The three main players of the creative agency, Sweden Unlimited, started as makers in the music industry, but as they found their respective strengths in digital and fashion, they formed into a trio of successful marketers. Now, nearly two decades later, Sweden Unlimited continues to pave its own way in New York’s marketing industry and beyond.
What started as a band is now a full-fledged agency, one that is growing and that also recently joined a global marketing partnership called the Together Group, strengthening the agency’s reach beyond the US. Founders Richard Agerbeek and twin sisters Alex and Leja Kress have found their strength in marketing content and e-commerce to the fashion and luxury industries, with big name clients such as Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Kate Spade and Aeropostale, among many others. But the road to success had plenty of wide learning curves along the way.
From retro-pop to digital DIY to full-fledged agency
The Kress sisters were part of the New York modeling scene in the 90s when they met Agerbeek. The three decided to make a band on the first wave of nostalgia of the 80s, so they used Casio keyboards and buzz pedals to make Sweden, their pop-ish band that played clubs, bars and galleries.
“We were not in the music industry. We were paid in drink tickets,” said Agerbeek frankly.
While the band gained a modicum of local success, releasing a few recordings, they never reached beyond the New York scene.
“It wasn’t making money,” said Leja Kress.
Luckily, all three had other interests and talents thanks to their educations at NYU and early jobs in photo studios and for an early ISP. Those talents just needed to be uncovered, and in many ways, learned.
“This was about the time the internet started being interesting,” said Leja Kress. “I taught myself HTML. Richard taught himself Photoshop. We had no idea how to do anything.”
Despite that fact, the three, who shared an apartment, managed to land a client, doing a Flash website for a company that made guitar straps. Being completely self-taught, they persevered, spending hours learning more about the technical and design side of the just-burgeoning internet until they figured out how to make it work.
Since most agencies at the time didn’t cater to websites or anything internet related, the then unnamed agency decided to continue their DIY approach to learning how to make websites in New York.
“We had a lot of friends in fashion. We knew a lot of people (in retail). They were excited about a whole new medium,” said Agerbeek.
“We were not too precious about our own creative,” added Alex Kress. “We were excited to help out brands and translating brands.”
Their popularity in the fashion space took off, and their Tribeca apartment started gaining traction as a meeting place.
“We had Diane von Furstenberg and Nicole Miller in our apartment. We started hiring employees. It was odd having them come into our home,” said Leja Kress, adding that initially they didn’t want to grow huge so they could concentrate on really good work.
As they got more savvy, they got to collaborate with more creative makers, helping translate their visions to a digital format. “There was more of a challenge to get that right,” added Agerbeek, who is now married to Leja Kress.
They took the challenge and ran with it, gaining more brands and clients along the way and expanding their capabilities from just website and e-commerce builders to a true creative and digital agency, opening an office that now has over 20 employees in New York. They have never forgotten where they came from and the countless hours of learning it took to get there.
“We think of ourselves more as educators, trying to solve a problem for (clients),” stated Leja Kress. “We started so long ago and felt so honored to have clients.”
Added Alex Kress: “We’re still impressed by these people, but we manage expectations. We have lots of conversations (with clients). We don’t shrug off a crazy idea, but we’re not here as yes men. We help execute a vision.”
Agerbeek said three words describe Sweden Unlimited: “Empathy, creativity and grit. Grit really describes us. We’ve suffered so many setbacks over the years, clients have walked out, we’ve lost people to poaching talent. But we’re like the Energizer Bunny.”
Leja Kress added the term ‘adaptability’ to their descriptor. “Richard has been good at seeing into the future. He’s the one who said he was going to become a web designer, and added content creation. We can pivot and look at the landscape around us and learn how to do what we need to do. We have to pivot to stay relevant. We’re still figuring a lot of stuff out, but we’re still excited about every single project.
While they might occasionally still dabble in music – Alex has a duo with her husband – they are all about looking forward. They were certainly at the forefront of women-led businesses, and even more so considering the twins learned to code.
“I was coding before Karlie Kloss, before it was cool for girls to code,” said Leja Kress, adding that the two have had to overcome a lot to get attention for their technical and leadership prowess.
Joining an international partnership for more strength together
Their collective years in the digital and fashion space has earned the crew at Sweden Unlimited much respect. Though, as an independent agency, they had a limitation in the scope of work they could handle, but recently they made a big move – they became one of ten award-winning, owner-led consultancies and agencies to join forces and combine their companies in a share swap to form a new collective for strategy, e-commerce and digital experiences, branded the Together Group.
Together Group, with its headquarters in London, will build upon its members’ track records with international premium, luxury and lifestyle brands. The group’s initial focus will be on purpose-driven and digital transformation for fashion, beauty, hospitality, other premium consumer and lifestyle brands, and retailers. From there it will expand into other verticals, including financial services, energy, utilities and automotive.
“We are building an agile Champions League team of owner-led agencies – combining purpose-driven strategic transformation with brand-led creative power, highly experienced technological execution and effective activation of people. But the most important differentiation is our collaborative culture,” said Dr. Christian Kurtzke, Together Group’s chief executive officer.
Rather than taking the agency away from its independent roots, being a part of the Together Group gives Sweden Unlimited access to more capabilities.
“We’ve had many discussions with the team at Together Group about how we’ll work with all of the agencies in the group and are so excited to be part of building an entirely new framework for agency collaboration. We will be operating under custom implementations of Agency Agile and the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) – two systems we’ve been interested in for years but never had to opportunity to put in place. These aligned principles will allow us to all work together and foster true collaboration by retaining entrepreneurial autonomy, while gaining the benefits and power that comes from being in a group,” said Sweden in an email exchange.
Sweden Unlimited will maintain its offices in New York’s Soho neighborhood, but the agency stated that “joining Together Group has allowed us to realize our dreams of quickly scaling Sweden to become an international brand and having a shared operating system with other specialty agencies to build something even bigger: a new kind of digital transformation and incubation partner for leading brands and retailers of the future.”
Who knows, maybe being part of a global brand will allow some retro-80s jamming with others.