Why Digital Swedes Are Moving Away From Advertising

They're Known for Their Interactive Work, but They Care Little About Ads

By Published on .

Patrick Gardner
Patrick Gardner
That Sweden knows a thing or two about digital advertising isn't news to most Mad Men these days. At Cannes you can hardly swing a cyber Lion without hitting at least one Swede. If you have a Lion to swing, that is -- the Swede will probably be the one holding it in the first place.

But the fact Swedes now contribute a surprising share of the world's most innovative advertising belies a deeper truth, one slowly being revealed by accelerating digitization and continued success. The truth is: Most Swedish digital advertising leaders don't actually care all that much about advertising.

As an American based in Stockholm since 1994, I've watched this industry develop as both insider and permanent outsider. I've gained a respect for the Swedish way and, though not a local, feel pride over the country's digital accomplishments.

Saying they don't care about advertising may sound shocking or even a bit rude, but it's unsurprising when you consider their roots.

With few exceptions, those driving Swedish digital advertising earned their chops in the internet boom of the '90s and early 2000s. They started working with the internet, not advertising, because they were excited by the incredible communication possibilities this new technology enabled. Only over time did what they do come to be viewed as advertising.

That's not to say they're nonchalant about their brand-champion roles. Swedish digitals clearly care a lot about connecting brands with target audiences and delivering strong ROI.

But this group generally didn't emerge from the Ogilvy/Bernbach tradition that infuses mainstream advertising -- so they naturally feel little compulsion to uphold it. Their allegiance is to creating effective and innovative ways of communicating, not just crafting persuasive messages.

So far, their new mindset has yet to have much impact on advertising's overall trajectory, with this group still mostly content to color within lines laid down by the traditional industry.

Granted their efforts have led to a wild variety of effective, new digital-advertising solutions (and in fairness, no small number of flops along the way). But truth be told, even the most successful recent Swedish digital efforts can still be summarized with that most traditional advertising word: "campaign," meaning short-lived, one-way and, for all the recent social bluster, focused on message delivery.

The buzz these days among Sweden's digitals is about a bigger change now afoot. As one colleague says: "It's time to stop communicating about business and start creating it."

Perspectives vary on what exactly this statement means. For some, it's drifting away from advertising in the sense of announcing products and toward specialties like gaming or corporate dot-com development. For others, it's launching their own products -- from designer jeans to iPhone apps to our own music service Traxxter.com -- to prove their theories by doing for themselves as well as clients.

But for many a theme emerges: that the next great campaign is no longer enough. And thanks to their non-traditional roots, they seem to be of the view that that isn't such a bad thing.

One thing's for sure, advertising will never be the same -- if it survives at all.

Patrick Gardner is CEO of Swedish-headquartered digital shop Perfect Fools, which has offices in Stockholm, Amsterdam and New York.
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