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

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