I have been living in Helsinki for eight years but I don’t speak the language. My excuse is that it’s a hard tongue to master and impossible to pick up off the street.
The will to learn is also constantly undermined by the fact that everyone in Helsinki speaks great English. It’s probably one of the few places in Europe where you can work without an idiomatic grasp of the lingua franca.
I have been helped at Hasan & Partners because English is our official work language and our goal is to create work that relates to universal human insights rather than local stereotypes. Some of our clients, such as Polar, advertise in English, but that reflects their global target audience. However, many brands do all their advertising in Finnish.
The visual language of the country has been easier to pick up. While many Finns conform to what you might call the Scandinavian design aesthetic, there is also an equally large group, often living in the more rural parts of the country, who don’t. Brands must balance their need to appeal to consumers in Helsinki and southern Finland, who do have that sophisticated design aesthetic, and a more honest, straightforward approach that appeals more in smaller cities and rural areas.
As for the words – the strategy and planning are all done in English. That’s rare for a Finnish agency but, with team members from 12 countries, we couldn’t do it any other way. Once that has been honed, however, it’s down to our local-language copywriters. Their challenge is not to translate our idea but to reinterpret it into Finnish.
There is a large group, often in rural parts, who don't conform to the Scandinavian design aesthetic
So how can I tell whether it’s right, whether it’s on-brief and whether, in my opinion at least, it’s going to be effective? It comes down to trust. It requires me to rely on my colleagues and be more collaborative than I might be in an English language-only setting.
I have had to learn that Finnish can be quite poetic, with words that don’t translate because the "correct" English version doesn’t reflect the emotional context in which they are said. These are the times when my colleagues tell me the language of Shakespeare can’t do justice to what they have written. It doesn’t happen often because universal insights will flow from one language to another without much of a problem. But on these rare occasions, I put my trust in my colleagues and our oldest universal communications system: body language will always tell me whether to give the green light.
But, now I’m about to relocate to Berlin, it may be time for a rethink. German is pretty close to Afrikaans, which I spoke growing up in South Africa, but perhaps the real motivator will be whether enough people I meet can speak English as well as my colleagues in Helsinki. I might be going to language school.
David Godycki is the executive creative director at Hasan & Partners