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Global CEO Toby Southgate on what makes F&B ‘radically different’ from other agencies

CANNES, FRANCE — A renaissance is happening at top creative agency Forsman & Bodenfors (F&B). After 35 years, they’re taking on a new global direction and a new attitude to further elevate what they’ve always done to remain one of the world’s most awarded agencies: continuing their legacy as innovative problem solvers that exemplify creative excellence.

But F&B isn’t just stopping there; it has brought in new leadership too. To help pave the way to bigger things, Toby Southgate was appointed as F&B’s new global CEO last July 2021. In his role, Southgate helps drive global expansion and facilitate the growth and evolution of F&B.

Prior to this appointment, he spent the past four years as the global chief growth officer of McCann Worldgroup, where he led the strategic growth function and was responsible for big clients like Microsoft, Mastercard, and Nestle. With Southgate, Worldgroup won Network of the Year at Cannes Lions in 2019. He also spent a decade at Brand Union, WPP’s brand consulting unit, where he became WPP’s youngest network CEO and led Brand Union to their first major Cannes Lions and Effies wins.

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At Cannes Lions 2022, adobo Magazine Editor-in-Chief Angel Guerrero sat down with Southgate to talk about what working at F&B has been like and what his vision for the agency is with this renaissance underway.

“I’ve chosen to come and take on this challenge, work with these people, and move the agency forward,” Southgate said, talking about how the career move to lead F&B was one he made with change and improvement in mind. “And if Anna had talked to me and said ‘We just want to do things the same way for another 35 years,’ I don’t think it would be a partnership”.

Southgate also discussed how even with their sights set forward, it’s important to remember what F&B does well and to ensure that that legacy is continued and built upon.

“This has always been an incredibly potent, creative agency that has always done things slightly differently,” Southgate said. “The agency has always worked very, very hard to create ideas that can travel and sit and impact the world outside of a single space or a single channel. So, [we’re aiming for] more of that, for sure, [and it’s important to] remind ourselves that we’ve always been very good at this.”

Angel Guerrero with Forsman & Bodenfor’s Toby Southgate, Global CEO and Anna Qvennerstedt, Global Creative Chairman

When it comes to making the move to F&B, Southgate talks about the cultural leaps that he’s had to take and what differences that F&B embodies he believes are beneficial in terms of the work they put out.

“It’s easy to think that the way that F&B works is a Swedish way of working, and it’s not,” he expressed. “It’s an F&B way of working. Not every agency in Sweden works like F&B. And in fact, they set out to do that.”

Southgate called F&B “radically different” from other agencies that he’s encountered and worked with and that the pillars that make the agency special are actually really simple.

“[At F&B,] there’s a real belief that you’re here to do something good — to solve a problem at its highest level. There’s very little reactive or tactical or executional work that can’t be framed around a bigger challenge. And the teams embrace that. So, they’re not here to sell phones. They’re here to take a company and a brand in a new direction.”

Another thing that Southgate noticed upon coming to F&B was the integration that teams have at the agency. There are no clear-cut divisions of teams because of the level at which teams and individuals collaborate.

“[Strategy and creative teams] are all together all the time. And when they say, as they have for 35 years, that creative and strategy is one process, it really is one process, and it’s one team,” he explained. “You’d be really hard pushed to listen to a conversation amongst the team and think, ‘Okay, she’s the creative. She’s the planner. She’s the art director. She’s the writer.’ [That] all comes from connected thinking. And that’s really powerful.”

This level of collaboration and connected thinking is something that F&B achieves without great numbers in their teams either. Southgate made sure to highlight that a lot of their success is done with the talent and skill that the few hundred people at F&B are able to offer not despite but because of their small size.

“The thing that [big agencies] like to keep a little bit secret is that all the great work really happens in pretty small teams. The 10 or 20 or 30 people that work on client X. [It’s that] density of talent with a few hundred people,” Southgate said. “I would put our best twenty people against anyone’s best twenty people. And they’d be as good and maybe better. Everything is built by small teams [and] the density of greatness is where the focus is. That’s where we will keep our focus.”

It also helps that even with small teams, F&B has achieved great representation for women in their workforce. Southgate identifies this as something he’s really proud of and as a factor that paves way for more diverse thinking at F&B that ultimately brings them better results.

“We’re the only creative agency that is globally certified by The 3% Movement,” Southgate pointed out, referring to the movement that aims to change the fact that only 3% of creative directors are women and fights for more diversity in the industry overall. “Half of our offices are run by women. Almost every one of our big creative teams is led by a woman. It feels like we’ve not necessarily realized how powerful that can be in the work and what it does for how we work, how we approach problem-solving, and how we bring teams together. So, it’s a really powerful strength for us.”

Southgate’s mindset of prioritizing quality over quantity doesn’t just end with the people they have at the agency or the size of the teams. It also applies to how he approaches the expansion of F&B and the clients that they choose to work with

“I think we’re the perfect shape and size to work globally. We do work globally. I think the days of needing hundreds of offices and thousands of people to run global accounts or run global businesses have gone,” he said. “We don’t have a great ambition for more dots on maps. But the short term is just to remind everybody, particularly outside of Sweden, that this is a great and very creatively focused place to share a common ambition and to level up the creative output level of the product.

“And that’s going pretty well,” Southgate added. “In the longer term, it’s managed growth simply by unpicking the opportunities to do the kind of work that are greater. We don’t need to run every single piece of marketing or communications of [every] big global clients. We want to do the things that have impact because they’re the things that were scaled appropriately to do. The more selective we are, the better the outcome and the easier the journey. Claiming or over-claiming is not a good thing for anyone. It’s definitely not a good thing for us”

One instance that F&B shows what Southgate means when it comes to choosing to collaborate with the right clients is a recent campaign in which they partnered with Down Syndrome Internal (DSi) and The Diigitals to create the world’s first virtual influencer, Kami. To Southgate, this was an example of how they don’t mind where good ideas come from. If it makes the idea work, they’re open to collaboration and know it’s the right fit. F&B calls this “radical collaboration.”

“We alone couldn’t execute, build, design, launch this [virtual influencer],” Southgate shared regarding their decision to work with global digital modeling agency The Diigitals and DSi. “The Down Syndrome International people made it very authentic and real because this isn’t just a person we drew. It’s an amalgam of 100 real young women who really have Down Syndrome and who feel they are a part of this work as well, and that’s quite great.

“[Campaigns like these] only happen if you’re prepared to let your guard down a little bit. And contribute to an idea. Our team had it and contributed to it but knew very, very quickly that they needed help to make it real.”

“The world is full of great ideas that are not executed. And sometimes it takes a more enlightened approach to teamwork. It takes radical collaboration to make it a reality,” he insisted. “That’s what this agency has been built on.”

While Southgate talked primarily about quality in terms of every facet of their work culture and their goals as an agency, he’s aware that awards and numbers do talk. In fact, they’re a part of one F&B’s goals: get 20 Lions at next year’s Cannes festival.

“Saying out loud that we want to win 20 Lions was something we discussed internally. And [Anna Qvennersted and I] were both a little nervous. Not because it’s a big scary number – and it is quite a big scary number — but because we wondered what the people would say. And actually, the reaction has been fantastic. [It’s also that] clarity of being able to say that this is not the objective, it’s the outcome of doing things the right way, with the right teams, and at the right times. And the outcome might be the awards, but we’re not chasing the awards for their own sake.”

It goes without saying that Southgate is feeling optimistic about what’s coming for F&B, and for a good reason too. With a diverse team with what he calls the “density of greatness,” a pristine track record of not only amazing creative work but also of choosing the right teams and clients to work with, and clear set goals, F&B doesn’t seem like it will fall short of reaching great heights anytime soon.

“I feel great about the agency because we were in a good place,” Southgate said. “We’re at the right size, and we’re doing a couple of things that are very interesting in terms of bringing our teams more closely together and breaking down geographic borders and boundaries. We have a very clear focus on what we know and what we can do as well as anyone. And that’s quite the power.”

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