Along with fourteen other creative and digital agency owners, drawn from leading agencies in the North West, I was invited by Business Growth Hub to join the first cohort of their new Amplify program facilitated by consultants Form. The program kicked off with a study trip to visit and learn from some of the leading creative organisations and businesses in Denmark and one in Sweden, with global reputations.
The first of which was to the studios of DR, Denmark's state broadcaster which operates on very similar lines to our own BBC. DR relocated to the site in 2007, a completely new facility which is comprised of TV and radio production studios, offices and a concert hall all built on a regenerated site known locally and delightfully as 'Shit Island' as it was the area the residents of the medieval city of Copenhagen simply dumped their dumps. DR are renown for their 'Scandi Noir' productions such as The Bridge, Borgen and The Killing but as a publicly funded broadcaster they have to balance output for all social groups and minority interests in a politically led agenda. Therefore audiences in the tens of thousands are common and even a new flagship entertainment show was only attracting viewers in from one to two hundred thousand, although it should be noted Denmark's population is around five and a half million. Much like the BBC, DR has to struggle with commercial competitors and new media channels such as Netflix, leading budgetary constraints. Somewhat unfortunately, our visit was during a week in which a round of redundancies had taken place, otherwise known as 'tappings', which are a tap on the shoulder to go to an ominous meeting. Needless to say, the mood of our guide and the place itself was somewhat sombre. We felt we needed to lift ourselves so went for a few beers and a very nice meal.
The following day we headed by train to Malmo in Sweden (yes it is over the sea but there's a series of islands connected by a bridge) which was just half an hour away to visit digital agency Us two. Us two works for clients sch as BMW, and in collaboration with partners like Google but also on their own work which includes the game Monument Valley which nets them some five million a year. Their vision is 'to create a world where digital experiences transform people's daily lives' and they place a heavy emphasis on creating a working environment that feels like home and by working in teams: "Mastering and being the best at your craft is as important as ever but the most dynamic companies today are also masters of collaboration. We believe real genius exists in the collective and our purpose is to explore that concept to the unleash the collective genius."
To achieve this they strive for a culture of openness and trust investing heavily in their processes such as IMGD (Integrated Model of Group Development) and in their people. In fact our presenter's role was actually a coach focused on cultivating effective relationships within their teams and with clients. They had spaces in their studios dedicated to this from the more usual meeting rooms to social areas including a ground floor canteen and games rooms. Their many feedback processes varied from informal 'fireside chats' and socials, to formal reviews and retrospectives. It's safe to say that the approach and work we saw at Us two was the most influential and inspirational of the trip as it was constantly referred to by the group. Plus they gave us a very nice lunch.
We all headed back to the train station for the short journey to Copenhagen and a visit to Space 10 'a future-living lab'. The nearest thing I can compare Space 10 to is an art college as the work was entirely focused on creativity rather than commerce. Their mission is to '... enable a better, more meaningful and sustainable life for the many people.' To do this they undertake lots of research into changes in society, such as urbanisation, that are driving 'how we will live in 2030'. They then come up with ideas to address this potential before designing and prototyping them some of which were so futuristic they seemed more like the flying cars or androids of a sci-fy film. By way of an example, they looked at self driving cars and the future of urban mobility before creating the Spaces on Wheels concept - "a Playful Research project that challenges the traditional idea of the car and explores how we can re-purpose it to create a more fulfilling life on wheels." This resulted in things like farms and entertainment rooms on wheels which would autonomously drive round communities so residents could buy and pick a fresh cabbage from one or jump into the other and watch a film.
All of which is fascinating but obviously expensive as any possible return on investment is probably decades away, so it's only made possible by funding from Space 10's backers, IKEA, who seem happy to chuck a few million from their many billions at it. Part of Space 10's agenda is to challenge IKEA's strategies and thinking at a very high level, in return IKEA benefit from their research, from engagement levels and I guess from the PR of being seen to be supporting this type of experimentation. They also retain ownership all the IP from the ideas generated from Space 10 so may reap some commercial ward in the, probably distant, future.
The next day, following another very nice night out in the delightful city of Copenhagen, we headed to the offices of Pleo, which were actually quite near Space 10's in the meat packing district. In many ways Pleo was the polar opposite to Space 10 in that it was very commercially driven fintech start up which has developed a company payment card solution which also creates expense reports to simplify company spending. Many corporates and mid sized organisations have moved away from a centralised procurement process to a distributed one which allows purchases by individuals, because things like Google let us to find the best deals on a flights or a laptop very easily and of course e-commerce then allows us to purchase with a credit card. This does however create issues around control of costs/approvals and reconciliations.
The Co-founder and CEO of Pleo, Jeppe Rindom, a six foot six tall lantern jawed Dane who might have come straight from a GQ shoot, explained how Pleo had been developed to address these issues and automate the process through smart payments and receipt capture. He talked through their journey and the challenges they've faced. This started with research and prototyping to assess the viability of the concept before developing the app, the payment engine including licences from the payment providers and meeting compliance requirements. Achieving even an MVP version took a year before six months of testing with early adopters. His second challenge has been to build a team capable to deliver and grow the concept, so have focused on finding people with the right passion and entrepreneurship. Thirdly, the challenge of turning an idea into a world leading spending platform capable of handling huge amounts of data and transactions.
The technology and systems they've put in place to deliver this was outlined by the other co-founder and CTO Nico Perra who, by way of contrast, was a short but very smiley Italian. Nico gave us an insight into the complexity of the solution and of issues such as compliance and anti fraud measures which carry huge risks as failure in either area can be catastrophic. He explained that their process included measures to identify these risks with a new acronym to me: TTCFUU or Things That Can Fuck Us Up. They decided to roll out the platform in the UK initially, as well as Denmark as it's a much bigger market, which has been successful so they're about to start in Germany and Sweden. Obviously developing, marketing and scaling a business of this type is a very expensive exercise and they've received twenty three million dollars worth of investment so far.
The final session was delivered by Pelle Martin, owner of digital agency Spring Summer. This was the most relate-able visit of the trip as Spring Summer are a small agency focused on 'brand and commerce through design and technology' much like ourselves. Pelle presented a series of case studies which demonstrated an approach focused on the real craft of design, creativity and attention to detail. He placed real emphasis on the user experience and that every aspect of this should strengthen the product and the brand '...it should present it, demonstrate it and tell the story by highlighting details and leading the user to discover more.' Just one example of this detail was in the much overlooked loading sequence, which typically is a standard spinning circle or bouncing ball, but he argued that this is the first thing a user sees so the journey strts here. By creating something innovative, there's an opportunity to both captivate the user and reinforce the brand. But this also diverts the user's attention away from the waiting time, which results in a reduced perceived waiting time. Pelle showed us the 'navigating responsibly' website they'd built for their client Danish Shipping, which uses a simple waving line animation for loading but this then breaks up to form the main navigation and create the theme for transitions. It's designed and executed with real beauty. He went through other examples of using animations and transitions that really enhance the user experience and justify the investment in time - these weren't just design for design's sake.
Added to the knowledge gained from the visits, there was plenty of time during our traveling and socialising to chat with the other members of the group who, being agency owners themselves, had many useful experiences and insights to add. If the objective of the trip was to inspire us, then it certainly worked as I've been talking to everyone at bd2 about some of the things I've learned and which I'll be implementing internally and with our clients.