Always happy to see examples of a symbiosis between my old world of Sweden and my new world of California. Such was the case when I had the honor of hosting a representative of the fascinating digital creative agency success factory North Kingdom in my Internet/Social Media Marketing class at Chapman University. During an enlightening presentation, Daniel Ilić, who heads up the US operation and serves as the Executive Creative Director and Partner of North Kingdom, shone a light on what makes up their culture and explained how it helps them produce world-class digital content and experiences for top brands such as Disney, Google, Beats by Dre, Netflix, Lucasfilm, UFC, Toyota, Volvo, LG Electronics, McDonald's, and Lego. During Daniel's presentation, some themes of the North Kingdom culture emerged and they were very consistent with the picture painted by Daniel's predecessor in the US, Mr. Jakob Nylund, who helped prepare our Business in Scandinavia MBA travel group what a Scandinavian business culture is all about a couple of years ago.
A Frozen Land Breeds Remarkable Creativity
North Kingdom was founded in the city of Skellefteå in Västerbotten County up in northern Sweden. During the long, cold, and dark winters, not everyone could play for Skellefteå AIK, the team that has completely dominated Swedish elite hockey over the last decade. Nor could everyone achieve international pop success like legendary Skellefteå bands The Wannadies, This Perfect Day, or The Drowners (all contemporaries by the way of my brother David Myhr‘s band The Merrymakers). Left over were some childhood friends who bonded in the Skellefteå AIK youth soccer team before forming North Kingdom where they eventually found an outlet for their own form of creativity in helping international brands create unique digital experiences.
Just like my own hometown of Piteå in Norrbotten County an hour north, Skellefteå is part of what is now marketed as Swedish Lapland as creative entrepreneurs have turned ice cold winters from a liability to a treasure. You can achieve global awareness and attract international visitors with the icy offerings such as the ICEHOTEL, northern lights, dogsledding, igloo weekends, or with Japanese-style “Yukigassen” snowball fights. Even Facebook found that frozen is golden as they established its first major data center up in the city of Luleå partially thanks to the fact that the cold climate reduces the costs of cooling the data server halls. Now other international brands such as BMW Group has also found its way to “The Node Pole” at the Fortlax Data Center in Piteå founded by my friend Anders Berglund.
By still having the bulk of their operations based up in Skellefteå, North Kingdom, mainly serving international clients, always comes in as an outsider and thereby is in a better position to see things differently than people inside a bubble would. “A nomad's perspective is always different” as Daniel expressed it.
Daniel Ilić also stressed that the winter darkness gives you creative opportunities simply because the mere thought that a small company up in arctic Sweden could compete and do business with global brands is so absurd that it spurs people up there in the cold darkness to come up with some really crazy ideas and to experiment with studid things that sometimes turn out to be quite remarkable. And that, remarkability, is exactly what is in short supply in an age when being different is a requirement to catch the attention of people in an ocean of sameness. “Safe is risky,” and bad or even bizarre ideas are what you need to get your ideas to spread as Seth Godin emphasized in a TED Talk.
Cultural Traits of Curiosity and Courage
I specifically asked Daniel Ilić to share not only some digital communication insights and expertise but also to teach my students at least two words of Swedish. The two words he chose, “nyfikenhet” (curiosity) and “mod” (courage) turned out to perfectly capture the essence of the cultural traits that beyond the cold climate help explain why this small Swedish firm of North Kingdom has been able to acheive such astounding and award-winning success at the Cannes Lions Festival, etc.
Nobody gets hired by North Kingdom unless they can demonstrate an insatiable curiosity, i.e., they are motivated by their “nyfikenhet” constantly searching for new insights, inspiration, and knowledge and then people share what they have learned by teaching others. Teaching is highly valued and one of the founders, David Eriksson, is a former High School teacher.
Curiosity also helps North Kingdom learn from the customers with more intent by listening more carefully and trying to understand what their real issues are. Sometimes, this means speaking to the customers for hours on the phone mainly letting the client let off some steam about what is going on in their worlds.
When it comes to courage or “mod,” Daniel means that staff get emboldened by an extremely supportive team spirit that characterizes North Kingdom. People feel that they can stretch the envelope with out-of-the-box ideas as discussed above as they work collaboratively in teams getting instant feedback and where they constantly spur each other on. Gone are the days when creative agency work was done in siloed departments of single-area specialists and North Kingdom seems to have found the formula for team-based success.
Scandinavian Hours and Vacation
Finally, Daniel Ilić, explained how he worked hard to maintain a Swedish managerial style even as he heads up the US subsidiary. For example, if he finds someone working in the office at 6:30 pm, he kicks them out asking them what they are still doing there, that they should be going home and that he should join them on the way out! Similarly, the Swedish minimum vacations of five or six weeks are also “enforced” 🙂 In the end, healthy and happy employees are better and more creative employees. Which reminds me, I should go to bed now, so good night!