Tony Högqvist

Creative Director, Airbnb

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


Tony Hogqvist - Creative Director, Airbnb

Career to date:

2016, Creative Director, Airbnb
2015, Member of the Board, hasan & partners
2002, Co-Founder & Creative Director, Perfect Fools
2000, Art Director, Houdini Digital Creations
1998, Interactive Designer, Reference Interactive

Creativebrief: As Creative Director of Airbnb, what’s your primary focus?

Tony Högqvist: To build up the in-house creative team, that’s my main goal. Because if you’re going to do good work, you need the best people. That’s why we’re here [in Cannes] for this diversity rush; we’re trying to compile a really, really strong team. There’s a strong design background and a lot of storytellers and writers. But Jonathan’s vision is to disrupt the industry and become the most relevant brand.

So you need brand builders. You need creatives that come from different backgrounds. We’re now in an interesting place where it’s a lot of interviews, and a lot of looking through books. But we also need to get the work done. And this year has been really intense. We started half the year with the launch of Trips and Experiences.

Half the team was working on supporting, not only the festival, but also all the product content, over 500 films that were made to sell the individual people. That was creativity at scale.

After the launch, we followed up with We Accept. That was a product initiative that actually started way before the launch. It came from the community commitment: everyone on our platform needs to have certain values.

Creativebrief: How do you manage the discrimination that goes on, on the platform? A platform that’s meant to be open to everybody, where the fundamental message is about embracing other cultures and broadening your mind.

Tony Högqvist: From a creative brain’s perspective, I would be open and democratic in every context; I would always be very accepting. Conversation is the thing that leads to better understanding.

The problem, if I’m going to be honest, on a platform like Airbnb is that our entire business model doesn’t work without acceptance. The community commitment says what we stand for.

We can’t judge people based on race, religions and sex or gender – you shouldn’t, you can’t. Because if we start doing that, we will minimise the existence of Airbnb, we will build a closed world. It will not be the open world that we believe in, that we actually can belong anywhere.

“The problem, if I'm going to be honest, on a platform like Airbnb, is that our entire business model doesn't work without acceptance."

Creativebrief: For you creatively, what benefits have you seen from working with a diverse team?

Tony Högqvist: They are the heart of the team. I heard this amazing story from Roger, who actually wrote the We Accept film, about how he was really questioning our product and the reason for us to exist himself. He decided to take on the challenge by being a creative and using what he can do. This is his superpower, actually writing a very powerful script.

Creativebrief: Taking it back, could you just outline your career, how you came to Airbnb?

Tony Högqvist: I grew up on a small little island, on a farm. My parents were travelling a lot. I ended up staying with my grandma who was an artist and I think that’s where I became interested in art and design.

I think Sweden was one of the first countries in the world to get broadband. In maybe 1995/96 something like that, we all decided, why don’t we start our own business?

I never asked for marketing. I was a coder and a designer and I loved to express myself through storytelling. But then more and more stuff became strategic and more and more stuff became brand building.

In 2002 I founded, together with Tony Sajdak and Patrick Gardner, a company called Perfect Fools. In the beginning, I think people saw it as a disrupter, because we concentrated on tech focused storytelling, and integrated social media ideas.

Creativebrief: Is that what attracted you about Airbnb, the capacity to tell everyone’s story?

Tony Högqvist: I was like there’s no other brand on the planet I want to work on right now. We have a platform that is all about disrupting a system and building a world where people can travel more easily, opening homes that used to be closed and connecting people to local communities. I love culture, I love travelling. And we have a message that is all about acceptance and belonging. I couldn’t say no!

Creativebrief: What Airbnb work are you most proud of?

Tony Högqvist: I think from a logistical, creative perspective, Trips. The big idea was to let people host their passion. Packaging every individual person up as a brand just came with that.

I’m really proud of how we worked with the community and spent media dollars on them. And then from within them actually built a brand. Because they’re entrepreneurs themselves. Then mass-producing creativity on such a scale that we did. For us, it was this amazing challenge. It was system thinking, creative thinking, art direction and copywriting. All that came together in a lovely mix.

From a challenge perspective, I do think We Accept. Because it started from a small group of people and then it grew to become the entire company. For me, the change and effect We Accept had on a lot of people I met was massive.

“Back in the days, everyone said that the environmentally friendly car was a sales pitch. Now every new car is environmentally friendly." 

Creativebrief: What work that you’ve seen at Cannes excites you?

Tony Högqvist: A lot of stuff I think should be purpose driven. People now want to say purpose driven marketing is just a trend. I definitely don’t hope that; I hope marketing and purpose always go hand in hand. I think Boost Your Voice is one of my favourites because they affected the entire government to change. They updated a really old system and gave access to the community to have a voice. It’s a more technical, logistical piece but it also comes with a lot of heart.

Creativebrief: Going back to topic of diversity. Do you think it’s got to a point where people have lost patience in talking about it and are saying something has to happen? After Cannes, what’s the next step for Airbnb in their diversity campaign?

Tony Högqvist: It’s for people like me to start putting it on my agenda. A lot of people that have been in a minority, or people that have a passion have been running the agenda. And they’ve literally been doing that alone. I think there are a lot of white middle-aged men who don’t fucking care.

Back in the days, everyone said that the environmentally friendly car was a sales pitch. Now every new car is environmentally friendly.

We’re looking for female creatives and creatives of colour, but we’re not only looking for copywriters and designers. We’re looking for Creative Directors. We need to start with the creative leaders.

Creativebrief: Jonathan Mildenhall said something interesting about holding agencies you work with accountable for creating diverse teams. What are Airbnb actually doing to hold these agencies accountable?

Tony Högqvist: We are not the client hiring the agency to do the job that we don’t want to do. A lot of marketing managers and global CMO’s hire agencies to do a job they can’t and don’t want to do. And that is not us. We hire them [agencies] to actually come in and embed in our organisation to fuel us, inspire us and engage us. But we will always be the last brand layer, always. Nothing should go through if it isn’t on brand and isn’t true to our community.

Creativebrief: Do you think there’s a slight danger of keeping it in house?

Tony Högqvist: Yea, of course. It’s as dangerous to take a copywriter and an art director and lock them in a room, as it is to take 40 people in an in-house team and lock them in a corner. We’re living in a world where we talk about openness and connections and acceptance. The complexity in the future is that everyone will need everyone.

We are really embedded with Facebook because we really want to work with Facebook. It’s not only because they’re owning the consumers but because they hired amazing talent to start a creative shop. I want to work with them. They’ve built an eco-system of creativity that’s really useful for us; an agency can never pitch against that. They can offer something else.

I also want brand builders who, in 30 seconds, can package up an idea and make people cry. All of this stuff is necessary. There’s no simple solution and I think people are worried when you say that because they say it’s going to be so complex. It was so easy when it was a copyrighter, an art director and a billboard. But that’s not the world. If it’s easy we shouldn’t do it.

“We think the way people will travel in the future will change. People will travel to people instead of travelling to places. It's a whole system of possibilities for a brand and we need to be relevant." 

Creativebrief: Airbnb have just tantalisingly teased a launch of a new Premium service.

Tony Högqvist: In general, we don’t just want to be an accommodation brand. We don’t just want to be a brand for a small group of people. We want to be a global community and we want to lean over the entire experience of travelling. We think the way people will travel in the future will change. People will travel to people instead of travelling to places. It’s a whole system of possibilities for a brand and we need to be relevant.

Creativebrief: Outside of the industry, who or what are you inspired by?

Tony Högqvist: It’s crazy how much inspiration I drive from my friends. I’m a product of my surrounding. If I’m hanging out with my childhood friends and they’re all from the finance sector, I’m coming back with ideas related to finance. If I’m hanging out with people from the design community, I just want to sit home and design. I’m very vulnerable. My creativity comes from the people I’m around.

Creativebrief: How do you stay on top of industry trends?

Tony Högqvist: A lot of the information comes to me because we are building a team where people are interested. You need to build a culture where people are actually feeding creativity, sharing creativity. And when you have done that homework, your team needs fresh water in the pond constantly by getting all these insights from different things.

Creativebrief: Where’s the best placed you’ve stayed with Airbnb? An unknown city or country that you would never have discovered?

Tony Högqvist: We have a concept called Not Yet Trending. It’s editorial based on data. When we see like a 200% guest growth on a remote place or a small village, we’re trying to figure out why. Why is this place booming? It can be everything from a person to a music genre to a new local business.

We do our research, we go there, we package it up and we try to help them even more. We want to help the community, we want to celebrate them. That is the beauty with it.

I have two kids and a wife, and I never considered Airbnb as a family destination. Now it’s the thing we do on weekends. We take a car and drive two hours in random destinations in the bay area [San Francisco]. We rent a really good Airbnb and we’re just enjoying it. Even though I’m not living with the host, just going down that street in that neighbourhood makes me explore the area.

Brian [Chesky – Co-Founder Airbnb] says this, it’s not my quote. He always says that the best trip will win. And I agree with that.