IT'S A LONG WAY FROM RUBBER WORLD MAGAZINE TO THE Super Bowl, but Steve Trygg and Anderson & LEMBKE are about to make the leap.
Long acknowledged as perhaps the consummate business-to-business agency, Anderson & Lembke, with co-owner and creative chief Trygg at the helm, has for years specialized in creating print ads for ball bearings and micro-to-mainframe emulation boards (if you don't know what they are, then don't ask). To be sure, the agency's ads for these often technical business products have invariably been stylish and well-crafted, but considering that they usually run in arcane publications such as Plastics News, Oil and Gas Journal and the aforementioned Rubber World, did anyone really notice?
But A&L's days of trade-journal obscurity may soon be over. In the past year and a half, the 30-year-old Swedish-born shop, which today has offices in New York, San Francisco and Amsterdam, has seen billings double, rising to $180 million, as it has bagged some major high-profile accounts, most notably Microsoft, which hired A&L to work alongside Wieden & Kennedy. Of late, A&L's print ads for that client and others such as Motorola and Agfa have been finding their way into Wired, The Wall Street Journal and other more-mainstream print venues. Meanwhile, its television reel, almost nonexistent until recently, has been building slowly, partly through pro bono work (including an arresting new gun control spot directed by Mark Fenske). And come January, A&L may have its first real moment in the sun: Three commercials now being produced by the agency are slated to air during the Super Bowl (Trygg, citing client confidentiality, won't disclose who the sponsors are).
All of which may mean that Anderson & Lembke, always respected but often overlooked in its nuts-and-bolts business advertising niche, might at last be ready to cross over into the mainstream. Observers say the agency is riding the wave of a technological revolution that is erasing some of the boundaries between business-to-business advertising and consumer advertising. With products such as modems, fax machines and even computer chips now marketed both to home and business users, and with this year's splashiest consumer marketing campaign centering not on a cola or a car but on a computer operating system, "This could be a very good time for Anderson & Lembke," says Len Fink, the CAA creative director who for a brief time worked with A&L. "They're a both-sides-of-the-brain agency-technically savvy and highly analytical, as well as extremely creative."
Jim Mullen of Mullen Advertising adds: "Anderson & Lembke has a discipline that few consumer agencies have. At this point, if they choose to go after consumer accounts, watch out." But will they choose to do that? It's one of many unanswered questions surrounding this exotic agency and its enigmatic leader, Trygg. The 48-year-old transplanted Swede is coy about his ambitions: "It's not that I'm going after the consumer market, so much as the consumer market is pulling me in," he says, with a slight Swedish lilt. On the other hand, insiders at the agency point out that Trygg and partner Hans Ullmark have set up internal committees to study ways in which the agency can begin to penetrate the consumer market in categories like travel, finance and technology; the agency is particularly looking at what Trygg terms "the gray areas"-airlines, banks, hotels and the like-which straddle the consumer/business fence. A&L figures to use its expertise in reaching the latter to get a crack at the former.
Nevertheless, the jury is out on whether A&L can achieve its crossover dreams. The agency has yet to prove that it can get into shootouts against top creative agencies (in going after business marketing accounts, it has usually been matched up against large mainstream agencies or other b-to-b specialists). Nor has A&L yet demonstrated that it can perform as well in television as it has in print. And some say that Trygg's kind-and-gentle, egalitarian management style-he imported from Sweden a system in which no one, including a creative director, has the right to veto another person's ideas-runs counter to more aggressive American business approaches. "The management style could be described as Swedish socialism," says a source close to the agency.
But A&L's biggest problem may be of its own making: It has established such a solid reputation as a business-to-business agency that it may be difficult to recast itself as a generalist. Says Lee Clow, creative director at Chiat/Day (which once owned a piece of A&L), "A niche can help an agency grow, but it can also be an obstacle in reaching the next level." For the present, A&L's image to most outsiders is that of a competent agency that works on boring accounts. "People outside the agency have heard of us," says one A&L copywriter, "but most can't name a single ad we've done. We should be getting swamped with books from creatives, but we're not." Trygg acknowledges that "we're a little strange to people-we're this foreign agency that deals with all these complex business products. People don't know quite what to make of us."
The same could be said of Trygg himself. Though he mingles with engineers, product managers and other techies, he's a Horst of a different color himself: A multilingual world traveler, a sometime painter, a painstaking writer, a charmer and a bit of a flake. He has been known to wear shorts to business meetings and he owns about 20 pairs of eyeglasses, some of them quite strange. He sometimes talks about reincarnation, and he admits to an admiration for Shirley MacLaine. He occasionally shaves his head, and one never knows, upon meeting him, whether he'll be sporting the gray beard that is always coming and going. "Some people think he's a little nuts," says Fink, "until they realize how smart he is."
If he'd started out in advertising in America, Trygg no doubt would have gone to work for a wild-and-crazy creative hot shop, pitching trendy shoes or new age soft drinks. But in Sweden, business-to-business advertising is where the action is. "Consumer products are usually imported from and advertised by outside companies," Trygg says. "Most Swedish companies make business products. If you want to make your mark, you have to learn how to advertise things like rock drills."
One of the top local agencies doing that when Trygg was getting started 25 years ago was a Stockholm agency known as Anderson & LEMBKE, run by partners Bengt Anderson and Rolf Lembke. Trygg, a young artist who'd studied psychology, engineering and painting in college, joined A&L as a junior writer and worked his way up to become president at the agency's Stockholm office. Then, in 1982, he set sail for America, to open an A&L outpost in Stamford, Conn.
What Trygg quickly discovered was that creating business advertising in the U.S. was "a second-class activity"; most business ads were heavy on technical jargon and light on everything else, ideas included. The assumption was that the business magazine reader was an easy mark-a captive audience, hungry for information from any source, in any form. But Trygg understood that business executives received advertising in much the same way as other consumers: "To reach them, you had to be not only relevant but distinctive."
A&L's print ads tended to have both qualities. Trygg himself significantly influenced the design sensibility of A&L's work-which he describes as "clean and contemporary and maybe a little austere"-as well as the writing, much of which was done by Trygg himself, who'd mastered English in college. Headlines on A&L ads tended to be understated and intriguing, while the copy was long and detail rich, but always with enough of a flair to keep it interesting.
By the mid-'80s, Trygg and Ullmark had purchased the Stamford office from their former bosses, who were retiring. Anderson & Lembke became an independently-owned American agency (and currently has no connection to other European outposts that operate under the Anderson & Lembke name), although not for long. The agency's work had attracted the attention of Jay Chiat, who persuaded Trygg to join the then expanding Chiat/Day/Mojo group. The alliance lasted a couple of years, before ending amicably with a buyback by Trygg and Ullmark. "The two agencies were getting in each other's way on certain accounts," says Trygg. A&L has been independent and growing ever since, opening a San Francisco office (which handles Microsoft and other computer work) in 1988, moving the Stamford office to New York in 1990, and opening a third office in Amsterdam last year.
Chiat was the first of many top creative directors who would become admirers of A&L's work; the list includes Clow and Dan Wieden, who helped steer Microsoft toward the agency. In fact, among those who know A&L's work, it can be difficult to find anyone who doesn't enthusiastically praise its cleanness, simplicity and smartness. "Their work is very strategic, and extremely disciplined and tight-there's absolutely no self-indulgence," says Parry Merkley of Merkley Newman Harty.
A&L ads are not overly technical, and the agency always strives for a look that will catch anybody's eye, often by way of dramatic photography and clean yet interesting use of type. Perhaps more than anything else, though, A&L's work attempts to appeal to human emotions, even when the subject matter is polyolefin elastomers. For Dow Plastics, A&L pitches that particular type of plastic with a minimum of tech talk and a heavy dose of psychology: "What makes you so special?" asks a headline of pressured product managers.
The highly technical nature of its clients' products necessitates significant research on the part of A&L's creatives, who work in client core groups of four. Trygg believes that his agency's creatives are more disciplined than most, because of the nature of the products. "At a general consumer agency, it's easy to be creative," he says. "You're usually dealing with a product you understand, that you have some relationship with. Here, you have to work with products you may have never heard of, that you would never be the buyer of." And so A&L creatives must do extensive homework on products and spend time with customers, just to get a basic understanding of the product. Trygg maintains that A&L was using an account planning system-with account groups, planners, and intensive field research-"long before the term was in vogue."
A&L's disciplined practices may seem like a grind to outsiders, but the agency has a low turnover and its creatives seem to enjoy working with complex products. "It can be far more rewarding to work on one of these products than to work on a candy bar account at a consumer agency," says Ray Johnson, a former A&L copywriter now at TBWA. "With business products, your audience is a highly intelligent one-so you never have to do lowest common denominator advertising."
Another reason why satisfaction runs high at A&L is the horizontal egalitarian system, wherein the core account groups are given autonomy. Creative directors outside the group are supposed to support and encourage creative teams, but don't necessarily have the authority to overrule them. Trygg says the system is borrowed from common Swedish business principles. "In Sweden, you can't manage by fear because the unions are too strong, and you can't motivate people only with money because the taxes take it all away," he says. "So you have no choice but to manage by consensus."
That's great for creatives-"you don't have to deal with someone who kills your work to justify his existence," says A&L copywriter Alan Wolk-though not necessarily so great for creative directors. "Without veto power, you can only exert influence through sheer charisma," says one former A&L CD. "It can be impossible at times." Trygg acknowledges that the system can be difficult. He once tried to assuage one CD by allowing the person to exercise an arbitrary number of vetoes during the year. "But that didn't work," he admits. Instead, he has had to find "charismatic leaders-people who don't need the power of a veto to be strong." Trygg's creative director in New York, John Athorn, is a low-key leader who has adjusted to the system well; in San Francisco, on the other hand, the agency has had more trouble holding onto CDs.
But the San Francisco office has nonetheless emerged as an important part of A&L's growth, because that's where much of A&L's computer industry advertising-including its business work for Microsoft-is produced. The agency handles about $75 million worth of Microsoft business right now, consisting mostly of product-specific print advertising directed at systems managers. A&L's Microsoft print ads feature playful type treatments and arresting visuals, not unlike Wieden & Kennedy's work, but the difference is in the copy, where A&L hits hard and deep on user benefits. One headline reads: "If time is money, congratulations. You've just won the lottery."
A&L's Microsoft work hasn't gotten nearly the attention of W&K's TV campaign for Windows 95 (what has?), but it is well-regarded by the client as well as within the computer industry. Says Microsoft ad director Greg Perlot, "They bring a lot of technical competency to the table, as well as a good, smart style that works well with Microsoft." Even so, some observers feel the smaller shop is showing the bigger agency some tricks. "In some ways, Anderson & Lembke's work is more focused and connects with the technology better than the Wieden & Kennedy campaign," says a Silicon Valley creative director who has worked on Microsoft in the past. This source adds that at one point there were rumors in the valley that A&L might end up swiping the entire Microsoft account from Wieden.
Perlot insists that there are no plans to shift business from one agency to the other. "Each owns a piece of the business, and we don't plan to change that," he says. "The challenge has been to create consistency and continuity between the two agencies' work, and we're getting better at that." Asked whether A&L aspires to become Microsoft's lead agency, Trygg responds: "Of course. And I have full confidence that we could handle the business. Our relationship with Microsoft is, at the moment, super."
But A&L's chances of getting more business with Microsoft-or with any major consumer advertiser that relies heavily on TV-may be hindered by the agency's own lack of TV experience. At present, the A&L showreel has only a handful of spots, none of which inspire awe. Its work for New York State Tourism (no longer a client) features playful use of type onscreen, but otherwise is limited to aerial views of what looks like stock photography. Pro bono spots preaching against drugs in the workplace, including one that shows a scene from a train wreck, are not as dramatic as they should be. Perhaps the best TV spot is Fenske's anti-gun ad, an eerie little scene in which an angry caveman vents his anger by hurling rocks and stones-and later is shown pointing a gun directly into the camera.
In fairness, A&L is still finding its way in television, and getting much of its practice only on low-budget pro bono work. (The agency's dependence on print is, again, typically Swedish; that country didn't even have commercial TV until five years ago). The Super Bowl spots, if they materialize, will be a major breakthrough; one spot, according to Trygg, has a million dollar budget.
Trygg acknowledges, with a sly smile, that this could be the start of something big. But in typical Zenlike fashion, he refuses to make predictions about A&L's future. "I have failed all through my life to make business plans," he says. "I've given up. Because things change." Indeed, come February A&L could be basking in the consumer spotlight or retreating back to its business bunker. And