There are no Kings at the world’s #1 advertising agency

Interview with Tobias Nordström, Head of  Planning & Strategy, Forsman & Bodenfors

Forsman & Bodenfors is one of the world’s top advertising agencies and also the most awardwinning advertising and digital agency in 2014.

The agency is Swedish and has its head office in Sweden’s second largest city Gothenburg. If you have never heard of them, you might still be among the 79 million people who have seen ”Volvo Trucks – The Epic Split feat. Van Damme”.

 ”Tobias, let me begin by introducing you”: 

 “The best strategic planner in the world, King of awards and Forsman & Bodenfors’ mastermind, who comes up with magical, innovative and succesful campaigns for the world’s largest corporations. An advertising icon on the same level as Messi and Ronaldo.

”How do you feel about that description?

“Ha ha, I keep looking over my shoulder to see if you are talking to someone else behind me. I have a serious challenge identifying to that picture. In this business you are not better than your last job. At this very moment I’m trying to solve several other challenges and that picture does not help me, quite the contrary. I also can’t get around that we always single out one person in this business. It might be that I have won a lot of prices, but it’s a team effort. Without the team I would not have won anything.”

In this business you are not better than your last job.

 ”How would you describe yourself?

“A team player. To be honest, I think our business has changed a lot. The problems and challenges that we are faced with, can’t be solved by one person. They are too complex, with too many layers. Too big. At least I feel that I have to rely on several others to find enough perspective to break through. So an extreme team player, with a sick focus on consumer behaviour, would probably be a good description of me.”

 ”Why?

“If I can make everyone around me better, both the agency and I will benefit.”

 ”The world loves heroes and rolemodels and in the world of advertising, Forsman & Bodenfors is an agency that people greatly admire and respect. Fantastic campaigns and a mountain of awards. But that’s the facade – a lot of people are curious to find out what goes on behind the wall of awards.

“I think you would be surprised. At first glance it’s not that much different from other agencies. But if you dig under the surface there are some major differences that come out. When you look at our industry the agencies are usually organized in a very traditional way, based on the Mad Men era in NY during the sixties. A lot of fancy titles and a strict hierarchic structure all the way down to junior creatives. We do not believe in that model. We have a flat organisation. 135 extremely competitive people have found that working together is better than doing it by themselves.”

”Why are you so outstanding? Tell us how you work.

“The force of a collective way of working. Making a lot of smart people participate, not to be heroes, but to help the team to reach higher levels is the key. We have a “method” that we call the “The Floor”. It originates from the time when we mostly produced print ads. Commercial TV did not exist in Sweden at that time. All roughs of the ads where placed on the floor and everyone at the agency got involved. Now when most of our work is in the computers, “The Floor” is more referred to as a philosophy. Get everyone involved in your work and you will perform better, than if you did it by yourself.”

“So, we never compete between the teams, we collaborate. Each team functions as their own agency. They take all decisions – creative, strategic, financial etc. Like an agency with in the agency. But with the help from their colleagues.”

”That sounds very Swedish. Are your working methods based on the Swedish consensus model?

“I think the Swedish mentality of consensus-nature might be part of it. The independency is another. But not everything. I think the way we have built our company culture, finding talented people that have the right mind-set is crucial. Humbleness, a lack a prestige and collaboration ability is the foundation. When traveling the world you realize how unique we are in this”

”It sounds as your agency culture can scare off any big advertising ego. What happens if you hire advertising-Gollums? Will they be thrown out or will they be asked to wash cars like Karate Kid, until they are humble?

“Ha ha, that’s a tricky question. First, we offer a place where everyone has the opportunity to create wonderful stuff. If you have a big ego and think that you can do this by yourself you will most likely fail. The problems we solve are a lot more complex than one person can figure out. For a person with a big ego two things will happen, you either leave or you adapt.”

“The same rules apply when hiring as when we do our work. You meet a lot of people from all disciplines at the agency. During this process you can usually identify the people that are coming to F&B for the wrong reasons.”

How have you learnt to work together and trust each other, when at the same time being highly competitive?

”It’s not something we have learnt. We decided from the beginning that it is more fun to work like this. When we looked at the way other agencies were working, it didn’t feel fun. Also, we couldn’t see that it contributed to good work. Then over the years, it has slowly grown to be a culture.”

I get the impression that you have moved away from the traditional and egocentric career culture. How do you reward and maintain your fascinating sharing culture?

”Good question. I think that we have an extreme career culture. Everybody here wants a great career, but they also realize that it is difficult to do it alone. We are a group of individualists and competitive people that have learnt to work together. On the question of rewards, we have a partner program. Currently, we are 30 partners and they all have equal parts. That means no hierarchi in the partnerships either.”

”Your Swedish advertising ”collective” seems like a magical, romantic dream with a creative, although hard-working, hippie-culture – but at the same time, awards are a big part of your identity. How do you combine seemingly uncombinable things.

“It’s a constant struggle. But as soon as you as an individual start to trust the collective you will preform better. You will deliver better than your own capacity. It’s really scary in the beginning, but as soon as you release that your colleagues are here to make you better, you can relax a bit.“

”It can’t be true, people might think. There must be a snake in the Forsman & Bodenfors advertising paradise? Is there and what is it called?

“To build something that has not been done before is not an easy task. It’s a constant challenge to find your way through. The magic, romantic picture that you mentioned is not always true. We, as everyone in this business, struggle.  And the collective work is not a midsummer dream, its more a tough and business focused force that hits you hard.”

”You give lectures all around the world about working more collectively. What do you say?

“That there are other ways/methods of doing great stuff. That the existing model of the industry, might not be the only one. That we have to set our egos aside sometimes, in order to achieve higher ground. And maybe the most important part – some people work better when they get to make their own decisions and mistakes rather then someone telling them what to do.

“I also talk about that there is an interesting collision that our industry is supposed to be super innovative, but most agencies organise themselves and work in a very traditional set-up”.

“I also talk a lot about how to turn up the creative power and how to connect strategy, creativity and hard core sales”.

”Now that you have cracked one of the human codes of success, why don’t more people copy your culture?

First, I think its important to mention that our way of working does not apply everywhere and to everyone. But it works for us. And there are, fortunately, clients that love that way of working too. But it does not fit everyone.

Creating such collective culture is not an easy task. It might sound good, but to move from a hierarchy to a non-hierarchic way of working is very difficult. It requires a lot from everyone involved and its not done overnight.”

”What can the rest of the business world learn from you?

“To be honest I don’t know. One thing that I have learned over the years, is that every company has its own unique challenges and these questions require unique solutions.

The only thing I can come up with is maybe that the business society in general is getting more and more conform. One challenge is how we manage to include and benefit from “outsiders”. People that think in different patterns. Because if we don’t embrace these people, mediocrity will take over.”

”In Denmark, we are struggling with the consequences of the financial crisis and everything is about cutting costs in advertising. That dimishes the quality. How do you avoid that?

“Denmark has really gone through some tough times. I think that the ad industry once again has to prove the business value of good communication. It’s a tough one, to say the least. When I grew up, in Helsingborg, I used to look at all the ground breaking campaigns that where produced in Denmark. I’m convinced that you soon will be the place that sets the new standard in our industry.”

”Soon, you will be in Cannes to collect even more awards. Where do you put them and how much space do they take up?

“We stack them behind our toilets. It’s very much a mixed feeling connected to all these awards. Sometime you can sneak off and boost yourself, but in most cases it comes with anxiety – a hard reminder of what you have to aim for in the project you are working on.”

”Tobias, thank you som much for your time. We look forward to be inspired by your future work.

“You are welcome.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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