The World's Leading Independent Agencies 2013: Kolle Rebbe

How to go from small independent agency to bespoke network servicing a blue-chip client across multiple markets in less than six months.

Kolle, Rebbe and Winter-Buerke (l-r)…‘good international work is done by people who want to work together and not by people who are forced to work together’

We have just completed the first year of one of the most exciting challenges this agency has faced in its history: to bring Lufthansa's "nonstop you" campaign to the streets of 44 countries around the world. And, at the same time, to prove that we can be better than a network.

When we won the account in December 2011, it stunned the world of advertising that Lufthansa had chosen a small independent, 300-person agency in Hamburg. Did we have other offices? None to be seen.

The first thing we needed to do was establish a functioning international network. We had five months in which to do it. Today, the campaign is running, and the network is in perfect functioning order. We often wonder how we managed it. Here's how. In seven simple rules, which provide something that resembles an answer.

1. Be a client

First, think about where you need to have locations in your network and give some thought as to which regions you can bundle. Then develop a profile of which sort of partner agencies you would ideally like. Then just be a client. Call a pitch, let the agencies present ideas and sieve the rest out. The fact that we managed to select 20 hot candidates from 400 potential partners was in great part due to the help of thenetworkone. It did the first step of the research. We then screened and filtered according to our specifications.

2. Buy a new suitcase

Let's face it. If you aren't part of a network agency, you're going to have to travel and build up your own private network. It's like looking for your own life partner rather than having an arranged marriage. The latter is quicker, the former makes you happier. So, best buy a new suitcase. One that is good for travelling between two and five days. If you're based in Europe, it will need to be able to join you for a quick dash across to a neighbouring country, but should also be willing to travel to distant continents. (By the way, there actually is the perfect suitcase for this very purpose. Call us if you want to know which one it is.) The reason why you will be on the road for anywhere between two and five days is not only to do with the various distances you will be covering, but with rule three.

3. Meet people

Even though we are living in an era of Skype and FaceTime, you should still take time to meet every potential partner in person. And make time for it too. Just because somebody may appear proper and respectable in front of a webcam does not mean they will be wearing the same face after their 11th beer of the evening (you decide which you prefer). Get to know your potential partners outside the conference room. Go for a walk, have a conversation about everything that's important to you, from family values to favourite pets. Your partners have to be on the same wavelength to make things run smoothly across a distance of 8,000km. For Lufthansa, we were on the road for four weeks and visited 20 agencies. After the pitch, ten were left. We visited them again. Along with the client and their right of veto. The fact that they didn't need to unpack that veto shows that rules 1 to 3 actually work.

4. Never confuse partners with handymen

The Lufthansa campaign lives not only off its look and feel but also off the mechanics of its headlines. You can't simply translate it from German into any other language. So our partners had to be able to create good work, write brilliant lines and be just as creative with images from pool shootings. Yesterday's German image for a city trip to Madrid could be an American image for European tours tomorrow. We didn't need sidekicks, we needed proper partners. Define precisely who you are looking for before you build up your network. And there's one more thing you also need to do.

5. Trust yourself

Even if the potential partner seems right at first, pay close attention to your instincts. If you even have so much as the slightest doubt that things might not work out, leave it be.

6. Trust your partner

It's rather unlikely that any creative in Tokyo will wake up in the morning to translate a campaign from Hamburg straight into Japanese. Don't create any false expectations if you only need somebody to adapt your campaign. Be clear about what you want from the word go. However, once you have found your new partner, trust them and give them their freedom, within a defined framework. It's also rather unlikely that any creative in Tokyo will wake up in the morning to be lectured every day from Hamburg. Remember: an insulted creative at the other end of the world won't see much more incentive than to offer services according to plan. And your client will be the first one to notice.

7. Trust your client

Trust your client if they have the feeling something isn't quite working smoothly. You have taken the trouble to set up a bespoke agency network, especially for their purposes. One that fits perfectly in every detail and still remains sufficiently adjustable to accommodate changes. If it pinches anywhere, change it.

Remember: good international work is done by people who want to work together and not by people who are forced to work together, as is the case in traditional networks. That's the best thing about the system we have. It is based on voluntary participation. And it isn't rigid.

That's something you should take full advantage of.

7.5. There's no blueprint

The shortest rule of all. A bespoke suit needs more time and expertise than merchandise off the shelf. But it looks much better too.

Stefan Kolle, Stephan F Rebbe and Andreas Winter-Buerke are managing directors at Kolle Rebbe

At a glance

  • Founded: 1994
  • Principals: Stefan Kolle, founder and managing director, creativity; Stephan F Rebbe, founder and managing director, consulting; Andreas Winter-Buerke, managing director, consulting; Ralph Poser, managing director, planning; Stefan Wubbe, managing director, creativity
  • Staff: 280
  • Location: Hamburg
  • Favourite digital campaign of 2012: Red Bull Stratos
  • Learnt anything new lately? The Coca-Cola Content 2020 initiative put innovative content marketing strategy in a nutshell

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