If you've ever spent a Sunday morning grappling with an Ikea flatpack, then you might well question Scandinavia's contribution to global design. But with Nokia, Ericsson, Absolut and Hennes & Mauritz among the region's other exports, you may be able to forgive Sweden for the dreaded Allen key. One look at last year's winners in Cannes or at the latest Won Report, and you quickly realise Scandinavia also manages to more than hold its own in the ad industry. With fewer than 25 million inhabitants in total, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland are home to agencies capable of stealing awards from far bigger European and US players.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the digital category at the 2006 Cannes Lions. Arguably Scandinavia's leading agency, Forsman & Bodenfors, Gothenburg picked up a gold Lion for its Ikea "dream kitchens for everyone" campaign; Denmark's Framfab took two golds for its online work for Nike; and Sweden's Daddy grabbed gold for its Volkswagen banners. Fellow Swedish agency Farfar was also awarded a gold for its Visit Sweden campaign.
Judging from this winners' list, Scandinavia seems to have a disproportionate amount of talent, particularly in the digital sector, for such a sparsely populated region. Sweden has a smaller population than London and yet, with just nine million inhabitants, it has spawned the TV directors Traktor and Frederik Bond, as well as agencies such as Akestam Holst, Lowe Brindfors and Robert/Boisen & Like-minded. When it comes to talent, it seems that cultural heritage, rather than size, matters.
"Scandinavia has a long tradition of design," Ilkka Karkkainen, the art director at Finland's Dynamo Advertising, says. "There have always been great designers, textile artists and architects. Creativity coupled with functionality is our guideline in designing advertising as well."
The local ad industry has also benefited from trying to satisfy a discerning client base with limited funds. "The budgets for most productions are low," Torstein Rafgard, the managing director of OMD in Norway, says. "The population has one of the highest standards of living in the world and is highly developed. This is very much reflected by the expectations from clients, which are usually very high. To deliver work that satisfies a client's needs, the creative business historically has got no other choice than to have a high focus on creativity."
When commercial broadcasting was introduced in Sweden ten years ago, this creativity was seriously put to the test. Agencies were forced to adapt quickly to the changing market, but the pay-off has been considerable. "We got commercial TV very late in Sweden," Filip Nilsson, the chairman of Forsman & Bodenfors, says. "There is a whole generation of Swedish creatives who started out doing TV advertising from scratch. That gave us a fresh approach and created a Swedish wave in TV commercials, which was fuelled by the film-making collective Traktor and Frederik Bond and agencies like Paradiset and Akestam Holst. A lot of people from abroad felt it was fresh and new."
Traktor has gone on to produce iconic work abroad, with ads such as FedEx "stick" and Smirnoff "diamond", as well as promos for Madonna, Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx. Now based at MJZ in London, Bond has added TV ads such as Lynx "millions", 3's "jellyfish" and Smirnoff's "love" to his CV.
Back at home, Scandinavia is experiencing a second wave of creativity. The ad industry's main focus has switched from film-making - its mainstay between 1995 and 2000 - to digital communication. "In terms of results and awards for TV, it's not as hot as it was ten years ago," Nilsson says. "There is a lot of focus on the internet. This is a good place to do interactive work."
Scandinavians have certainly been keen advocates of the internet. By March this year, 75.6 per cent of the Swedish population was hooked up to it, while penetration was 67.4 per cent in Norway. Iceland, however, is home to the biggest web generation; penetration is a staggering 86.3 per cent, almost 20 per cent higher than the average in North America.
Nilsson believes this willingness to embrace new media has given the local industry the edge on the world stage. He says: "Sweden today is extremely well positioned when it comes to the internet. We started earlier than most agencies in the US and the UK, and Sweden, in relation to its size, has had incredible input in the internet scene."
Kerry Feuerman, the creative director at Fallon in the US, argues that the global ad market can learn from the Swedish example. Swedes, he says, are straightforward and open-minded - two vital qualities for producing distinctive creative work. "They are of a culture that usually goes right at a problem and solves it in the simplest ways," he says. "They are quite savvy to advertising around the world and are not so isolated as not to be able to operate in other markets."
Scandinavians are certainly taking up opportunities outside of their own countries. Jonas Lembke recently moved from executive creative director at Otto, part of the Proximity network, to take the same role at Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel in London. Meanwhile, the brothers Calle and Pelle Sjonell were snapped up by Fallon Minneapolis last summer as group creative directors. This is all good news for the Scandinavian industry. "There are a lot of exchanges going on with independent agencies here and in the US," Akestam Holst's JC Fantechi says. "When people come back, their experience is incomparable."
Others are less enthusiastic about the movement of local talent. "A big threat to the agencies in Sweden is that headhunters from across the world are doing their best to lure our creatives abroad," Nicke Bergstrom, a co-founder of Farfar, says. "Most of my close friends in the community have been contacted by the big agencies abroad and some have left the country."
However, Bergstrom believes Scandinavian creatives might soon be able to bypass the services of international headhunters. "A few years ago, the Swedish digital agencies mainly did work for national clients," he says. "What we are seeing today is more and more work produced for global clients. I am very sure that we will see Swedish digital agencies expanding abroad."
The Swedes, at least, are coming.
PELLE AND CALLE SJONELL
Working with your family is not always easy, but the Swedish brothers Pelle and Calle Sjonell are making a success of it as they stamp their mark on one of the US's most celebrated agencies.
Last summer, they were headhunted by Kerry Feuerman, the creative director at Fallon, and have since been working as group creative directors in the agency's Minneapolis office.
While the Sjonell brothers had significant portfolios in Sweden, Feuerman was won over by their attitude rather than their back catalogue. "I'd seen their work, but it was the conversations I had with them that made me feel we could work together," he says. "They are very contemporary thinkers. They approach advertising in a very mature way that's based on 'How do we get participation with the consumer and then speak to them in a language that doesn't feel like the usual bullshit?'"
The Sjonell brothers have also brought a group dynamic to creative work at Fallon. "They feel that it's a team of people who work on an idea," Feuerman says. "They will want to work in a team of three, four or five." Although this might break with tradition, Feuerman feels that advertising as a whole should take a leaf out of the Sjonell book. "They are inventive and progressive, and we'd be crazy not to start thinking about working like that as an industry," he adds.
Before Fallon, they were already established in Sweden as major players. Pelle was the creative director and chief executive of the ad agency King, and Calle worked at Starring, the interactive marketing agency he co-founded in 1996.
At Fallon, their digital experience is proving particularly useful, Feuerman says. They have been involved in new business and the global Volvo pitch, as well as working to build the interactive department.
FORSMAN & BODENFORS
Sitting at number four in the Won Report's list of the top 50 agencies, Forsman & Bodenfors was set up in 1986 by Staffan Forsman, Sven-Olof Bodenfors, Mikko Timonen and Jonas Enghage. Within four years, the Gothenburg outfit had put itself on the map by becoming the head agency in the Nordic region for Volvo.
Since that win, F&B has amassed clients, including Sweden's Post Office, the Gothenburg Opera (the Cats musical) Ikea, the milk producer Arla, Nikon and the sanitary protection brand Libresse, for which it had to vanquish Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. This roster has brought F&B 31 Cannes awards over the past two decades, with its Volvo XC90 campaign winning the Cyber Grand Prix in 2005 and the "dream kitchens for everyone" campaign for Ikea Sweden scooping a gold Lion last year.
F&B has also expanded its operations, opening an office in Stockholm and a number of offshoots - the brand strategy and communications outfit F&B Case, the design shop Happy/F&B, the production house F&B Factory and the retail agency F&B Kollo.
Filip Nilsson, who has presided over F&B since 2003, puts this success and growth down to its willingness to embrace the digital world. "We decided overnight that the internet should be totally integrated," the F&B chairman says. "Everyone in the agency was forced to work with it and that gave a fresh approach. We merged all our creative power into the internet."
Even JC Fantechi, the new-business director at Akestam Holst, Stockholm, says F&B still dominates the Swedish market: "F&B has consistently turned out good work, and it is down to the people and recruiting the top talent. It is good at hanging on to its talent, which isn't easy, as the more you earn in Sweden, the more tax you pay. F&B's the place to be."
For an agency with just 29 staff, Farfar has racked up an impressive number of awards and accolades. Set up in 2000 by Matias Palm-Jensen, last year's president of the Cyber Lions jury, along with Anders Gustavsson, Per Nasholm and Nicke Bergstrom, the Swedish digital agency won a Grand Prix in Cannes in its first year for its "Milko Music Machine" campaign for the Fjallfil dairy brand. The Swedish version of Fjallfil's website scored more than 100,000 visitors during its first month and helped the company increase its sales by more than 23 per cent over a two-month period.
In 2006, Farfar won a gold Lion for its Visit Sweden campaign and two silver Lions for its work for Nokia. As well as landing a host of other awards, Farfar has also been recognised on its home turf, where it has been named the Agency of the Year twice. It has not escaped our notice either. It claimed seventh spot in Campaign's list of best online agencies in 2005.
Ranked 18th in the Won Report's rundown of the world's best agencies, Farfar has produced work for Adidas, Absolut Vodka, Nokia, Brio and Red Bull. Bergstrom believes the agency, which has been owned by Isobar since 2005, has been able to build this client roster thanks to consistency and focus. "The founders are still working at Farfar," he says, "and from the beginning the focus was online advertising. Farfar produces work for other media as well, but interactive advertising was at the core. Many other agencies were doing websites in those days, but we focused on advertising and building brands."
Farfar now plans to open offices abroad and establish its own educational academy, the Farfar School of Interaction.