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The Iceland Forum

By The Drum, Administrator

January 5, 2005 | 8 min read

Meet hot prospects in a cool place” was Carnyx Group’s seductive spiel inviting advertising, PR and media agencies to hook up with some senior UK marketers at their inaugural marketing forum in Reykjavik.

“See the Northern Lights” was the carrot dangled in front of the marketers themselves, an ambiguous promise that could variously be interpreted as “See the brightest agency and media stars from the North of England and Scotland” or “Fancy a jolly in the Arctic?”

Now, Iceland is a country with which I am well acquainted. A couple of years ago I filmed an ad for Tennent’s in the “Land of Fire & Ice” and instantly fell in love with the island and its many dubious pleasures, most of them culinary.

Putrefied shark, raw puffin and seared dolphin (it’s OK, it was tuna-friendly) made a refreshing change from the steak bakes in my local Gregg’s and stimulated my curiosity as much as my taste buds. So much so, that I have since returned to this barmy country on a number of occasions to research and write a novel*.

Iceland itself may have been the big draw for some of the 20 senior people “in possession of a marketing budget in excess of £100k” but, having already seen it, done it and bought the Viking helmet, my motives for investing time and money in the forum were honest and chaste (assuming that honesty and chastity can be applied to the way we conduct business North of the Border).

The opportunity for agencies to chew the fat, or the whale blubber, with a number of key decision makers was simply too good to miss. More fundamentally, it was important to support any initiative that was so determinedly designed to showcase the best strategic and creative thinking OUTSIDE London.

It has long been a gripe that outside the M25 we don’t get a fair hearing, that we never get a look-in, despite having talent equal to or better than those who regularly damage their expense accounts in and around Soho. Thankfully, the only people griping in Reykjavik were those few disappointed souls who had to be informed that Iceland’s famous Ice Hotel is, in fact, in Sweden.

Iceland is a country famed for its storytelling and sagas, and the three-day forum could appropriately be viewed as three separate acts. Act one, scene one, was staged at the Blue Lagoon and introduced the main protagonists to each other. Forty of the finest marketing minds (if not physiques) in the UK, eschewed mere formalities like clothing, and immersed themselves in the milky, geothermal waters of this spectacular “man-made natural wonder”.

The lagoon presented us with a dilemma: where to pin the name badges that had been handed out to us at the airport? Not wishing to have my nipple pierced so early on in a business trip, I opted to remain badgeless and adopt a more enigmatic approach to introductions. This involved a gruff “hello” to the featureless silhouettes wading through the steaming lagoon, some of them German tourists, completely unconnected to the forum, who then summoned a lifeguard when I proffered a soggy business card.

Stripped of our clothes, our identities and our job titles, the opportunity to network was limited. Fortunately, our partial nudity also stripped us of the formalities that often blight these marketing get-togethers. It is a cliché in public speaking that, if you are nervous addressing a room full of people, you should imagine your audience naked. We didn’t need to use our imaginations in The Blue Lagoon and thus it was the perfect icebreaker.

Act one, scene two, was staged at Perlan (“The Pearl”), a glass-domed restaurant that presides over Reykjavik from its lofty perch on top of five water towers. Seating plans had been drawn up for each of the three evenings, rotating the forum delegates at each meal to maximise networking opportunities. Unfortunately, The Pearl is a revolving restaurant, so the seating plans were swiftly thrown out of its not inconsiderable windows.

I, like others, had the unenviable experience of stepping up to the buffet, filling my plate with five varieties of herring, and then returning to my table, only to discover that it wasn’t my table at all. My tablemates had revolved to the other side of the restaurant and I found myself sitting with the German couple that I had earlier accosted at the lagoon. Mercifully, the Carnyx team stepped in, assuring Mr and Mrs Vogts that I was not a stalker and persuading them not to press charges.

Despite Reykjavik’s reputation as the party capital of Europe – beer only became legal in 1989 and locals have been making up for lost time – we were conscious that day two of the forum involved an 8 a.m. start and wall-to-wall business meetings, so it was early to bed and up with the lark (or puffin, if you prefer).

The forum’s second act comprised nine scenes, each one a face-to-face meeting between agency and potential client that was restricted to half-an -hour, with a two-minute warning before the end, delivered rather firmly by Carnyx Group’s aspiring dominatrix, Nicola Forrest.

Initially, thirty minutes did not seem long enough to bore each client with a relentless PowerPoint detailing how fabulous we are. Given forty minutes, we might really have beaten them into submission, reduced them to tears and had them grabbing the air and pleading, “Enough already ... where do I sign?”

But ultimately, like a finger of fudge, the half hour was just enough. There were even some who considered it extravagant when compared to their previous experiences on the Oriana “Love Boat”, where thirty-two meetings in seven hours was considered a walk in the park.

Our heads well and truly buzzing from the one-to-ones, we were rudely denied the downtime, the recuperative pint or the shock therapy that we so evidently needed. Instead, we were bussed out to a film production studio that has become something of a global phenomenon on the outskirts of Reykjavik.

Lazytown Entertainment has spent the last decade creating and filming a children’s series set in the eponymous town and has recently sold the rights to the US and Canada. A Sesame Street for the 21st century, Lazytown is the brainchild of Magnus Scheving, a former aerobics world champion who has created a universe where children are encouraged to “move” and embrace a healthier, more positive lifestyle.

A cross between Willy Wonka and Jean Claude Van Damme, Magnus has been known to walk into CEO offices on his hands and perform back flips on boardroom tables. His presentation style is IN YOUR FACE, but he does it with such charm and such unshakable self-belief that he had all the ladies swooning and all the men doing press-ups.

I had spent a long day doing my best to keep some of these marketers awake, let alone seducing them with my case studies, yet within 33 seconds of entering the room Magnus had us all dancing the funky gibbon. I hate every bone in his taut yet flexible body.

With all that unsavoury and vulgar “business” stuff out of the way, the last act of the three-day forum involved packing all forty of us into 4x4’s with wheels the size of bouncy castles and off-roading it to Iceland’s dark, volcanic interior.

Judging by the odious smells in the jeep, which I shared with various representatives of Radio Clyde, Intelligent Finance, Propaganda, Frame© and Mediacom, either Iceland’s sulphur pits are still hyperactive or we were all experiencing “reverberations” from the ungodly combination of guillemot, reindeer and smoked lamb that we’d digested the previous evening.

An afternoon of geysers, golden waterfalls (no sniggering at the back) and glacial skidooing rounded off our Icelandic adventure. Now, I have a long-held belief that the best marketing people are those who aren’t afraid to take risks. The fact that all the assembled delegates eagerly leapt on to their skidoos and brazenly launched themselves on to 400 square miles of unmapped glacier, in a total “whiteout”, with no GPS, gives me great encouragement for the future of brand building.

And wasn’t that, after all, the whole point of the trip?

* The Killer’s Guide to Iceland by Zane Radcliffe is published in April 2005 at an unbelievable, unmissable, unputdownable £6.99. From all discerning bookstores.

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