Germany: Special Report - Putsch at the networks

The German outposts of international networks are shaking off their reputation for being big and boring, and are hiring creative heavyweights to sex up their work.

Sheer amazement was the general reaction to last year's creative rankings of Germany's advertising agencies.

Shock, horror, the network giant DDB Germany had almost made it to the top - hot on the heels of the table-topper Springer & Jacoby, and beating Jung von Matt into third place.

In previous years, Springer & Jacoby and Jung von Matt, both much admired for their creative firepower, used to take turns at number one. And two years ago, DDB Germany didn't even make the top 20. Now the Omnicom agency finds itself ranked seventh in The Gunn Report's 2005 list of the world's most-awarded creative agencies, the best-ever result for a German agency.

The remarkable thing, of course, is that DDB is no hotshop. It is the German branch of one of the world's biggest international networks, and German offices of networks aren't exactly famed for hogging the podium at international awards ceremonies. DDB's performance is the strongest sign yet that change is afoot at Germany's network agencies.

John Sealey, who worked in management capacities at Scholz & Friends before he set up the Hamburg office of Agency Assessments International, explains: "In the past, networks in Germany were known to do solid work for big brands. But if a client wanted something more creative and witty he wouldn't expect to get that from a network agency in this country. But, in the past few years, I think, they have focused more on improving their creative product because they've realised how important work with a bit of creative zeal has become."

The turnaround for DDB Germany began when the former DaimlerChrysler executive Tonio Kroger, along with Amir Kassaei, formerly a top creative at Springer & Jacoby, took the reins of the agency. Kroger became the chief executive and Kassaei was installed as the chief creative officer. They did some restructuring and hired new talent, bringing in more people from Springer & Jacoby.

But the most important move, according to Kassaei, was to change people's attitude. "Creative advertising requires, first and foremost, a bit of bravery," he says. "Courage is needed to try the impossible and take risks."

It seems to work for DDB, as demonstrated by its recent award-winning work for Volkswagen and Nike.

And yet DDB isn't alone in undergoing a creative renaissance. A num-ber of other networks in Germany have hired new creative heads to raise their game. But, for the Grey Worldwide chairman, Frank Dopheide, the challenge was somewhat different. In 2005, Bernd Michael, a doyen of brand advertising in Germany, retired from his post as the chairman of Grey Global Group, Europe, Middle East & Africa, after 39 years in the business. He had given Germany's second-biggest network a very strong marketing-oriented image. The agency won a handful of Effies (for effectiveness), but glamorous it most certainly was not.

The change in leadership began in October 2004, when Dopheide, a top creative, arrived from Red Cell. This signalled something like a cultural revolution for the Grey network. For the first time in its history, Grey has a genuine creative leader. "The biggest challenge at this point was to build confidence among our people and our clients," Dopheide says. "And, above all, to preserve the network's soul as a highly effective branding agency, while raising the agency's 'sex factor' vigorously," he enthuses.

To put some much-needed spunk into the agency's identity, Dopheide made some wholesale changes. For starters, he hired new creative talent, including some top creatives, such as Thomas Walrath. Walrath became the chief creative officer of the new Grey office in Hamburg, Germany's creative hub. "This was another move that shows we are really serious about our new philosophy," Dopheide says.

Monthly creative reviews and workshops for creatives and clients are just part of his push for cultural change. And awards, not of major interest in the Grey network of old, have become a priority. There is now a budget of around EUR80,000 for entries, while creative directors who win awards receive generous bonuses. "All this should lead to a continuous improvement of our creative product," Dopheide says. The agency has already won a few awards at major competitions this year, including an outdoor bronze Lion at Cannes for Toys R Us. It's hardly the Grand Prix, but it's a step in the right direction.

From the conventional to the original - that's the course that creatives at BBDO have mapped out for Germany's largest advertising network. "In Germany, BBDO was seen as a mainstream agency network without a clear profile," Ralf Zilligen, the BBDO chief creative officer, admits. Zilligen, who worked at Wieden & Kennedy in Amsterdam and then as creative head at Stohr DDB in Dusseldorf, joined BBDO Germany in 2004.

"Together with my colleagues Armin Jochum (the creative head at BBDO Stuttgart) and Carsten Heintzsch (who does the equivalent job at BBDO Berlin), I want to establish a culture of fresh thinking that will produce creative content across all media," Zilligen says.

He sees himself as a coach who aims to promote an open-minded exchange of ideas among creatives of all disciplines and to encourage fresh thinking. To this end, he has set up an interdisciplinary trainee programme (the first in Germany, Zilligen claims), and the BBDO Hothouse, where creatives of all fields jointly develop ideas. Zilligen sees BBDO pushing ahead in the creative stakes. At this year's German Art Directors Club competition, BBDO claimed joint third place with its Omnicom sibling TBWA. Work for Mercedes-Benz, Postbank, Smart and the educational charity Kametei are among the campaigns of which Zilligen is most proud.

It has only been a little over six months since Burkhart von Scheven moved from the Berlin office of Jung von Matt to Saatchi & Saatchi in Frankfurt to become the network's chief creative officer in Germany. It was by no means an easy start. Saatchis had just lost its flagship client, Audi. "I want our agency to become a major creative force again within the Saatchi & Saatchi network," von Scheven said with undisguised determination when he took over. His first task was to re-motivate the agency's traumatised creative team, then hire some top creatives and establish a more open system that allowed a freer exchange between account teams.

"Of course, we're not where we want to be yet," von Scheven concedes. "But we have already done a lot of good work, as you can see from our showing at awards shows."

Among the best work to come out of the agency so far, he says, are campaigns for Ariel, Oil of Olaz (Olay in the UK) and T-Mobile. Von Scheven would now like to have a new showpiece client. A major car brand, for example, would be nice. The agency recently won a place on the BMW roster, and is angling for the lead role.

Alongside DDB Germany, TBWA is mentioned most by peers and industry observers as a German network that has visibly raised its creative game. Mirroring a number of its rivals, the boost came in the form of people poached from Springer & Jacoby. Having been with S&J for a number of years, Kurt-Georg Dieckert and Stefan Schmidt went to London in 1999 to set up Springer & Jacoby International. In 2002, they both became co-chief creative officers of TBWA\Germany.

Dieckert explains why he made this move: "At Springer & Jacoby, I have learned to expect a high standard of creative work. The next logical step for me was to practise this on a geniunely international platform."

He and his partner saw the potential to lift the creative performance of TBWA\Germany to the level of TBWA offices in London or Los Angeles - an ambitious goal, considering that TBWA\Germany, in Dieckert's words, was more or less a network branch for the adaptation of work created elsewhere. "We want to create campaigns for international clients that become export hits," he says.

His time in London taught Dieckert a different approach to agency work. He found that creatives in the UK specialise more, laying more emphasis on quality rather than process. Accordingly, he introduced this approach at TBWA in Germany. Art directors, he suggests, have to do too many different jobs in Germany - from developing ideas to designing the ads. A major concern for him was to put more emphasis on the design of the artwork. Ads should be "artfully and beautifully done" is his credo. "I am convinced," he says "that even a great idea is lost in the daily mass of messages if it is not excellently designed."

So TBWA made a significant structural change: it introduced a design department and a head of design. The division of labour allowed other creatives to concentrate on developing concepts and ideas. Dieckert partly attributes the success of much talked-about work, such as a giant Oliver Khan at Munich airport for the World Cup and a campaign for Sony PlayStation, to this new approach.

The need for networks to become more creative (not least because clients are asking for it) coincides with a demand to be creative in a different way. TV and print are believed to losing their effectiveness, as they are elsewhere around the world, and, as most German creative directors will admit, the quality of work in these media has been flagging of late. The spectrum of communication tools and channels has grown at speed beyond TV spots and print ads. And digital media are changing the world of communication almost daily. This poses an extra challenge to creative chiefs who are trying to turn their agency networks into creative hotshops.

So does this mean that the importance of TV and print advertising is declining at the same rate with which digital is growing? Most German creatives don't think so. "We will see a shift in the media mix, but not a radical one," von Scheven asserts. "Ten years from now TV and print will still play the dominant role."

New media has set imaginations whirring, he says, but points out that it remains at the experimental stage. Nevertheless, the networks are busy bolstering their digital arsenals and often find it hard to recruit suitably qualified specialists to exploit the potential of the digital world.

But when it comes to producing the best ideas it's not really a matter of which media will prevail, the creative big shots insist. Zilligen speaks for his peers when he says: "We want to enable our creatives to develop media-neutral ideas. They have to learn the difference between an idea and a brilliant execution."

NEUE DIGITAL: A HOT GERMAN DIGITAL AGENCY ON THE MOVE

This is turning out to be the most exciting year in the existence of Neue Digitale - arguably the hottest new media agency in Germany. Neue Digitale added a Cannes Cyber Lion gold and a gold from this year's German Art Directors Club to the many gongs it has accumulated during the past few years.

The agency has mushroomed from three to 60 people since it was founded in 1996 by Andreas Gahlert and Olaf Czeschner (right). So what makes it tick?

Being lucky enough to work on the likes of Adidas, Coca-Cola and German Wings certainly helped. But success would not have come their way without a commitment to some key ideals. "A high standard of quality as well as a culture of constant learning are major ingredients of our success," Czeschner says. "'Never stop' is our aim."

Like other notable German brands, the agency is now looking to export its wares. The owners recently sold up to Avenue A/Razorfish, the biggest interactive marketing services company in the US, giving it scope to spread its expertise in that market.

But the agency's name and management will not be tampered with. Asked why they preferred to join a digital group rather than an advertising network, Czeschner answers: "We want to stay focused on digital marketing."

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