Agencies Agency Models Sweden

How Toby Southgate plans to make Forsman & Bodenfors a global force to be reckoned with


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

January 30, 2023 | 9 min read

Toby Southgate became global CEO of Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors last year. Here’s his ambitious plan for the agency.

Toby Southgate, Forsman & Bodenfors

Toby Southgate is 18 months into the top gig at Forsman & Bodenfors / Forsman & Bodenfors

For most of us, the last three years haven’t yielded many opportunities to fill up the stamp pages of our passports. Toby Southgate’s must be overflowing by this point, however.

The Forsman & Bodenfors global chief exec flies between Britain and Sweden every other week, bringing his one-man London office to Gothenburg and Stockholm; in the first week of January, while the rest of us were still in shake-down mode, Southgate was off visiting Hong Kong. Next on the list is Shanghai. “There’s quite a lot of excitement about being able to do that,” he says. “It won’t be too long before I get out to see the team.”

Since he joined 18 months ago from McCann (he was chief growth officer for four years), Southgate has had a lot on his in-flight tray, from unfinished mergers with network stablemates to re-integrating its Asia Pacific offices after years of pandemic-enforced isolation. The brief, he says has principally been “continuing to bring the collective together.”

Forsman & Bodenfors Gothenburg team

The firm works with Haagen-Dazs, General Mills, Goldman Sachs and, of course, Volvo. But over the last six years, F&B has been through significant change that made a reset necessary: the acquisition by MDC, MDC’s merger with Stagwell and its own merger in 2019 with Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners. Its international outposts in Singapore and Shanghai had been built up around single large clients – and lacked the breadth of expertise present at home.

In its core Swedish market, the agency functioned as a group of “pretty successful”, but antisocial companies that rarely shared expertise or capabilities, he says, even while F&B’s reputation for strong creative was waning. The merger with KSB especially, Southgate says, was a case of unfinished business.

“Nothing really happened. The merger was announced and the name of the KBS offices changed… but operationalizing this connected or integrated model was overlooked. A couple of years later, not too much had been done to integrate the businesses.”

Since his appointment as global CEO, Southgate has zeroed in on remodeling the way the company is run, and on actually fulfilling the promise of its ‘collective’ agency structure. “We’ve evolved our management teams in most of our offices and put in place either new or reshuffled leadership teams,” he explains. “The mission of bringing everything together is really the has been the focus, setting the groundwork for that sharing strategy and the roadmap, making it happen both on client business and on new business.”

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He next focused on supporting the agency’s APAC offices with the time and investment needed to bounce back, now that China’s last significant travel restrictions have been lifted. “China probably needs more of a push than anyone else because they’ve been in it [the pandemic] for longer, and the impact on them as individuals and on the business has been more extreme than anywhere else.”

In the short term, that’ll mean getting back on the road. “We’ve got a constant dialogue with people in China and what we’ve heard is they really want a chance to engage in person with their colleagues again,” he says.

Though he warns that “the job is a long way from being done,” so far, signs are positive. The company was declared the most creative agency in Sweden last year by Indakat, for the first time since it was acquired by MDC. Just last week, it released a spectacular campaign that stacked cars in huge towers, to highlight the environmental cost of automobiles.

That means “at least one pretty significant proof point, in our biggest market, our home. It’s really important we do well here.”

Southgate wants the agency to start bidding for more international briefs as a “small, global, but beautifully formed” challenger. “We can provide a credible alternative to a big traditional network because we are certainly the creative equal of anyone.”

But with a long-lasting recession in the offing at home – one which the Swedish finance ministry has predicted the country won’t fully recover from until 2025 – holding on to, and increasing billings from existing clients is also critical.

“Our priority for the last year has been keeping the clients we’ve got and growing them by showing either a broader set of capabilities or a broader geographic capability they might not have known about,” he says.

Fame machine

The agency’s latest move – a new service line dubbed ‘Fame’ – is designed to meet both of those problems. In part a response to higher demand for comms services from clients, it brings planning around earned and shared media distribution much earlier into the strategic process, a technique the agency has already used ad-hoc with some existing clients, but is rolling out as a discrete offering with a dedicated team hired away from competitors over the summer of 2022.

Southgate argues at its core, the agency hopes the new proposition can help stretch marketing krona and dollars to take regional clients worldwide. “Even really big Swedish clients have never had enough media budget to broadcast a message to the whole world, to achieve global fame. So you need to really make the most of the impact of a creative idea. Which is why this set up of having PR and comms strategy together with creative at the beginning was something that we felt was a really good thing.”

He hopes the product will be able to offer clients a repeat of the agency’s lauded 2013 Volvo spot. Back then, the sight of Jean Claude van Damme doing the splits between two big rigs went viral without any paid media spend. “From the beginning, we’re thinking not only about a great creative spark that can answer the brief, but how we will orchestrate and activate that spark.”

The project neatly brings together Southgate’s priorities: flexing Forsman’s international muscles, business units working together and a reinforced creative offer.

“We think it’s something that will make a big difference,” he concludes.

Agencies Agency Models Sweden

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