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How has Germany’s advertising scene weathered the pandemic – and can it bounce back better?

This year’s World Creative Rankings saw German ad agencies collectively climb the leaderboard. We discover their secrets of creative excellence and find out how they've adapted to the pandemic.

Prior to Covid-19, every German working day used to begin in the canteen. ”Everyone who enters the office has to go through the cafeteria and grab a cup of coffee or a bagel,” explains Alexander Schill, global chief creative officer of Serviceplan.

Kantinen are a regular feature of German offices; many host renowned chefs and are open to the public, as well as staff. And while coffee and carbohydrates help stoke creative minds, the real benefit was the canteen’s ability to bring the whole company together.

”Getting together, eating together, drinking together, meeting people on the ground floor of the agency... it’s a big part of our culture,” Schill says.

Serviceplan Munich – ranked third in this year’s World Creative Rankings – is one of the main nodes of Serviceplan, the independent, privately-owned German network. With around 4,500 staff and over 80 Cannes Lions bagged in recent years, it casts a long shadow in Germany’s creative market.

Despite the challenges of the past year, Serviceplan and its agency cohorts Heimat Berlin, Kolle Rebbe Hamburg and Scholz & Friends have lit up the World Creative Rankings leaderboards. The latter’s work for The Female Company, ’The Tampon Book’, was one of this year’s highest-rated campaigns, taking the firm to second place in the worldwide agency category.

Rising tide

Schill celebrates his 15th year at Serviceplan this week. As the firm’s first-ever chief creative officer, he’s helped the company expand from a single office in Munich to dozens of outposts across the world, all while leading its team to acquire a fearsome creative reputation.

”Serviceplan was a very, very business-oriented agency, but to be honest it was not known for good creative work,” he says. Working with now-CEO Florian Haller, Schill embarked on a plan to add the ”spice of creative work” to its good business sense.

”In the first five years, we said we wanted to raise the creative bar, which led to us getting top awards and a Cannes Lion. The five years after that, we wanted to go international, so we pushed the agency to go abroad. Looking back, it worked out quite well. But it was quite a journey.”

While awards budgets have been cut across the industry this year – Cannes Lions took a year off, and entries themselves fell – Schill offers a spirited defense of the value of creative awards.

”I think it’s a valuable measurement for judging creativity... especially for us, it’s very important to see where we stand internationally. At Serviceplan, we want to compete with the international networks. If Procter & Gamble is doing a global pitch and they are inviting the networks in – then I want to be the underdog. I want to be the wild card in these international pitches, and for that, I have to compete internationally with the quality of our work.”

Serviceplan’s own evolution has coincided with an increase in the number of German ad shops, and in the critical acclaim afforded to the country's agency scene.

Matthias Storath, chief creative officer at Heimat Berlin, tells The Drum: ”When I started, there were five agencies worth talking about, and only one with more than 100 people. Now there are probably six agencies with more than 100 people and a lot of very relevant agencies in Berlin.”

Fabian Frese, creative managing director at Kolle Rebbe Hamburg (22nd in the World Creative Rankings), agrees. ”Germans tend to have this minderwertigkeitskomplex [inferiority complex]. We've lost this a little bit... because we were always pretty good. We’ve been doing great campaigns for decades, but now our work is getting more international and the way we think, and produce, is on a very high level.”

Heimat, which placed 13th in this year’s Rankings, recently produced a pro bono campaign to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall for a local NGO.

The agency is situated in Kreuzberg, barely a mile from Checkpoint Charlie, and hit upon an idea that would bring the wall to life for the generation of Germans born after 1989.

”Where there is a wall in a city, the people will use it as a canvas,” Storath explains. Heimat’s team photographed the thousands of graffiti tags adorning the wall and created a typeface from the lettering decorating the concrete. The type was used in a short film that gave the wall itself a voice.

”She [the Berlin Wall] tells the story of her cruel task. We tried to portray the wall as something neutral, which wasn’t herself happy with her assignment to separate a country. It's not cool to say this about your own work, but I think it’s a very involving film.”

As well as its landmarks featuring in the team’s work, Berlin is a business asset for Heimat, too. While the city is hushed at the moment – Storath calls in from an otherwise-deserted studio – the business recruits from the city's young population.

”Agencies are a people business and creatives love to live in Berlin. When international agency brands open offices, they don't go to Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt or Hamburg, they go to Berlin, of course! And now we have a new airport finally open [Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which opened recently after almost a decade of construction delays], it’ll be even better.”

Lockdown lessons

The pandemic brought mixed blessings for Schill’s team. On the one hand, he says, the creative process itself has not been harmed by lockdown. In fact, with more focused meetings, using video calls, and freedom from the inertia of office life, it might even have improved. ”I have the feeling that it's even better. It’s more exclusive, more focused, if you’re just working on one project for two hours,” he argues.

But on the other hand, execution and pitching have become significantly more difficult. ”Personally, I’m not used to doing post-production via a screen. I like to be in the studio and talk to people, not share a screen. So for shooting and getting people around on set, it is difficult.”

”Like other agencies, we are presenting our work digitally right now. Sometimes it’s really difficult because you can’t read the room, you can’t see their reactions so good.”

Frese concurs. ”Getting a connection to new clients is becoming more difficult. When you’re not in the same room, I think you feel the distance. And I think it’s difficult for a client – they see these small boxes on a screen and have to decide whether these are the guys they want to work with for the next three years? That’s a tough decision to make.”

In Berlin, Storath says there have also been swings and roundabouts. While the pandemic prompted the agency to speed up digitalization efforts and accelerate toward a flexible working culture, ”last year was a disaster for the creative people, because every campaign was on hold, every campaign was cancelled.

”I think it hit hard on an emotional level, too, when all that work was suddenly cancelled. For me, it was very hard to see that work go down the drain.”

Production has picked up again since then, and Storath even managed to shoot an ad in Barcelona, where Covid-19 restrictions are looser than in Berlin. ”Of course, there’s testing every day and a reduced amount of people on set. But I'm very happy to see things produced again, and not just in a low level or improvised way. It’ll be very cool to see the stuff coming out over the next two months.”

Limits of remote working

For Frese, the few benefits of remote working haven’t outweighed its limitations. ”I’m done with this corona stuff," he says. One of the firm’s last pre-pandemic campaigns, was a promotional effort for the final tour of thrash metal legends Slayer.

The team cast a limited edition series of 6,66” records on copper and steel, packaged in a sleeve that needed to be burned off before playing – all so the record could be played in hell by the band's devoted followers. The work ranked highly in this year’s campaign rankings, in what Frese describes as a return ”to the good old days.”

Back in May, Kolle Rebbe was the first German agency to begin shooting new work again after it revamped a campaign for e-commerce brand Zalando in a handful of weeks.

”The director was on set, but the creatives and the client were at home and talking to each other with Zoom. That was an interesting experience – on the one hand it was interesting to see how this huge film set can be shrunk down and still get good results – and on the other hand it's tough because of all the things you lose along the way.”

”It was fascinating, but from a creative point of view, it’s not what you want to do forever.” Furthermore, Frese says, production limitations have hit the quality of the work. ”When the fascination is gone, you just want to see people again. For me, it’s gets more terrible each week – this desire to meet again and sit together. I think the quality of our work is not as good in this home office situation then it would be when we brought the agency together.”

That said, Frese’s team is set to take the lessons learned in lockdown with them into the future. ”I think we have a closer connection to our clients now because we're having a quick chat every week, rather than getting on a plane and visiting them once every three weeks. That has brought us closer together.”

”We will definitely change things. It will never be five days per week in the office again.”

The Drum is celebrating this year’s standout performers, and their work, in a special series of editorial features collected on our World Creative Rankings hub. And you’d like to get your hands on the entire World Creative Rankings dataset, you can order our full PDF report.

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