In a speech to the Art Directors' Club in Berlin in 1989, I remember bitching about German agencies not being ready for international or global business and losing clients to ad communities such as those in London and Amsterdam. I suggested the need to develop a lead advertising city.
At the time, agencies were spread all over the country, which made us provincial players, lacking the competitive expertise for clients' growing needs. Three months later, the Wall came down.
Today, the praise and prizes that global advertising judges have given to German work over the past couple of years is indeed remarkable.
Have a look at a few pieces. The "power of wind" Epuron spot from the Hamburg agency Nordpol (see it on YouTube) is film at its best. Hornbach DIY store's "house of imagination" from the Berlin agency Heimat (again on YouTube) is an example of how to define a brand at its best.
The kinetic sculpture for BMW's museum by ART+COM Berlin (look under D&AD Awards 2009) is design at its best. The print campaign for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from Scholz & Friends, Berlin (www.faz.net/cleverminds) is print at its best. And the tagline for McDonald's - "I'm lovin' it" - written by Heye & Partner in Unterhaching, one of the smallest advertising towns in Germany, is global motivation at its best.
I believe German advertising's current appeal and success with awards is the result of several forces.
The city of Berlin. Rent is low. The talent pool is growing. Creative people from all creative tribes are attracted to the reunited city, creating an inspirational environment and a global talent base.
Over the past few years, Berlin has become the major driving force, pushing fierce competition among the many advertising cities in the country.
New creative entrepreneurs and an explosion of independent agencies. Foreign network agencies now have to compete against more than 20 highly creative independent German shops. It's tough for a foreign network agency these days to make it into the country's top ten most creative agencies list. Creative entrepreneurs are dominating the business.
Digitalisation. The radical change from analogue to digital a few years ago created a challenge for all classic advertising agencies around the world. German people love technology; they embraced it quickly and the country fast became a major player.
Distinct design culture. Germany's Bauhaus past is a brilliant foundation for communication. In the 50s, the Swiss Bauhaus student Max Bill founded the Ulm School of Design. Fonts such as Helvetica were created. And the corporate design for Lufthansa. The Braun design, originated by Otl Aicher and Dieter Rams, is one that some say holds the secrets to Apple's design-led future.
United creatives. The ADC runs a very effective programme for tomorrow's creatives as well as today's creative leaders in agencies and their fellow decision-makers on the client side.
An obsession with awards. This can lead to making work solely for awards shows. I do not really approve, but if this investment ultimately converts into work that matters in the marketplace, then the strategy has merit.
But let's stay cool on this.
Fresh, thematic ideas such as the recent Bartle Bogle Hegarty work for the launch of the Oasis album in New York, Colenso BBDO New Zealand's "yellow treehouse", CumminsNitro's "best job in the world", Crispin Porter & Bogusky's "Whopper sacrifice" and Droga5's "the great schlep" - part of the Obama campaign - are bringing new ideas to global ad-making, inspiring the world.
It's the kind of work we want to see coming from Germany too. The question now is, will German agencies be able to convert this rise in quality into global assignments and global business? Marketers should put their trust into finding out.
- Michael Conrad is the former vice-chairman and chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide, Chicago and current president of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership.
GERMAN WINNERS AT CANNES 2009
Germany has stealthily emerged as a winning force at Cannes over the past decade. Loitering at ninth in Cannes Lions' country rankings in 2000, it has climbed to reach the number-two spot in 2008 and number three this year.
The importance it places on winning awards is evident: in 2009, its Cannes entries were just about double those submitted by any other country, apart from the US and Brazil. Here is some of this year's crop of 51 German Cannes winners.