Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Trollbäck: Street-Smart Swede Takes Fifth

(From Currents' Fall 2005 issue)

Jakob Trollbäck comes off as the stereotypical humble shy Swede, but don’t believe it. He is actually one of the hotter creative names in U.S. advertising, and all you need to do feel his impact, is to flag down a Manhattan taxicab. Chances are good that the sign on top will read ”Getaway car.” And if you head for the bus, a sign on the side might read: ”Witness Relocation,” while the sign on the bus that you can’t get around reads ”Roadblock.” These subliminal signs, which hint at an unseen world of excitement, are part of a multimillion campaign for Court TV produced by Trollbäck + Company.


Jakob Trollbäck came to New York pretty much empty handed, well not quite as he did carry his “book,” when he did his rounds, looking for a job in the big city. He didn’t have much in terms formal education in the trade, but he was - among other things - a pretty good disc jockey, and he had taught himself how to do graphics design on a Macintosh, which in December 1991 was not as common a skill as it is today.

Why New York? He went there as a tourist in 1987 and was struck by the creative environment, and the “can do” attitude. Back home in Stockholm, he had found it impossible to the foot in the door, as the first question would always be about his education in the trade. “Things have changed since then. This was fifteen years ago,” he reminds us.

In the Big Apple, he landed a job with Bob Greenberg’s agency R/Greenberg, a pioneer in using CAD (computer aided design) to make movies like “Alien” and "Superman.”
“I knew a freelancer that had worked for them and I knew that they worked with animation. Besides, I did know computers, which at that time was not as common as today,” he says. He worked there for seven years and became its creative director before leaving in 1999 to start his own company. The new company was set up with his and his wife’s money as the only investments. His first client was Leo Burnett, the Chicago based agency. “We started with motion graphics, and did a logo for Leo Burnett’s ad movies.”
Trollbäck + Company has also done work for HBO, TCM, Jaguar, Nike, Volvo, Target and Chevrolet.

About twenty people work at the main office on the fourteenth floor at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 31’s Street, two blocks south of the Empire State Building. The company recently opened a second office with five employees in Venice outside L.A.

The difference between Swedish and American TV is that the pressure is much higher to get people to stay with the channel, he says. That makes it essential to communicate brand attitude to the viewer, which is something Trollbäck + Company did when they redesigned the cable channel TNT, and later the American Movie Channel (AMC) and Court TV.

“Swedes are highly respected in the trade, he says, and suggests that their popularity has something to do with the Lutheran heritage, which favored the clean and simple message over the elaborate and ornamental. “When you come to New York, it is all cool stuff, but after a while you start to think about how to cut through the clutter,” he says mentioning keywords such as “clever,” “intelligent” and “truth.” “It’s about respecting people’s intelligence.” Part of the secret behind the success of Jakob Trollbäck could be that he approaches the country with a degree of skepticism. “Sometimes I feel like America is a land of teenagers, where there is little respect for wisdom.” What is it that Sweden brings to America in advertising? “In Swedish advertising you have to respect the customers. That is ABC. People say that they do it in America too, but advertising tend to be superficial and to talk down to people.” Another Swedish trait popular in the U.S. is its “dry” humor, like that sign on the phone booth saying “The Lookout,” or the umbrella over the hotdog-stand with “Undercover” on it.

Hans Sandberg

Don’t Forget Your Heritage, But Don’t Overplay It Either


Currents Fall issue 2005.

In Sweden, you can take chances without risking your job, argues Hans Ullmark, in a wide-ranging interview about Swedes and advertising, and how you communicate in the American market. Hans Ullmark is CEO of the San Francisco based advertising agency Collaborate. Back in the mid 1980’s he started up Anderson & Lembke in New York City together with Steve Trygg.


One would think that it would be hard to crack the advertising business for anybody but a true native. However, we have seen a bunch of Swedes making it over here. Why is this? Is it just a matter of highly talented people lured to the huge U.S. market, much like Swedish hockey stars dream of the national hockey league? Or do they bring anything else that helps them succeed in the U.S.? “I don’t know,” Hans Ullmark says, warning against hyperbole. “I have been here for 21 years and I have had agencies in Europe and in Sweden, and I have seen people coming over here, but some of them failed despite being very capable people. One was a professor of design in Sweden, and had an enormous talent, but it didn’t work out too well. And then there was Hall & Cederquist, whose New York office failed despite them being extremely good in Sweden and having a very good local manager,” he says.

“But Sweden has been very strong in advertising for at least forty years. Sweden is probably the European country that has won most international awards per capita. I’m not sure about what it is, but we do have a large degree of creative freedom. You are allowed to make mistakes, without having to fear for your job. Another thins thing is that our agencies are less hierarchical compared to the American ones. It is fairly egalitarian, which creates a leveled playing field for talents and ideas. Neither do we in Sweden believe in polling and testing every idea, which allows us to follow your our heart and mind. If it feels right, let’s go with it,” he says and adds. “We also worked with a rather refreshing humor, which may have been a bit raw, but not vulgar. People could relate to it.”

“When Swedish advertising professionals took their craft to the U.S., they quickly found themselves at home, with agencies that were willing to listen to their ideas, and clients who were ready to consider the ideas even if they at first sounded a bit wacky.”

Should I take it that the Swedish employment-security model nurtures creative talents, who then skip over to the U.S. to avoid the high income taxes? “Well, I can only speak for myself, and in my case it wasn’t the high taxes, but the dream of a larger playing field.”

Sweden is, despite its Lutheran heritage, deeply Americanized. You grow up entrenched by the American popular culture, and at the same time, while the French and Germans have the option of focusing on their home markets, ours is too small. “You are making a good point, and I believe that there is a lot to it. We Swedes find it easy to take in the American culture, and to figure out how to use it. I have just finished a branding workshop with 300 people from all over the world, where many had a hard time getting the message, despite the fact that they all speak English. It is as if they don’t really understand what I am saying. We never have that problem when we work with Swedes coming to the U.S. to work with marketing.”

At the same time, one could argue that the Swedish environment in many ways is hostile to advertising, with politicians trying to limit it and the average consumer being very skeptic against ads. Isn’t this a paradox? ”Yes it is, but all I know is that there are people who like to do the opposite thing, myself included. I grew up as a socialist, and took flak from my friends when I started in advertising. ‘How can you do this?’ they asked, but after a while they understood that I was not out to hurt society.”

Does being Swedish still affect your work after two decades in the U.S.? Does it help, or does it trip you up sometimes? “Steve Trygg and I may have been talking a little too much about Sweden when we came here twenty-one years ago, but we corrected that and defined ourselves as a global agency, coming out of Sweden. We sometimes used our history to help explain our thinking, while we ignored it if it was not relevant. But it never tripped me up, and if anything it was something positive,” he says.

“As for my new bureau agency Collaborate, the only thing Swedish about it is that we try to give people a little longer vacations, and that we want our staff to have a balance between life and work. We try to be more egalitarian and a little less hierarchical than an average American agency. This worked out really well at Anderson & Lembke.”

Growing up in Sweden, you become somewhat naïve, and not as cynical as a native New Yorker. When a Swede comes to New York, he jumps on the first train to Harlem. “Well, when I came to New York the first time, I walked a hundred blocks down from the Apollo Theatre in the middle of the night and dressed in a white suite. That was naïve, but nobody did anything to me. They just laughed,” says Hans Ullmark.

“Swedish and Scandinavian design was of tremendous help when we started Anderson & Lembke in the U.S. It was well known, and our American clients were impressed when they saw how we implemented it. It went home really well.”

“The Swedish way of communicating is conceptual and focuses on the idea. We often had to retrain our American designers, and teach them a new way of thinking, a cleaner and more striking graphic design.”

What are the biggest communication mistakes a Swedish company can do when it tries to reach the American market? “I have met with hundreds of European and Swedish companies over the years, and many are extremely naïve about how to pursue the American market, both large and small companies. The main problem is that they look at the U.S. as one single market, but it is very hard for any Swedish company to take on this huge continent. They don’t understand market segmentation very well. In Sweden, you can go from zero to being a leader in a fairly short time because it is a small market, but it is impossible to do that in the U.S. Even if you managed to do it in Europe, it is not going to work here,” he says.

“Another mistake is that they stress their Swedish origin too much, and talk way too much about Sweden. You can talk about Sweden when it is relevant, but you need to show that you are committed to this market and here to stay. People often fail to make this point.”

“You also need to have an American management. There can be Swedes too, but they have to play it in a way so that it feels like the company has an American leadership.”

So it is more a matter of substance, than the language itself? “Yes, right!”

“Swedes can also be naïve when it comes to money and investments. It will cost a lot of money to start a company here, whatever business you are in. Most companies have no clue about the cost. When Steve and I started in the U.S., we took out a meager salary, which was hardly enough to pay the mortgage on our houses in Connecticut. It was tough, but we prioritized to invest 100,000 dollars in marketing the company. We invested more in marketing than in our salaries. Few Swedes get this, as entrepreneurship is less risky in Sweden compared to in the U.S. We have no safety nets. You’re on your own.”

”It takes some time to figure these things out, but some companies do. They hire the right Americans and blend the best of their Swedish heritage with the best of the American corporate culture. I remember a piece of advice I got from Volvo in the beginning. They told me to always speak English, even if you are two Swedes sitting alone in a conference room. Other ways, people may assume that you are talking about them. Small things like that are important when you build a company in the U.S.”

Hans Sandberg(This interview was first published in Currents' Fall issue 2005.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Americans Are Finally “Getting” Cheese

(First published in the Norwegian food retail newspaper Dagligvarehandelen in September 2005.) 

If you ask for American Cheese in an American supermarket, chances are that you will be offered a small square block of an industrially processed product that is pre-sliced and individually wrapped, but has little if any taste. But the American cheese landscape is changing, and could follow the path towards sophistication, similar to what happened to the country's coffee and wine culture over the past few decades. 
“We are serving 160 wines by the glass and have over 200-250 cheeses,“ says Frank Bismuth, General Manager of Artisanal, a New York restaurant located on the 32nd Street close to Park Avenue.

Artisanal opened in 2001 and seats about 180 people. One of the most popular items on the menu is the cheese fondue, of course! Many customers, who come in for lunch or dinner, and smell the cheese, end up buying a piece of hand made and often pungent cheese from the cheese deli, which sits along one side of the restaurant.
“Cheese is becoming more popular, especially in New York City, which is very cosmopolitan and where people travel a lot,” says Frank Bismuth, who came to New York from Paris eleven years ago. “We find that people are very passionate about cheese," he says.

It is a bit of a paradox that cheese is gaining in popularity at the same time as health care experts and mass media warn of the obesity epidemic, but Frank Bismuth gives at least some of the credit for the current cheese craze to the Atkins diet, which allows its dieters to indulge in fatty foods, as long as they cut back on the carbohydrates. “You can enjoy your cheese without feeling guilty,” he adds. 
Artisanal carries cheeses from all over the world, from Spain, Italy and France, England and Scotland, just to name a few places of origin. “We also have a lot of great domestic cheeses, like those from Vermont and California,” he says. “And more and more restaurants are expanding their cheese selection,” he says. This growing cheese interest led to the opening of the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center in New York in 2003, which promotes and distributes artisan cheese, as well as gives classes to cheese lovers and aspiring cheese sellers alike. New York Times recently reported that many women are entering the cheese trade, and some even have taken up making artisan cheese. Over 1,700 people have taken classes at the center. The American Cheese Society, which is headquartered in Kentucky, has seen its membership double in four years and now counts about 1,000 members.
Good cheese is of course not new to New York City, but it seems that the taste for good non-industrial cheese is spreading beyond the ethnic enclaves of the big cities. Valdemar Albrecht is in charge of the cheeses at Artisanal. He is from Germany, but has lived in Barcelona, Spain and about ten years in the U.S. “Our focus here is to showcase artisan cheese making. All these cheeses are small batches. We both sell cheese to customers, but also prepare them for customers who want some cheese to their wine,” he says, adding “Almost everything you see here comes from the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center, but we have our own cave here where we stock our cheeses.” 
“Rouge River Blue is one of the most expensive domestic cheeses we have. We also have a classic French cheese called Roquefort. They sell for about 37 dollars per pound. This might sound like a lot, but these are cheeses made by artists, so I think they are prices accordingly.”
“I think that the attitude to cheese is changing the more we expose them to cheeses and educated about them. Luckily, we have an extremely savvy clientèle here in New York. They are world travelers, very well educated and they know the products that they want. But there is definitively a shift in the United States’ cheese culture. We were in Kentucky two weeks ago, at the American Cheese Society’s convention, and you can see cheese makers coming out of every single state of the United States. That speaks very positive for the future of America’s cheese culture,” says Valdemar Albrecht. 
“People see cheese as the perfect food. It has been eaten for a thousand years and it is easily digested, and there is something wonderful about it. As far as the cholesterol goes, you may need to have some red wine with it,” he laughs.

Are there any Scandinavian cheeses among the 250? 
“No, but we are very interested in tasting artisan cheeses from Scandinavia. I am really fond of Norwegian gjetost, which my father used to give me when I was little. I might have issues with calling it a cheese, but I really enjoyed it.”

Good cheese can also be a very personal choice. When asked about his personal favorites, Valdemar Albrecht says: “I do have a passion for many of these cheeses. They can bring memories of a happy time that I had. When I for example think of a cheese such as the Spanish Roncal, it reminds me of my grandfather, because that was the first cheese that he gave me. That cheese will always have a very special place in my heart.” He says that one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is to see the expression in the face of somebody when he has served them that special cheese they are connected to.

Hans Sandberg

Friday, June 10, 2005

The New New Boss - Annika Falkengren


(Article first published in Currents 2 2005).

“I never felt that anybody looked at me differently because I was a woman. What made the difference was that I got the opportunity to work in line management where you can show results,” says Annika Falkengren, deputy CEO and soon full CEO of one of Sweden’s largest banks, the SEB.

Annika Falkengren was recently named the most powerful businesswoman in Sweden, but female bosses are a rare species in the private business sector of welfare Sweden. Women are found in many management jobs in the public sector, they have captured close to half of the seats in the parliament (45 percent), and eleven of twenty-two posts in the cabinet. Although 90 percent of Sweden’s women work, the private sector has been embarrassingly slow in letting women join the ranks of management, and even more so when you reach the top. Only two percent of the CEO’s of publicly traded companies are women, and although the number of female board members took a dramatic jump after vice-premier Margareta Winberg in November 2002 threatened with quotas, women are still few and far between in most boardrooms. This in a country that has been run by social democrats for most of the past three quarters of a century, not counting a couple of short-lived non-socialist interludes.

Annika was of course not selected as a CEO because she was a woman, something Jacob Wallenberg, the chairman of the board, made explicitly clear as he introduced the result of a yearlong executive search done by headhunters. She got the job for the same reason that Samuel Palmisano became the new CEO of IBM when Louis Gerstner retired. She had been a line manager in charge of SEB:s largest business area – Corporate & Institutions - that had produced the right numbers year after year, adding value to the bottom line. There may have been many good soft reasons to pick a female CEO in a company where 60 percent of the employees are women, but this decision was about competence and performance.

The symbolic significance of this decision may however not lie so much in today’s outcome, but in the fact that she might very well have been overlooked a generation ago.

“I am proud over the fact that the bank, for the first time in 50 years, picked the new CEO from inside. The SEB and the Wallenberg family is sometimes seen as rather conservative, so it is nice to be able to show that we as always are professional and modern in our thinking. We preserve the heritage, but view the world with modern eyes,” she says.

But change is coming and it is reaching the boardrooms as well: Half of the eight members of FSB’s board are now women, five of fourteen board members at Svenska Handelsbanken (SHB) are women, as are four out of twelve at Nordea. In this area however, SEB is a laggard: When Annika joins the board next year; only three out of twelve members will be women.

Annika has worked in the bank for almost half of her life (she is 43), and claims that she never experienced any glass ceiling or glass walls. “I work in the financial sector, which I think is an excellent sector to be in, as it is results-oriented. I’ve also had very good managers. My first manager, Mats Larsson, followed my career for ten years, and he meant a lot to me. I turned down a couple of job offers in the beginning, not feeling quite confident about my ability, but he pushed me ahead. There was no corporate policy to promote women; it was just that my manager felt that I was suitable, even when I couldn’t see it myself. I think that women tend to hesitate more before taking on a new task. We want to be so sure, while men just throw themselves into the game saying ‘I’ll take care of that!’ I was lucky in having a manager that believed in me, and then I started to work for CEO Lars Thunell, which also worked out well.” (He is 58 and will retire when Annika takes over the reins.)

“I never felt that anybody looked at me differently because I was a woman. What made the difference was that I got the opportunity to work in line management where you can show results. I felt safety in knowing that I had delivered ‘kronor’ and ‘ören’ (i.e. dollars and cents) to the bottom line and had happy customers. It shows,” she continues.

She may not have faced a corporate glass ceiling herself, but she is fully aware of the wider impact of her appointment. She wants to encourage other women to become managers, which is why she has addressed the Swedish-American Executive Women’s conferences founded by Renee Lundholm, president of SACC New York, and speaks at universities and business schools.

For Annika herself, this has been only one of the large changes to her life over the last few years. She married Ulf Falkengren and gave birth to a daughter about a year ago. Now she had the option of enjoying 480 days of paid parental leave - the standard in Sweden - but she was soon back at work. “I married the right man. I was on maternity leave for three months, and now he stays home taking care of our daughter until she is ready for day-care. So far that solution has worked well for us. I am also privileged in that I can afford to buy the services we need to make our everyday life manageable,” she says.

When asked about managerial role models, she says that she has many, but can’t single out one particular. She is grateful to her managers at the bank, and admires Jack Welch for his focus on human resources and quality. In the background there is also her mother, who was working outside the house until her father, a diplomat, was stationed in Thailand. “I had a very strong father figure who believed that anything I did was fabulous,” she laughs.

Her road to the top was never mapped out at an early stage. “There are those who come out strong, pushing with all their might, but things don’t always happen according to your plan. You must be ready to seize the moment. My first boss left the bank when he was 51 and wanted me to take over. I was only 37 then. It was pure luck. If he had stayed on for ten more years, I may have been doing something else. And then we have the fact that Lars Thunell retires relatively early… Don’t expect the road to be completely laid out. Find a job that you feel passionate about rather than skit around from base to base.” For her it was also important that she worked in a wholesale division, and she advices women to pursue jobs as line managers, which is unusual as many women choose to work in HR, marketing or communication. “There are few women as line managers, but that is where CEO’s are usually picked, not from the staff at the headquarters.

“One woman cannot change society. There needs to be more of us for it to be possible to say that Sweden has truly embraced the concept of women as leaders in the corporate world. SEB is pro-actively aiming at increasing the number of senior managers. For us it is a question of profitability. We cannot afford to miss out on 50 percent of the most talented people,” Annika Falkengren concludes.

Hans Sandberg

Thursday, June 9, 2005

Beyond the Superwoman...

(Article first published in Currents No. 2 2005)


You’ve heard it before: In Sweden, almost all adult women work and new parents get 480 days of paid parental leave, plus subsidies from the government. In America, soccer moms, with Ph.D.’s but no career, shuttle their children between after school-programs, while childless yuppies race for the top. Stereotypes about Sweden and America are not hard to come by, but the messy reality of contemporary life and work is harder to grasp.

“There are so many paradoxes,” says Lillemor Westergren, associate professor at the School of Business at Stockholm University. She and many other Swedish researchers are critical of Sweden’s achivements when it comes to gender equality in the private business sector. “Our massmedia are still making a big deal about the appointment of a female CEO,” she says, but adds that “the appointment of Annika Falkengren as CEO in a such conservative sector as banking, and in particular of SEB, could indicate that something big is happening in Sweden.” But on the other hand, she warns that it may be premature to talk about a new trend. Only a handful of women have reached the pinnacles of power in the private sector, and very few women have taken place in the overwhelmingly male boards of publicly traded companies.

It is true both in Sweden and in the U.S. that there are very few women at the very top of the business world, but over half of all managers in the U.S. are women, and women run many large companies. Here the numbers are not all that flattering for Sweden. Female managers at mid- to higher level in the private sector grew from 9 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2002, and 31 percent in 2004. In publicly traded companies, the proportion reached 31 percent in 2002, and 34.5 percent in may of 2004 (according to Micromediabanken’s 2004 survey.) In the Swedish banking sector, the percentage of female managers rose from 10 percent in 1990 to 28 percent in 2004.

“There was a large jump in the number of women board members in private industry,” says Anne D. Boschini, a research associate at the Department of Economics at Stockholm University, and author of a gender study for the Center for Business and Policy Studies (SNS). The jump occurred in 2003 in response to a government threat of legal action in order increase the number of women board members. This had been done already in Norway, where companies above a certain size must have at least 40 percent female board members. In Sweden, only ten percent of board members are women, and 42 percent of all corporate boards are exclusively male. The social democratic government is not happy with this state of affairs and still talks about quotas.

Sweden is about ten years behind the U.S., when it comes to women and management, according to Boschini. She adds that one of the more surprising results of recent research is that while the corporate glass ceiling has been shattered in the U.S., it remains in place in Sweden. And it is getting worse. “The differences in pay between men and women are increasing as you reach higher pay scales, which is not the case in the U.S.,” she says.

One possible explanation could be that the Swedish model is based on what Marianne Sundström, associate professor at Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) calls a ”working class” perspective. ”Women are expected to work, but not really to have a career,” she says. The pay after tax – even for a mid-level manager – doesn’t allow her to hire help to deal with the household work, or a private nanny, which might be a necessity if you have to take an afternoon flight to Berlin or New York, and your husband is also working fulltime. Even if you have the money, the private service sector is very limited, and besides, many Swedes frown upon such ”private” solutions. In the U.S. the service sector is much more developed, from take-out food to gardening and housecleaning.

”I remember how few women there used to be at the platform at the train station in Greenwhich back in 1983. Today there must be 30-40 percent women,” says Renee Lundblom, a veteran of SACC New York, and its first female president. She runs the largest and oldest of SACC-USA’s 19 member chambers, and is also the founder of the Executive Women’s Conference, which alternates between Sweden and the U.S. ”We want to build bridges between Swedish and American female executives,” she says and adds that networking is often hard for women, as they do more of the housework and have less time and energy for mingling. But networking is important, and the conference is one way to help women share their experiences and get ahead.

There have been large changes in both Sweden and the U.S. over the past 30-40 years. In the U.S. the civil rights movement and its aftermath led to a much tougher stand against discrimination, which over time made it risky for companies not only to engage in discrimination, but to ignore it. The threat of class action lawsuits made it a necessity to be proactive and institute policies that insulate a company from accusations of discrimination, and unequal treatment of women and minorities.

Sweden relied instead on a combination of legal and social reform to encourage women to work, and to promote gender equality at work and in society at large. The 1980 ”Act on Equality Between Men and Women in the Workplace” created an Ombudsman for Gender Equality (Jämställdhetsombudsman) to monitor and punish discrimination. This act, which in 1992 was replaced by the ”Equal Opportunity Act” demands of employers that they actively promote equality in the workplace. There is also a government Council on Equality Issues, which is led by the Minister for Gender Equality Affairs. Women have had the right to vote since 1921. 45 percent of the 349 members of the parliament are women, and eleven of twenty-two members of Göran Persson’s cabinet are women.

However, in the private business sector, change has been slow. And it seems that - one of many paradoxes in this field - the very same system that was built to support parents and women in particular, is holding back those women who want to pursue a career in the corporate world. The Swedish model is generous for working parents, as long as they stick to the model, which prefers uniform solutions. In addition, the egalitarian wage structure, plus the high and progressive income taxation makes it hard to afford help. “Pushing ahead in a career could mean that you have to work 60 hours a week, but it is expensive to pay your way out of household work in Sweden,” Marianne Sundström says. And even if Swedish men are picking up more of the household work these days, most of it still falls on the women, working or not.
Besides, a corporate executive may be less interested in parental leave, than having a nanny for their kids. “In Sweden, you are supposed to do everything yourself, taking care of the children, the household, the summer cottage. And as you are not supposed to hire help, it is very hard to strike a balance between work and life,” says Renee Lundholm.

Viveca Wahlstedt, who is manager for the consulting and executive search firm Carnegie Worldwide in Orlando, Florida, faced this negative attidude to hiring domestic help when she had applied for adoption back in the 1980’s before she moved to the U.S. The caseworker wrote in her case file that she intended to use a nanny, which was clearly a negative signal. (What kind of mother would do that?)

“I never took parental leave,” says Wahlstedt, whose father was an entrepreneur and had that “can do” attitude that led her to view things as possible rather than its opposite. “My first job was at a chemical company that faced an upsurge in international orders. They faced a crisis, because they couldn’t recruit more men and those they had already worked overtime. Why don’t hire women? There are many female chemist right out of school that can’t find jobs,” she suggested. It was an outrageous thought back then, but it worked and she made her way into management, and eventually to the U.S. “You need to build up your inner strength, so that you feel secure and don’t hesitate to try out things, or blame others for not achieving your goals,” says Wahlstedt, who is also a member of SACC-USA’s board.

Anna Stern worked in Sweden’s design world 1996-1998, and in the U.S. from 1999 to August of 2001. She says that men dominate the design business in the U.S., but that you can move ahead fast if you are willing to take responsibility and solve problems. And your pay moves too. Stern doubled her salary in two years time, but decided in the end to return to Sweden for sake of the lifestyle. She is a studio manager at the design firm Propeller, which was recently acquired by the larger firm Semcon. “Sweden has good design schools, and people are very open and creative,” she says.

Barbro Ehnbom came to the U.S. some 30 years ago on a scholarship fresh out of Sweden’s leading business school, the Stockholm School of Business (Svenska Handelshögskolan). She has worked in the pharmaceutical sector, in mergers and acquisitions, and runs her own investment advisory company, the DuHahn Group. She is also a longtime board member of SACC New York.

Her own experience – she was often the only woman around – has made her skeptical when it comes to women’s career chances whether it is in the U.S. or Sweden. This is why she has spent a considerable energy in building networks for young women entering the business world. Last year she launched a new scholarship for students at Svenska Handelshögskolan called “Female Economist of the Year.” She wants to put a spotlight on bright young women. It is not only about money and an internship, but access to a network of hundreds of experienced managers that stand ready to help and give advice. “You get a lead into the old boys network,” she says.

“But the real challenge is not right in the beginning of women’s career, which usually goes well until you are 37,38, 39. That’s when women tend to fall behind, because now you are suddenly a mother and have to deal with your husband’s ambition. At that point, it is not cute anymore to be successful. Your ambition is suddenly seen as a threat,” she says.

“It’s not enough for women to take the same role that men have had, and to find men who can run the household. All we’ve then done is to swap roles. The most important thing is to have those who put together the criteria for a board or the job description, to write them so that they can fit a woman. If you don’t do that, it will always be easy to say that there was no qualified woman available. Guess what, the criteria was written by three likeminded guys in their fifties,” she says.

Like many other female experts managers Currents spoke to, Ehnbom feels that the U.S. is ahead. “America is such an enormously diversified country. Of course, there are industries dominated by one type, i.e. white men. It was like that when I started out in the pharmaceutical industry, but other ways you do have a highly diversified nation, and that is true not only for women, but for blacks and Puerto Ricans and so on. If you have a good idea, you can make it here. You are not held back like in a more homogenous country like Sweden, where a few clans have been so dominant in the business world.”

“Many American companies understand the importance of diversity. This is true not only when it comes to gender discrimination, but also for ethnic discrimination. It is easier to be different in the U.S.,” says Agneta Rosenberg, who would have been the first female systems engineer in Sweden if she had taken an offer from IBM back in the 1980’s. She decided instead to take an offer from IBM in the U.S., and worked many years for them before starting her own consulting company Interim Ventures, which help Swedish companies to enter the U.S. market.

“It is easier to be a woman and a manager in the U.S. It is true that you have parental leave in Sweden and you get to keep you job even if you stay home with your children, but is it the same job that you return to? Many salespeople work with specific accounts, and maybe the client will prefer the person who took over while you were out. There is also the risk that you are loosing touch while you are home with the children. Other people may bypass you,” says Katarina G. Bonde, who has worked as a manager, venture capitalist and consultant in the IT-business for over twenty years. She is CEO of Kubi Corporation and a member of SACC-USA’s board.

Some American companies are trying to make it easier for women to combine parenthood with career, Bonde says while adding that many American women managers abstain from having children – yet another paradox. “It is hard to combine the two,” she says. Competition is so hard and many companies have a rigid attitude to parents need to stay home when a child is sick.

This dark side of the paradox was underscored in the March issue of Harvard Business Review. Too many women managers choose to “opt-out” from the career track according to its authors, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, director of the Gender and Public Policy Program at Columbia University, and Carolyn Buck Luce, a senior leader in the Global Accounts Group at Ernst & Young.

“Women want to work, and corporations must find alternative pathways to power. Our study, based on a sample of nearly 2,500 highly qualified women, examines the realities of women’s challenges and choices, probes their ambition, and traces the course of their careers. Our research shows beyond question that highly qualified women want to work. Not only have they invested heavily in their education and careers, but their professions give shape and meaning to their lives. Of the women who have taken an “off-ramp” from work, a full 93 percent want to come back. And many do take off-ramps. Nearly 60 percent of the women we surveyed take time out from their careers (37 percent) or follow what we call a “scenic route.” They decline a promotion, transfer from line to staff roles, take a job with less responsibility or work part-time, all in order to be able to manage the other responsibilities in their lives from time to time, be they children (45 percent), elder care (24 percent) or other outside interests. Put another way, the majority of highly qualified women have non-linear careers,” Carolyn Buck Luce wrote in a column for the Los Angeles Business Journal on April 4.

It looks like we are back where we started. But maybe not… While many Swedish experts and career women seem to yearn for more of the American dynamism, individualism and meritocracy, many American experts and career women seem to yearn for some of Sweden’s flexibility when it comes to giving parents more security, flexible work hours and maybe even a chance to smell baby powder now and then.

Could there be a middle way between the Scylla of the Swedish welfare uniformity and Charybdis of the American rat race?

Hans Sandberg

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Swedish Design - A Buzzword In Search of Meaning

(Article first published in Currents No. 1 2005).



Swedish design is a buzzword, and like many such words fuzzy. Seeking clarity, Currents interviewed design experts in Sweden and America, only to find that although there is a general agreement and appreciation for Swedish design of the past century, there is little consensus about what it stands for today.

“Swedish design held a unique status in the U.S. since World War II,” says Craig Vogel, who is chairman of the board of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) as well as design professor at the University of Cincinnati. Talking about Swedish furniture, he stresses its clean quality, an understated form, and respect for natural materials,” not unlike America’s Shaker and Amish tradition. He also points to glassware, tableware and lightning as examples of design that made Sweden famous.

“In the 20th century, Swedish design was by and large aristocratic, based on a sense of esthetics and technical execution. This is a critical component of what we consider to be Swedish design. Within that body of work, there was a movement from, say 1914-1917 up the present day, where this good design became increasingly available to a larger part of the public. This had something to do with an educated taste and refined production. The colors tended to be muted, the forms had a certain grace to them, which you never would mistake for German or French or English or American production. They spoke about an indigenous culture,” says the author Derek E. Ostergard, who was previously Dean of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture in New York.

But what happens to this tradition when production becomes mass production, and evermore globalized corporations’ head for the world market in a globalizing world? IKEA speaks with a stringent voice, according to Craig Vogel, and it has built an infrastructure for Swedish design in America. But is it Swedish design, or just a design that was mostly made in Sweden, and marketed in a Swedish context? Is flat packing and global brand management Swedish? Derek Ostergard loves Swedish design and believes that it has made an enormous contribution, but sees it as being shortchanged in today’s world. “The Swedes are just scrambling, like we all are, to find any niche we can to sell our products.” This upsets Derek Ostergard, who holds the prestigious Swedish title of the “Polar Star” (“Polstjärneorden.”) “The reason that I sound angry is that I am angry. Swedish products and the history of Swedish products are superb, but the Swedes are not looking in their own backyard anymore. They are looking to markets and cultures that they don’t get. They think that if they use the name Sweden, people are going to get it, but people don’t know Sweden anymore.”

Globalization, or at least Europeanization, of the design education could make it even harder to say what is Swedish about design coming out of Sweden, or made by a Swedish-born designer working in London or San Francisco. “We will soon have a three-year bachelor education followed by a masters program, and design students will be able to switch to another school after three years. We will have to educate them so that they immediately can adept to a new school,” says Claus Eckhardt, a German who is professor of Industrial Design at Lund’s University (LTH) in southern Sweden. These changes are part of a European-wide reform in accordance with the Bologna declaration. “Teachers are coming from international areas, which might result in an international style. Swedish or Scandinavian design has a quite strong position in Europe, but as we mix and match in the future, you might not be able to see if a designer is coming from Sweden or Germany or Italy,” he says.

It will be easier to preserve the national heritage in less globalized industries, like furniture and interior design. “We will still have the cultural roots there, but design will be more and more international when we are talking about industrial design; about big companies like Saab and Volvo. And Swedish designers will look abroad for jobs. They will be able to use design knowledge to find leading positions in huge companies. This could lead to a transfer of Scandinavian philosophy, but also of modifications of the design style.” Claus Eckhardt doesn’t see much of a common national design when it comes to Sweden’s multinational giants, maybe with one big exception: “IKEA is a super-international brand. It is accepted everywhere in the world. The interesting thing with IKEA is that they are spreading Swedish design. It is one of the biggest exporters of Swedish culture, both in how they present themselves, and in how they look. Their products are cheap, which means that everybody can have them. It’s in their positioning and in how they sell the product. They are socially oriented and their products are accessible for everyone, which is one of the core ideas of good industrial design.”

Ronald B. Kemnitzer, president of IDSA and professor of architecture and design at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, says that his own esteem of Sweden as a design country “revolved around some of the more traditional crafts and designs.” But he is open to the possibility that tomorrow’s designers might have gotten their image of Swedish design from companies like Ericsson. “I do have some very strong feelings about globalism and local cultural identity. I feel passionately that we as designers need to be on guard to protect it. If we move towards a truly global, universal visual esthetic, we may reduce some of the richness of the fabric of life.” He compares to food. “People from all countries enjoy food from other countries, but if we were all to have the same homogenized diet worldwide, it would be a really boring world.”
“Sweden has a very strong esthetic background, with attributes like light wood, purity of form and simplicity of the line. Those things are strong elements to build on. There will be a conscious move towards some globalized esthetic, but countries will then realize that everything looks the same, and start looking for something that really sets them apart. Hopefully they’ll go back to their roots, and think about what it is about their own culture that is appealing, and how to capture it in a positive and respectful way. It is going to be a tough thing to do,” says Ronald Kemnitzer.

Derek Ostergard sees globalization as a trap for Sweden’s designers. He admits that Sweden’s minimalist tradition and the relative plain-ness of many designs could fit into the goal of addressing a global audience. ”That is absolutely true, but when you compete in that market, you will always be beaten on price, whether you are Swedish or American or German. We are going to be beaten fast, because they can copy a design on a computer in a few days. They can produce things in China or India that are increasingly equal to, or better than what we produce in the West. If you are seeking to meet those global markets -- and I agree with you that it will work for a while -- you will eventually be caught up, because you can’t compete on the basis of price. Both the Swedes and the rest of us are heading for a collision with that formula.” His alternative? ”Swedes must learn what the French know: You must produce things that reflect your culture; that are based on quality or you will get killed. You can never compete with the labor markets in Asia. It’s not going to happen.”

But there may be more to Swedish design than esthetic sensibility. Sweden may like Apple Computer ride on an impression of being different, not because nobody else can do that, but just because they haven’t done it yet.

Bengt Palmgren, who heads the Umeå School of Design in northern Sweden, says that it is very hard to talk about a "Swedish” or even “Scandinavian” design, when it comes to industrial products. “Industrial designers works for companies that operate on the global market. Cellular phones, cars and technical equipment must function whether it is in Taiwan, the U.S. or in Colombia,” he says, but then suggests that there still is something, maybe a kind of “honesty when it comes to how the material is presented. If you are working in plastics that is what it is. There is this typical striving for simplicity, for purity, a preference for light-colored wood.”

Could there be something in Swedish industrial design that reflects the Swedish society? American trucks used to be rough and “square” with stick shifts that allowed the rough cowboy/driver to show off his skills. In Europe and other places the trucks are automatic, and the driver’s space is similar to a cars. Volvo Trucks has been able to challenge that, based on Sweden’s early interest in ergonomics, and there are signs that American truckers are warming up to the idea of a little convenience while on the road.

Robin Edman is chairman for Svensk Industridesign, a group that represents Sweden’s industrial designers, and is involved with Sweden’s national ”Year of Design” campaign. In his view, what makes Swedish industrial design Swedish, is the fact that it leans towards highly integrated projects and that it often takes a broad social view of building new products. ”It’s much more than bringing out a new physical object. Design can help us make a better society, whether it is improving healthcare, public transportation and many other things that make life easier to live. If you are designing a new light rail train, you are not just thinking about whether it should be blue or white and the shape of it, but of how a person gets to the train, how to cross the street, the lighting at the station, safety, and whether the environment in the car is friendly or scary to children, and if it is easy to use for an 82 year old with a walker.” The ”Year of Design” is an initiative taken by the Swedish government, and one of the goals is to make the public sector a better buyer design wise. The public sector spends 400 billion kronor (ca 50 billion dollars) every year, which to a degree could be used to promote good design. ”We are looking for less elitist attitude to design. If you are planning a new hospital, it is going to be built by private industry, but the result will be a public environment. Will Greta, 82, be met like if she was checking in at a hotel, when she goes to the hospital? In that case, she might feel a little better about the whole thing. and may be able to leave the hospital earlier because she feels good about the visit,” says Robin Edman, who suggests that this extreme focus on the end-user’s needs could be seen as part of today’s Swedish design.
”Integration is typical for Swedish design. We see design as part of a creative process, while other designers in countries may look for a cool new thing, another red chair that nobody can sit in,” he says. ”Of course, we have those in Sweden too, but that is not what we are known for. Some people criticize Sweden for not having star designers, but what we have is a thorough knowledge when it comes to ergonomics and safety. Just look at Volvo, Saab, Bahco and companies like Electrolux and Husqvarna. We have a tradition of making things that are practical and functional as well as beautiful.”

He takes another example.” We are involved in a project at a firehouse in the southern city of Malmö. The goal is to improve the firemen’s equipment, partially to open it up for more women. The designers soon realized that it is impossible for women and hard for men to carry around equipment that weighs 60 pounds. And the helmets with infrared cameras weigh about 9 pounds, which is heavy for both men and women. Design here is not about pretty, but about health and safety. We are good at these things in Sweden,” says Robin Edman of Svensk Industridesign.

Hans Sandberg

Hubble Telescope Images