How I Work: Michael Lee, Oatly creative director

Oat drink brand Oatly is at the forefront of the plant-based revolution – and it has divided audiences in the process. Creative director Michael Lee talks to us about working in this landscape, building a voice founded upon Swedish humility, and embracing noise

“I got a call from John Schoolcraft almost two and a half years ago,” says Oatly creative director Michael Lee. “I was sitting in a cafe and he just asked me if I wanted to start a war with the milk industry all over the world. And I was just like, yeah, OK, sure.”

The plant-based wave has been surging for a number of years, and Oatly has been confidently riding the crest. Founded in 1994, the Swedish brand has gained international momentum over the last five years or so, in part by cleverly piggybacking on – or perhaps spurring on – the growing shift towards veganism. Yet the brand’s notoriety is largely due to Oatly’s approach to communications, which often involves breaking the fourth wall, with a spate of self-referential campaigns in a new, meta ad land.

Though Oatly’s ongoing expansion into new terrain indicates the success of its campaigns, it hasn’t been plain sailing. In the past, the brand faced a lawsuit in its native Sweden relating to the controversial ‘it’s like milk, but made for humans’ campaign, which it proceeded to run in other markets (“it’s a line we still believe in,” Lee says). Then there’s the continued pushback against the wider premise of plant-based products, of which Oatly is a frontrunner, meaning it has seen its fair share of criticism. However, this hasn’t deterred the team behind the campaigns. “We’re naïvely fearless, I guess,” he says.

Lee’s current position as creative director is a far cry from his early days in investment banking, though his journey to Oatly was signposted by stints in LA and Chicago on the strategy side of advertising. Since moving to Denmark in 2000, he has run his own agency and also worked for DDB and several boutique agencies – one of which was also home to Schoolcraft, Oatly’s global CCO.

While Oatly is used to charging into battle, the current climate has posed a new difficulty for brands in terms of how to engage audiences without coming off as exploitative during the Covid-19 crisis. Rather than pushing product, Oatly has carried its fun tone through to its newly launched Oatly Department of Distraction Services (ODDS), an array of goofy games and snippets of content designed to distract people from the outside world, even if just for a few minutes.

Here, Lee talks to us about how an unconventional team structure leads to unconventional work, how the Swedish sense of humility underpins Oatly’s voice, and why it’s good to spark debate – good or bad.