The World: Heilmann propels Scholz into the global arena

The agency's chief executive has penned a deal with Lowe that could see it emerge from the German shadows.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the newly signed global alliance between the Lowe network and Germany's Scholz & Friends is whether it will mark the professional coming-of-age of the Scholz chief executive, Thomas Heilmann.

Those who know him claim Heilmann is a phenomenon waiting to happen - a network chief who combines strategic innovation with a shrewd financial brain; the kind of internationalist uncommon on the German adscene.

He is credited with being one of the first admen to make a profit in Berlin, a city long seen as an agency graveyard, and with securing a viable future for Scholz after its buyout from the doomed Cordiant.

At the same time, his stock is high among the German political establishment. An early adopter of new technology - "he understood it all while the rest of us weren't even using e-mail", a former associate remarks - he advised Germany's then chancellor-in-waiting, Angela Merkel, on its implications; he remains a member of her inner circle.

"This is a man who is thinking about the opportunities before the rest of the world gets out of bed," Kate Robertson, the Euro RSCG UK group chairman who established the Scholz office in London, says of him. "He has the ability to become one of the next generation of global industry leaders."

Steve Gatfield, the Lowe Worldwide chief executive, is equally fulsome. "Thomas is somebody who always operates with the big picture in mind," he observes.

"He not only has a powerful intellect but knows how to adapt his business model to the marketplace, and is a very good people person."

Heilmann has built a reputation for eyeing the main chance and seizing it, a talent that became evident during his earliest days in the business at the end of the 80s. The Berlin Wall had just come down, the two Germanys were uniting, and generous tax advantages awaited emerging companies. There was just one catch. They had to be based in the old East Germany.

Together with his creative partner, Sebastian Turner, Heilmann circumvented the problem by persuading the mother of one of their university friends to let them use her home in the East as the registered address of their start-up. Today, visitors to the Scholz office in Berlin are greeted by a huge portrait of the obliging lady.

Heilmann's route into advertising was a curious one, but seems to have equipped him well. One of six children, he was born 42 years ago in Dortmund, where his father was a philosophy professor. During university studies in Bonn, Munich and at Harvard, he qualified as a lawyer. By his mid-twenties he was working in management consultancy for McKinsey, yet hankered to carve out a media career.

The opportunity came when he and Turner established the Berlin outpost of the Hamburg-based Scholz. Peter Schoning, then the boss of Scholz, became a father figure to him and, when he stepped aside six years ago, Heilmann was the obvious heir-apparent.

Scholz had been having a difficult time. The agency's Deutsche Telekom business (providing revenue of EUR28 million) had departed. Yellow Pages and Deutsche Post followed it out.

Today, four years after Cordiant concluded the sale of Scholz to its management and the venture capital company Cognetas for £15.8 million, the network seems to be benefiting from the combination of Heilmann's financial acumen and Turner's creative leadership.

The agency leads Germany's creative rankings ("I don't think our creative product has ever been better," Heilmann claims) with a client list that includes Masterfoods, DaimlerChrysler, AOL and Nike.

Some suspect the turnaround has much to do with the close bond between Heilmann and Turner that manifests itself in their unpretentiousness. Heilmann is rarely seen wearing anything other than jeans and T-shirts, none of them bearing designer labels.

Former members of staff also remember how, a few years ago, when their business was still getting on its feet, the pair would take their sleeping bags if they were having to travel long distance to a pitch to save on hotel bills.

However, Scholz has been largely hemmed in by a German-speaking market numbering no more than 100 million people. It has a handful of offices outside Germany, mostly in eastern Europe, but no presence elsewhere in the world.

The new deal involves Cognetas taking a majority stake in the newly formed Lowe Deutschland, which will create work for Lowe clients such as Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, as well as pitch for new assignments. The diffuse German market has been problematic for Lowe since it swallowed up Ammirati Puris Lintas, and top talent has been hard to find.

In exchange, Scholz gains a presence in Asia and the Americas that makes for a more compelling offering to existing and potential clients, Heilmann says.

The alliance is already off to an auspicious start, with Lowe and Scholz having been invited to pitch jointly for Toshiba's £25 million pan-European consumer electronics business.

Interestingly, Heilmann appears to see a mirror image of himself in Gatfield, and is convinced he has turned the corner with Interpublic's problem child. "Steve is ego-free, down-to-earth and a very good network leader," he declares.

And, if everything goes according to plan, does he envisage a time when Scholz might become a full member of the IPG family? Like the question about a political career that some say beckons when his agency ambitions are fulfilled, he has the same answer: "You can never say never."

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