Meet the only design agency with its own vodka brand

Fancy a vodka? Anti has its own brand!

Pay a visit to either of Anti's Norway studios and, chances are, at some stage you'll be offered a vodka. This isn't just how they roll: quite brilliantly the internationally acclaimed design and advertising agency has its own vodka brand, Black, and they're virtually swimming in the stuff. "We always have Black available in our meeting rooms for our clients," laughs CEO and co-founder Kenneth Pedersen.

The idea started in a notebook 18 months ago. Now Black is on sale in bars, clubs and government liquor stores all over Norway, courtesy of a collaboration with the country's largest distiller, Arcus, and thanks to a committed 'can do' mindset that permeates the team.

Anti is different. While the agency excels across branding, advertising and illustration, it's also known for making its own products. The most famous is its rebel denim brand, Anti Denim, which has amassed a diverse, passionate army of aficionados around the world - including Stefan Sagmeister, a Singaporean prince and American pop-rockers The Killers. Visually and conceptually the black denim label is an integral strand in Anti's DNA: it was conceived by the company's founders when they first drew up plans to launch a design studio, and remains a cornerstone of the agency's practice.

The agency's Fredrik Melby at work in the Oslo office. Anti isn't a job, it's a lifestyle: "We live our brand 110 per cent," says CEO Kenneth Pedersen

"Our most fundamental belief is that everything can be done. In our hearts we are entrepreneurs," explains creative director and fellow co-founder Kjetil Wold, who recently picked up a lifetime creative achievement award from Norwegian advertising organisation Kreativt Forum. "Anti Denim has played a big part in defining us as a company: a company that does something others don't do - create their own products and follow them through."

In fact, Anti Denim does more than help the agency stand out. Clients also benefit from the team's experience in the manufacturing world: "By developing our own products we experience insight from both sides of the table," says Wold. "We develop the strategy for sales, production, logistics, adverts, graphics, identity - everything, not only the visual side of the project. We learn the things that our clients struggle with every day and we know how much work it is to succeed." He continues: "This has been a steep learning process for us, especially in a market as challenging as the jeans market, but all the knowledge we've learned is a big advantage when we work with our clients."

Double vision

Anti's logomark says it all. Crafted from the agency's initials - the name is an acronym for 'A New Type of Interference' - a striking mirror effect suggests the duality of its design practice and, with it, Anti's desire to interact with its audience in unexpected ways, whether through merchandise, technology or other surprising media. As Pedersen explains, Anti does things its own way: "We have built Anti on our vision of 'interference'," he says. "The urge to create is always there, and we strive to have the best possible resources available to make Anti stand out."

In the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Anti joined forces with LLH and coffee roaster Solberg & Hansen on Rainbow Coffee to help raise awareness of the discrimination faced by the Russian gay community

In its search for the best resources, Anti has grown dramatically over the past five years. Today, the headcount stands at 37 and is expected to reach 40 before 2014 is out. "When we started in 2008 we actually talked about never being more than seven people. We wanted to look at ourselves as this small skate-punk band, since Kjetil and I are both old skateboarders," recalls Pedersen. "But one of our first projects was international work for Pepsi Co, then came Sony Ericsson from the Asian market. So we had to grow." Anti became 13 - and continued expanding, opening a new office in Bergen, on the other side of Norway to the agency's Oslo base. "The rest is history," says Wold.

Some 12 months ago, Anti made headlines when it announced it was merging with award-winning Norwegian studio Grandpeople. The design world watched in anticipation as two of Scandinavia's most exciting studios joined forces - and we weren't disappointed. In November 2013, Anti Grandpeople smashed its first collaborative project with a showstopping series of graphics and a custom typeface for global agency IMG Models. Aesthetically stunning, the project is built on a strong underlying concept - natural beauty - and perfectly illustrates Anti's philosophy of 'big ideas, visual excellency'.

"With Grandpeople joining the family, Anti's got some new, fancy tools in our box. We now have more ways of solving a task. And in certain fields of design, better ways of solving a task," argues Gaute Tenold Aase, senior graphic designer and partner at Anti Grandpeople.

Branching out

Just before Christmas the founders restructured the agency. With the team's expertise now reaching far beyond design and denim, it was increasingly important to streamline the different disciplines. Now, the agency provides five clear services: Anti Design, Anti Advertising, Anti Grandpeople - which handles the company's more experimental music, arts and cultural commissions - Anti Denim and Anti TV. "We have teams, like traditional advertising companies," says Wold. "But the difference is we all work on the different projects - we don't care if it's advertising, TV or design."

Melby and senior graphic designer Mats Ottdal. Anti's new studio in Oslo's trendy Vulkan district has a Scandinavian feel, with wooden floors and huge windows that bathe the space in light

"We use people from all disciplines where they fit best," adds Pedersen. "This builds a very interesting workplace for us. We can go from a design workshop for an identity directly to ideas for a new TV format, to the set of a TV commercial."

From finance to fashion, Anti's clients are as diverse as the creative fields covered by the team's impressive skillset. Yet, the agency retains a distinct visual signature, always combining a strong idea with a sleek, stunning style. Sometimes the aesthetic is dark and edgy; sometimes it's bold and vibrant. Do the agency's Scandinavian roots influence its output? "Yes, we think that the 'Nordic simplicity' does, to some extent, affect our work," Wold reflects. "We try to keep it simple." Pedersen agrees: "We're probably affected by the harsh winters and bright summers."

When we catch up with Anti, the agency is busy working on "about 20" completely different projects. Despite the diversity, most new commissions are approached in a similar fashion: "First we meet with the client and agree the terms - the budget and process," explains Pedersen. Next, it's the 'workshop' phase; then comes the strategic aspect - "finding the big idea and working on communication strategy" - followed by sketches and, finally, design implementation.

"I'm not sure if the process itself is that different from other agencies," he admits, "but I really think our motivation and speed is very different. We live our brand, and clients can really feel this."

Heart and soul

"We think it's part of our success," Wold concurs. "We have a very open culture and flat structure. As long as people reach their deadlines, it's all good. We always play music and have beers in the fridge, and people like to show up for work. It's a lifestyle that needs both heart and soul. If you don't go for it 110 per cent and live the Anti brand, you need to move on."

Tired of Swedish brands monopolising the Norwegian market, Anti put the rebellion back into denim by launching a collection of black metal-inspired jeans

As Anti Advertising's Erik Heisholt reflects, working in the creative business has never been harder - or more fun. To survive, brands have to keep up with their audiences: "It´s like a constant marathon," he explains. "As creatives, providing those brands with the ideas and tools to actually pull it off is a tough and brutal life. If you can't face the tempo, well - bye, bye," he says.

"On the other hand, 15 years ago you could dream about that special thing - but the only place it happened was in your head. Today, technology doesn't hold us back, the audience doesn't hold us back, and maybe most importantly, the client doesn't hold us back. With all the tools, we can actually see our crazy dreams come true."

There are challenges, of course. When Anti and Grandpeople first joined forces, the 300 miles between Bergen and Oslo - and figuring out how to split the workload - proved tricky. Fortunately, Grandpeople's Gaute Tenold Aase was keen for a change of scenery and joined the Oslo office: "That took care of a lot of the teething problems," he recalls.

"We do see that we have to be better at the internal communication part of the company," adds Pedersen. "So now we have long 'traffic' meetings every Friday. Here we go through all projects and new business. The best part is that someone working here will present something that motivates them. This can be a picture, a presentation of an idea, a movie clip or something quiet different."

Anti masterminded the full strategy and redesign process for DNB, the Nordic region's biggest financial institution, with 14,000 employees and over 2.3 million customers

As Anti becomes increasingly established in the international market, one of its biggest challenges is retaining its 'skate-punk band' mindset. "The day we feel we must wear a suit to the office," says Pedersen, "we will quit."

"We just keep talking about big ideas and visual excellency," Heisholt concludes. "We have to constantly remind ourselves to keep that beginner's spirit, no matter whether we're working on big global assignments or with the small bookshop around the corner."

He laughs: "And if nothing of this works, we always have our Black vodka - which just won a Golden Pencil in Norway's biggest awards show - to fall back on."

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 226.