The World: Stockholm shines bright on world's digital stage

With a strong heritage in digital technologies, the country has a headstart, and is safeguarding its future, Noel Bussey writes.

Anyone perusing the Most Awarded Interactive Agencies list in the recent Gunn Report may have noticed the startling statistic (well, startling to everyone outside of Sweden) that four of the top ten agencies hail from the land of Volvo and Ikea.

What's more remarkable is that the thriving digital creative industry in Sweden is so small - it is made up of around 100 people. This is stressed by Matias Palm-Jensen, the chief executive of Farfar, which jointly topped the Gunn table alongside Miami's Crispin Porter & Bogusky.

He says: "We did well this year, everyone else screwed up. That's all there is to it. We work 40-hour weeks, everyone else works 100. They have hundreds of people, we have 100. So how could it happen? I don't know. It's an enigma. The biggest mystery in advertising."

It certainly seems so. However, this is, in reality, no fluke result. The fact is that the country's top digital agencies, such as Forsman & Bodenfors (third on the list), Lowe Brindfors (ninth) and Great Works (joint sixth), along with Farfar, have been scooping bagfuls of global awards for years.

It would appear that there are a number of reasons why the creative product is so strong. But it mainly boils down to a long heritage and countrywide affinity with all things computerised, something that began in the late 80s with, of all establishments, the Government.

Johan Tesch, the Swedish-born creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty who launched Tesch & Tesch with his brother (which was eventually bought by Lowe Worldwide and merged into Lowe Brindfors), says: "The Swedish have been computer-literate for years. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Government funded buying computers on cheap deals so almost everyone had a PC very early. We also had well-developed broadband before most other countries.

"The agencies on the list have been around since before the dotcom boom, so they have had years of training by now and are run by a very talented group of people." The ability of the agencies to survive the dotcom bubble bursting is also one of the most important factors in the strength of the industry now.

Ted Persson, the executive creative director at Great Works, whose agency won a plethora of awards for its Absolut work, says: "Most of the digital creatives who lead the agencies featured in the Gunn Report were active in this first wave.

"In fact, interestingly, many of these creatives (including myself) came from the computer games/demo scene. In many ways, the early digital marketing community had many things in common with the computer games/demo community - being a global phenomenon where (mainly) guys were competing in the spheres of graphics, sound and programming."

As well as a historical helping hand from the Government, the agencies also seem to be blessed with clients that are open to unconventional ideas.

Persson says: "From a consumer point of view, I would say that the average advertising here is more creative than the average advertising in, for instance, the US."

Tesch adds: "There are a lot of smaller clients in Sweden that are very open to a different approach - however, some of the bigger companies are catching up." Diesel, for example, won a number of awards for a campaign created by Farfar.

He also argues the country's heritage means that its agencies are much better on the production and back-end side of things than some other places that are seen as creative hotbeds, such as Brazil.

This success in itself has also led to a groundswell in the number of talented creatives trying to burst into the market and eschewing traditional advertising routes. This has also been helped by good-quality training facilities. Tesch says: "There are several schools specialising in digital media that have been around since the late 90s. They are much better than the equivalent above-the-line places."

However, this obviously leads to the time-honoured problem of all the top talent leaving for bigger prospects, clients and agencies on new shores - something with which Sweden has long struggled.

Persson says: "I wouldn't say there is a lot of migration of talent, but the most worrying thing is when great creatives move abroad. The thing keeping the stars in Sweden is most of them are partners in their own companies. Also, right now, there are a lot of Swedish agencies setting up abroad. We started a New York office half-a-year ago, and I know Farfar and Perfect Fools are doing the same thing."

With a strong heritage in the relatively new digital world and top-class training facilities pouring forth new talent, the prospect for the industry looks good - both in its native land and on a global scale, leading to much confidence in the country.

Palm-Jensen sums up the Swedish attitude to its success on the global awards circuit and sends out this warning to the world's digital forces: "Don't ask what Stockholm is doing right, ask the rest of the world what it is doing wrong.

"New York, brush up on your Swedish. We're coming over. We're not surprised to be where we are today. Over the last eight years we've gradually improved, attracting better clients. Next year, we're bringing the fight to Crispin Porter's porch by opening an office in New York. Miami, watch out."