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.)