The TBWA\Helsinki communications and PR specialist shares with Alex Reeves her desire to help brands change the world for the better and the lessons she’s learnt in her first years in the industry
Saana Simander has always cared about curing the world’s ills. Growing up in Finland, her curiosity for how the world can change for the better was intense. “I sometimes felt the weight of the world on my shoulders,” she says, remembering how her parents had a hard time answering her questions about her concerns for humanity, like why there are wars or when the universe will end.
She was a happy kid though, optimistic that she could change things for the better. “I have always expected a lot from myself and I think that is one reason I ended up in a creative and competitive career,” she says.
Her childhood was split reading voraciously, visiting the library every week to take out as many books as would fit in her backpack. Early favourites were Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, His Dark Materials and The Lord of the Rings. “But I was not just the nerdy kid who always had her nose in a book,” she says. As a people person, she loved team activities and of her many hobbies, from track to dance, scouting is the one that stuck. She started at the age of eight and is still “more or less” active. Through scouting Saana learned “how to take responsibility, work in a team and have the courage to challenge myself”. It’s also what started her love for nature and hiking.
Growing up in a stable, middle-class environment with Finland’s famously free access to high quality education, she considers herself extremely lucky. “I have never heard that I could not do something because of my cultural background. Even as a kid I was very conscious of the fact that not everyone has the same chances as I do.”
Saana’s drive to improve people’s lives ended up being one of the main reasons she ended up at TBWA\Helsinki. While majoring in Sales and Visual Marketing at the Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, a speaker from the agency came to present. She was instantly impressed by the work they had done, and particularly “the way they challenge norms and aim to change the world”. She knew she’d end up working there straight away. So when the time came to apply to the mandatory trainee period for her studies, TBWA\Helsinki is the only place where she applied.
After demonstrating how keen she was, in summer 2019 Saana began as a communications trainee at the agency. She began working on a campaign that gave her a chance to make a positive impact, just like she’d hoped for, revolving around Earth Overshoot Day for Nordic clean energy company Fortum
. “I remember how welcomed I was in the team from the beginning and how great it was to see some of my own ideas come to life.”
The opportunities to learn were huge from day one. Her first lesson in the ad industry was to make herself and her ideas heard. “As I always aim for perfection it was hard for me at first to just throw ideas around without thinking them through carefully. I had to learn that even though not all ideas are the best, it’s still important to say them out loud. You’ll never know what might come out of them when you brainstorm together with the team and improve them together,” she says.
To date, the work that Saana’s taken the most from was a campaign for the Football Association of Finland. They approached the agency with a wish to renew the brand and identity of their Women’s League to meet the league's values that highlight equality, competitiveness and the courage to change the world. In the end TBWA\Helsinki not only renewed their visual identity, but ended up doing what Saana believes is “ground-breaking work towards equality in sports”, dropping the gendered reference
in favour of renaming it the Kansallinen Liiga (National League).
“Why should we refer to the gender of the player? Isn’t it the same sport regardless of the gender? That is why we encouraged our client to change the name of the league,” says Saana. The rebrand got some great results in PR around the world, but the biggest win was when the Damallsvenskan from Sweden announced that it will follow the Finnish example and ditch the prefix ‘women’. Not bad considering it was the first project she was in charge of PR, and much of the influencer content, for.
Saana loves the results she can get through PR, making sure her team and clients’ hard work gets credit in the media. The people person in her also particularly enjoys maintaining the professional relationships with journalists her role benefits from. “For me personally the best part in this is when I get the first reply from a journalist,” she says. “It doesn't really matter how big or small the media is that they work for but it somehow validates all the work our team together with the client has done.”
Making work that gets talked about is at the core of Saana’s role. And she believes for that to happen it needs to fulfil three criteria:
1. It needs to have a purpose.
“When something is done just for the sake of advertising, it usually isn’t something that gets talked about. When working with an idea it is important to ask ‘why are we doing this?’. Work that gets talked about is something that has a valid reason or a problem to solve behind it.”
2. It needs to be innovative and in the best cases something that hasn’t been done before.
“Even better if it is something that others (individuals, teams, companies, or entire societies) can benefit from or use as a starting point or inspiration. This really makes phenomena.”
3. It needs to be courageous.
“When making work that gets talked about you need to be brave enough to shake things up. When you know that your work is gonna be a hard pill to swallow for someone, then you’re on the right track.”
Looking at the broader industry, Saana loves how quickly it evolves, tapping into current trends, ongoing discussions and culture in an insightful way. “Of course there is still a need and a place for ‘traditional’ advertising but what gets me excited are the ideas that have an impact on the world and society,” she says.
“Looking at 2020 alone, we’ve seen so many brands evolve and adapt their advertising to the current situation. It really goes to show that even though marketing budgets are the first to be cut during a crisis that the advertising industry can still evolve.”
She’s also inspired by how quickly the people working with those brands have adapted and innovated through the pandemic. TBWA\Helsinki has been busy during Covid, working on some really clever projects like the hands-free door handle for Vipu
and a print ad that reinforced social distancing . Working through this period Saana has learned how lucky she is to work with the people she does. “I think the fact that we have been able to make such great work during the pandemic goes to show how creative and adaptive our teams are.
“I acknowledged the importance of teamwork even before the pandemic but I think I truly learned how important it is during it. Most of the work we’ve done during the pandemic was put together in weeks when usually we work with projects for months. This means that we really had to put all hands on deck regardless of our titles and our usual team structures.”
She’s also been super impressed by how determined her clients have been to “help society and do good in the midst of a global crisis. They have been brave to try new things and agile in decision making. I think working together in a crisis brought us closer to our clients and we truly made great teams together.”
Saana might be wildly enthusiastic about her job. But she’s realistic about some of the shortcomings of the industry too. She’s consistently reminded that PR is so often considered a separate function from a content strategy, to the detriment of many projects. She’s also frustrated by the many great stories and cases out there deserving to be heard by the world that don’t get the attention they need. “When it comes to press releases they are too often filled with corporate jargon accompanied with bad pictures that don’t tell the story in an intriguing way,” she says. “What should be done is to use understandable language and a simple key message. People working with PR should not be afraid to dramatise the angles: PR does not need to be boring. And even though the press image cannot be an ad it does not necessarily mean it has to be boring. We should always try to utilise visual storytelling, not just for us but to serve the media the best way possible.”
Outside of work, the pandemic hasn’t stopped Saana from indulging in some of her greatest pleasures, wandering around in nature together with her husband and their two dogs. “When I really need to decompress we usually head out to our summer cottage or to one of the many national parks in Finland,” she says. From time to time she’s been known to enjoy a good night out with friends but she’s openly “more about staying in”. During the pandemic she’s been learning to draw on her iPad and spending “way too much time” on TikTok.
Her favourite creators at the moment are Kelly Prince-Wright (@kellyprincewright
) and Erin (@thedailyprophcast
), who indulge Saana’s enduring Harry Potter fandom with a great sense of humour. And when it comes to ‘dogTok’, her favourite creator is a golden retriever called Marley (@marleynyc)
She’s still an avid book reader. “When I begin a good book I zone out and forget everything around me. The difficulty with this is to find time for reading because I cannot simply stop before the book ends. When someone makes the mistake of asking me about my favourite books or movies they don’t know what hit them. I am always ready to rant about fan theories and new things that I’ve discovered through books and movies.”
She might wish she was studying at Hogwarts, but Saana doesn’t need escapism. She’s grateful for the career she’s built for herself at TBWA. She’s about as driven as they come and has grand ideas about what she wants to achieve in this industry. “I hold pretty high standards for myself both inside and outside work and I always want to be the best version of myself,” she says. “Setting clear goals and relentlessly working towards them is what drives and motivates me. I always need to have something to look forward to. What also motivates me is seeing the people around me reach their dreams and goals.
“I look up to and admire everyone who has had the courage to shake things up for the better. Those who have challenged the norms of our industry regardless of the opposition they have gotten. I admire those who don’t fit into the traditional titles but still manage to find their place in the advertising industry.”