ABBA brought us disco and still spawn catchy show tunes at an impressive rate. Ikea, the friendly furniture giant, won its way into our homes by serving up bookshelves and beds with a side order of… meatballs?
Platonic unisex saunas. Eccentric, blob-shaped cars. A wrist-slashingly morose national cinema, which nevertheless claims a cozy role as film theory’s eternal darling. The mysterious Swedish bikini team.
Sweden, this anomalous, oblong nation of 9 million, wedged as comfortably as an axe into Europe’s forehead, has enriched the world with a wildly disproportionate number of creations. Some nutty, some mythical, some not even Swedish at all – but many real and quite enduring. Most are easily consumable, charming, attractive, even downright sexy. Together they form an innocuous and palatable national image, which, had it been purpose-built to lull us all into cheerful submission, could hardly be doing a better job.
In our own sphere of digital advertising, Swedes are surprisingly omnipresent. For years, digital agencies and production companies with innocent-sounding names like Farfar (“Grandpa”), North Kingdom, Perfect Fools, Daddy, Great Works, and Acne – yes, that adolescent skin affliction – have topped the A-lists and racked up an impressive row of major prizes. While there is no official tally, a large minority of Creative Social’s current members are also from Sweden.
All this when less than 0.15 per cent of the world’s population is actually Swedish. What gives?
Although I’m an American by birth – born and raised in Oregon, about as far as you can get from Sweden and still be in the Western world – I’ve lived and worked in Stockholm since 1994, almost all of that time in digital advertising. Along the way I’ve had a unique chance to watch the Swedish digital industry grow from an embryo into a svelte teen.
These days when I travel I’m regularly asked: what exactly is going on way up there in the North? Why, for example, when a well-known American agency recently pitched out a new campaign for one of the world’s top brands, were all four of the competing digital production companies from Stockholm? Is it something in the water?
The paranoid American in me is always tempted to joke about Sweden’s secret push towards world domination. Is there something more sinister lurking behind that cool Scandinavian facade? Unlike most non-Swedes I’ve learned that the country, as recently as the eighteenth century, in fact, controlled much of continental Europe as well as a far-flung if modest colonial empire. They regularly fought head-to-head with the Russians, often to Russia’s disadvantage. While Swedes are loath to admit it, many do harbor a secret nostalgia for this “Great Power” period in their country’s history.
But in truth, I don’t actually think Swedes are out to run the world. Luckily for the rest of us, that line of thinking is a thing of their distant past. Today’s Swedes just want to do what they want to do the way they want to do it. Ironically, it’s because of this fact that they frequently end up taking leading roles in whatever endeavor they set their minds to.
So what is it about the Swedish approach that’s so uniquely effective, not least when it comes to digital advertising? Twenty years ago I studied a unit on “The Swedish Way” as part of a college comparative economics course. I still remember the textbook’s bone-dry explanation of Sweden’s success. The rigorous exercise of democracy, careful compromises between capital and labor, and the good fortune of finding itself with Europe’s only unmolested industrial base at the end of World War II all enabled a unique third path between democratic capitalism and Soviet socialism.
Swedish social democracy seemed to offer the best of all worlds. National health care, generous vacation and parent leave, and other social benefits – even true gender equality. Together they helped yield long lifespans and a high overall quality of life. And all this was driven with jobs provided by successful multinational capitalist industrial giants.
But after arriving in Sweden, I found that my textbook was far behind the times. Swedes today work not within the system the book described but rather in that system’s aftermath. Most of the great Swedish multinationals like Volvo, Saab, ABBA, and Ericsson have either been sold off to foreign owners or have themselves chosen to move large parts of their operations abroad. National health care survives but its future at its present scale looks shaky. Sweden in the past thirty years, like the rest of the world, has drifted much nearer to democratic capitalism and can hardly be said to be on any kind of distinct third path any longer.
And yet the Swedish Way rolls on. Reformatted for the twenty-first century, Sweden 2.0 is in many respects just as successful as ever. At its core remains a set of principles that I have seen work well firsthand over my decade and a half here. In my view, these principles are what have probably always driven the Swedish story. They are the cultural factors that unite the many generations of Swedish success, including the era described by my old textbook, as well as our current one. These are:
1. Responsibility with freedom. This is the fundamental Swedish approach to work. Swedes work hard and require each and every member of the team to deliver. In return, as long as they live up to this tough ethic, they expect and generally get a degree of freedom to decide over their own work environments. It’s not a free-for-all – just a tacit agreement and expectation that any responsibility given will be shouldered and a detailed task list is not always required to get things done.
One important advantage of this system, where every team member has the space and the right to think for him- or herself, is that it often allows the creation of unexpected but better solutions to broader team challenges. Another advantage is that it is possible to accomplish much more with fewer people than is common in many other cultures.
2. A willingness to stand up for healthy work–life values. As hard as Swedes work, they are equally demanding when it comes to their free time. With a state-mandated ?ve weeks and often at least six weeks of vacation each year, plus a generous buffet of national holidays, Swedes take their time off seriously.
In my own native country, where people frequently have two or three weeks of paid vacation, many are still wary of taking even that much time out of the office, seemingly for fear of not having a job when they get back. A Swede would never think this way. In her opinion, any organization that would discriminate against her for taking necessary rest time away to recharge her batteries is not one worth working for.
Likewise, Swedes are willing to stand up to the powers that be to maintain a healthy daily balance. Parents will frequently leave work at four o’clock or even earlier in the afternoon to pick up their children from the country’s excellent child-care system. And it is generally considered poor form to schedule or otherwise expect weekend work.
While all of this might seem to reflect a slacker mentality, nothing could be further from the truth. Swedes take their work very seriously – but they work to live, rather than live to work. They recognize that without balanced home lives, they will be far less effective at what they do, they will fail in raising a healthy next generation, and moreover the point of all their hard work – living a good life – will be lost. The result: when a Swede does finally get down to work, she is charged, fresh, full of new ideas cultivated during down time, and ready to get things done.
3. Modesty. Swedish culture is self-effacing. Generally it is considered fult att skryta, which means “ugly to brag.” In fact, Swedes (and Scandinavians in general, for that matter) take modesty almost to a fault with a phenomenon known as Jantelagen, or Jante Law, an unwritten rule that can be summed up with the statement “don’t think you are special.” Under Jantelagen, behaviour that even smacks of immodesty can be grounds for social ostracization. So it’s no wonder Swedes take an understated, modest approach seriously.
While the latest generation of Swedes might be relatively brasher and more vocal than their forebears, they’re still far more toned down than their international counterparts. Thanks to this, a wider range of voices, including those of many juniors, are able to come to the fore in the various ongoing debates. It also means that credit is often, although not always, given where it is actually due. The idea that successful hard work will in fact be properly rewarded is a big motivator.
4. Collabetition. Swedes are extremely competitive. For example, they love sports and excel at its higher forms, such as the Olympics. But as members of a small nation, they have also developed a keen understanding not only of the advantages but even the necessity of effective collaboration, of working together as a team with people of differing views and backgrounds in order to overcome challenges.
The result is something I’ve come to think of as collabetition, a system that is both collaborative and competitive at the same time. Collabetition exists both within and between organizations. Within a business, flat management structures enhance the personal sense of creative ownership and speed up information transfer between all members of the team.
Different Swedish organizations can also often be collabetitive. In some cases, even direct competitors will join together to tackle a shared challenge, allowing them to overcome together a hurdle each would have been too small to jump on its own.
5. Honesty, fairness, and mutual loyalty. Whether it is out of an inherent national goodness or simply because with its small population Sweden functions like a cultural island – where you know if you treat people badly you will have to face them on the street some day soon – Swedes tend to act decently in their business and other dealings. People speak their minds, lifting uncomfortable truths to the surface where they can be aired and exorcised more effectively, rather than burying their suspicions when they know something is wrong for fear of angering superiors. It is a country of verbal agreements, where deals are still sometimes done on a handshake, and even written agreements are far briefer than their foreign counterparts.
And finally, there remains in Sweden something that has been lost in many other places: a sense of compact or loyalty between employee and employer. When taking a job, an employee generally aims to stick with their new place of work for three or more years. Mainline employment is still largely full-time rather than contract based. And strict layoff rules generally keep employers from callously overstaffing.
All of these forms of honorable behaviour, along with many others, hold myriad bene?ts. Most of all they enable simpler, more rational, and at the same time longer-term choices on the part of everyone involved in the economic equation.
Honesty helps teams avoid unnecessary and costly mistakes. A simple legal structure makes life easier for businesses trying to get things done and individuals hoping to be treated fairly. And mutual loyalty means an employer can commit to long-term investments in employee training, development, and happiness, while employees spend less of their time searching for the next job and focus more on doing their best in their current one.
6. Innovation. Technical innovation has been a key ingredient to Swedish business success since at least the time of the great industrials like Nobel, Ericsson, Tetra Pak, and Saab. Today’s Swedish digitals benefited in their childhood from the country’s innovation tradition in many ways, including access to state-subsidized home computers (subsidies came through tax rebates) as well as high-quality, government-funded communications networks.
But Swedes aren’t just technical innovators; they also have a long history of aesthetic innovation. Functionalism, modernism, and many other twentieth-century design and architecture trends had leading Swedish proponents. And the country’s broad global reputation for quality aesthetics, as well as a cultural expectation of aesthetic innovation, were clear starting points for the more recent Swedish digital industry.
7. Acceptance of failure. Finally, if all of this so far makes Swedes sound like superhumans, take heart. They do in fact fail – pretty often, as it turns out. But here again a good cultural pressure-release valve comes to their assistance: a willingness to accept and learn from failure. While other cultures might blindly contend that failure is not an option, Swedes generally accept that some failure is bound to happen.
One thing that amazed me during my early years here was how utterly a Swedish politician might fail and still hold on to his job. What I didn’t understand at the time was that in many Swedes’ view, that politician had just become one important experience richer and was all the more valuable for it. Moreover, taking someone’s career away from him is taking away his livelihood, something considered altogether too drastic for anything short of the worst crimes.
A similar mentality seems to run through most Swedish organizational culture. Failure is obviously not the preference. But as long as it is honest and not repetitive, and especially if it is learned from, it is tolerated. Two great advantages of this are an increased willingness to take risks and a decrease in time spent worrying about losing one’s job over making the wrong decisions. Both are powerful factors in generating positive results.
With all of the above in mind, Sweden might sound like some kind of impossible paradise, where great work springs purely from the sweat-free brow of ever-harmonious colleagues. None of that is true, of course. Sweden is an everyday place, much like any other, with its own shortcomings, such as rampant workplace politics, occasionally stifling conformity and narrow-mindedness, and even bouts of xenophobia. And as mentioned earlier, it also has its frequent failures, just like everywhere else.
But there are many elements of the Swedish Way that do make the country highly effective, and a number of these have also contributed to the success of Swedish digital advertising around the globe. And while Sweden’s world-domination days are behind it, I for one hope the elements of the Swedish Way I’ve described do find their own way out and around the world, along with the great Swedish work that has proved so popular.
Despite cultural differences, these principles are just as applicable in Seattle, Singapore, or Sydney as they are in Stockholm. Sweden will never rule the world, but many aspects of the Swedish mentality do rule. And if you choose to, you can also make them part of your world today.
Here are my top ten tips to make your world a little more Swedish:
1. Work hard every day you work, be modest, and don’t look for shortcuts.
2. Prioritize your private life, and refuse to compromise it away for work. If you need to, trade a higher salary for more time off.
3. Tell uncomfortable truths, and skip the jargon.
4. Always innovate. If it has been done before, do it differently or don’t do it at all.
5. Collaborate, and give credit where credit is due.
6. If you’ve got that sweet corner office, turn it into your team’s project room and move your desk back out onto the floor.
7. Keep structures and titles as flat as possible. You may need your title on occasion, but don’t take it too seriously or use it as a wall.
8. Promote the doctrine that everyone contributes ideas.
9. Kill your darlings for the good of the project.
10. Cultivate a culture of responsibility with freedom. Let people know that they’re allowed to fail, and don’t punish honest failure.