In September 2005, I indulged in a bit of navel-gazing about ad agencies, which may have seemed self-indulgent at the time. But it’s certainly fascinating to read with 18 years’ hindsight.
In this article, I referred to the “new media and internet specialists” who tended to lurk around Berlin. How quaint. And then, I was very snooty about mozzarella and cherry tomatoes on sticks.
On a positive note, I cheered German agencies' success at Cannes that year. And commented that Planning had perhaps achieved critical mass in Germany. Were the two connected? I wonder.
Last week, I attended the “Night of the Lions” in Frankfurt; one of the German advertising industry’s yearly highlights where hundreds of advertising types gather to see creatives getting their prizes and viewing the reel of the gold, silver and bronze film winners. I say “one of” for good reason. While, in the UK, I assume this sort of thing would always take place in London, the German advertising industry has a number of centres including Hamburg, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and Berlin. In addition, many major (-ish) agencies have their offices in Munich or cities in the former East Germany, such as Leipzig. If there is any tendency at all to who sits where, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf tend to be the German offices of the multi-nationals with Hamburg being home to the original German agencies that grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s such as Springer & Jacoby and Jung von Matt. Berlin tends to house the newest agencies and many of the new media and internet specialists.
Although there has been much talk from the industry press of the revival of German advertising creativity after many years of doom and gloom, I did find my experience last week a bit like being in a time-warp. The event was held in a former tram depot all decked out in black with a bit of white, as were most of the rather earnest-looking guests. There were Caipirinhas at the bar and bits of mozzarella and baby tomatoes on sticks (which I have always considered the 1990s version of the 1970s cheese `n` pineapple). I’ve now been freelance for nearly three years and haven’t worked full-time in an agency for nearly five but it didn’t really look to me as if things had moved on much.
Working in advertising here in Germany (funnily enough, one never says “being in advertising” as one might in the UK) doesn’t really carry the cachet that it might in the UK or USA. Advertising is not really regarded as a profession here and certainly does not have the glamorous image that it might have in other markets. At a party, if you own up to “working in advertising”, the subject is quickly changed, rather as if you had admitted to having something to do with second-hand cars. You would be better off to try and disguise your role as a “consultant” in some way as this at least suggests better academic credentials. “Real” professions, such as being a doctor or a lawyer, are what buy you points here in Germany. So extreme is this tendency that even some of the creatives who went up to collect their gongs last week were announced as “Dr So-and-so” in a totally non-ironic way. Academic qualifications are often made much of in agency credentials presentations which came as something of a surprise to me, coming from a world where a PhD is something that a London-based creative is about as likely to own up to having as piles.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that one area of the German advertising industry which seems to be on the up at the moment is Planning. From my own perspective, it does seem that Strategic Planning in Germany has now achieved critical mass. The annual Open Event of the apgd in June seemed packed full of young faces and the organisation now seems to have got its act together in offering training for young planners. Although the apgd has been in existence for nine years now (I had the dubious privilege of sitting through its inaugural constitutional meeting) it was perhaps a little handicapped in its early years by an over-intellectual, inward-looking attitude (typified by endless humourless debates about “The definition of planning” “Whether one is a strategic planner or a creative planner” and an article laying out “a segmentation of planners.”)
In a typically German way, the most “intellectual” of advertising’s disciplines now seems to be feeding the right stuff to the creative folks to make some damned good ads. It is no surprise to learn that some of the agencies that did well at Cannes are those with a strong planning tradition: Springer & Jacoby, who have their own Planning Consultancy, Jung von Matt, where one of the MDs is a planner and chairman (female!) of the apgd and Heimat, where another Planner has his name over the door (unusual in German agencies.)
So, back to Cannes, or at least to that converted tram depot in Frankfurt. Germany has done rather well at Cannes this year, 4th overall in terms of Lions won, whereas they were struggling in the double-figure rankings just a few years ago. In fact, in the area of film, Germany achieved the joint third placing (with France) after the USA and UK in 2006 with a total of eight film Lions won.
It’s probably no surprise to here that many of these Lions, including the gold, were won for car advertising. The Germans are actually rather good at car advertising, just as they are rather good at cars. The gold winner, entitled “Sound of Summer” is a lovely piece of film for the Mercedes sports from Springer & Jacoby based on the visual creative idea of sound frequencies. This is a great spot that combines the German passions of cars and music, and you don’t see a single car (except in your imagination, of course). A bronze also went to S&J for their Mercedes C-Class spot and to McCann Erickson for their Astra spot where the car replaces the dog in the owner’s affections as “man’s new best friend.”
Another great German passion is DIY (I’m sure you’ll all have heard that here, the DIY enthusiast doesn’t just stop at a few shelves, he is more than likely to build his own house!). Another bronze lion went to the Berlin agency Heimat for their work for Hornbach DIY stores. Here, the German members of the jury had the difficulty of explaining the underlying concept of a member of a surrealist-nihilist-punk group reading the Hornbach catalogue aloud, but they succeeded, the films are a hoot in any language and Heimat deservedly won.
What appears to be a bit of an oddity on the prize list is Jung von Matt’s silver for K-Fee, which is a coffee product. Not a category so close to German hearts, you may think. Furthermore, the creative idea is a downright weird (if highly effective) demonstration of the product’s stimulating powers. You are lulled into a false sense of security by what you think will be a typical, clichéd advertising spot when something suddenly pops up and screams at you at a high decibel level. But here’s where the link happens. Guess what kind of cliché is used to lull you into that semi-comatose state? That’s right - a typical scene of a beautiful car driving through a rolling rural landscape. You can almost hear the “Sound of Summer” before the scream so rudely interrupts you.
Well, Hornbach are still making great ads, eighteen years on.
What I perhaps wouldn’t have predicted is that the ‘Dr So-and-So’ syndrome has really caught on. Worldwide. Even in the UK. Ad people desperately trying to demonstrate their gravitas to keep the management consultants after their jobs at bay. The geeks and nerds really have inherited the earth.
Back then, I said that a PhD is something a London-based creative is about as likely to own up to as having piles.
These days, I think they’d probably own up to their “lived experience” of haemorrhoids, too, in the interests of empathy and authenticity.
I’m off to make some - ahem - mozzarella and cherry tomatoes on sticks.