James Towers, 31, met his Swedish partner in Melbourne, and when she moved back to her native country, like so many expats, he followed.
“I moved here in January, straight out of the Australian summer and into the depths of winter. But it wasn't too bad and I had expected worse. The locals told me it was a mild winter,” he laughs.
He and his partner, Izabelle Andersson, now run 16K Agency, a media organization with a twist. Their goal is to bring augmented reality technology to the Nordics' advertising industry, by helping their clients bring physical media – such as newspapers and billboards – to life.
In practice, the concept means that if you walk down the street and spot an advertisement for something you like, instead of popping to the store or going home to look it up on your laptop you can log on to a smartphone app and buy it immediately.
“We started the firm when Izabelle had moved back to Sweden and I was still living in Australia. The distance between Melbourne and Stockholm is 16,000 kilometres, so that's why we named it the '16K Agency',” explains Towers.
A former employee of German print giant Bauer Media Group, Towers uses the augmented reality technology developed by the company's Australian publishing arm. His Swedish venture aims to pioneer their 'Viewa' app, which has around one million users Down Under, in the Nordic region.
And thanks to Sweden's famous openness and horizontal company structures, it's proving easier than back home.
“In Australia, if you want to talk to a company like, say, Nike, you can't just ring them up. It's always channelled through a media agency, whereas in Sweden you're actually encouraged to talk directly to the client,” says Towers.
James Towers on the cobbled streets of Stockholm. Photo: Private
Direct access to clients is just one of the things he likes about the Swedish advertising industry, which he says should be more proud of its heritage and boast a little more about its Nordic brand.
“When people back in Australia think about Sweden they always think about Ikea and the first thing they asked me when I moved here was 'have you gone to Ikea yet?' To which the answer is: yes, of course. I used to go before I moved to Sweden too,” he says.
“But my point is, that in the past, companies were proudly Swedish and everybody knew that they were from Sweden. Abba were clearly Swedish, Ikea is clearly Swedish, Volvo is clearly Swedish.”
Despite the country's booming tech scene and hundreds of start-ups emerging every year, it is still these three iconic brands that the world associates with Sweden, argues Towers.
“I don't think people identify as much with newer Swedish brands like, for example, Spotify. Australians use it, but they don't know it's Swedish. I think many brands are trying to look more globalized, maybe they are trying to hide the fact that they're from a small country.
“But Sweden is so tech-savvy, multicultural, forward-thinking and innovative and that should be projected globally. It is something to be proud of. I know Australians love European brands, and the Swedish brand is seen as good quality,” he says.
However, there is one aspect of the Nordic country Towers has not quite adjusted to: the work-life balance. Swedes are widely known for their nine-to-five mentality and frequent 'fika' [a Swedish word for coffee and cake] breaks. A far cry from the intense pace of the Australian advertising industry, in other words.
“Life at the company I left in Australia was fast-paced with long hours. It was fun and rewarding, but hard work – not a nine-to-five job. Coming over here I knew of the different culture, breaks in the afternoon, you get to leave at 5pm, it's very family-oriented and so on.”
“I thought about that when I set up my company – are people going to think I'm horrible if I ask them to stay late if the work needs to get done? But as soon as I started meeting people they laughed and said it's not like that in our industry. I think advertising jobs are just a bit different to the traditional Swedish roles,” he says.
But despite the hard work, Towers loves his new job and feels well at ease in his new home country. And the keen runner says he loves going jogging in and around Stockholm during those rare moments away from the grindstone.
“I feel lucky every single day when I'm running through forests, past rivers and onto the different islands. Sweden is such a fantastic place to be outside in, even in winter. In January I went for a run when it was -2C – the snow was so beautiful,” he says.