The Nordics Are Coming: North Alliance Will Buy a U.S. Outpost

Independent Network Also Aims to Halt Scandinavia's Creative Brain Drain

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Thomas Hogebol of NOA
Thomas Hogebol of NOA

American networks have long been raiding Scandinavia for talented ad execs: Linus Karlsson (Commonwealth/McCann, Ming), Andreas Dahlqvist (Grey) and Adam Kerj (JWT) to name a few.

But now an independent network of Nordic agencies is coming to the U.S. And at the same time, it's hoping to stop the brain drain and bring talented Scandinavians back to their native lands.

The North Alliance, first formed in January 2014, comprises several Scandinavian agencies including Sweden's Akestam Holst, Bold and Great Works, Norway's Anorak and Making Waves and Denmark's &Co.

The network, known as NOA, is already expanding beyond Scandinavia, with the acquisition of digital shop Acoustic in Singapore, and will announce a U.S. East Coast office via an as yet unnamed acquisition later in the year.

It hopes to serve Scandinavian clients such as Ikea and H&M who want to expand in the U.S. as well as U.S. clients interested in Nordic markets.

"Over recent decades, many of the most innovative international communications companies have been Nordic in origin," says founder Thomas Hogebol, a former CEO-executive chairman of McCann Worldgroup in Norway. "While it has traditionally been a practice for U.S., U.K. and European agencies to headhunt Nordic talent, there has never been the opportunity for international brands to make a wholesale application of Nordic culture and thinking of the type now offered by NOA."

Mr. Hogebol believes Nordic culture has a lot to offer to the ad industry: Organizations are non-hierarchical, transparent and collaborative, he says, as well as highly liberal and progressive. In the North Alliance, 50% of key positions in the group are held by women.

The company has a partnership model in which some 100 employees across the group are active partners, in addition to its majority owner, Finland-based CapMan Group.

Mr. Hogebol points out that Scandinavia has been an epicenter for digital innovation, with a high level of early adoption of technology that makes it an ideal testing ground. Companies such as Spotify, Soundcloud and Nokia are Scandinavian in origin.

A lot of this isn't news in the world of U.S. advertising -- when agencies bring in Nordic talent it's often with the hopes that their collaborative ways and digital savvy will seep into their culture. But Mr. Hogebol says NOA's model has some very concrete benefits, providing to clients a range of expertise coupled with agile thinking. "Thanks to our lean organization and flat structure, we have very talented people across our agencies who are all used to working directly with clients, even as juniors," he said. "With the world changing at a constantly increasing pace, companies will need to work with partners who can make quick decisions, move fast and iterate when needed. Many of the large networks have processes built around a reality that does not exist any longer, and they will need to adjust in order to be relevant."

One of the North Alliance's missions is to keep homegrown talent in Scandinavia -- maybe a tall order, given that the cost of living is high, and creatives are traditionally paid less than their counterparts in the U.S. or U.K.

One prominent Swede to have returned to his native country is Matias Palm-Jensen, the former Farfar founder and McCann chief innovation officer. He is now running The Kind Collective, a creative collective based in Stockholm and London that aims to help companies become more socially responsible, and is working with clients as diverse as H&M and Bjorn from ABBA.

He believes the Scandinavian model has a lot to offer: "I have worked a lot on the international scene and I learned that when I'm in a room with no other Scandinavians, I always have a different approach, not necessarily on what to do but on how to do things."

He adds: "I think it's fantastic that [NOA] are trying to do this and it will be beautiful if it succeeds. Although the problem is always that the bigger the network, the further away you get from the client."

But for homegrown Scandinavian stars, returning home may have its benefits; Mr. Hogebol said the chilly Nordic climate is perhaps the key to its success.

"Those long cold winter nights stir the creative mind," he quips.

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