn’t like that there was a right and a wrong answer. And so I think one of the things that I loved about advertising, and still do, and to a certain extent films is similar, is that it’s very subjective obviously. And in an ad agency back in the day at least-- I don’t know how it is now-- in our office at least it’s if I show you an ad, and you don’t get it, I’m the idiot. You’re not the idiot. And I really liked-- it spoke to me, because I wasn’t very good in school, I suppose. And so the idea that sort of the message needs to be kind of measured in whoever’s reading it, was very compelling to me. But I think that most people don’t-- maybe now it’s different, but when I grew up, most people I don’t think knew that there was such a thing as the advertising industry, they assumed that Ford did their own advertising, or whoever. So I remember seeing an ad for a Swedish airline, and you know how every-- you know, an airport has a three letter combination, JFK, and EWK, or whatever, and they’d written the whole ad in those sort of-- it’d been divided up into three-letter words, and I thought that was really brilliant, and that’s kind of made me think, “I want to do whoever did that.”

Question: How did you get your start?

Fredrik Carlstrom: Well, I started my first job in advertising answering phones at an ad agency. And that ad agency was part of a bigger network. And I then wanted to move to New York afterward, and I remember sending these naïve letters to big agencies thinking I could get a job, but it didn’t work. So I applied for art school, and I couldn’t really decide whether I wanted to be an art director or a copywriter, so I applied for both. One I did under a false name. And I got interviewed at both, and I got actually accepted to both, and then I chose copywriting, mainly because it’s shorter, and I’m probably more of a writer. And then we did all these projects. There was this sort of older guy who was sort of acting as my mentor, and we’re doing our projects together, and we just had the idea, “Why don’t we start something?” And we did. I was 21.

Question: What were your first steps in developing your business?

Fredrik Carlstrom: In our case, we went to IKEA and bought desks and we sat in this sort of old sort of apartment that was our office, and we had one little project that kind of grew into an actual client. It was a big newspaper. Sort of the New York Times equivalent in Sweden. And I always sort of liked the whole idea of sort of playing office. So the whole getting phones and business cards and stuff was actually a lot of fun. I think when we started this office, one of the things that I was very careful about was that when you start something, and you have a bunch of people who are very problem-oriented-- you know, we’re all sort of problem solvers, right? So to have a bunch of creative people sitting in a room, and not have problems to solve, i.e. clients, you kind of go a little nuts. So we spent I think, on our business cards. There was a lot of debate about things that probably shouldn’t have been. But then we named the agency after a Paul Simon, Simon & Garfunkel song, I supposed, Graceland. And so-- and it was basically based on what would it be cool to say when someone calls you, you know? You answer the phone and say, “Hey, welcome to Graceland.” We thought it would be cool. And so when we started calling-- I remember doing sort of a cold call, which I don’t really do anymore, to a client just the day of-- when we named the company, and he was like, “Yeah, I’ve heard of you guys!” And so in the back of his head he probably knew the song, or thought he’d heard of us, but he couldn’t place it. So I think that probably worked in our favor a bit.


Recorded on: 6/12/08