Germany: Kings of Direct

Agencies from Germany won more Direct Lions at Cannes than any other country - they even beat the Brits. What's going on? Lucy Aitken reports.

As Germany prepares to host next year's World Cup, it will be hoping for an improvement in the fortunes of its decidedly inferior national football team. But there is one area where the country appears to be top of the international league: direct marketing.

If the Germans can improve their footballing skills as impressively as they have their direct marketing campaigns, then Messrs Beckham and co will have somewhat more to fear from their old adversaries in the build-up to next year's tournament.

Germany emerged as something of a direct marketing world champion at this year's Cannes festival. Nordpol Hamburg Agentur won the Direct Grand Prix for its Renault Modus launch campaign and also took home the Direct Agency of the Year accolade. In all, German shops won seven Direct Lions.

Such a showing begs the question: how come the Germans are the new kings of direct?

Mathias Jahn, the chief creative officer at FCB in Germany, points to a less territorial way of working; it's rare for creative teams to be pigeonholed in one medium, he says: "We have never had a strict differentiation between above and below the line; you need creatives to be open-minded."

"We start with the audience rather than the medium," he reveals. "For instance, young people aren't watching TV anymore; they're on the internet and their mobiles. So if we were creating an ad for Coca-Cola, we may decide to do a campaign using only those media. That could be difficult if a creative team only does TV ads."

Jahn also thinks German creatives make an effort to work across many disciplines. His agency's work for Olympus is an example. "It's not just the faceless guys in the cellar doing the direct campaigns anymore; creative teams are becoming a lot more integrated," he says.

When there's a minefield of media choices for both audiences and advertisers to navigate, integration should be a given, German agencies say. Mathias Muller-Using, the managing director of Nordpol, comments: "We find a big idea and let it live dynamically on all channels."

Nordpol's launch campaign for the Renault Modus had channel-hopping as its core creative idea. It featured two versions of a short film, one "happy", the other "sad", that were simulcast on two TV stations. Viewers could zap between the channels and were invited to visit to see the end of the ad. Eight million viewers saw the TV ads, 820,000 people visited the website and media coverage magnified brand awareness.

The innovative choice of media also helped to hammer home the Modus slogan: "Grow up - what for?"

"By zapping, you change the character's surroundings," Muller-Using explains. "It was the first time this principle of channel-hopping was used and Renault realised the potential of the idea. This was important because sometimes it's difficult for clients to take those kinds of risks."

The risk-averse nature of German clients may also have had a role in nuturing the country's direct marketing, since it is generally cheaper and easier to track than other forms of advertising. "Clients want more insight about where their budgets are being spent," Peter Kabel, a member of the board and the managing director of JvM/Next, Jung von Matt's newly formed interactive and direct division, says. "And I don't believe this will change when we have a sunnier economic situation; I think it will stay," he speculates.

Another permanent legacy is likely to be a fresher creative style across the board in German agencies. The campaigns that picked up Cannes Lions this year were a million miles from the tatty envelopes that went from agency to bin via the doormat and made direct marketing's reputation as unwelcome as a teetotaler at Oktoberfest.

Back in June, Scholz & Friends and Springer & Jacoby picked up silver Lions for head-turning work for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Smart car respectively.

The former comprised a brochure showcasing the size advantages of double-page-spread ads to media agencies and advertisers. It worked, boosting advertising enquiries by an unprecedented 9 per cent.

Meanwhile, Springer & Jacoby's Coca-Cola can with a miniature Smart car ringpull won acclaim for uniting two of the agency's clients with one clever idea. "That specific campaign was a result of having no money," Oliver Schwall, the managing director of Springer & Jacoby Group, recalls.

Which is proof, were it needed, that big budgets don't always buy creativity.

In fact, some agencies positively shine in times of adversity: look at Lowe London's recent campaigns for Stella Artois.

Yet talk to Germany's top agencies and they claim that creative talent isn't limited to direct marketing. "Germany is doing well across all media," Schwall insists. "Over the past few years, the country has become much stronger creatively. For us, that progress has less to do with direct marketing and more to do with using media-neutral planning. We use every accessible media channel to reach our audience and I think a lot of good agencies in Germany take the same approach," he says.

Jahn agrees, but adds another theory about why Germany is emerging as a creative tour de force: "The former hotshops, such as Jung von Matt, Scholz & Friends and Springer & Jacoby produced strong creatives who are now running their own agencies. These people are slowly shifting creative thinking in Germany towards being more open and fun."

This new generation of creatives is challenging stalwarts from other countries who think German creativity is a contradiction in terms. Peter Wendt, a juror and the chief executive of Publicis Hamburg, addressed this at Cannes when he said: "No-one thought Germans could be creative: it used to be that German agencies had to be 50 per cent better than the rest to win in Cannes."

So if Germany can now be proud of its creative output, perhaps we Brits should start to worry about the football team. Is there a danger that "Bend it like Beckham" could soon become "Boot it like Ballack"?