Hailing from Sweden but making her mark in the heart of New York City, Matilda Ivarsson, along with her partner Yasmine Mansson, co-founded the PR agency STHLM-NYC. Their mission is to facilitate the entry of Swedish entrepreneurs and brands into the bustling U.S. market. As they’re about to triple their client base and revenue by year’s end, the question on everyone’s mind is, how did they achieve this remarkable success while competing with hundreds of well-established New York agencies?
Boasting nearly a decade of experience on both sides of the Atlantic, Matilda’s journey is nothing short of impressive. She served as the Head of Communications for The Museum of Spirits in Stockholm and has collaborated with an array of renowned clients, including industry giants such as L’Oréal, the esteemed 5-star Boston Harbor Hotel, celebrated names like Glendalough Whiskey, and artists of international acclaim, such as David Shrigley and Bertil Vallien. Her portfolio also includes works by iconic artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Frank Bowling. She has notably secured international press coverage for her clients in distinguished publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Elephant Art Magazine, ARTnews, and more.
Matilda is, as some would describe, “a third culture kid” who has led a life that transcends borders, having called different countries home since the tender age of 4. Fluent in three languages by the age of 7, she pursued her education at Suffolk University in Boston and completed her Master’s in Strategic Communication at Columbia University.
In an exclusive interview, The Urban Watch sat down with Matilda to delve into her unique perspective on the Swedish and New York markets, exploring the nuances of communication in both and uncovering the secret to her newfound success.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
I’ve been privileged to live in many different places around the world, which enriched my experiences and broadened my perspective. However, it has also posed a challenge for me – finding a sense of belonging. I am grateful for the many years I’ve spent in the U.S. and the sense of belonging I feel here.
My dad is an entrepreneur, so we moved around often, crossing continents and countries. I was trilingual by the age of 7. When I was 4, we relocated to Paris for three years. It was challenging to assimilate into the French community. I remember being told that I couldn’t play with a French girl because her father said, “My daughter doesn’t play with immigrants.” Then, we moved to a suburb of Boston for another three years. The town was incredibly welcoming, but it was a small, sheltered community, not particularly fashionable. Later, we moved to a small ski town in Northern Sweden. However, the most challenging move was returning to Stockholm when I was 12. In Stockholm, children grow up faster. Girls used to ask for a Louis Vuitton bag for Christmas because that’s what they carried to school. I am Swedish, but I felt like an outsider in my own country. This kind of lifestyle made me desire constant movement. After high school, I returned to Paris to continue my language education and then to Thailand to volunteer. Then, I earned my Bachelor’s degree at Suffolk University in Boston before returning to Sweden, where I stayed for a few years.
Do you still feel like an outsider in Sweden? Would you like to go back to live there?
I no longer feel like an outsider in Sweden because it has become more international since high school and is much more open. I have developed a much deeper appreciation for Swedish traditions and culture than I had when I was younger. While I will likely be based in New York, where I have found my home, I also want to take a long Christmas break in Sweden and stay there for two months during the summer. Additionally, I have my Swedish community here in New York – I attend a Swedish church and serve on the board of The Swedish Women’s Educational Association in New York (SWEA).
When did you discover your interest in PR, and how did you foster it?
My undergraduate degree is in PR and Marketing. My first job was at 451 Marketing in Boston, and it was there that I realized I had found my calling. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, working alongside some of the best professionals in the business, and I quickly learned how to deliver life-changing results for my clients. I excelled in this field, which allowed me to advance rapidly. The positive feedback from my superiors solidified my belief that this was the right career path for me. Witnessing the impact that PR could have on clients and seeing them shine and their businesses take off inspired me to strive for expertise in this field.
While with the 451 Marketing Hospitality PR Team, we successfully launched Glendalough Whisky in the U.S. through five events in key cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. I played a significant role in planning each event from our Boston location and managing the budget. The outcome was full houses at each location and national press features, marking it a major success.
How do PR practices differ between New York and Sweden? Are there any unique challenges or opportunities in each location?
The U.S. is a little more ahead of the curve than Europe. There are lots of new trends and a lot of media activations that weren’t used in Sweden back when I worked in Boston.
In New York, we have more creative freedom. I believe this is due to the city’s diversity and intense competition. In Sweden, PR professionals are more likely to follow the norm –I witnessed that when I worked as Head of Communications at the Museum of Spirits in Sweden. Before, they used to outsource their PR and Events planning, but I brought it in-house. The museum was turning 100 years old, and I was tasked with planning the opening of the exhibition “Champagne!” In my first month there, the CEO gave me a budget and told me to plan a party with one thousand people. I applied everything I had learned in the U.S. to that event.
For example, I wanted to set up a photo booth, which wasn’t a common practice in Sweden in 2017. My boss at first was against the idea, but I ended up convincing her. So, we got a photo booth with fun prompts. When people shared the photos from the booth on social media, it got like 30 thousand impressions in 24 hours – it was a very successful event.
I also secured sponsorship from every possible champagne brand, even those that typically didn’t sponsor.
Sweden is very innovative in tech and fashion, but we are catching up with communications – there’s still a hesitancy to stand out and break away from traditional norms.
Certain marketing activities were obligatory for an exhibition, such as placing advertisements on large light poles. These poles were city-owned and exclusively reserved for cultural institutions. Therefore, a substantial marketing budget was allocated for this purpose rather than social media marketing.
It’s increasingly hard for brands to get press in the U.S. What are some key things a brand needs to get organic media attention?
The nicest compliment I got from my Swedish CEO at the museum was, “She’s relentless but unpretentious.” I have no problem going after reporters time and time again. Research is key because you shouldn’t be pitching the same story to 100 different journalists. You have to get to know the journalist and make sure that whatever you’re pitching perfectly aligns with what they cover.
When pitching, a story is key. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as people think. One thing I’ve learned through a decade in this profession is the simplicity of writing: a simple story with one main point when pitching. The more well-written the pitch is, the better chance it will be published. Give them a headline – it will make their job easier.
In the U.S., there’s a lot of room to fill for journalists. If you can become a trusted partner, give them the stories and the scoops– you essentially do some work for them. Here, journalists get hundreds of emails daily, and it’s all about cutting through that noise.
I’m so excited to say that we have two TV opportunities in the works for our clients. One of them will be featured on CNBC. Our jewelry client also got a feature in Brooklyn Paper.
Podcasts are highly effective for clients with new, complex products. On a podcast, they have more airtime to share their story and explain the product. TV opportunities are more reliant on connections. The choice of medium depends on what you’re pitching.
What’s the accomplishment you’re most proud of?
The accomplishment I’m most proud of is the opening of the exhibition “The Future of Food & Drink” at the Museum of Spirits, which Swedish Prince Carl Philip himself inaugurated. I was responsible for planning and executing the marketing strategy, as well as handling all PR and event coordination for the opening. The exhibition, which premiered in February 2019 at the museum, was the first of its kind. We presented 100 years of food trends in three segments: the past (1950s), present, and future (2050). Examining the impact of food consumption, shipping, and agriculture on the environment, along with the changing trends, was incredibly intriguing. To date, it remains my most successful opening. On the opening day, we received national coverage on “Good Morning News,” TV4 Nyhetsmorgon (Sweden’s equivalent of Good Morning America or the Today Show), in national newspapers like Dagens Industri (Sweden’s equivalent of The New York Times), and on national radio, in addition to hundreds of mentions across various media outlets and social media.
Tell me about how you founded your PR agency STHLM-NYC.
That’s my other biggest accomplishment! We’ve experienced rapid growth and are on track to triple our clients and revenue by the end of 2023. It’s been a whirlwind, but I always had a sense in my mind that I would start my agency; I just thought it would happen when I was around 45, not in my 30s, haha.
Since moving to Sweden, I have been taking on clients for PR projects and kept getting a lot of requests from companies and agencies about freelancing. So this was meant to be. So this was meant to be.
I grew up with an entrepreneur dad and an older brother who now runs a successful SaaS company. I learned a lot from them and was inspired by their journeys.
I met Yasmine, my co-founder, who is also Swedish, here in New York. We both served on the board of SWEA and met in January of this year at my first board meeting. We were both consultants then and realized we shared similar experiences, so we decided to take the leap and start our agency.
How does STHLM-NYC stand out among the many other PR agencies in New York?
There are hundreds of PR agencies in NYC, and it’s hard to compete, so it’s crazy that we’ve grown as fast as we have, but I think it’s because we found a great niche. We specialize in helping Swedish entrepreneurs, brands, and companies enter the U.S. market, with a concentration in New York.
We are very proud and confident of what we offer. Some companies help Swedish companies in NYC, but none help with communications– I realized this when I was working at the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce in NY. It was a great experience that made me realize that I want to work with Swedish brands and people in the U.S. I’ve been in the U.S. for 11 years and have a deep understanding of how things are done here and how I can help Swedish entrepreneurs. And Swedes need to understand that New York is very different from, let’s say, Texas, Florida, and other states. New York comprises thousands of market segments, and one must identify their target audience, understand their demographics, and so on. For instance, does the target customer prefer shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s?
I’m proud to be Swedish and offer my local expertise in the New York market.
Sweden is always advertised as the happiest country in the world and the most gender equal. But we are not good at talking about ourselves! And in New York, you need to be good at talking about yourself and knowing your worth. That’s where we come in– helping our clients find their voice and tone is very exciting.
We are currently working with some Swedish legacy names like Orrefors & Kosta Boda, a legacy glassware and glass art company. Kosta Boda was founded in 1742 by two governors and former generals from King Charles XII’s army. They’ve been selling in the U.S. for many years as well – places like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. However, we are helping them target younger audiences through out-of-the-box social media and guerilla marketing campaigns.
Do you have any American clients?
Yes, we do! We have a couple of American clients, including the jewelry brand Burkindy and Matthew Sawyer’s USAccelerator. Matthew Sawyer is a go-to-market strategist specializing in helping companies launch in the U.S. He recently published his first book, “How to Make It in America,” and we are assisting him with PR.
What are the essential elements that modern brands must possess to distinguish themselves in the market?
They need to have outside-the-box ideas and an open mindset. Ethics are also critical. The terms “PR stunt” or “spin” often have negative connotations because people associate them with putting a positive spin on something negative. For example, when a brand is engaged in “greenwashing” or handling crisis communications poorly.
An authentic brand is crucial. As PR professionals, we often serve as a check for our clients, helping them ensure their authenticity.
At our agency, we have a strong mission. We believe that every human being is brilliant in their own way, and we aim to help their brilliance shine.
Yasmine and I have a strong ability to connect with people, and we require a genuine connection with our clients. If there’s something that doesn’t align or if we don’t believe in what they offer, we won’t take them on as clients. It needs to be a mutually beneficial match.
We research our clients beforehand to ensure that we can fully support what they’re selling. After all, we become their ambassadors and put our reputation on the line.
Transparency is always very important. We need to know if there are any skeletons in the closet because we need to be prepared to handle any crises.
Talk about the pros and cons of working for yourself vs. working for someone else.
When considering the advantages and disadvantages of working for yourself versus working for someone else, there are several key points to remember. When you work for yourself, you have the freedom to explore limitless opportunities and have the power to allocate your time to the most valuable and essential aspects of your job or business. This freedom can also lead to a broader range of creativity, allowing you to express your ideas and concepts uniquely. However, there are challenges, as you must establish a clear vision for your contributions and take the initiative to start your own company, which can be demanding.
Another difference between being employed and running your own business is that you must be closely connected to your passion. In my case, I’ve discovered that my passion isn’t confined to a single industry. So, our client base spans a diverse spectrum, ranging from an exceptionally talented jewelry designer to tech innovators like Howwe Technologies. Our passion is effective and creative communication, no matter what your product or service is.
On the other hand, working for someone else can be an incredibly educational experience, providing you with valuable insights and skills you might not have gained otherwise. I owe much of my knowledge and growth to my work experience, as it has allowed me to learn from successful entrepreneurs and develop a deeper understanding of what it takes to succeed in the business world. However, working for someone else can come with limitations, as you must often follow someone else’s directives and adhere to their established structures. Ultimately, choosing between working for yourself or someone else depends on your goals, ambitions, and preferences.
What are some emerging trends in the PR industry that you have observed in both locations?
I love guerilla marketing campaigns! Guerilla marketing is a strategy marketers use to create hype through word-of-mouth marketing with hopes of going viral. Using unconventional marketing techniques, you do something no one has before. For example, the hit show “The Walking Dead” did a guerilla marketing campaign where actors were made up to look like zombies and placed below a grate in Manhattan’s Union Square. Pedestrians who stepped near or above the grate were met with zombified hands and arms reaching up from the ground below them.
UNICEF did a guerilla marketing stunt before where they put dirty water in vending machines. For a $1 donation to UNICEF’s cause, New Yorkers received a nasty bottle of brown water, as well as some important facts about the water crisis. A $1 donation could provide a child with clean drinking water for 40 days, they said. I also try to implement guerilla marketing when I can.
People today are very tech-savvy, and brands quickly embrace trends, like being among the first to join Clubhouse or Meta’s new platform, Threads. You either become an early adopter or find fun and engaging ways to connect with your customers.
Since COVID-19, people have been yearning for human interaction, even though so much remained online after the pandemic. If brands can play a role in bringing people together, connecting them, and engaging with human emotions, that’s a beautiful thing. Guerrilla marketing will always remain relevant.
In 2018, we organized an exhibition for visual artist David Shrigley at the Museum of Spirits in Sweden. He was the museum’s most significant artist to date. His exhibition featured 12 nine-foot-tall inflatable swan-like sculptures, also available in a smaller format suitable for pools and sold as merchandise. On the opening day, we arrived at the museum at 5 a.m., inflated 12 smaller swans, and placed them in fountains across Stockholm. This allowed people jogging, walking their dogs, or commuting to work in the morning to see these floats throughout the city. If they posted on social media and tagged the artist and the museum, they received free entry to the exhibition. This put a smile on many morning commuters.
Another prominent trend that’s hard to overlook is AI. However, AI cannot replace humans. It can enhance time efficiency and overcome writer’s block, but it cannot compete with the human brain and interaction.
Can you share a challenging client situation and how you resolved it?
One challenging client situation I encountered involved working with a large enterprise tech organization, which was a unique experience for me as I had previously worked with a diverse range of clients but not within such a massive enterprise context. Their forward-thinking approach was so cutting-edge that the public and media had no prior knowledge or established schemas to reference in their communication. This required us to employ a higher degree of innovative and creative language when engaging with the public, as our objective was to usher the stakeholders into an envisioned future seamlessly. To overcome this challenge, we took the initiative to provide stakeholders with a glimpse into the future of technology, bridging the gap between their pioneering ideas and the wider audience’s comprehension. This approach helped us successfully navigate the communication hurdles and maintain a constructive client relationship.
What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to an entrepreneur who wants to bring their business to the U.S.?
If you’re an entrepreneur looking to expand your business to the United States, there’s a critical piece of advice I would offer: thorough research and preparedness. The U.S. market is incredibly diverse, encompassing various cultures and regions, each with unique preferences and nuances. Recognize that successful entry into this market may require different strategies depending on whether you target a specific market segment or a geographic location. The potential for growth in the U.S. is immense, with a vast and dynamic business landscape that is highly competitive and entrepreneurial-friendly. With the right approach, the sky is truly the limit, but it’s essential to approach your expansion with a well-informed and adaptable strategy to make the most of this opportunity.
What advice do you have for aspiring PR professionals?
For those aspiring to a career in public relations, several key pieces of advice can pave the way for success. Firstly, prioritize networking, as your connections can be invaluable in this field. Maintain a dynamic and growing network of industry professionals, ensuring it remains fresh and relevant to your goals. Additionally, never underestimate the power of your writing skills. Continuous practice and improvement in writing are essential, as it’s a core component of PR work. Furthermore, don’t neglect the importance of reading. Staying well-informed and up-to-date with current events, trends, and industry news is crucial for effectively navigating the ever-evolving world of public relations.
Future plans and dreams?
Given the significant growth we’ve experienced, we are on track to triple our revenue in 2023, and we’re optimistic about expanding across the Atlantic soon. We plan to open a second office in Sweden, as we have received inquiries from American organizations seeking assistance expanding to Scandinavia.