Erik Sollenberg has had two jobs in his life. The first was for Posten Sverige, the Swedish Postal Service, in the marketing department; the second, since 1999, has been with Forsman & Bodenfors, Sweden’s highly regarded, independent agency that just might be one of the best agencies in the world. (He became CEO in 2003.)
Speaking last year in New York at an AdForum meeting at Aquavit, the elegant midtown restaurant offering exceptional Nordic cuisine, he told a compelling story about Michelin stars and Sweden’s second city of Goteborg. In doing so, Erik Sollenberg relayed the extraordinary story of F&B—it’s motivation, its teamwork, and, unwittingly, its leadership.
Aquavit had just been awarded a Michelin Star in the New York City 2013 Michelin Guide to much celebration. However, Sollenberg reminded the group that “stars make you and break you.” He continued, “We’ve had 67 Cannes Lions. Awards are important. But when we create ads that might win prizes yet clearly lack relevance in solving the problems at hand, the ads are worthless.”
He then talked about Göteborg, a small city on the “wrong side” of Sweden. “This is the city where four guys started an agency in 1986, and got a lot of laughs from the important folks in Stockholm. But we used the challenge of Göteborg to insure that our creativity stood out, our communications made a difference, and our talent wanted to stay and do their best. Most importantly, we focused on partnerships with our clients, and now most of our clients have been with us for a very long time now. We’ve learned their business, and a common target is a great asset.”
The Forsman & Bodenfors philosophy is that “the team is responsible.” The team has full creative and commercial responsibility. The team meets with the client. The team decides on the ideas. Sollenberg adds, “We choose the best team for the assignment. There is minimal top management involvement. It saves cost and enables fast decision-making. Not only do we have a ‘flat organization,’ but we have an agency full of winners, instead of some groups that win while others lose.”
Erik Sollenberg’s own philosophy about the nature of our business was revealed in an editorial in the Swedish ad trade press some years ago; however, it is still viable today:
“To the question of what is important in choosing an agency, the “benefits to our business’ isn’t even on the list. Instead, ‘personal chemistry’ is considered the most important. Is it only me that considers this incredible and ominous? I took it as a given that the most important aspect in choosing an agency was the agency’s ability to promote the client’s business. Putting it simply—to do some good.
If our industry someday is to be valued in the way we think it rightfully deserves to be, we have to take what we are doing seriously. At all times, we’ve got to defend the principle idea that creativity has the ability to bring real business benefits to our clients. Only if this is true, do we on the whole have a real justification for existence. True innovation comes from solving a problem and not simply from the desire to be creative.”