An agency is like a creative force field.
Armin Jochum is one of the most influential and successful German creatives. Swabian by birth, he got his career off the grid with a high-octane blend of gasoline in his blood at DDB Needham, working on the Volkswagen and Porsche accounts, and at H2E for Mercedes and Smart. In 2004, he was hired by BBDO to set up their Stuttgart office, where he managed the Mercedes, MTV, and VIVA accounts. In 2008, he was jury president in Cannes. In 2009, Armin joined Germany’s most creative agency, Jung von Matt, where he took on the position of Executive Creative Director of Jung von Matt/Alster. Just a year later, he was appointed to the executive board of Jung von Matt AG. Under his leadership, the company produced several campaigns featuring the agency’s new and distinctive signature style: “WWF,” the new Green File Format, “Concert Milk” for Dortmund’s concert hall, “Tramp a Benz,” etc. In 2010, Jung von Matt was named Independent Agency of the Year in Cannes, and in 2011 Jung von Matt garnered 21 Lions at the festival, making it the third-ranked agency internationally. Following three successful years with Jung von Matt, Armin Jochum is in July 2012 taking on a new creative challenge, switching to Hamburg-based agency kempertrautmann. Hermann Vaske and Armin met up on a roof terrace in Hamburg to conduct the following interview for Lürzer’s Archive.
L.A.: How did the Mercedes gullwing doors idea lead to integrated communications?
Armin Jochum: For ages, “integrated com-
munications” was one of those nasty, overused buzzwords bandied about in our industry. Everyone knew what it meant –
in theory. But in reality, there wasn’t much
evidence of it. Yet we wanted to make it
happen. Almost at any cost. As you know, agencies have really put in a lot of effort in
recent years. We’ve had to perform what you could call structural acrobatics – just to give this “integrated” aspiration physical shape. Now just picture it: exceptionally ambitious, integrated creative teams, armed to the teeth with ideas. And clients who, in terms of organisation and structure, had precious little clue how to work with this model. The real challenge was bringing together the very diverse thinkers on the client side and joining forces to fight for an idea. It took nine months. A tough pregnancy. A beautiful baby.
L.A.: You talk about joining forces with the client and about “creative sparring partners”. What do you mean exactly?
Armin Jochum: If you ask me, this outdated notion of roles has got to go: Here’s the agency, there’s the client, the client briefs the agency who then goes away and comes back at some point to present something, then no one hears anything for a couple of weeks, and so on. Nothing brilliant is ever going to see the light of day that way. The only way we’re going to make a difference is by not only thrilling clients, but by truly making them our creative sparring partners. That kind of close-knit interaction can sometimes even speed up the process of giving some really bold ideas the go-ahead.
L.A.: Talking of bold ideas, the WWF unnecessary printing campaign was particularly courageous. Could you elaborate on that?
Armin Jochum: The motivation behind wanting to give this idea my unconditional support had a great deal to do with my own personal story. Quite a few years ago, I came up with a campaign for the Kamitei Foundation in Amsterdam. I was very proud of the work I’d done for them – thinking up smart headlines and inspiring a number of my ADC colleagues to take part. Aernout Overbeeke, one of the world’s great photographers, had spent six months with the Massai in East Africa and taken some tremendous photographs. The goal of the campaign was to raise funds for the Kamitei Foundation, which would then be used to build hospitals in East Africa. Creatively, the campaign was a huge success and won several awards. But it raised only a pitiful amount of money. I felt very guilty about that – the campaign did absolutely nothing for the client. I think there are a lot of creatives out there today who want to do something that really makes a difference. And that was exactly the impetus behind WWF. The outcome wasn’t a print ad but a fully-fledged communications product. A file format with a Trojan effect in the best possible sense, in that it not only carries the client’s name but also expresses what WWF stands for. It actively encourages people to think about whether they really need to print documents out – or not. Of course, there were a lot of misgivings about the concept to begin with. You have to take several things into consideration when rolling out a campaign like this on a global scale. You can’t just program away and see what happens. You have to work with the top people, the experts, and it was no easy task sparking these guys’ enthusiasm. One big company said, for example, “Yes, we think it’s a great idea, but as a rule we only produce things with added benefits, not with one benefit less.” It all worked out in the end, though, swept along by the ideas and unshakable fervour of creative masterminds Dörte Spengler-Ahrens and Jan Rexhausen, who never gave up, who got back up every time they were knocked down. The final score was 60,000 downloads in 200 countries and a very proud JvM team.
L.A.: And rightly so! How important is “digital” to JvM today?
Armin Jochum: An agency that by nature aspires to creative leadership and has spent 20 years driven by the principle “we remain dissatisfied” must inevitably develop ambitions early on to question the status quo. We put everything into question – from hierarchy to working methods to daily rituals. So embracing the digital age was a very logical step for us. It wasn’t about having “digital” as an extra string to our bow, or having a department tucked away somewhere full of beardy nerds. It was about making the digital way of thinking a completely integral part of our problem-solving process. As with everything you start from scratch, we didn’t get it totally right first time. But the digital mindset has had an incredible impact on us and has greatly enriched the life of the agency.
L.A.: In advertising for brands like Mercedes and the BILD daily newspaper, you’ve used celebrities. What are the pros and cons of that?
Armin Jochum: Using celebrities in ads only works if they have a credible role to play – in other words, if they’re more than just models, and actually have the chance to express their honest opinion, warts and all. That’s when something really great can happen, because it not only attracts maximum interest but also generates incredible momentum. It’s a fact that, in advertising, people are pretty surprised when someone actually says what they think. Of course, it’s nothing new – Hegarty knew it back in the early eighties, but that doesn’t make it any less effective today. At the start of the campaign, we spent many an evening with singer Udo Lindenberg knocking back one advocaat after another at the Atlantic Bar in Hamburg until he finally agreed to do it. The campaign’s most compelling motifs are where the celebrities really ratchet it up and lay one on BILD. That’s when people know it’s real and not just the usual sugary-sweet, anodyne stuff.
L.A.: Mercedes with Mika Häkkinen, Michael Schumacher and Franz Beckenbauer was a very slick example of that kind of dialogue.
Armin Jochum: What made it so slick was that the stars weren’t just acting: the dialogue was tailor-made for them. We didn’t shy away from the rivalries between them and were also realistic about their screen ambitions. We thought about what roles they would feel comfortable with – in other words, what associations do people have with them, and how can we use what we’ve got to coolly and confidently bring home the idea that these vehicles will get you safely through the winter? That was a lot of fun, but it was also an incredible amount of work getting it exactly how we wanted it. What an achievement by Creative Director Michael Ohanian!
L.A.: Dortmund Concert House is another good example.
Armin Jochum: We’ve had a very intense relationship with this client for many
years – the Concert Milk campaign isn’t the first we’ve done for them with this kind of feel. It’s just great when you have a client you can grow together with, tackling each project as equal partners. Orchestras all over the world are in the same boat: how do you get your concerts noticed, how do you package your product in an attractive way? When we heard about the scientific discovery that cows produce better milk when they listen to classical music, that was an absolute gift, there for the taking. This achievement is a great credit to all the creatives involved, above all Tobi Grimm and Jens Pfau.
L.A.: Does an agency need small but smart clients like that if it wants to make big ideas happen?
Armin Jochum: An agency is like a creative force field, one that needs a steady flow of real creative challenges to keep it
alive – impossible challenges that beg to be met. But how do you go about making that happen? I believe it’s incredibly important for an agency to keep training all the time and, when an idea comes along, to put all your energy and strength into it in order to grow. It’s the magnitude of the challenge, not the size of the budget, that should be the sole motivating factor.
L.A.: That approach has paid off – for instance, in Cannes. Winning Agency of the Year is no mean feat. Did you ever expect that kind of spectacular success?
Armin Jochum: It’s the big dream of every creative – having the chance to put a new stamp on an agency and turn it into an internationally respected agency brand. Every so often, a surreal dream like that comes true. I was very moved.
L.A.: How important is Cannes?
Armin Jochum: I’m not going to trot off the usual platitudes like “it’s the world championships” or anything like that, but yes, for me personally, Cannes is incredibly important. It’s more than a competition: for one week every year, Cannes becomes the epicentre of the creative universe. An inspiring, creative force field that sucks you in and then spits you out again a week later, haggard and spent. My personal journey is very closely linked to Cannes, and I owe it a great deal – from my first visit, where I had several revelations all in one go, to the times when I have served on the jury, which took me right to the heart of things.
L.A.: How was your experience of serving on the jury? You’ve been on the Titanium jury and, before that, you were Jury President of the Promo jury.
Armin Jochum: The week on the Titanium jury was just mind-blowing, not just because you were in a room with such great people with a sports bag full of ice cubes and Red Bull next to you, but also because of the electric atmosphere, the spirit in that room. We discussed like grown-ups, without the slightest hint of the political wrangling and all that other stuff you tend to get on creative juries. In Cannes, it was all about one thing: finding the entries that defied categorisation and were truly groundbreaking. It was all very no-nonsense, always focused on the task at hand, like a week-long, super-intensive training session. It was dark by the time we emerged from the Palais des Festivals onto the Croisette, where a lot of naturally smiling, happy people and the famous Martinez bar awaited us.
L.A.: Neil French put out his new book last year. What do you find so fascinating about him?
Armin Jochum: Once again, this goes back to my own personal path in life. I got my start as a graphic designer and was always hugely passionate about my work. And there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to set the world on fire with my book of type specimens. At some point, I had a great epiphany. I saw how creatives from America burst onto the scene, grab some paper and just start cranking out ideas. One idea, then another, and so on and so on … I wanted to do that, too. So essentially I decided to start again from scratch and tried to soak up everything like a sponge. And that’s how I came across the work of Neil French, which completely bowled me over. One of the first Neil French masterstrokes recommended to me by a colleague back then was the XO Beer campaign – an incredible achievement that continues to transcend its time.
L.A.: A timeless achievement.
Armin Jochum: Exactly that – amazing. Down to the very last detail. It always comes down to a perfect balance of masterly craftsmanship, delusions of grandeur and the desire to leave something truly indelible behind. Neil French pushed the envelope over and over again, and always with an incredible – a virtuoso – sense of style. This all comes from a huge fan, so please excuse the gushing.
L.A.: How important is passion?
Armin Jochum: I would describe my relationship with my profession as an uncommonly intense, passionate love affair. Passion is an extremely powerful driving force. Nothing great will ever come out of anything without the tunnel vision afforded by passion – without that complete, 100% focus on an idea. Never, ever.
L.A.: Why do you do what you do? What makes you a creative?
Armin Jochum: I can’t imagine a more satisfying profession. On top of that, I’m just no good at anything else. My entire life, I’ve quit everything as soon as it started to bore me. Everything – no exaggeration. Creativity has helped me reinvent myself time and time again. It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday, what awards you won last year. And how great your campaigns were ten years ago … That’s a matter of complete indifference. All that matters – and I mean all that matters – is what you do today and what you achieve tomorrow. This hunger, this drive, this thing that sets your ass on fire so that you keep moving forward, keep outdoing yourself, never stand still – this means everything. Dwell too much on the past, and you’ll lose your game.
L.A.: It’s like they say in Hollywood: “You’re only as good as your last movie.” Every day is like an empty page, and you have to prove yourself all over again.
Armin Jochum: That’s exactly it. A lot of ink has been spilled and a lot of words wasted over “the fear of the blank page”. But the flip side is a thousand times more inspiring: the sheer pleasure of wrestling with your own ideas. Shine a beam of light on this, on this and on that. It’s never been done before? It’s impossible? Fantastic! The best thing is when you know you have to get something down on paper, no matter what. The clock is ticking, and in two hours you have to have something to show for yourself. It’s the prospect of failure as opportunity, to paraphrase Christoph Schlingensief.
L.A.: What I’d also really like to ask you is: where are you creative? Are there particular spaces that work best for you?
Armin Jochum: It really varies. As someone from Swabia in Southern Germany, I find that inspiration strikes when I’m mowing the lawn. When I’m trundling up and down mowing my strips, I simply have time to think. But since I don’t spend the majority of my time on sea-sonal distractions like mowing grass, but rather inside the agency’s four walls, the cloistered atmosphere at JvM is very helpful. Peace and quiet is a luxury. Dis-traction is a serious hazard in an era like this, when time never stands still and
the temptation to respond to things as
quickly as possible is constant and omni-present. I think it’s a great idea to take a little downtime and concentrate on what it is you actually want to accomplish. Everyone has their own approach to this. Some people find a café to sit and think in; I love to harness all my powers of self-discipline and just sit there and get my ideas out. I used to walk around in circles and talk to myself. Now I switch on the lawnmower. There’s something to it.
L.A.: How do you motivate the next generation? Is there some sort of secret formula?
Armin Jochum: Motivation begins at home, you might say. Of course, you have to have the warrior gene. You have to love ideas, and you have to be prepared to defend them unconditionally. But still, it’s really great when you’re not standing there on the front lines all alone. What you want is to be surrounded by trusted individuals who will all pull in the same direction when it matters most. People who recognise your talent, people who both give you support and challenge you at the same time. From the very beginning, I had amazing bosses who believed in me and helped me spread my wings. This had a lasting impact on me. And it’s why I started working very closely with creative talent early on. If necessary, I would even try and encourage parents to let their son or daughter do an internship. I have also given parents my vow to personally ensure that their child’s talent would be cultivated. I have great faith in the next generation of creatives. You can’t expect to pluck gifted kids from school, assign them tasks and have it all just click at some point. We have to be prepared to invest in these young people. And invest not just money, but a lot of time, too. If we’re not genuinely prepared to share our knowledge and help people improve, nothing will ever change. Yet taking a real interest in up-and-coming talent is just one aspect; it’s also essential to create a climate that can serve as a hothouse for creativity. A fear-free atmosphere in which people can transcend themselves and gain confidence. Plus, it goes without saying that an agency’s innate spirit is vital to firing people up. What can I do to help people feel content and happy to come to work each day, rather than feeling they’re being used and abused?
L.A.: How do you stay number one?
Armin Jochum: With a very, very large dose of humility. Getting to the top is one thing, but the real challenge is staying there.
Jung von Matt was never hell bent on being king of the hill in terms of creativity. But, of course, if you aspire to deliver work that garners international recognition, it’s perfectly natural to want to be in the starting lineup each year. It also takes a great deal of effort. You’ve got to keep an eye on how the big picture is evolving. On how we’re developing as an agency. What work is considered exemplary on the international stage? Which campaigns represent a different kind of critical approach? That’s already a lot to deal with. It also puts us under constant pressure to reflect on how we work and to go on sharing ideas at international level, also with regard to emerging talent. All things considered, it’s an immense challenge. But it’s also a wonderful challenge. The best job in world, without doubt.
L.A.: But take WWF, for example, or the tap water campaign by Droga5 – these are definitely things that fill a sort of gap, you know? Something that perhaps institutions can’t quite pull off to the same degree: finding the right way to communicate, social responsibility.
Armin Jochum: A lot of creatives dream of using their talent and skills to break down barriers and do something good. They’re determined to escape from the advertising pigeonhole by any means possible. Remember, too, that major multinationals in particular can really score points with this type of work because they have greater leverage – and the campaigns, if they’re good enough, can truly win hearts and minds on a global scale. Nike’s Write the Future is a popular example of this. The WWF campaign works differently – it offers large corporations a new way to bring home commitment and an attitude of mind.
L.A.: Let me quote a eulogy by someone from manager magazin at the German Art Directors Club. He said something along the lines of a ship’s captain is especially worth his salt in rough seas – presumably in reference to the crisis. Is that something you’d also put your name to, that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going?”
Armin Jochum: I believe that, especially in tough times, it shows whether you can keep the ship on course or not. I assume you’re referring to 2009? That was a terrible and all but apocalyptic year for the industry as a whole. Many key clients in Germany were in dire straits, budgets were slashed and huge savings had to be made. For us, the only option was to roll up our sleeves, grit our teeth and keep going. That’s not just a question of business ambition but first and foremost the unshakable conviction that we could achieve great things – even and especially in a tough year. Business owners really appreciate it when they’ve got business-minded agencies behind them. It’s only when push comes to shove that you discover how good a partnership really is.
L.A.: Why is being dissatisfied ultimately good for creativity?
Armin Jochum: The real driving force and most potent secret weapon behind Jung von Matt’s 20-year success story is our maxim “we remain dissatisfied”. It’s a wonderful motivator – putting everything into question over and over again to avoid being satisfied before it’s time. Is the work truly great, or is there still scope for further improvement? Have we really thought of everything? Does it work perfectly in every way? Which brings me to another point: The agency was never solely focused on creative success, but also and at all times on how our work actually benefited the client. During my very first week at Jung von Matt, Karen Heumann, my partner on the Jung von Matt board responsible for Strategy, gave me a presentation highlighting the campaigns that had really helped our clients. And those that hadn’t. When you’re, like, this cocksure creative whizzkid who’s totally into his own campaign, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. At first, you feel sick to your stomach. But then after a while you start feeling pretty good again. Ultimately, being able to do things better is always a positive, right? With the benefit of hindsight that I have now, it did our work a great deal of good.
L.A.: How important are planning and research?
Armin Jochum: We deal in an extremely rare and volatile commodity: ideas. And sometimes things can blow up in your face. So it pays to really weigh everything up beforehand, pinpointing the opportunities – and the risks – involved. At the end of the day, we also have a big responsibility towards our clients, so it’s no harm to have done our homework. It’s great to have a partner like Karen!
L.A.: Talking of Karen, the two of you have got big plans together with kempertrautmann – the agency is also to be given a new name. Are there any details you can divulge at this stage?
Armin Jochum: Only to say that we’re both really, really looking forward to taking up the new challenge. It’s a marvellous stroke of destiny. But before we drift off into the esoteric here, I think it’s better we call it a day at this point.