Feature

My Hyper Island diary

Hyper Island attracts the attention and adoration of a cult, and yet for many, it remains an enigma. Katherine Levy finds out what really goes on at the 16-year-old digital school in Sweden

The Hyper Island HQ in Sweden
The Hyper Island HQ in Sweden

Hyper Island is much hyped. On the train that scoots from Copenhagen to Karlskrona, a naval port on the South-Eastern tip of Sweden connected by a bridge to Hyper Island, I am told to be prepared for what can only be described as three days of "digital therapy".

We are here on an intensive, tailor-made boot camp for the digital agency LBi. Hyper Island, the Swedish digital "high school", has grown over its lifetime to offer executive masterclasses - all different, but all underpinned by an impetus for change. LBi's masterclass is a network affair: on the first night, a planner from the New York office shares a pint and a pretzel with a director of technology from LBi Stockholm. Already, the event is facilitating in-agency integration, or "blending", as LBi calls it.

Blending is the theme of the weekend. In many ways, it has become the agency's culture, though not in a formal way, and so LBi has requested a bespoke Hyper Island masterclass to explore and antagonise the idea, alongside workshops on brand value and the impact of digital on old business models.

But what exactly is blending? "Blending is orchestrating the contributions of people across a wide range of disciplines to deliver solutions for clients that are more than the sums of their parts," Graham Hodge, the director of branded content and creative services at LBi London, explains. A simpler analogy, he says, is this: if you make a margarita with one shot of tequila, five limes and a kilogram of sugar, the result will be "disgusting"; for LBi, blending is about combining "everything at the right time in the right quantity".

Day 1

Am: The course starts with an obligatory bonding exercise, on the grass outside the 19th-century military prison that is now an institution of a very different kind. We undergo a "group dynamic task" that tests planning and strategy and involves imaginary crocodiles, blocks of wood and a good sense of balance - the last of which is made more comical by the presence of a stocky, seven-foot, senior experience architect from LBi Denmark called Jens, who would be well cast as Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant.

Hyper Island's executive creative director, Asa Silfverberg, corrals us into the cosy room where we will spend most of our time over the next three days. It seems straight out of an Ikea catalogue, but with classier chairs.

First up is an activity where we are told to "put our fish on the table". In a nutshell, this means voicing the thing that most frustrates you about the way your company operates. If you hide your herring in your pockets, so we are told, they will stink. Better to get your issues off your chest at the start, and work out how you can be an agent of change.

Sitting in a circle, we confess our frustrations like members of Alcoholics Anonymous. One LBi member from Sweden laments the word "content", arguing that it is a digital distraction. "I hate the word," he spits. "It's very passive. You think 'Oh, there's a box there on the website' and you don't have to worry about communication." His honesty creates a watershed of intolerance for marketing language. "Please don't say consumer," someone else pleads. "We're dealing with people, it's us and everyone."

Bravely, LBi has also invited along a clutch of its clients. As LBi staff talk openly about their agency bugbears, clients from Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Virgin Atlantic strain to hear with rapt interest.

"We appease clients too much and say yes far too often," another LBier complains. "I wish we could turn around sometimes and say: 'No. Let's try something else.'" Later, one client describes the session as "interesting". Luckily, he seems genuinely sympathetic. It all seems to fit with the intention of the course: to break down hierarchies and foster better communication.

PM: We talk a lot about "collaboration" and Roger, one of the course facilitators, who has taken Hyper Island's philosophies as far and wide as blue-chip clients and refugee camps on the Gaza Strip, indoctrinates us with the Hyper Island mantra of "learn to learn".

Throughout the rest of the day, we discuss business success in a non-linear world. Old, rigid business models are shamed, while new, adaptive ones that seek to inspire consumers in an integrated world are praised. Controversially, the traditional advertising agency is held up as an example of a business model that is failing. Digital efforts at above-the-line agencies are criticised as being "a nod to progress" rather than a "real desire for change". Another comment is that ad agencies have brought in experts but "it's too little, too late".

It soon becomes clear that this course is not just about digital. It is about how digital is pushing businesses to new places every day, and the key to winning is how we keep up, adapt and survive. "The alternative is kind of interesting," Hyper Island's sardonic co-founder David Erixon, who provides a nice dash of sour to the sugary, therapy framework, notes. "It's death."

Day Two

Am: Lots of "reflection" on what we discovered the day before. Content of the course aside, our leaders work hard to foster a group therapy format that, in all honesty, may not be to everyone's taste. At one stage, we have to share a moment in our lives when we were subject to change and didn't like it. They ask "Anyone's parents been divorced?" before leaving us for a while to discuss painful stories about broken families. This is meant to get us to think about how our experiences of handling enforced change can help us cope with the evolution of our businesses, but I wonder whether the analogy stands up: I am yet to meet a person who is ultimately happy that their parents divorced 20 years ago. Later, before the guest speaker Alan Moore (the founder of the business consultancy SMLXL) addresses us, we are told to sit in a two-minute meditative silence, which quite frankly baffles me.

I perk up when we return to the debate that businesses - both on the client and agency side - need to choose to facilitate change and be agile in order to survive. Jonathan Isaac, the LBi global head of planning, says: "Our clients are on that journey with us. It's nothing revelatory or new, but it's how you operationalise that change and how you make it real."

There is a brand-building workshop at 11am. We split into small groups to hack through a brief and come up with "value gaps" - opportunities in the customer activation cycle where brands can provide added value. We are told to take a product, such as Coke, and work out what our line of business is - for example, not the soft drinks business, but the "happiness business", if you extend its "moments of happiness" tagline. One group comes up with a sanitary towel brand that is delivered to professional women at home in time for their period; this group is in the business of selling "discreet convenience".

PM: Highlight of the course: a brilliant talk by the Hyper Island co-founder Jonathan Briggs, now the professor of e-business at Kingston University and owner of the e-commerce agency Other Media. Briggs talks about the technology companies we need to watch, because they all have access to and collect user data, which is advertising gold dust. We hear about Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, the data management platform Blue Kai and the social media data delivery service Gnip. Briggs tells us that the smart companies are beefing up their data strategies. Unilever, he says, is cutting down on its roster of agencies in a bid to have more control of its data insights and Deloitte is investing in "thousands" of data experts.

Briggs asks: "How important is Google to a brand?" He says that most ad agencies have never thought about having employees whose sole job is to manage their relationship with Google. "Traditional agencies are walking blindly away from Google," he says. "They think Google Ad Words is boring and they don't think it's their responsibility to help brands dominate results pages. They are losing out on the opportunity to see that as part of what they do."

Day Three

We return to the concept of blending and how LBi defines it. Rosalie Kurton, the business development director at LBi London, is described as the "master blender". It is her job to pick and choose the best people required for every brief, but as she explains, it is not necessarily right to shoehorn different disciplines into a room for the sake of it. "It's obvious when it happens, and obvious when it doesn't," LBi's planning director, Ed Beard, explains.

Anthony Tripaldi, the senior Flash developer at LBi New York, says it was eight months ago that he was first invited to creative meetings."Being a programmer, it was strange for me to sit with the copywriter and creative director," he says. "I went from being a guy they would throw website briefs at to being asked: 'We want you to be involved from the start.'"Later, over lunch, the principal CRM consultant Tom Burrell, from LBi London, takes blending philosophy to the next level: "Why can't the user experience guy write the creative brief?"

We hack through the debate of how LBi can actually implement blending at the agency. To do this, we talk about blockades to blending. Claire Zinnes at Johnson & Johnson says: "I wish agencies would ask more questions in the briefing process." The hack produces a eureka moment, where it is suggested that agencies and clients should create the brief together.

Hodge and Allison Wightman, the head of e-business at Virgin Atlantic, lead a discussion on getting the agency in earlier in the work cycle. LBi staff admit that they often get a brief from the client and then effectively rewrite it. "It's a dirty little secret of agencies that the agency rewrites the brief when it comes up with some ideas," Isaac admits.

This revelation causes a reaction from the Virgin client. "If the agency and client collaborate on the brief," Wightman says, "at least you haven't made your client write a brief and tear it to shreds, when they didn't have time to write the brief anyway." Collaborating on the brief is embraced by the group. "It would ensure you do bigger, more impressive pieces of work," Wightman continues. "Because you're not just dealing with the tunnel-vision view of what the client wants." The process seems to have genuinely inspired the agency and at least one of its clients to change the way they communicate in the future.

We discuss the practicalities of how this would be implemented, if LBi chooses to. Isaac says: "We would have to insist that this is the only way we work - we co-create briefs." Zinnes suggests that perhaps there shouldn't be a brief at all. "Should we be throwing the brief out the door?" she asks. "What would happen if you started in a different place - say, with a concept - would you end up somewhere different?"

Later, someone says defeatedly that they can't change the industry Briggs interjects: "Be a game-changer, change the market - because you can."

Last session: Silfverberg asks us to further explore blending in a "rapid ideation process", before we finish off by creating the "blending manifesto" for LBi to take back to London. One group comes up with the suggestion that blending is social - the phrase "It is not LBi, but LBwe" is met by an enthusiastic round of applause.

WHAT IS HYPER ISLAND?

Hyper Island was founded in 1995 by David Erixon, a Swedish multimedia design expert who later became the global brand director for Vodafone for six years; Jonathan Briggs, a British academic; and the Swedish film producer Lars Lund.

It was built on the philosophy of un-siloed thinking. As Briggs says: "It was not built as a business school or a technology school or as an art school, but as all three."

The school's teaching model was built on active, project-based learning. Digital is the main "theme" of the school, but it aims to provide a broader, liberal education and produce "T-shaped" generalists with specialities.

Today, there are seven digitally specialised programmes available across three Hyper Island schools in Karlskrona, Stockholm and Manchester, though the company also has offices in London and New York. It also offers executive masterclasses on a broader learning framework.

So far, nearly 2,000 people have graduated from its student programmes since the school began.

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