Searching for the Danish way
Having won the IPRN Project of the Year in 2015, my agency, Nexus Communications, gave me the opportunity to take up the prize of visiting one of our international partners to share experiences and see what agency specific and broader cultural differences we might be able to adopt to inform the way we work on a day to day basis.
I spent time with two agencies, Traeger Kommunikation, and Kragelund Kommunikation, in Aarhus, Denmark, determined to understand how such a small country has consistently packed such a big punch in terms of influence when it comes to design (more traditionally), and now food, where their top chefs have really driven modern cooking trends, including pickling, fermentation and foraging, not to mention the desire for ultra-local sourcing. Traeger consists of two full-time employees and Kragelund fifteen.
Aarhus, known as The City of Smiles, also felt like a good place to investigate the truth behind Denmark’s famed reputation of a high functioning society that treads a perfect balance between work and home life.
The 4.00 to 4.30 work day finishes, albeit with slightly earlier start times, local beach and minimal commute may have something to do with this reputation. Or indeed the ready availability of coffee, served strictly black, which is welcome for most PR’s and particularly working parents of young children, such as myself. If that doesn’t work the stand up adjustable desks, which are a legal requirement, definitely help to keep people alert and avoid mid-afternoon energy slumps.
However, all joking aside, there is a high level of respect shown for each other, in and out of the office, that I observed throughout my time there, which seemed to sit at the root of many of the cultural differences and ways of working. At Nexus, we have a team based approach, but I wouldn’t say that is true of UK culture more generally. Of course, I am speculating, but the importance placed on the collective over the individual was clearly apparent during my time in Denmark. Even the adjustable desks reflected this approach – working particular well in the standing position if you want to share your screen with multiple people.
The importance of the collective was often highlighted in small acts, but could be seen more obviously in the tradition of everyone taking the time to share a lunch of Smørrebrød, traditional Nordic open sandwiches, together at 12.00 every day. Often this is provided and prepared by the company, or alternately people pay a small amount and take turns in purchasing and preparing the food. This was an alien concept for someone like me who is used to dashing out to a local sandwich shop when hunger compels me in-between client calls, but something that I really enjoyed. Great PR, to state the obvious, is about great communication, and this process encourages people to share on a daily basis. Whether conversation is work related or more personal it helps to promote the act of sharing, bonding the team and helping to encourage greater cross agency collaboration and giving voice to more junior members of the team.
In general, everyone I met was also very open and happy to share what they were doing, with whom they were working and even financial details, areas that some UK agencies, if not all, might feel more sensitive about. I was even invited to take an active role in a client meeting, offering genuine insight into their way of working.
The ‘shared’ ethic was emphasised at Traeger, as they share office space with a number of other like-minded agencies, covering communications and packaging design. Even in my short stay I witnessed some of the benefits of this approach, with agencies passing work to others they felt would be better suited to it, or simply asking for advice from those they felt had better knowledge. When you are busy it can be easy to fall into the trap of working in silos, among those with whom you usually work closely and Traeger’s approach really helped to underline the importance of continually sharing, keeping lines of communication open so you are ready to embrace any insight, ideas and critique that you may not have considered.
This open-ness extends to new business. It was interesting to see that Kragelund also use the dining room to display the status of all of their new business leads, using these visual cues to help keep the whole agency up to speed with what’s happening and, hopefully, sparking inspiration in-between mouthfuls of the delicious sandwiches. Something I’m happy to champion at Nexus now I’m home – the sandwiches and the new business cues! The important thing here is that it sends a clear message that new business is not the sole responsibility of the senior team, or new business team, everyone is collectively encouraged to shape the future of the agency.
Both agencies also draw inspiration from their surroundings. Aarhus is a city built on learning, with a large University and the youngest population in Denmark, not to mention countless museums, and a spectacular new public library on the sea front, and both agencies use this energy in their work.
Kragelund use the rooftop art installation at ARoS, the modern art museum with views across the city, as an off-site location to inspire ideas when they want to escape the office environment, and I can see why. Based in London, with Hyde Park, the V&A, Science and Natural History Museums on our doorstep we have done similar, but I will be visiting them more frequently from now on.
In terms of specific observations on food, it was great to sample some of the big Nordic food trends first hand – pickling, fermentation and hyper local sourcing – at the fantastic restaurant at the top of ARoS. Meat was also cured, vegetables and herbs grown, and honey produced from the rooftop location.
It was equally interesting browsing the supermarket shelves, where there is a clear demand for local products, made with responsibly sourced ingredients. While there is demand in the UK for similar products, it felt more pronounced in Denmark where people seem to be more receptive to the story of a product and not purely motivated by its price, which is helpful when it comes to PR and projecting an identity to say the least. In terms of product innovation, my personal highlight was a premium box of hens eggs, packed with straw. It looked fantastic and while simple it delivered great on-shelf stand-out as it was so far removed from the traditional concept of an egg box.
Both agencies, although different, offered similar lessons and reminders about the fundamentals of good PR, which remain in whatever market you operate. Collaboration, being open to ideas and sharing were at the centre of the office culture, but they were also very hard working, organised and efficient, qualities which helped to promote a relaxed atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable and in control. While I do not think my short stay quite revealed the secret behind the City of Smiles, the experience was invaluable. Now, more importantly, where can I get myself a good Smørrebrød round here…
Phil Slaney, Senior Account Manager, Nexus Communications