Anna Griffiths interviews four of the most influential figures on the German ad scene about the effect the recession is having and which ads are cutting through the clutter.

GREY'S CHIEF - Bernd Michael, chairman and chief executive, Grey Global Group, Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Bernd Michael modestly says he is in his current position because "everybody else left, so I got the chief executive's job". Yet there was also the small matter of building Grey Dusseldorf, of which he became the chief executive in 1978, into the regional headquarters of Grey Middle Europe.

Germany is quite conservative in its advertising tastes, Michael says, and the recession has not helped. "Germans will not allow you to play much with creativity in terms of humour. They are serious people and you can't make jokes about a car or beer," he claims.

Yet his favourite ad campaign at the moment does boast a sense of humour. It is Jung von Matt's campaign for the hire car company Sixt. Featuring the leader of the German opposition party, who is renowned for her terrible hairstyle, the tagline reads: "If you want a new hairstyle, hire a cabriolet."

But in Michael's opinion, results are at the top of every client's priority list. "Clients all want to be more creative, but only if it helps to sell. Everybody's just chasing the best deal at the moment."

Michael believes the recession has made agencies work harder in terms of taking the initiative. "We have to be proactive, which fits Grey's mentality. However, this year is likely to be totally flat, if not negative," he predicts.

T-MOBILE'S YOUNG TURK - Mark Wachter, executive director, marketing communications, T-Mobile Germany

At just 37, Wachter is clearly not one to let the grass grow under his feet. He learned his craft at Unilever as a brand manager before jumping ship and landing a job with the global ISP UUNET. He then became its marketing director for Europe and after five years joined T-Mobile, where he is the head of marketing for its business-to-consumer and business-to-business products and services.

He is quick to quash the notion of a recession in Germany, but says the market has been stagnating. Because consumers believe that there is a bad economic climate, price promotion has become an all-too-familiar tool in advertising.

Wachter says to build up trust in the market "you need creativity like hell" in order to make your brand stand out from the crowd. He believes, however, that clients are currently less willing to take risks, keeping a firm hand on their marketing budgets.

With January showing the first signs of a rise in consumer spending for several years, he believes that the market will improve, provided that the war with Iraq does not prove too disruptive.

His favourite recent campaign is the poster and print advertising for the new Mini by Jung von Matt, which uses the tagline: "Is it love?"

TBWA'S TOP MAN - Perry Valkenburg, chairman and chief executive of TBWA/Germany and president of TBWA/Central Europe

Valkenburg, 41, started life as a client. After a stint as the marketing director at Citigroup , he joined Ogilvy & Mather as its business manager.

He was a founder of the agency Campaign Company Group, based in The Netherlands, which merged with TBWA in 1996. When he isn't running TBWA's German and central European operations, he unwinds on the ski slopes.

Valkenburg believes that, as German purse strings have become tighter, creativity has become more important. "Creativity sells, so it is increasingly relevant for market success. But creativity is not the recipe for success by itself, it needs to be combined with great strategic marketing knowledge," he argues.

He states that clients have not stepped up their willingness to take risks, but continue to ask for creative solutions to market their products successfully. "More creativity is being asked for in terms of the development of ideas, of selecting media and breaking conventions in the marketplace," he says.

Before Germany improves its economic performance, Valkenburg thinks that a "change in attitude is needed from all players. The country suffers from a lack of decisiveness that will help to set up society for the future.

Innovation is needed." He predicts 2003 will be a tough year, although there are signs that things will improve.

He also selects the latest advertising created by Jung von Matt for the new Mini as one of the strongest recent advertising campaigns in Germany. "It is a wonderful execution on the basic idea: you will fall in love with the Mini," he says.

MERCEDES' MARKETING SUPREMO - Justus Schneider, director of worldwide marketing communications, Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and Maybach, DaimlerChrysler

Now 45, Schneider's first rung on the career ladder was as a trainee at Lintas Hamburg, before becoming a product manager at Unilever. He returned to advertising as the client services director at Springer & Jacoby, via a stint as Minolta's head of communications. He left to join General Motors and finally DaimlerChrysler, where he now heads worldwide marketing.

He believes that the bleak economic climate in Germany has bred some desperate advertising. He asserts: "People are crossing the line between good advertising and outrageous advertising because they have to work harder to grab attention. Recession helps those brands which are strong and used to creative advertising."

He thinks clients are taking greater risks, although he warns against short-term thinking. "There's less money around, so a lot of companies are cutting back to keep in business.

We see some good brands who use these difficult times to build market share rather than resort to distress marketing," he says.

As times are tough, he believes that "people will turn to products and brands which are a bit more trustworthy and where the value element is stronger".

His favourite campaign is the latest print advertising for Absolut Vodka by TBWA/Germany. "I'm thrilled whenever I see a new (Absolut) commercial," Schneider enthuses.

"It's staying absolutely true to the brand, giving direction to it while sticking to a message which is simple and clear."