John Schoolcraft: why creativity beats marketing

In the latest episode of our online show, the Oatly creative head explains why he rejects the marketing label, dismisses the client/agency relationship and breaks the Super Bowl ad rules — all in the name of creativity.

John Schoolcraft is the global chief creative officer at Oatly. In the second episode of the NEXT SHOW Season 3, he explored how creativity beats marketing, purpose beats trends and getting the right tone of voice trumps everything. 

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How do you set yourself apart from other brands? How do you sell people used to buying other products that oat milk is the solution for them? John Schoolcraft has an answer, and it’s all in the tone of voice. 

“We’re not just a company with a logo. We’re a group of humans here to help other groups of humans make a few choices in their lives that are good for their body and the planet,” he says. “That’s the way we spoke. That’s the way we acted. That’s what you got if you wrote to us, or called us up, or contacted us on Facebook.”

That ruthless focus on their purpose, and their human voice, was driven by Schoolcraft’s deep scepticism about the traditional client-agency model — and a willingness to toss the traditional marketing rules out of the proverbial window. When he joined Oatly, invited by their newly appointed CEO Toni Petersson, he set about completely rethinking the story the brand was telling.

The puzzle in the packaging

People thought the redesigned packaging, splitting the name — Oat-ly! — and adding an exclamation mark were just, well, wrong. 

“Don’t give people answers, give them questions,” he says. “You pick it up the carton, turn it on its side, and read something you never expected a company to say on its packaging. And then you need to try it.” 

He put his own telephone number on the packaging. And people would call him up, and ask why the packing was in English. Was he trying to ruin the Swedish language? 

But they were an international, global company, and writing in English allows people to become someone slightly different, someone a little on holiday. Plus, he couldn’t write in Swedish. 

Picking your battles

But then, he’s not setting out to make everyone happy. “If we want a planet we all can live on in the future, we’re not going to be friends with everyone.“ 

He’s not looking to make enemies, but equally, making societal change can be a bumpy ride. “We’ve never said we intend to make everyone happy with every ad we make, but we can make some people really love us,” he says. “We try to work a lot though proving things, not just saying things. By doing things for real.”

The internal agency

Despite his scepticism about agency relationships and his vehement rejection of the marketing department label — they’re the creative department — he does work with partners occasionally. The work isn’t done entirely in-house. In the early days, they worked with a small team at Forsman & Bodenfors. Schoolcraft would write the copy, and the agency approve it, in a bizarre reversal of the traditional roles. The key people involved have since joined the company, and John estimates that they produce 98% of their work internally. 

“I would say that we have one of the best agencies in Europe inside an oat milk company,” says John. “But that’s probably because we don’t try to be an agency.”

They don’t have briefs. They have meetings and discussions, and when they hit on something interesting, they pull it out and make something of it. Likewise, they change their mind whenever they want. 

Breaking down internal silos in aid of creativity

“The only person in the company who can technically stop anything is Toni, the CEO, but he’s very, very good at what we do. And he usually has a little different angle on it, and make it better,” Schoolcraft says. But he also points out that they’re working collaboratively and closely with the innovation and product teams.

“Someone in the commercial department probably isn’t very good at making ads or writing copy; otherwise he’d be in the creative department,” he says. “So, if they let us know what the problem is, and let us make the decision on what we do. We’ve torn down the walls. People in the sustainability department can come up with ideas for campaigns. Or finance.”

“If there’s any Oatly secret, it’s that. It’s entirely different from how other companies work,” he says. 

The Super Bowl

After a few years in the US market, building up their brand presence gradually, targeting coffee shops with their barista edition milk, they finally found success. Enough success, in fact, that they found themselves in the position where they could afford a Super Bowl ad, to really put their brand in people’s minds.

But, of course, they chose to break the rules there, too. 

“The Super Bowl is in a weird way the showcase for everything. Our ad was such an anti-ad,” he says. And it was based on an early ad they’d done with the CEO. They’d pretty much tucked him into appearing as himself in a run of early ads, by feeding him fake scripts. But one stood out. 

Toni is a musician, and was (briefly) a pop star in Japan. Back in 2014 they just stuck him and a synthesiser in a field, and recorded that for an ad, singing about his oat milk. And they decided then that should they ever become successful in the US, they’d do that for the Super Bowl. And they did. 

“It’s kinda a troll to the whole advertising industry. There is an equation to how you make a Super Bowl ad. You spend a fortune on production, you put a celebrity in there, and you tell a funny joke. And we did none of that,” laughs Schoolcraft, clearly relishing this. 

“The production budget for that film was less than the catering budget of probably every single other ad.“

Selling Oatly hate on t-shirts

They made the impact they were looking for. “The minute it ran, the internet just exploded.” 

It was polarising — but people were talking about it. 

“We had all these headlines the next day. And we knew in advance that people would hate it. So, we had ‘I hated the Oatly Super Bowl ad’ t-shirts made. We had bike couriers delivering them before the fourth quarter. They sold out in like five minutes, and were gone.”

And the success came from a profound understanding of internet culture.

“Internet culture is changing so fast all the time. We don’t tap into and utilise all the trends. What I would extract from that is the difference that the change of intimation and the availability of everything becomes so fast, that we look at what people demand of brands. “

It also opened the door for new interpretations of the Super Bowl ad formula, including this year’s controversial but hugely popular Coinbase ad, which NEXT parent Accenture Interactive helped develop. 

Purpose beats trends

Oatly been very vocal, about what they stand for, for rights and the capitalist system. “Every company’s trying to be woke,” he says, “They’re trying to have a purpose because it’s being demanded of us. We were 10 years ahead of that, but we thought there should be a meaningful reason for going to work.” 

But what about other coming trends? Does he see a role for NFTs or the Metaverse in what Oatly’s doing? It’s not their priority, as it turns out.

“The company’s not sitting there going NFT crazy,” says Schoolcraft. “In the next 10 years we’re facing a climate crisis and our focus has been more on that, and the things we can stop to do that.”

“There may be a solution in the Metaverse, but what is the carbon impact of the Metaverse? No-one’s even thinking of that.”

Indeed, he’s clearly wary of jumping on bandwagons, preferring to steer his own course. 

“A lot of people spend a lot of time looking for trends in marketing, but why would you go where everyone else is going because then you’re just like everyone else?”

The fearless, purposeful voice

Instead, Schoolcraft is clear that he, and the product he helps sell, will continue going their own way:

“Staying true, being focused and continually having a voice that’s not wavering, that’s not scared, that’s fearless, that’s fighting for the right things, that’s providing a meaning for the people working there, that’s not going away.”

But, despite his unconventional approach and evident success, he’s quick to play down the idea of a masterplan behind it all: 

“The whole thing is a series of very stupid decisions that are very naive but optimistic at the same time,” he says, with a hint of laughter. “And we continue to make stupid, naive, optimistic decisions even when we’re bigger, and the whole stock market is watching us. But if you want to do that, you need a CEO who understands.”

This is a summary of an interview with John Schoolcraft, conducted by Monique van Dusseldorp and broadcast on the NEXT Show on 24th February 2022. You can catch up with John and his work on LinkedIn.