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Opinion and Insight

Sweden: Diversity, Design and Dead Soil

LBB’s Phoebe Siggins finds out from Sweden’s creatives that dead soil and cold weather can be the best environment to grow the most creative and progressive ideas.

Sweden: Diversity, Design and Dead Soil

When people outside of Sweden think of Sweden, I’m pretty sure the brain immediately jumps to stunning landscapes, innovative design and a progressive attitude to pretty much everything. And IKEA. And Absolut. And Daim. And ‘why don’t I just move there?’.

Sweden’s open-minded attitude, beauty and innovation most certainly shines through when it comes to their advertising creative.  There’s something ever so brilliant about many of the campaigns that hail from this intriguing country. 

Speaking to Perfect Fools, ANR BBDO, JMW Golin, Åkestam Holst, UKNIGHT and DDB Nordic, they give me the truth about diversity in Sweden, where their progressive attitude hails from and how the rest of the world can take note. They also discuss their favourite work, the best in Swedish design and a host of things you never knew about the country. Turns out I still want to move there…


LBB> How would you describe your local market?

Ann Ystén, CEO, Perfect Fools> Innovative, diversified, trend sensitive and rapidly changing.

Christina Knight, Creative Director & Founder, UKNIGHT> Sweden is comparatively a small market, and yet it seems we have managed to become an innovative hothouse for creative industries; advertising, design, innovation and start-ups. Because of the size of the market, advertising and media budgets are often smaller than for larger markets, like the US and UK, which of course can be a challenge when you want to do great, creative work.

Samuel Garlöv, Creative Director, JMW Golin> There are a lot of mergers at the moment. Last week Deloitte announced that they would buy one of the larger Swedish advertising firms, Acne. We can also see that PR-networks are buying up smaller creative agencies and that the major advertising firms are recruiting PR-talent. It feels like everyone is expanding their offers. Exciting times.

Sebastian Otarola, Creative Technology Director, DDB Nordic > From a diversity perspective I’d love to say it’s decent but it’s not. This is a direct reflection from me exercising a thought experiment of how many female CEOs I know, or if I were to hire/recommend a female this instant to our team. It saddens me that I don’t have a satisfying answer to that. For me, this means that there’s a lot of room for growth when it comes to diversity in the Swedish market. PinkProgramming.se and TjejerKodar.se (Coding for women) are fantastic initiatives that lie close to my heart. I’m glad to see they have been gaining a lot of traction, for females and transgender people who want to get into coding.


Magnus Jakobsson, Creative Director, Åkestam Holst> In two words: quite lucky. A market of small to medium size agencies - by global standards - all striving to do great creative work, with clients who want great work too. We have a creative reputation that enables Swedes to do lots of work for the global market. The only thing limiting us is our own creativity. So, no pressure, I guess!

Fabian Lakander, Art Director, ANR BBDO Nordic> I think it’s a bit confused at the moment. It feels like we are in between “trends” and haven’t found our new voice yet. There has been a lot of CSR campaigns but it feels like they are becoming rarer. In Sweden, many of the CSR initiatives have generated a backlash where the companies have been accused of pink/green/fem-washing. There have also been a lot of epic montage TVCs with magnificent voice overs, but they feel passé too. So, something new is coming but I don’t know what it is yet. I have a feeling that it might be something a bit more honest and nude. We are done with bombastic campaigns that depict something unachievable.


LBB> The world recognises Sweden as a progressive country when it comes to diversity. What is it about Sweden that you think harbours a progressive attitude towards diversity? 

Ann Ystén, Perfect Fools> I believe that it is rooted in our social democratic tradition. We have an inclusive and liberal approach to diversity regardless whether you talk about gender, sexuality, religion or national origin. The Swedish welfare state enables all Swedes to get a quality education regardless of financial situation, it enables parents to work or stay at home in the manner they prefer without it having a drastic effect on their income etc. If you face challenges, the system we have is there to support you. I believe this make Swedes less afraid of change than a lot of other nationalities. In my view, the biggest obstacle for a diversified society is fear. A fear that’s often unfairly directed towards the unfamiliar.

Christina Knight, UKNIGHT> I'm not sure I agree - I think we are one step ahead of many countries in the world when it comes to gender equality with actual legislation in place; but as far as I'm concerned, we have huge challenges ahead of us to create a fully integrated society, which pays respect to diversity in the form of ethnicity, sexual preference, religion or disabilities, for example. We have a growing right-wing extremist party and we are quite a segregated society, with residential as well as professional segregation. The ad industry is pathetically white, male and middle-class, with a great lack of diversity and a great task ahead to better reflect our multi-faceted society.

Samuel Garlöv, JMW Golin> We have strong social safety nets for education, work, healthcare and for parental leave. This makes it easier for people to get an education and for both partners in a family to have a career - which I think then is positively reflected in our society.

Sebastian Otarola, DDB Nordic> It’s absolutely forbidden to discriminate people in Sweden. I feel the authorities, for the most part, are doing a good job handling these types of cases which in turn gives companies a very clear direction on how to treat their employees. In 2006 the Swedish government proposed a bill regarding gender quotation in corporate boards, meaning that at least 40% of the board members must belong to each gender. The bill didn’t pass but the concept gained popularity and was implemented by some companies. I love the concept, it feels progressive, Swedish and on the right track to something more modern. 

Magnus Jakobsson, Åkestam Holst> Sweden is a paradoxical county when it comes to diversity. With our roots in a highly literate farming society, we value fairness, justice and equality very highly. We stubbornly believe that life and society should be fair. But, in all fairness, we’re often more comfortable with diversity in the abstract; when we’re fighting for ‘what’s right’. In practice, we often struggle to make friends with other Swedes, not to mention people from other countries and cultures. We’re good at being fair, but we could be better at being friendly.

Fabian Lakander, ANR BBDO Nordic> There are many reasons for this, and some are quite uninspiring, pragmatic and economic, so I won’t go in to those! However, what I will go in to is something that I really like about Sweden. Sweden is a small country that, until 50 years ago, didn't really have any influence, capital or status in the world. We have always looked, with envy, at other more progressive cultures and adapted their ways for ourselves. I believe this has made us curious and more open to other cultures. We are a bit of everything and being ‘unswedish’ is something Swedes put a lot of pride in. The conditions up here have always been harsh. In order to survive the dead soil and the deadly, depressing cold, we need to collaborate. There is a feeling of togetherness and a collective here. Everyone is welcome and anyone can contribute in their own way, no matter who you are or where you are from. With that said, there is still a lot to be done here in terms of equality and diversity – we need to keep fighting.


LBB> In your opinion, what do you think we all need to be doing more of to improve on diversity in the industry globally?

Ann Ystén, Perfect Fools> I think the schools must market themselves outside of the norm. Introduce advertising and communication to people who would not otherwise consider us as a career path. The industry should also introduce more initiatives like Stockholm Open, a city-sponsored project where young people from selected suburbs of Stockholm get a summer job at the major advertising agencies in the city. 50 agencies participated this year and there are some true success stories coming out of the initiative.

Christina Knight, UKNIGHT> We need to communicate the opportunities of working in advertising and the communications industry to young people who might not have even heard of these industries, whose parents are in other professions, people who don't live in wealthy areas and who cannot afford expensive training and education within advertising and media. We need to make this type of education accessible, as well as offer internships and scholarships to a much wider group of people, whose perspective and experiences our industry needs so badly. We need to recruit from a broader base, without prejudice, and we need to recruit not only from ad and media schools, but recruit people who have studied engineering, industrial design, literature, economics, behavioural psychology etc. etc.

Samuel Garlöv, JMW Golin> Agencies can take a look at the Swedish model for parental leave. Increase the months both partners can take time off to be with their children. That is one way to get more women in to leading creative positions. AND that will help reduce the ‘douchiness’ that is sometimes manifested within our industry and will result in better work.

Sebastian Otarola, DDB Nordic> We should all continue to take the question of diversity seriously, and actively advocate for diversity at the workplace. Every major company should have people who explicitly have it within their role to drive that agenda. Not that those who don’t have it in their description are free to dodge the question. Diversity comes from a good place, where everybody has the right to feel included and be treated with the respect they deserve, as human beings. No exceptions made. I think the Pride parade gives a very good picture on what happens when you have diversity, acceptance and people feel included. It’s the best party of the year where everybody is smiling and having a blast. It’s sad that’s just for a week, when we could have that every day of the year. 

Magnus Jakobsson, Åkestam Holst> Being purposefully uncomfortable. We should be hiring people who actually bring new skills and experiences to the table, rather than people we feel are just like us. They shouldn’t be hired because they will fit in instantly, because they went to the same schools or take their kids to the same skiing resorts - or whatever. We should take the time to meet more people from outside our own little bubble, and show them that there are opportunities in the agency world for them.

Fabian Lakander, ANR BBDO Nordic> Men need to understand that we are privileged. We get things for free that others don’t and we haven’t done anything to deserve it. Realising and accepting that is the first step to a more equal industry. Next is stepping aside and letting others get the chance that they deserve.


LBB > What’s the best bit of Swedish design you’ve seen this year?

Ann Ystén, Perfect Fools> It might be because we’ve had our heads buried in moving to bigger, new offices but I have been looking at a lot of interior design. I unexpectedly visited a hotel in a very ordinary town in Sweden – The Steam Hotel. I love it when there is friction in design - in this case between the industrial and opulent.



Magnus Jakobsson, Åkestam Holst> Maybe some great Swedish art made outside Sweden is Rikkie Niehaus’s  ‘Swedish landscapes’ - haunting traditional portraits set in modern IKEA stores.


Christina Knight, UKNIGHT> I think the Swedish inflatable bicycle helmet ‘Hövding’ is a brilliant example of paying attention to an important need for safety in a growing bike trend, yet also paying respect to the fact that people obviously don't want to wear helmets because they think they look like douchebags or they ruin their hair do, whichever. I think Fotografiska Muséet have done really well too, even expanding to London and NYC. And Johanna Ekmark has founded a great journal and society on my favourite country, Italy, called Caffè Italia. And last but not least, White Architects have done well in building a beautiful town hall in my part of the world, just north of Stockholm. 


Hövding Helmet


Samuel Garlöv, JMW Golin> I love what DDB Stockholm did for Klarna with the new Smooth-concept. A playful take on an otherwise dull service within online payment solutions. The ads are both beautiful and fun to watch.

I’m also a fan of the new Swedish IKEA concept ‘Where life happens’ from Åkestam Holst. They have had the courage to address complex emotional issues like divorce, adoption and other aspects of parenting life. 




Sebastian Otarola, DDB Nordic> Monument Valley 2. Hands down. It’s just so tasty I can die.


Fabian Lakander, ANR BBDO Nordic> For those who aren't Swedish I'd recommend some music. If you like electronic music I’d recommend Gidge. If Swedish dead soil and deadly cold could be made into sound – this is it. If you like rock I’d recommend ShitKid, she is so cool.



LBB> What’s one thing people don’t often know about Sweden?

Ann Ystén, Perfect Fools> We drink a lot of coffee. 3.2 cups per capita per day, in fact. Second only to Finland.

Christina Knight, UKNIGHT> That there are only 10 million people in a country which measures almost exactly the length of California and offers a very diverse landscape with snow and mountains in the north and beautiful plains in the south, Österlen, often called the Toscana of the North. We can also offer the Venice of the North - Stockholm, built on 14 islands and with an archipelago of 24,000 islands.

Samuel Garlöv, JMW Golin> Most people know that AIK is the best football team 😊 but few people know about our beautiful beaches. The sand at Sandhammaren beach in south Sweden, an hour from Malmoe, is better than most Caribbean beaches.


Magnus Jakobsson, Åkestam Holst> We’re just as shallow, stupid and short-sighted as the rest of you - we just happen to live in a society that historically invested heavily in education, healthcare and higher living standards for everybody. We used to be a progressive role model, as societies go, but we’ll have to work harder to earn that reputation in the future! Also, we’re the world’s third biggest exporter of wood. 

Fabian Lakander, ANR BBDO Nordic> This is not really about Sweden, it’s about Denmark, but what the hell. Denmark had a Viking king in the 900s called ‘Harald Blåtand’. ‘Blåtand’ translated in to English means ‘blue tooth’, and that is where the term Bluetooth comes from. The engineers at Ericsson, Intel, Nokia and IBM thought it was a suitable name for their new technology. Also, if you really look at the Bluetooth logo, you can see that there are Viking runes in it. The runes for H and B.


LBB> What is the best creative work you’ve seen this year that is not your own?

Ann Ystén, Perfect Fools> Seeing as we have been talking about Sweden, I have to go with Visit Sweden’s ‘Sweden on AirBnB’. Both relevant and surprising. 



Christina Knight, UKNIGHT> Well, on the topic of diversity I think "Stockholm Open" is a great and creative initiative - offering young individuals the opportunity to do a summer internship at one of Sweden's or the world's largest ad and communication agencies. I think Åkestam Holst's campaign for IKEA, "Where life happens", is a creative and interesting way of selling furniture and I loved the cleverness of ANR BBDO’s campaign for Ajax in the Stockholm underground.


AJAX - Stronger than 60 years of dirt - ANR BBDO


Samuel Garlöv, JMW Golin> I love it when ads that are more than just ads. Like the Samsonite Weight Tag and Asics Foot Type Test Ad. In a time when most people are sick and tired of advertising this is the way to go. If you can’t entertain people then try to help them by solving their problems.  But also like to get my mind blown away, like with the Nike Unlimited Stadium.



Sebastian Otarola, DDB Nordic> Nike Unlimited Stadium. How awesome is it to train against a full-size version of yourself or to upload a 1:1 scale of Usain Bolt to race against? That shit was lit!


Magnus Jakobsson, Åkestam Holst> “Meet Graham”, and I also loved Droga5s MailChimp campaign. And the strange texts my daughters send me!

Fabian Lakander, ANR BBDO Nordic> It has got to be the music video for ’Territory’ by The Blaze. It won a very deserved Film Craft Grand Prix in Cannes Lions this year. I can watch that video and cry, laugh, feel anxiety and absolute joy – all within five minutes and 40 seconds. Amazing.


Genre: Creative technology , Dialogue , Music performance , People , Photography , Scenic , Strategy/Insight