Germany: Ahead of its time

Digital wizards, a subversive culture and an aversion to cheese: has Berlin found the formula for the future of advertising? Mark Tungate reports.

There's something about Berlin. It's a brand name in itself, and seems to have little to do with the rest of Germany. The word "Berlin" is imbued with a dark glamour. It should be the creative capital of Germany - but, until recently, Hamburg held that honour. Now, though, things are changing.

"Berlin is easily the most international city in Germany, and because of that, it attracts creative people from all over the world," Amir Kassaei, the chief creative officer of DDB Germany, says. "If you look at the history of this market, each era is dominated by a different German city. And now, I believe, we're entering the era of Berlin."

In the post-war period, advertising flourished in Frankfurt, because the American forces based there brought US consumer values with them. Later, the scene migrated to Dusseldorf, the industrial hub, and the home to giant clients such as Henkel. In 1989, Springer & Jacoby, a small Hamburg agency, won the Mercedes account, drawing talent to that bustling port. And once Jung von Matt opened its doors, the scene was set for Hamburg to become the advertising capital of the 90s.

When Ulrich Proeschel, TBWA\Europe's Berlin-based brand director, was made responsible for promoting the TBWA brand across Europe, he was asked to move to Paris. He politely declined. People who live in Berlin, he says, grow attached to the city: "You can have a very good standard of living here. The city still hasn't recovered from its economic problems, so you can find big apartments cheaply."

Since the turn of the millennium, large living spaces and a vibrant, affordable nightlife have attracted artists, photographers and other itinerant hipsters to Berlin. In this hothouse environment, creative agencies previously considered offshoots of their bigger cousins have begun to flourish.

Proeschel says: "Berlin has become an extremely cosmopolitan city, where you're as likely to hear English spoken as you are German. The managing director of our Berlin office is a typical example of the kind of person you can meet here." As well as Roberta Bantel, who is Brazilian, TBWA\Berlin's staff also comprises those from the UK, the US, France, Canada, the Netherlands and Turkey.

Although no large clients are headquartered in Berlin, major German accounts are increasingly run out of Berlin offices. When TBWA won the BMW business last year, it created a standalone agency, MAB, in Berlin to avoid conflict with Nissan. TBWA\Berlin has also created high-profile work for Adidas, Apple's iPod, Absolut Vodka and Sony PlayStation.

Other German national accounts run out of Berlin include Volkswagen and Nike at DDB, Mercedes and DHL at Jung von Matt/Spree, and the DIY brand Hornbach at the up-and-coming digital agency Heimat. The latter is also on Audi's list of preferred agencies. Plantage, a small Berlin independent, handles the Mini and Sony accounts for the whole of Germany.

Founded in 2001, Plantage sums up the possibilities of Berlin. It also has an outpost in Barcelona, and is about to open in Beijing. "We seem to be attracted to 'B' cities," its managing partner, Stefan Holwe, jokes. The agency undertakes advertising, design, brand strategy and "3D communications". Its music industry clients include Universal Music, Sony BMG, small labels and individual artists.

Analysing Berlin as a base, Holwe says: "Creative advertising needs inspiration - from an exciting art scene, from music, from diverse sub-cultures. No other city offers that kind of intense cultural fusion." He believes that the city's various creative communities "feed one another" to generate enormous creative potential.

Kassaei would agree. "Since 1990, Berlin has been a city associated with constant change. It's not too far-fetched to say that the future of advertising, at least in Europe, is in part being created here," he says.

While Berlin has long been known for its design agencies, it is now gaining a reputation as a laboratory for new approaches to communications. An example is the Zentral Intelligenz Agentur, created in 2002 as a "virtual company". Its founder, Holm Friebe, describes it as a platform "for people who don't function in traditional agency structures". While three people run the company, a "cloud" of around 25 freelancers collaborate on projects.

The agency has worked for eBay, BMW and DaimlerChrysler, but is best known for its self-driven initiatives. In 2005, it developed a collaborative blog called Riesenmaschine.de, dedicated to charting "the progress of mankind". It has won several awards and receives about 5,000 visitors a day.

"Berlin attracts independent, hedonistic people who don't really know what to do with their lives," Friebe says. "Originally, it was a lack of other qualities - especially money - that made Berlin a hotbed for sub-cultural experiments. That, combined with plenty of space waiting to be filled with ideas. A good infrastructure of small-scale service businesses grew out of that, and now we've reached a critical mass of bohemian entrepreneurship."

He says there may be such a thing as "Berlin-style" creativity: "It combines a laid-back approach with an intimate knowledge of sub-cultural codes and a certain non-commercial aesthetic. The results are less cheesy and more edgy than you find elsewhere."

Some agencies, he says, are merely cashing in on the Berlin mythology. But the city may end up having an impact on German culture as a whole. The only thing that might upset the applecart, he adds, is "an economic upturn".