Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam’s Ane Santiago Quintas and Emma Mällinen are an intense pair, but they believe in changing the world through sharing their vulnerability, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves
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In certain ways, both Ane Santiago Quintas and Emma Mällinen’s childhoods perfectly explain how they ended up as the copywriter and art director team they are today at Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam. Looking back, Ane realises she’s “always had a special relationship with words and stories.” She began talking earlier than most kids and has rarely stopped since. In school she tried to secretly read books under her desk. From watching the same movies over and over to learn all the words by heart to loving writing exercises, Ane’s been walking a clear writer’s path for some time. Since she was a teenager, she’s written something every day - a practice that she describes as “almost like a form of prayer.”
Emma is more focused on visuals - as art directors tend to be. “I’ve always felt amorphous,” they say. “I was a very creative child, I lived pretty deeply in my imagination.” They drew a lot, and that tended to be the thing people around them would comment on, so naturally Emma ended up doing more of that. “It became a vector that would eventually see me through art school and into art direction. But there was always this cosmos of other things I was interested in – photography, ceramics, theatre, textiles, film… so I really didn’t feel singularly driven to a particular career, other than knowing I desperately wanted to spend my time making things.”
Growing up in Barcelona, Ane never felt very Spanish and I had the urge to leave the country and find her place elsewhere, but now she’s based in Amsterdam her roots are more important. “The more time I spend away from home, the more I realise how Spanish I am,” she says. Now she appreciates the rich culture her upbringing there exposed her to. Reading both Spanish and Latin American taught her how to write, “how to look at the world and use rhythms, rhymes, metaphors and all that good stuff”. Meanwhile she’s grateful for the folkloric Basque music her dad still plays and is keeping alive together with a few other musicians and the “warmth and openness with which we carry ourselves and treat each other.”
Emma also feels the power of the rituals we continue when we leave a place, whether it is food or music or otherwise. They’re Finnish, but their family moved from Finland to Iowa in the US when they were eight and to Shanghai, China at 14. “That immersion in three different cultures at such a formative time unhinged something in me,” says Emma who feels like a permanent traveler. Although Finland is Emma’s home, they describe the version of Finnishness they carry as “very Tove Jansson summer cabin ideal Finnishness, centered on nature – because that’s been my experience of Finland for the past 20-something years.”
At 14, Ane found that teaching was a way to feed off others’ energy and she made some extra pocket money as a bonus. Then she worked as a Zumba and twerk instructor for “the most amazing group of women” at the local gym and as a graphic designer at a Crossfit spot so she could work out for free while she was in university studying Advertising and Public Relations.
The writing obsession continued of course. In 2016 Ane published her first poetry book, ‘Cartas a Ninguna Parte’ with Penguin Random House. “It helped me establish myself as a ‘writer writer’ as people say, and also to explore and find my own voice through writing about my personal experience and the things I care about.” To date this is one of the things Ane is proudest of and her poetry continues on Instagram
. She’s also gotten into scriptwriting and other forms of narrative to hone her craft. “It’s been a long journey of absorbing and releasing information until finding my voice – which keeps changing and evolving with me.”
Eventually she went to Miami Ad School Madrid and specialised in copywriting, before ending up starting her career with her previous creative partner at Grey New York.
During Ane’s internship she was lucky enough to make a TVC for Applebee’s - her first advertising project. “It was a little holiday promo re-cutting some footage they already had and some banners. Our CDs (shoutout to Ryan and Brian) were great so the whole process was awesome and super exciting. The actual ad came up while we were having beers at a bar and to us it felt like we made it to the Super Bowl. The small wins!”
Emma’s training came via a Fine Art master’s, which they describe as “the type of thing where my classmates went on to exhibit in Chelsea galleries and upstate sculpture parks – something I just wasn’t single minded enough to do.” But they did learn to be formally critical and to ask better questions, as well as developing the skill of taking criticism. Emma also found their life partner in school, and adds “I’d argue that’s the best thing I got from college.”
Along the way Emma put the time in just doing design to hone their craft. “You’ve got to put in the hours. For me that meant designing a lot of posters in college, doing album covers for friends, freelance designing local branding projects, all pretty much on the side. Honing your taste and your ability to live up to the taste. It may not always feel like progress, but the long arc of practice is always progress.”
After college, Emma got an internship at a small Boston design studio - just Emma, the lead designer, and the owner. “I can’t stress enough how much it means to be given a chance. I applied to so many ad agencies and design studios, and I’ll be forever grateful that this small studio gave me an opportunity to start.”
The first professional project they remember clearly was a branding project. After not getting any opportunities at ad agencies, Emma and their partner convinced a local startup fashion label to let them brand them. Looking back on that project, Emma values the chance to do something by themselves as a team. “We ran the whole show. And when you’ve done everything from budget negotiation, to pitching, to revisions, to shooting and designing, to final delivery… you realise there’s nothing to it. That gave us a lot of confidence, knowing there’s no magic there. Confidence is a powerful drug.”
Eventually Emma found their way to Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, where they created a piece of work that changed their perspective - a TV show for S7 Airlines called Visit Earth – Earth’s first tourism campaign to the galaxy, “but really it was for people reimagining the world around them, seeing it with fresh eyes,” Emma explains. “That perspective and the kind of alien art direction I got to do was the first time I felt advertising could be meaningful to me personally. It also got me wanting to make more long form content, something I’d like to do more of today.”
Ane joined Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam in 2018, and eventually Emma became her new partner. While the two align on so much but also seem like a yin-yang, complementary pair in many ways. While Emma tends towards introversion, Ane’s open, chatty and usually cheerful. “When we met, without hesitation Ane swooped in for a hug,” remembers Emma. “I love that because it’s totally not something I would do! Her outward energy is infectious. I know it's a saying that someone lights up a room, but seriously that is true for Ane. I also love people, but sometimes I enjoy being more of an observer than a participant. My energy fluctuates for sure, I think that’s pretty natural.
A recent project the pair are proud of creating is their Duolingo tactical work – a message to elected officials in the US to keep learning Spanish, and toilet rolls with language lessons on them
. Emma genuinely loves collaborating with Duolingo “working for a great company and making smart work that can also have a laugh,” which is exactly what they want from an agency-client relationship.
The two even work together outside of Wieden+Kennedy. They recently released a passion project mini skate documentary about Amsterdam’s youngest gxrl’s skate crew called ‘How to be a Roll Model
’, directed by Al Lewis in collaboration with the Dutch NGO Project Fearless. The film was made by an almost entirely female and non-binary crew, and Ane describes it as “a wonderful and mega fulfilling experience.”
Although they’ve only been partners for a few years, Ane and Emma find a lot of inspiration from each other. Ane says her favourite part of the job is “doing it with people like Em.” Collaboration and learning from others is what it’s all about for her. “It’s always humbling and extremely nourishing if you approach it from the right mindset – being in rooms where everyone has a unique and extremely smart perspective, and you have the time and resources to really learn with and from them and add value with your own views? That’s where it’s at for me.”
The feeling’s mutual. “The work has its ups and downs, but being with people like Ane on a day to day basis makes the journey meaningful. I could be perfectly happy doing something completely different if I had this same group of wonderful humans to talk with every day,” says Emma.
One of the earliest lessons that stuck with Emma came from their high school theatre teacher: “It doesn’t matter where you are, it matters who you’re with.” That always stuck with Emma. Emma tries to ensure that how they interact with people is healthy, compassionate and productive as a result.
2020 wasn’t an easy year to cope with for many, but Ane feels it’s important to be honest that she found the beginning of lockdown in Amsterdam extremely challenging. “I suffer from anxiety, and I had a massive mental breakdown after confronting certain things I managed to kind of avoid with everyday distractions.
“Without romanticising this pain, I have to say that in hindsight it was a blessing in disguise, because it made me start going to therapy, and thanks to the tools and the help I had the privilege to access I can say that I am thriving now. I didn’t write a masterpiece while going through it and I’m not sure it made me a better human. I did learn how to do my own gel manicures and the true meaning of compassion for myself though, and that I will cherish forever. Please go to therapy if you’re hurting.”
Emma was in a position to offer the support their partner needed. “Working from home brought me relief, joy, and freedom,” they say. “I feel extraordinarily lucky for my circumstances.”
Ane is obviously proud of her creative partner. “Em is one of the people I have learned – and I continue to learn – the most from and who have supported me the most, both personally and professionally. They were such a huge support during that breakdown in the beginning of lockdown, but also just such a smart and ridiculously talented partner in general.”
When Emma began to work with Ane they say “it was like stepping onto a new planet. It’s something special to be able to work with someone so profoundly talented but so compassionate at the same time. True compassion is so undervalued in advertising, but it makes an unbelievable difference in working life.”
The pair also have great admiration for creative directors Hannah Smit and Ed Olhagaray, who fight for the people around them to make the most of every opportunity. “No person is an island, we all need other people who believe in us,” says Emma.
Without that crucial community, maybe the two of them wouldn’t be in advertising at all. Emma admits that they struggle with advertising “contributing to the power structures of extractive capitalism. I find that impossible to reconcile. But I try to keep that challenge in mind when making work. Is this work giving something to people – whether conceptually or in terms of access – or is it taking away? I try to do more good than harm, even when I know that just participating in this industry is problematic. I think we all need to challenge the companies that hire us. We have access to some of the most powerful companies on earth, and inside them are people like us. Let’s have real conversations with those people.”
Ane is more than familiar with the symptoms of imposter syndrome, but she’s learnt to accept that knowing everything is impossible. Women, she observes, “feel undeserving of great jobs unless we’re perfect at them, even if we’ve never done anything like that before. It’s just not healthy and it leaves no room for growth. My friend Anyaa once told me: ‘This job needs to serve you as much as you serve them’, and I constantly ask myself if that is the case so I can be in a growth mindset.”
The job also needs to serve society. And Ane and Emma are considering the best ways to make sure this happens. “There’s a really interesting discussion happening right now about who can tell whose stories,” says Emma. “For example, can a creative team of all cis men create a good tampon ad in 2021? For the sake of brevity, I’ll summarize my feeling to: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. If you want to tell stories of marginalized or historically oppressed people, it is imperative that they have a seat at the table and have power over telling their own stories. We need to start seeing who is missing from the tables we sit at and making concrete actions to change that.”
The great thing is the sheer creative brilliance that can come from making those changes to include people. As Ane says, “there’s a world of creatives, creators, ways of telling stories and stories to be told that have always existed in a space of ‘otherness’ and are starting to make their way into the mainstream, and I find this soooooo freaking exciting (and important). I know that you don’t turn a white, male-dominated world into a truly diverse one overnight, but seeing that shows like ‘I May Destroy You’ and ‘Pose’ are being widely recognized, or that most of my co-workers have included their pronouns in their email signatures, gives me a lot of hope. We’re only beginning to discover how big and varied traditionally cis white male spaces can be, and I love to see it.”
These “new” experiences we are seeing are, as Emma underlines, not new at all, and are shared by a larger demographic than people would think. “I feel at home at my agency as a trans person,” they say. “I am excited by the possibility of a changing field of awareness in advertising.” But to get to that place, other businesses need to do more than just hire different kinds of people.
“Companies need to start changing internally, and they need to do it from top to bottom so they are really equipped to create a fair environment for everyone. Hiring is important but the long lasting change is cultural and educational,” says Ane.
It’s not enough to hire people if they feel othered once they get in. When culture at work starts to shift to include more people, it can unsettle people who never experienced the issues in the first place. That can be a point of tension, notes Emma, “so it is up to us who are privileged to have security and confidence in our position to persuade everyone to get onboard with change.”
The important factor that both Ane and Emma insist on focusing on throughout their work is generosity. As Ane has learned, “when you work from an awareness of your own humanity – and you’re generous with the time you spend exploring it, building opinions of your own around the topic or finding the people who should be having opinions about it so they can share them – you make work for other humans, and that is, most of the time, well done work. I aspire to make work that says something, not work that makes noise.”
To achieve this, both keep their heads immersed in as diverse a pool of culture as possible, trying to really understand it. The more time Ane spends writing, the more important she realises it is to build awareness and understanding of how the world works versus how advertising works. “That to me means reading a bunch, watching shows, films, even being on TikTok and knowing which artist just blew up because a random kid invented a challenge.”
For Emma it means reading nonfiction and novels from people whose experiences are different from their own and watching a lot of different kinds of films from different countries and eras, often picking “quite randomly” from the Criterion Collection things that look interesting. “Even if I don’t like it, it’s something my eyeballs have never seen before, so it’s very refreshing.” Recently Emma really enjoyed Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), Tokyo Olympiad (1965), Asparagus (1979), The Big City (1963), and House (1977).
“I get really obsessed with things and then move on to the next thing,” confesses Emma. Right now, they’re making a video essay about Kurosawa’s films (“His films are a testament to being able to speak profound truths while also being entertaining.”), doing a lot of ceramics, and learning to play Go.
Triathlon is a more enduring passion for Emma, who “literally laughed my way up the volcano” on the cycling portion of the race they did in Lanzarote. But out of the three, running will always be the most special: “It’s the simplest, deepest thing you can do with your body. You can do it anywhere. You don’t need anything except a pair of shoes. It’s saved me on more than one intense shoot, and I always found time to do it. It’s a meditative practice. No matter how I’m feeling on a certain day, I have never once regretted going on a run. I always feel better mentally.”
Ane also knows the value of getting physical. “I am always in my head, so I try to do stuff that helps me be in my body,” she says. She’s into a range of sports and workouts, from HIIT to kickboxing, but says her number-one love is dancing, particularly hip-hop and dancehall. “I feel like it helps me unlock different levels of expression, and I loooove love love music, so it’s an incredibly energizing mix.”
This creative team are somewhat intense, but in a way that can only benefit their clients and society as a whole. Emma admits they are motivated by the inevitability of death: “I think about death all the time. I want to live presently, and make conscious decisions about my hours while I have the brightness of mind and body at my disposal.”
Ane shares that passion to make the most of her time, but her drive comes from a very different place. “I think what drives me, moves me and makes the world go round – as cheesy as it might sound – is love. Not romantic love, but living in a kind and compassionate way. Existing in a rather cynical world choosing kindness – and really good boundaries – over hatred, with a radical belief that things, interactions, workspaces, can be a bit better than they are, and trying to contribute to that very consciously and honestly is the ultimate power-move for me. It is easy to detach, to choose the privilege of not being aware, the ‘bliss’ of ignorance and selfishness, but I wouldn’t trade any of the fucks I give – even when they are too many – for the world. We need people who care.”