Adland in Hamburg: Happening Hamburg

Despite being the fourth-biggest ad economy, Germany has been relatively quiet on the international stage. Now, its array of independent agencies are growing in creative confidence and ready to take on the world, Suzanne Bidlake writes

Clockwise from top left: Florian Stemmler, Corporate communications, Serviceplan Group; Suzanne Bidlake, Managing editor, content solutions, Campaign; Marcel Loko, Co-founder and joint chief creative officer, Hirschen Group; Leveke Lambersy, International operations manager, Hirshen Group; Alexander Schill, Chief creative officer, Serviceplan Group; Claire Beale, Global editor-in-chief, Campaign; Percy Smend, Chief international officer, Scholz & Friends; Thomas Eickhoff, Managing director and partner, Grabarz & Partner (not pictured)


An emerging creative confidence is helping to power German agencies beyond their $24.6 million domestic ad market and into international territories.

Germany is unusual in its still-high percentage of independent agencies, given it is the world’s fourth-biggest ad economy. But now these shops are flexing their expansionist muscles and beginning, for the first time, to feel unabashed about doing so.

In the vanguard is Serviceplan Group, which is powering forward through ambitious organic growth and a vision to be the first German-bred international ad network.

Hirschen Group is taking a different route, forging a cross-border web of alliances via its "Golden Dudes" network. Scholz & Friends is leaning on its parent, WPP, for international reach while protecting its German identity. And Grabarz & Partner may not be growing its physical footprint abroad but is tackling increasing amounts of international business from its Hamburg base.

The Campaign team flew to Hamburg to hear first-hand the optimism brought about by a bolder, more modern creative approach. There was talk, too, of frustration with the low status afforded to advertising in Germany and the reluctance of many domestic clients to engage in conversations that go beyond the price of the next 30-second spot.

With admiration for the status of UK advertising and client/agency partnerships, there may be more of a desire for new-style business rather than simply new business that is helping to drive the international push.

Creativity vs German-ness

There’s a reason why people like doing business with the Germans. Rational and punctual, they are engineers at heart and keep to their word. "This makes us a little unemotional and not much liked around the world," Schill says. But it’s good for business.

The sea change is that Hamburg agencies are now combining that essence of "German-ness" with growing creative power. Witness the country’s successes at Cannes in recent years. "We’ve become less and less German," Smend remarks. Less risk-averse, more creative and more versatile. "It used to be very different," Smend adds. "We used to be the land of poets and thinkers, philosophers."

Why Hamburg?

Hamburg is the most creative city in the biggest country in the biggest market in the world, Loko claims: "Less edgy than New York, not so French as Paris and not so mentally remote as other small, central European cities, it is also a creative hub in the broadest sense." Germany’s second-largest city is home to top ad agencies, TV and radio stations and publishing houses.

Being a port, Hamburg has historically been populated by an international mix. With more bridges than Venice and a thriving, family-friendly entertainment district packed with restaurants and clubs, it has more than a whiff of Amsterdam about it.

What’s more, Schill points out, with so many agencies in the city, anyone who moves here can be confident of finding another job if the first doesn’t work out…

 Have you heard of us… yet?

Germany’s position as the economic powerhouse of Europe is not reflected in the international influence or reach of its ad agencies. Not yet. But plans for German-bred international ad networks are far more advanced than many might realise. "It has been an Anglo-American and French party only in the past," Smend says. But Germany’s location and its economic force make it well-placed to be a major advertising player.

The strength of independent agencies in Germany works in their favour. "International expansion won’t work if clients don’t back you," Beale suggests. "But, as an independent, we have no bank loan, no investor. We have to put money aside – as is the German habit – and then go global, whether the client follows us or not," Loko points out. "Today, we are in 14 countries doing good business and getting better every day. Serviceplan and Scholz & Friends are pacemakers for what’s going to happen."

"We share a common sense that there is something happening in Germany," Schill adds. "We are growing up, we feel comfortable on the international stage, we know where we stand, what our strengths are and, as is a little bit German, we analyse where we have weaknesses and try to solve them. I think we are just about to take the next step for the German ad industry. There are great agencies going about it in different ways, but we are all approaching the same target."

"There’s a reason why Campaign is tapping into Hamburg and why we’re tapping into the rest of the world," Smend notes. "And we’re doing this with a new confidence that is not the traditional, bullish way but a more subtle, more modern and more international way. We have different approaches but we share the same objectives, the same optimism and the same belief that there’s the necessity for advertising made in Germany or, at least, of German roots."

More conversation at

facts & figures


Agency Hirschen Group
Founded 1995 (as Zum goldenen Hirschen)
Locations Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Vienna
Employees Approximately 500
Three biggest clients AOK, Lidl, Pernod Ricard
Main...Generali; Inset...Ferrero Kinder Surprise






Agency Serviceplan Group
Founded 1970
Locations Worldwide
Employees 2,200
Three biggest clients BMW X4, Café Royal, Auchan


Main...BMWX4; Inset...Café Royal;







Agency Scholz & Friends
Founded 1981
Locations Hamburg, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Zurich, Brussels, Rome, Kiev, Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Stockholm, Madrid
Employees 600
Three biggest clients Opel, Siemens, Vodafone


Main…Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung;




Agency Grabarz & Partner
Founded 1993
Location Hamburg
Employees 230
Three biggest clients Volkswagen, Ikea,