Forsman & Bodenfors' Björn Engström on Volvo Trucks, Van Damme and winning a black Pencil.
Madrid, two days before the shoot. I’m in a flamenco bar with Jean-Claude Van Damme, the art director Sophia Lindholm and the director Andreas Nilsson.
Jean-Claude just loves flamenco. And the script. And us.
Everything is perfect. Everybody is happy.
Then Sophia and I decide that it’s time to go home. We have a long drive to our hotel, out in the middle of nowhere but close to the deserted airport where we are going to film the most epic of splits.
"But why are you going so early? We have so much fun together!" Jean-Claude says, maybe a bit surprised that we don’t seem to be star-struck at all. (We are, of course.)
"We can stay together in my hotel room here in Madrid."
A few minutes later, we are leaving Jean-Claude and his friends.
That’s very Swedish, very Forsman & Bodenfors. Stay in the kitchen, keep your eyes on the idea. Work, work, work.
The creative team…(l-r) Anders Eklind (art director), Martin Ringqvist (copywriter), Lindholm and Engström
Another strange thing with the agency is that we don’t have creative directors. Or executive creative directors. Which means that the art directors and copywriters could talk directly to the president of Volvo Trucks. (And Jean-Claude.) The team is deciding for itself, and all the creatives are trying to help each other to become better than we are.
We don’t have a digital department – all creatives work with digital. Nor do we have a planning department. The planners do the research together with the copywriters and the art directors.
It was in one of these countless interviews with Volvo engineers that the embryo of "the epic split" was formed. In the middle of the meeting, the engineer said: "By the way, the other day I reversed with a truck and a trailer at high speed. I didn’t think it was possible, but with the new steering system…"
And there it was.
But the epic journey really started long before that. When we began to work for Volvo Trucks four years ago, we understood nothing.
First, we tried to create slogans and write scripts for TV ads. Until we realised that there were no TV channels to run the ads on. And no media budget for that either.
So we went back to school. For a year, we had to learn nearly everything about trucks, drivers and haulage operators.
One of the first findings was that trucks are highly emotional products. And that the actual target group – the operators – are surrounded by lots of influencers such as drivers, friends and family.
But what could we do to reach all of these people without a media budget? The only way seemed to be viral.
Easier said than done.
The second that Jean-Claude's name came up, we knew this was the way to do it
Initially, our plan was trial and error. If we could come up with as many ideas as possible, some would work, wouldn’t they? And we tried and tried. The hardest part was to free our minds from the 30-second format. With YouTube as the only media channel, it needed to be entertaining.
The first trial was the "ballerina stunt". It quickly got millions of views and, more importantly, thousands of editorials in news media around the globe. It was at that time we realised what we had been doing – product demonstrations. The Volvo Trucks Live Test series was born.
The Volvo Trucks president performing a stunt, a hamster driving a truck, a technician being run over…
All went viral, more or less. And for each test, the fan base grew on Facebook and YouTube, building up to a grand finale.
But we didn’t know it would be like this at first. The film that was to become "the epic split" seemed to be the one with the least potential. We worked closely with Volvo Trucks and Andreas on what could happen between two reversing trucks with precision steering. We had tons of ideas that didn’t work in reality. But the second that Jean-Claude’s name came up, we knew that this was the way to do it.
Months of preparations and practising started. We spoke to the best driver at Volvo Trucks, Mikael Rosell. He said: "Forget it. You guys don’t understand anything about trucks." (Mikael is driving the left truck in the film with incredible precision.)
And how could we get a great ending? Andreas and the director of photography, Ed Wilde, found out we had just 15 minutes from 8.05am to 8.20am, when the sun was rising at the perfect angle. Three days of shooting meant we had only three chances.
We got it all in the first take.
After watching it on the monitor minutes later, our experienced Hollywood stunt director went away, crying.
The surprising and overwhelming viral success was our acknowledgement. We couldn’t work for weeks, neither could we sleep. Instead of counting sheep when going to bed, we counted views.
Awards had never been our goal. When they rained over us, it felt surreal: "Best of Show" at the ADC Awards, New York Festivals and One Show within a few months.
Well, you get used to it. But, still, a black Pencil will always be something very special.
Björn Engström is a copywriter and a senior partner at Forsman & Bodenfors
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