Scandinavia: The kings of digital

Why is Scandinavia such a global powerhouse on the digital ad scene, Pippa Considine asks.

There is no doubt that Scandinavian digital agencies punch above their weight on the global stage. Four of the world's top-ten digital creatives are Scandinavian, Sweden ranks fifth in the 2005 Won Report's league of countries by awards won and a small clutch of top-notch agencies in Denmark and Sweden have carried off a haul of Cyber Lions and Grand Prix over the years. This year, the president of the Cyber Lions jury was a Scandinavian - Mathias Palm Jensen, the creative president of the Swedish agency FarFar.

The same few agency names come up time and again. Top of the tree are FarFar, Forsman & Bodenfors and Daddy in Sweden, and Framfab in Denmark. Then there are Lowe Tesch, Starring, Foreign and several outstanding production companies such as North Kingdom and Great Works.

F&B's campaigns for Volvo XC 90, which won the Cyber Grand Prix in 2005, and its online campaign for the fashion brand J&C are among the most awarded internet campaigns in the world. This year at Cannes, the agency won a gold Lion for its Ikea work. FarFar also took gold for its Visit Sweden website, Daddy won a gold for its Volkswagen "reassuringly safe" banner campaign and Framfab took two golds for its online work for Nike. Another two gold Cyber Lions went to the US agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners for its California Milk Processing Board work, which was produced by North Kingdom.

However modest the Scandinavians are, this is not casual coincidence. The region that invented the paper clip and the thermometer, spawned the likes of pop groups Abba and A-ha and is one of the world's greatest consumers of coffee, is now a world centre of excellence for digital advertising. It cannot all be down to the region's six months of relative darkness driving the population to seek solace online. So what are the secrets of this global success?

The whole Nordic region has a population of less than 25 million; Sweden, where the largest number of impressive digital agencies exists, has fewer than nine million inhabitants. Its size is perhaps the first reason for its success. "Maybe it is that the Swedes are brought up in a small country, so from childhood they are taught to look out towards the world," says Emil Lanne, who, along with a raft of other highly valued Scandinavian digital experts, has successfully exported himself to the US. He is now a senior art director at BBHi in New York.

Nicke Bergstrom, the creative director at FarFar, says: "Because Sweden is so small, we've always been competing with the big agencies in New York or London. In London, maybe people compete more between agencies."

Being small has also allowed the Scandinavian countries to build a broadband infrastructure. "Because we are small, we can evolve faster," Martin Cedergren, the interactive creative director at F&B, says. "It takes longer in the US or the UK because it takes longer to build it."

There is another reason why Scandinavia should be so advanced in the area of digital. The state telecoms institutions oversaw the distribution of broadband, extending in democratic fashion to even the most remote parts of the region, well before many other countries in the world.

"The Swedes, in particular, had an amazing playground with broadband," Lars Bastholm, the executive creative director at AKQA in New York and a former creative director at Framfab, says.

Sweden is currently third in the worldwide internet penetration rate, with Iceland at number two.

Back in the 80s, when computers such as the Commodore 64 and the Amiga first came on the market, the Swedes were given tax breaks if they bought computers for their employees - another technologically astute move, which set the scene for developing world-beating products.

At the same time, the Scandinavians came late to TV advertising. So, while markets such as the UK and the US became dominated by TV ads as the superior format, the Nordic region was being fed limited commercial breaks. Mark Chalmers, the creative partner at StrawberryFrog, believes this is one of the reasons why they have developed such high levels of creativity on the internet. With commercial television arriving in the late 80s and the internet not much later, the market was different.

"Scandinavia in the 90s was a place of burgeoning creativity," he says. "There was high technological awareness, massive mobile penetration, high standards of living, high expectations and a new need for advertising."

The presence of Nokia in Finland and Ericsson in Sweden has been both cause and effect for high standards of digital advertising. Such cutting-edge brands need to be seen to be using cutting-edge media and creative technologies in their advertising, so in that way they have fuelled the market.

But they are a bigger influence than that. "Huge employers such as Nokia and Ericsson are embedded in the culture," Gustav Martner, the creative partner and co-founder of Daddy, says. "If Ericsson does well, then that is good for the Scandinavian economy, so we're interested."

From the outside, Ajaz Ahmed, the chairman and chief executive of AKQA, perceives "a halo effect for the region. People think a lot more about innovation and technology, in the same way that San Francisco's Silicon Valley drives a lot of innovation."

There is also a Nordic design halo. Bastholm says: "Scandinavian design has its really simple and clean lines, like Ikea. It's super-simple stuff that lends itself to the web. When it first appeared, it put some of the Scandinavian countries at the forefront of what interactive design could be."

Philippe Simonet, the joint chief executive of Publicis Net in Paris and a member of the Cyber Lions Cannes jury, calls this design advantage "a highly developed graphic culture".

Innovative design could also be part of a bigger Scandinavian trait to want to try something new. "We're not afraid of new technology," Cedergren says. "We're experimental. The whole industry is experimenting in the region - you can see it with companies such as Ericsson, Nokia, Bang & Olufsen, Ikea, H&M and Volvo."

In fact, that have-a-go culture extends to the way that many companies in the region work. Agencies are designed to encourage all employees to come up with ideas, not just those with creative in their title. "We have a flat organisation at F&B and that's typical for the whole industry," Cedergren says. "It's very non-heirarchical, everyone's included." The agency has an area known as "the floor", where creative treatments of all different media campaigns are literally laid out on the floor for general discussion.

Mathias Hellquist, the technology director at Profero, is another native of Sweden. He describes a Scandinavian regime of reasonable working hours, generous holidays and a strong, meritocratic ethos. Vitally, this means that all members of the team, including the essential technical experts, can influence the formation of an idea. "No-one is afraid to voice their thoughts, as the best idea will always win," Hellquist says.

The Scandinavians are not only nice to each other at the office but, it seems, the competing digital agencies are on pretty friendly terms as well.

Bergstrom says he knew most of the people who landed a gold Cyber Lion at Cannes and has friends in most of the good digital agencies across the world. That is not just because they have headhunted talent from Scandinavia. It's also about presenting a united front for the ongoing struggle to raise the profile of digital. "The cool thing is that we're seen as underdogs," he says. "We're still in the same boat, struggling to get better budgets. We know we can still have some fun and don't care if we are competitors."

There is also a digital university network in Scandinavia, consisting of graduates from Hyper Island college, which has an international reputation as a centre of excellence for teaching digital skills. At Daddy, five of the 20 staff are graduates. As Martner says: "If other countries are looking to learn from Scandinavia, they could change broadband access, but that's a big issue. Something they could more easily do is to have a school like Hyper Island."

All of this positive, Nordic infrastructure does not just benefit the independent digital agencies, though they are, by and large, the leaders of the pack. One of the strongest digital arms of a network player in Scandinavia is Lowe Tesch, which comes at 33rd in the Won Report ranking of top agencies in the world for digital. As the Lowe network's preferred partner for all digital advertising, it has just come up with the first global digital campaign for Stella Artois, called "L'Etranger". Mans Tesch, the agency planner and account director, is happy to have lost independence. "The great thing about belonging to the Lowe network is that we can really go in and do creative stuff and get in at the right level because Lowe has a lot of exciting and major global accounts."

Despite all the good work going on, not all agreed that Scandinavia is such a formidable global powerhouse when it comes to digital advertising. "We do great stuff when it comes to banners, we're good on technology, good at animation, good at tone of voice," Martner says. "But I'm not sure we're so dominant when it comes to everything you can do on the internet."

At Framfab, which recently merged with IconMediaLab to become one of Europe's largest digital agency networks, the managing director of its Swedish and Danish offices, Jesper Andersen, says: "It's not about geography, it's more about the clients, the people and the working environment. What is important is that the clients are competent and ambitious in the digital arena. The people are some of the best in the industry with skills in the areas of creativity, usability and technology and the agency and clients have created a working environment where you give and get. They are hardworking fighters who never give up."

The high-profile Scandinavian digital agencies certainly have ambitions beyond the region. Framfab is not the only high-profile shop to become part of an international network. FarFar is part of Aegis' digital network, Isobar.

Much of the work that agencies are doing is for global briefs and they would like to do more. Foreign, which is based in Stockholm, is one agency that has just extended its global work with Adidas to include a brief for 2007 to develop concepts around marketing to women. "To spread the culture of Scandinavia, everybody is aiming to reach the international market," Cedergren says.

It seems the region is on an extended roll with its high standards of digital creativity. Cynics might say that it is just that they enter a lot more awards than other countries.

Bastholm, who picked up no fewer than three Cannes Cyber Grand Prix during his time as the creative director of Framfab in Denmark, confesses that after the agency's first Grand Prix win, for Nike in 2000, it "started a deluge", with Scandinavian agencies all keen to earn international awards recognition.

Certainly, the awards are taken very seriously. In 2006, Andersen is in earnest: "Cannes is very important. That's really the world championship in advertising. It is not only important to win, but also to get some inspiration."

But it has to be a virtuous circle. You do great work, you win awards, you get inspired, then do even better work. Chalmers, with his digital world view at Strawberryfrog, says: "The awesome quality of work in the Nordics has created an expectation world-wide - one that everyone feels they must live up to. This expectation drives the industry to achieve greatness."