Bringing up adland: The new wave of creative talent from Sweden's Berghs School

What can the UK creative industry learn from the unique set-up at Sweden's Berghs School of Communication?

Bringing up adland: The new wave of creative talent from Sweden's Berghs School
Brittaney Kiefer

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"I’m desperate to work with them – they scare the fuck out of me."
— Nils Leonard, co-founder, Uncommon Creative Studio

Noah Bramme, 24, took a tortuous path before ending up at one of the world’s best communications schools. He worked at a kindergarten, then in bars and nightclubs, where he used to design posters promoting club nights. In his spare time, he printed and sold T-shirts, "so I thought I was an art director", he says. 

On the recommendation of a friend, Bramme applied to Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm, which has a prestigious reputation both in Sweden and abroad. When it came to putting together his portfolio, "I had barely opened Photoshop before," he says. "It was a mess."

In other circumstances, Bramme’s unpolished application might have blocked his entry into a creative career, but something in that "mess" stood out. As part of the process, he was asked to write half a page accompanying his work; he produced two pages. David Alledal, director of the school’s copywriting and art direction programme, spotted a drop of talent in that flood of words, and encouraged Bramme to apply to study copywriting instead.

He was resistant at first. "I never liked writing in school," Bramme says. "But I always loved text and hip-hop lyrics. I didn’t understand that was a way to write." So he asked Alledal why he should choose that course instead. "He said my strength is that I don’t write like most of the people applying here. When you don’t know all the rules, you don’t know the rules you’re breaking," he recalls.

Bramme has now been on the copywriting programme for 18 months, while also working part-time at one of Sweden’s biggest ad agencies, Åkestam Holst. When we meet in the cafe at Berghs, on a snowy evening in January, his story sounds familiar: it is the tale of the student meeting the teacher, the catalyst who spots a hidden potential and gives permission to start making.

What’s striking about Bramme, and indeed all the students at Berghs, is his quiet confidence that, despite his non-traditional background, he can forge his own path; the type of person whom advertising leaders often say they are dying to recruit.

In the UK, the industry is obsessed with the "talent crisis". Tech and digital companies are competing for creative talent, while Brexit could threaten access to a wider international pool. More crucially, there is still a troubling lack of diversity in many agencies. And some of those who have broken into adland are railing against its very ways of working, raising the question of whether this business is still a viable home to nurture creativity.

Yet in Sweden, talk of this talent crisis is nonexistent. Why, then, are so many agencies in the UK struggling with this? "That’s a question you should send back to your industry," Alledal says. "There is heaps of talent. My mum could be a great creative – it’s just a matter of giving people the right tools."

At Berghs, they believe they have devised a unique set of conditions to raise up the next generation of communicators and change the face of the industry. It is producing graduates intent on using their creativity not only to win awards, but also to solve some of society’s biggest problems.

Something seems to be working there. Berghs has been crowned the Cannes Future Lions School of the Year for seven out of the competition’s 11 years. Nils Leonard, co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studio, said in a Campaign interview last year: "You see kids coming out of British colleges right now and they still have a leather portfolio with three ads in a row. Some of them are great but then you see the kids out of Berghs, who have fully built websites, 3D-model case studies – they’ve already got ideas into culture that they’ve made famous.

"I think they have realised that with those skillsets they don’t need an ad job. That’s incredibly empowering and I’m desperate to work with them – they scare the fuck out of me."

Should we be scared, or could this little school in Stockholm hold some of the answers to the ad industry’s dilemmas?

Every corner of Berghs oozes cool. Neon lights in the entryway illuminate walls emblazoned with the words "State of mind", the title of a recent school exhibition. People dressed in black and carrying Sandqvist backpacks gather in the cafe, where coffee is served in colourful cups designed by a student. Part of this building in central Stockholm used to be a church, but the only god worshipped here now is creativity. A stained-glass window in reception reads: "Everything communicates."

In this setting, about 200 full-time students are enrolled on courses covering the full spectrum of communications, including advertising, planning, design, PR, event marketing, account management and photography. Berghs puts an emphasis on integration, so pupils from various disciplines collaborate on projects.

The school is open to people at any life stage and level. "It’s not just for young ones," chief executive Camilla Wallander says. Its students tend to be older, with a gap between university and enrolment at Berghs; this year’s class has an average age of 25.

It is also insistent that all its teachers currently work in the industry, whether that be agencies, start-ups or in-house marketing departments. "We have teachers here who are in a client pitch in the morning, then go out to teach a class," Marie Alani, director of the Berghs bachelor programme, says. "None of us has degrees in education but we believe these are the best educators."

"When you don't know all the rules, you don't know the rules you're breaking"
— Noah Bramme, copywriting programme student, Berghs

These principles form the school’s foundation. But to really understand what’s happening at Berghs, you need to know more about Sweden. This institute is a "good representation of Swedish culture", according to Adam Horne, creative director of Berghs Studio.

The UK has long had a crush on Sweden’s exports, from its entertainment to design and fashion. "Why do we love Scandinavian culture?" a 2012 Telegraph headline asked. Yet probe deeper than a fondness for Ikea furniture or Nordic noir, and factors arise that have helped foster creativity and innovation. One of those, most evident at Berghs, is a lack of hierarchy. This is fostered at the school, where students address teachers by their first names and instructors encourage an equal-footed discourse. "They’re more like my colleagues," Alledal says.

As Rosalin Gustafsson, programme director for strategic communications and public relations, explains: "The lecturer’s attitude is about exchange, rather than, ‘I’m here to give my knowledge to you.’ I want to know what’s on students’ minds."

Flexible and collaborative

Patrizzia Ohlson, who graduated from Berghs’ PR programme in May and now works at an agency specialising in sustainable communications, echoes other alumni in her belief that experience of flat hierarchies "makes us very flexible and collaborative" when entering the workplace. Horne says it also instils a greater sense of confidence.

"They’re more confident more quickly. They’re willing to ask big questions at the start and also question the basic premise of the project," Horne says. That’s why some Berghs students, according to the programme directors, have been known to approach teachers with suggestions about how to improve their courses (though always respectfully). It is difficult to imagine many British schools encouraging students to act upon a similar instinct.

Swedes tend to also have a more global mindset, learning English and often travelling extensively from a young age. "They see the world as a flat place they can explore," Horne says.

"Part of our culture is to export Sweden," Gustafsson adds. "Growing up, you know you can succeed internationally." Companies such as H&M, Spotify, Ikea and Volvo have helped set that example.

It’s no surprise, then, that many Berghs students say they would like to move abroad, and alumni frequently do so. This mentality also affects the work they produce. "We give them global problems to solve, not just local," Alledal says of their curriculum.

After graduating, creative team Clara Uddman and Petter Swanberg joined Nord DDB in Stockholm, where they soon created their first global campaign for online bank Klarna, featuring the rapper Snoop Dogg. It "was a lot bigger than anything we had ever done before. We thought about how the idea would work in the app, the site, in Snoop’s own channels, from a B2B perspective and so on," Uddman says.

They have since moved to Forsman & Bodenfors, which appealed to them after its recent merger with KBS. "[The agency] went global, and it felt exciting to be part of that new era," Uddman explains.

Taking tech’s lead

Sweden also has a thriving tech start-up scene. It ranked second on Bloomberg’s 2018 World Index of Innovative Countries, and Stockholm is second only to Silicon Valley when it comes to the number of unicorns – billion-dollar tech companies – that it produces per capita. Berghs has attempted to replicate this innovative environment; some teachers work in the tech industry and students are encouraged to come up with ideas that might live outside the realm of typical advertising.

Rikard Köhler, a second-year communications design student, worked at Swedish smart-home start-up Glue before Berghs. He and many of his peers have side projects outside their studies; he is taking sketching and music courses. His work has included a campaign that paired online writing platform Grammarly with a mission to end opioid addiction. "[Grammarly] users are often high achievers, and we found an insight that high achievers are at a greater risk of addiction," he says.

Rather than joining a traditional agency after graduating, Köhler wants to work abroad in "innovative solutions". He is also a good example of Berghs students’ civic-mindedness – another reflection of Swedish culture. "I’ve got more into sustainability and helping humankind in some way," he says. "It’s always been that way, but I never really had an outlet for my creativity [before Berghs]."

"We have teachers here who are in a client pitch in the morning and then go out to teach a class. None of us has degrees in education, but we believe these are the best educators"
— Marie Alani, director, bachelor programme, Berghs

Copywriting student Fanny Klefelt concurs: "I want to do things with a message I believe in," she says, citing examples such as the recent Gillette ad.

Horne says of the student body: "They see environmental and social issues of the future as something they’re responsible for."

Social conscience

From the start of its programmes, Berghs often assigns briefs with a "sustainable flag in it", Alledal says. About five years ago the school launched Berghs Explore, a two-week integrated project where all students collaborate to solve a social problem. This year’s theme was the internet of things, and 20 cross-disciplinary teams were sent to eight Swedish municipalities with the task of applying this technology to local issues such as care of the elderly. Crucially, Berghs Explore introduces the sharedvalue theory of marketing, which maintains that all solutions must make social progress while also earning money for the business.

This sense of pragmatism, coupled with Sweden’s distance from industry hubs such as London, means students have "more perspective" and rarely create work just to win awards, Horne says. "They do not think in the microcosm of what will trend at Cannes and don’t mess around with superficial stuff. Ironically, that makes them good when they do enter awards," he adds.

These are the conditions in which Berghs students are primed, but even before they arrive, the school is rethinking how it can open its doors wider to more diverse people.

Last year Berghs revamped its entire application process by making it anonymous, thus "removing any bias", Alledal says. Every applicant who achieves a certain score is called to an interview. "We don’t see age or gender. It’s just about the work," he adds. They have also removed jargon from the application, including words such as "brief", to make it less intimidating to people who know little about the marketing industry.

It is still a rigorous process to ensure the teachers spot the best potential candidates, but Marco Ortolani, director of international programmes, says they like people who have not followed a linear career path, adding: "I’m all about the misfits."

Berghs’ philosophy is about "democratising the creative spark", Joakim Thulin, head of strategic insight, says. Through its integrated studies and flat hierarchy, the school aims to make the creative process more accessible. They do not believe in a "traditional planning process followed by the creative superbrain blackbox, where no one can see why the creatives made the choices they did, and you can’t mess with the idea".

As Horne explains: "Creativity isn’t this magical thing. When people are less likely to put themselves into boxes, they’re more likely to be creative."

Perhaps it is that philosophy that engenders a rule-breaking attitude in graduates. Pelle Sjoenell, an alumnus who is now worldwide chief creative officer of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says: "Berghs taught me to question everything... it never asked us to adapt. It was clear from day one that we were expected to reinvent it all. That mentality stuck with me, and continues to guide my thinking."

Henrik Wedberg, a communications graduate who now works at the Interpublic Group-owned media agency IUM, says he learned it was OK to be a "little bit crazy sometimes" and to not "be afraid of thinking stupid" or later say you were wrong.

"You have to learn to be unpretentious about ideas," Uddman adds. "[At Berghs] you really know how to come up with an idea, and the rest you can learn. That is a safe thing to feel."

"Berghs taught me to question everything. It never asked us to adapt. It was clear from day one that we were expected to reinvent it all. That mentality stuck with me"
— Pelle Sjoenell, worldwide chief creative officer, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

Armed with that confidence, the shape of work that alumni are undertaking after Berghs is shifting. Many are still entering adland – "I’m not ashamed to say I love advertising," Uddman declares – but more are also branching out into in-house roles at brands, freelancing or entrepreneurship. In May, three graduates launched an agency, and Berghs gave them the space and support to get it off the ground.

But then, "we can only do so much here", Alledal says. After graduation, it becomes the industry’s job to nurture talent, but many agencies "don’t have a plan", he believes. He and other faculty members claim Sweden is not facing a talent crisis because it has a better culture of mentorship, and companies are better at taking care of staff. Abroad, juniors at agencies are often "set up to fail" by not being given the support to ensure they grow, says Horne, who worked in both Australia and France before Berghs.

Alledal himself is an example of the power of mentorship. He worked in restaurants from the age of 14, and was unaware of the opportunities available in advertising until he was 28. "Someone told me I would make a great copywriter, so I started Googling it," he recalls.

It is why Alledal is now trying to offer others the same chance, searching for people such as Bramme, the club promoter turned writer, who have never realised their own talent and how they might use it.

Since being at Berghs, Bramme says he has discovered that "you can always put who you are into a brand". When he graduates in May, he wants to try his luck abroad, and is hoping that one of the agencies he admires will give him a home.

So adland, what’s the plan? 

In the UK's advertising classrooms

Berghs differs from courses offered in the UK because it has a greater focus on tech and innovation, Anna Green, partner at The Talent Business, says. Its digitally savvy graduates tend to be drawn to companies such as AKQA, Facebook and Google, or to start-up hubs such as Stockholm and Berlin. 

"They’re interested in pushing the boundaries beyond traditional media and look to hubs outside London that house interesting tech and innovation businesses," Green adds. "There can be the perception that London is still a fairly traditional market. It’s important that we shift this, because it’s a real shame we are missing out on some amazing talent."

Watford Advertising Course

The Watford Advertising Course at West Herts College has long been known as the UK’s most prestigious advertising school. Established in 1961, it is a one-year, post-graduate course run by Tony Cullingham. The school’s advertising education is boosted by Cullingham’s close ties to the industry and its rich legacy of talent. Watford has produced many of London’s top creative leaders past and present, with the most recent examples including Lucky Generals’ Danny Brooke-Taylor, McCann London’s Rob Doubal, and The & Partnership’s Micky Tudor and Yan Elliott.

School of Communication Arts

SCA, located in Brixton, is seen as more progressive, operating as a social enterprise supported by more than 100 agencies. Its original incarnation closed in 1995 but it was re-opened by Marc Lewis in 2010. About one-third of the 36 students receive industry-funded scholarships, and are taught and mentored by ad professionals. Rather than offering a traditional curriculum, SCA assigns a series of about 50 briefs over the 10-month programme. Being taught by industry professionals ensures SCA students "hear about everything as it happens, and they get that exposure to people during their course", Green says. SCA had seven winners in The Talent Business’ most recent Cream competition for emerging talent, a record for an ad school, Green adds.

Bucks New University and University of Lincoln

The pair are well-known for their three-year bachelor’s degrees in advertising, a longer course than the post-grad offerings of Watford and SCA (although students at the latter have generally done a degree first). They offer a more traditional education and are seen as less plugged-in to the industry. Course tutors do not tend to work in advertising day to day.

Take a look inside Berghs here