Words by Markus Støle
Portrait by Sigrid Bjorbekkmo
Story originally published in Volume Ten
He lived by himself in his childhood home from the age of 15. He played poker with gangsters in order to pay for groceries and partying. He was about to break into the big league as a hockey player, he received no education, is a crime novelist and best friend and advisor to Norway’s former prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg. Not least, he is the founder and CEO of what is arguably Norway's most successful advertising agency. How did Kjetil Try become Norway’s greatest ad-mogul?
"I don’t believe the advertising industry is going to change all that much in the next ten years. Other industries will, and a lot of them might just cease to exist. In ten years there probably won’t be any airline pilots anymore. But there will be copywriters and art directors. Kjetil Try, the CEO of advertising agency Try/Apt, is sitting reclined in his preferred couch in his office, located in the heart of Oslo’s inner city. He sits there to get a view out of the window. It’s a habit," he explains.
"Because as long as there are big, money-making commercial operators with an urgency to sell something, there will be a need for ad agencies. And the task at hand, has always, and will always be the same: Based on insight, we create communication that speaks to the target group, that will hopefully make them like and buy the product.Whatever it might be. The only difference, really, is that we’ll gain some new tools along the way."
Apart from the seating by the window, consisting of two small sofas and a coffee table, Try’s office is relatively minimalistic: A small bookshelf by the wall, an office chair, and a desk with a laptop and a few stacks of documents and newspapers. He rests his arms spread out along the top-back of the sofa and lets his eyes wander out of the third floor window. He asks what I’ve read and what I already know. It’s a very relevant question, as over the years he’s had a frequent position in the public limelight. Not only by virtue of being the founder and CEO of Try/Apt, but also as a successful crime novelist, a promising hockey player, and as best friend and advisor to Norway’s former prime minister – now the 13th Secretary General of NATO – Jens Stoltenberg. The fact that Try, after living what some would describe as a directionless and dissolute life, stumbled into the advertising industry by chance, makes one wonder what shaped this man.
If we are to view childhood experiences as a crucial part in the shaping of a human being, it’s interesting to consider Try’s upbringing. More specifically, the fact that 42 years ago, his child-psychologist mother married a chicken farmer and left a 15-year-old Try alone in their townhouse apartment in Manglerud, a working class suburb east of Oslo.
"I was given the opportunity to come out to the farm, but what was I supposed to do there? My hockey team and my friends were too important."
To cope with the pressing possibility of loneliness, Try would surround himself with all kinds of people. In his premature bachelor pad he would arrange poker games, sometimes lasting three consecutive days. It provided both an important income and, perhaps unwittingly, a distraction from the somewhat harsh reality he found himself in. As the other players—sailors, taxi drivers, bouncers and gun-carrying petty criminals—would drink and pop pills, Try would always remain sober; a strategy to win, and ultimately, to have food on the table.
"In retrospect I look back on that period as both a good and a rough experience. But at the time I saw it as a privilege. I could party, host poker games, have all kinds of people over and bring girls home every weekend. It was important to me to maintain a good mood, to not feel lonely. I was very careful not to expose myself to things that could rock my mood. I still am. I never watch a movie or read a book if I know it holds the potential to make me sad."
When asked about how it might have affected him as person, he smiles, and answers immediately.
"It probably has affected me. The consequence of the sudden independence made me less empathetic towards people who struggled to deal with everyday challenges. I just couldn’t understand how some people didn’t manage to fix their problems. I went to a psychologist once, who found that whole era of my life particularly interesting."
He makes sure to point out he’s not like that anymore. Then he laughs and leans back in the sofa. Behind the glasses, the blazer, the eloquence and his presence, it’s hard to imagine this man was ever anything but career-oriented. However, the advertising industry has proven, more than once, its capability to lure in creatives from all kinds of obscure corners. Try’s story is no different. Apart from some sporadic freelance work as a journalist, and his occasional participation in writing sketches at the local youth house in his early 20s, he held no ambition as a creative. No ambition at all, really.
Try’s road to success can be boiled down to two key elements: He is extremely competitive, and he is, by definition, a people person. People interest him; what drives them, how they make choices, what makes them laugh—an interest that indirectly led him to apply to the Oslo Cathedral School, an elite high school known in Oslo as Katta, and definitely became useful as an ad-man later in life.
"I was bored and lazy in school. I applied to Katta for two reasons: I was terrible at German, and Katta had a Russian class, so I figured I could do that instead. The second reason was because I wanted to meet new people, try something new. I didn’t know it was an elite school at the time."
Like all groups Try encountered, he was immediately comfortable among the rich kids at Katta. It was here he became best friends with Stoltenberg, who went on to became a prime minister of Norway and made an interesting addition to an already peculiar combination of friends from very different social circles: Jocks, rich kids, low-lifes and petty criminals.
"I’ve always been very social, and I do believe my experiences with different kinds of people have become useful in this profession. I’m able to understand them. It’s the same with education; to me it isn’t what you learn in school that’s important, it’s the people you meet."
Not only did his social capabilities become useful, but it was this that triggered him to apply for a job in advertising. Being lazy and with no clear purpose after high school, Try worked in all kinds of different jobs; shoe salesman, cab driver, taking out trash. Until one day, a turning point presented itself when his girlfriend fell pregnant.
"I realised it was time to get a proper job, and I came across this ad for a copywriting job at an agency called Forenede Annonsebyråer. I didn’t know anything about advertising, but I applied, showed up at the interview with a few articles I’d written, and somehow got a job as a copywriter-trainee. I’m good at selling myself."
In proper ‘fake it ’til you make it’ fashion, Try spent some time nodding to industry terms he didn’t understand. At the time, advertising was about making print ads. Advertising on TV and radio hadn’t begun yet.
"A copywriter actually wrote back then. Today, I barely know the difference between a copywriter and an art director. They’re all just creatives."
Needless to say, he quickly picked up on the craft—he had a knack for getting under people’s skin.
"I quickly figured out that I was good at discovering a person’s trigger-point. I was good at getting their attention, and convincing them with the right use of arguments and communication. On top of that, my competitive instinct really kicked in; the whole award scene in the ad-industry really drove me. I wanted to be on that stage."
His career picket up quickly. After a few years he was offered a job as creative director for Scaneco, Young og Rubicam. He would stay there for six years before becoming one of eleven partners at successful agency JBL. Five years later, in 1998, JBL was sold and he founded Try.
"I didn’t want to be a leader, so I hired Harald Strømme. He was CEO of the company for eight years. However, I’ve always found myself in leading roles; shop steward in the military, head of numerous student councils, creative director and so on. So when he left, I took over."
The agency, which by now has grown to a staff of 150 people and established three daughter companies, can now boast numerous creative awards and has been named the best ad-agency in Norway for 14 consecutive years. It’s impossible not to ask, well, how?
"Unfortunately I don’t really have a smart or cool answer to that question. I believe it comes down to two important aspects: We spend a lot of time hiring the right people, that’s extremely important, and we always strive for a healthy team-culture. It’s crucial that everybody, from creatives to project leaders, advisors and cafeteria workers, feels a sense of ownership and responsibility towards the agency."
What characterises the right people?
"Firstly, don’t act like a star. That doesn’t sit well with me. We are a team and we root for each other. You have to be good at the craft of advertising, of course, but it’s just as important to be a good person. You can vote for the right wing party for all I care, as long as you fulfil the criteria."