Those who give their best ideas away should not be surprised if clients then want to pay less.
Stefan Zschaler is one of Germany’s top creatives. Having previously worked at agencies such as Springer & Jacoby and Jung von Matt in the 1990s, he has now been heading up the German office of Leagas Delaney in Hamburg as Creative Director/Managing Partner with Hermann Waterkamp since 2000. IIn 2004, Stefan teamed up with Hermann Waterkamp to open the Czech branch of Leagas Delaney in Prague to be better able to serve their client Škoda. In the interview that follows, Michael Weinzettl chats to the top creative and much-read blogger (textergesucht.blogspot.de) about his career and about carrying the torch of the legendary Leagas Delaney agency outside of the UK.
L.A.: Hi Stefan, one of your recent weekly blogs started with the words, “I’ve never seen as much good and creative advertising as I did in the past three years.” How come? Most of the time, creatives tend to moan about how bad advertising has become.
Stefan Zschaler: For the most part, my information about current advertising now comes from the internet. Facebook and Twitter provide me with a constant feed of excellent ads. By that I do not, of course, mean the ad campaigns being run there. I’m talking about the content my friends and followers keep posting/sharing. They do it because they like the stuff, or because it strikes them as extraordinary. I therefore get to see a lot more good advertising than I used to. Critics may argue that I am professionally interested, and that my information filter is geared to advertising. But when I watch my children – they are 23, 21, and 16 years old – or friends who are not part of the industry, I find that they, too, keep sharing cool commercials or print ads with their friends. And this is how I explain it to myself: what used to be the latest joke one told to impress friends and acquaintances has now become a striking image or video. This is something I find highly motivating for my work. People like to share great advertising. The downside is I’m no longer being told good jokes. They seem to be dying out. And that makes me a bit sentimental.
L.A.: You’ve been writing your weekly blog for five years now. How did that happen?
Stefan Zschaler: The reason that I started writing this blog was my digital-creative helplessness. Many of our creatives were still fixated on classic media even though I used to regularly tell them that a change in our thinking process was sorely needed. Well, as we say in Northern Germany, the fish rots from the head down. If I do not lead from the front by living digital thinking and digital creation myself, why should my teams do so? So I started the blog as a kind of digital process of discovering myself. Initially, my blog was conceived of as a guideline for young creatives – 100 tips for newcomers, that kind of thing. By the way, the one single blog that got me the highest number of readers since I started blogging was “How to write a TV treatment,” followed by “Who gets to be a copy intern? And how?” Currently, the blog is a kind of barometer of my creative soul. I write about what engages me and what might be worth a discussion inside the industry. A nice side effect of my blogging activity is that, occasionally, the trade press help themselves to sections of what I write. And the fact that my colleagues and co-workers can see what is currently making me tick.
L.A.: Can you tell us a bit about how it all began, how you got into the ad business, and perhaps single out a few important moments in your career?
Stefan Zschaler: After graduating from high school, I really didn’t have the slightest idea what the right profession for me might be. The only thing I knew was that I enjoyed writing and was never wanting in the quick repartee department. Your usual classroom clown, you know? In German, however, my grades were mediocre to ghastly. An internship at a newspaper showed me that becoming a journalist might be a way to go. But my grades were not sufficiently good to study journalism. My mother used to work from home providing secretarial services, which included producing individualized promotional letters for trade publishers on a mail-merge machine. I sometimes helped her with that, and the way the majority of these texts were written struck me as dull and uninspiring. So this is how I got interested in advertising. Then I found out that it was possible to study advertising (“Werbewirtschaft”) and enrolled at the Fachhochschule für Druck (now Hochschule der Medien) in Stuttgart. Studying copywriting provided the spark that launched my future career. After completing my studies, I applied for a job as a copywriter with several local agencies. Since I didn’t have a portfolio, and copy tests were still unheard of, Gerhard Mutter of the Crew agency in Stuttgart convinced me to start out in client services. Since, at that agency, the client service people were still allowed to do copywriting, I decided to give it a try. I was fascinated by the idea of solving a client’s problems with nothing more than a pencil, a sheet of paper, and a good idea. After short stints at McCann and BBDO in Frankfurt, I found my way to Springer & Jacoby in Hamburg. And this was where my life as an ad creative really took off. It was all about coming up with something really unusual and unique. I was able to develop outstanding ideas for big clients. And to win awards with them. In 1995, I switched to Jung von Matt. That was an extremely exciting, and also exhausting, time. At both agencies, I was fortunate enough to work on the three most attractive German car accounts, i.e. Mercedes-Benz, Audi and, later, BMW. Of course they had big budgets and the work I did for them was ubiquitous and highly visible. At the time there weren’t that many TV channels, and consumers couldn’t yet avoid advertising as easily as they can today. One of the favorite straplines I coined was: “Schöne Kombis heißen Avant” (Beautiful estate cars are called Avant) for Audi. Which then spawned a great campaign: “Schöne Häuser heißen Villen. Schöne Kombis heißen Avant.” (Beautiful houses are called villas. Beautiful estates are called Avant.) The eight years I spent in those creative hotshops were a defining moment for me. It was a time that taught me a whole lot and one on which I look back with gratitude.
L.A.: When you started out in advertising, did you have any role models, either in or outside the industry?
Stefan Zschaler: My first role models were exclusively soccer players. For a career as a professional soccer player, however, I clearly lacked talent. Only when I realized that advertising was the place for me to do my thing, and that my skills were attracting a certain degree of acknowledgement, did I start to become very ambitious and enthusiastic. Konstantin Jacoby and Reinhard Springer, as well as Jean-Remy von Matt and Holger Jung, did a lot to shape me in professional terms. Time and again, they demanded rigorous thinking and a passion for improving things. In general, I believe rigor and passion are the keys to any kind of success. If necessary, we used to throw everything overboard the day before the presentation and started from scratch to develop a new campaign overnight, a practice that has become very rare nowadays. Not that I miss it. But the concept of a work-life balance didn’t yet exist. And, for me personally, it still doesn’t. My job as a creative is part of my life, part of my attitude, and also part of the fulfillment I gain from it – not just part of a certain section of the day.
L.A.: Talking of personalities who were formative influences, please tell us about the time you first met Tim Delaney, and how things developed from then.
Stefan Zschaler: When my partner Hermann Waterkamp and I said goodbye to Jung von Matt in 1999 to find new directions creatively and as entrepreneurs, we got into contact with Tim Delaney. At the time, Tim was looking for a creative leadership for his Düsseldorf agency. We met at a hotel in Hamburg and spent the whole evening philosophizing about advertising and great ideas. I was particularly struck by his attitude towards strategy. At Jung von Matt, I had already been keen on developing a clear strategy and using it as a yardstick to measure creation against. The agency’s attitude at the time, however, was a bit different. If today you don’t know exactly where you want to go, creative work can turn out to be a huge waste of mental energy, something that can burn out the people involved in it.
L.A.: Is Tim Delaney still 100% involved in his advertising work? It was with him and his then Head of Art, Steve Dunn, that I did my very first interview for this magazine (Vol. 5/1991), and he made a huge impression on me.
Stefan Zschaler: Tim is still 120% active. He’s still coming up with campaigns, writing headlines and concepts. He’s still in contact with Steve Dunn (Founder and Executive Creative Director of The Assembly, London. Ed.) Tim is an ad creative through and through and he loves this job. That’s something we have in common. I could never imagine getting out of this business to retire at the age of 60. There is always some project that one is in complete thrall to. On the contrary, in fact: the longer I am in this business, the better the ideas I come up with have become, and I get even better at assessing the work done by my teams. This is a result of all the experience gained, and the fact that I can process even more knowledge today than was previously the case – and because I’m capable of really helping young creatives to improve their campaigns.
L.A.: What distinguishes advertising “Made in the UK“ from advertising “Made in Germany”?
Stefan Zschaler: Quite obviously, its strategic rigor and the way in which this is showcased emotionally. Good English advertising either possesses an offbeat kind of humor combined with self-irony or displays great pathos. That one thing – irony – is something German consumers don’t get (or so the market researchers tell us). The other – emotionalism – can quickly turn into an embarrassment (so our history tells us). In UK agencies, the way creatives approach strategy and discussions about insights is much more pronounced in nature than it is in Germany.
L.A.: Your agency has just won one of five Effies given out this year by the GWA, having been awarded it for the “Škoda to go” campaign. And this is not the first Effie you’ve received. Can you tell us a bit about the campaign and about the Effies as an ad award, where you have to provide concrete numbers for the jury, right?
Stefan Zschaler: The term Effie is a combination of effect and efficiency. You’ll get an Effie not primarily for an outstanding creative effort but for the effect the campaign shows. And this is something you have to document quite comprehensively once you submit. Basically, the Effie is an award for planners, because it is they who have to prove a campaign’s success by showing images and numbers. Which means that this award is highly coveted on the client side. The “Škoda to go” campaign is a rigorously thought-through effort. We had the seemingly impossible task to move about 20,000 vehicles off dealers’ forecourts because new models were waiting and the channels were still stuffed with the old models. Since we knew that fewer and fewer customers are willing to wait for a new car, our approach was that any kind of Škoda could be had “to go.” Any size, any model, any color. Just like coffee to go. While other car makes saw sales tank in early 2013, Škoda actually increased volumes. Which gave me back my belief in the power of strong ideas. In the communications jungle out there, you tend to lose this belief sometime.
L.A.: What is your take on award shows such as Cannes, etc.?
Stefan Zschaler: Creative awards do have an important role to perform because they show us how high the creative bar is currently set. Unfortunately, however, the inflationary growth in the number of shows has thrown the whole system into discredit. And, along with it, the respect the work deserves. Furthermore, in Germany in particular some agencies ruthlessly abuse award shows as an instrument for their own marketing purposes. In practice this means that, in places, they approach clients who are not theirs with work that has never been briefed. Not only do they produce this work for free but they also run it at their own expense. And the only intent is to submit them to award shows and thus influence the rankings. I find this way of doing things counterproductive because it undermines the recognition for our creative performance. Those who give their best ideas away for free should not be surprised if clients then want to pay less.
L.A.: What do you think about the fact that Cannes is firmly established as the dominant festival on the awards circuit while the other award shows seem to be becoming more insignificant?
Stefan Zschaler: Let’s not kid ourselves: these ad award shows have become a very lucrative business for their organizers. They know that, in the case of many agencies, creative vanity shuts off any kind of reason and opens up wallets. Which is why we now have so many different awards shows. Cannes plays a special role in all this as a result of its history, its proximity to the film festival, and the attractive location. It is still the world championship venue for creativity awards. Of course the festival organizers’ business sense has bloated the event, adding ever-new categories and seminars – to a point where the festival has become increasingly confusing and hence more random. Which leads to a lack of recognition. The fact that other award schemes are becoming less relevant is not something I find overly dramatic. Less is more. We ourselves submit our work only to a number of handpicked award shows.
L.A.: And which are they?
Stefan Zschaler: At the international level, Cannes, of course, One Show, D+AD, Clio, and New York Festival. Domestically, to the German ADC. And then there might be the odd award show to which we submit single pieces of work. But we try to keep it at an effective minimum. Otherwise, these things tend to swallow up too much of our resources and money. We’d rather put all of that into our work and into projects that are dear to our hearts, such as Plant-for-the-Planet or followfish.
L.A.: For the latter, followfish, you have already won the German “Nachhaltigkeitspreis” (sustainability award) twice – in 2011 and 2012. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Stefan Zschaler: followfish stands for a different type of cooperation with a client. Jürg Knoll, one of the two owners, approached us in 2006 and originally just wanted us to create packaging for his sustainably caught frozen fish. His company, Fish & More, was a kind of start-up enterprise and basically had no advertising budget. But I found his passion and his convictions infectious: getting consumers to rethink their habits through offering them the right kind of products while also combating bycatch and overfishing in the process. Instead of just offering him a packaging, we suggested a completely new brand and the name followfish. He was completely sold on the idea and wanted to start right away. We had proposed to him that, if this proved to be a success, we would earn a percentage on each package sold. Subsequently, I was able to find out – at trade fairs and in meetings with buyers – just how hard it is to launch a new brand in the retail food market. This really broadened both my horizons and my expertise. The power of the idea finally resulted in followfish becoming the fastest-growing frozen fish brand in Germany. It is the kind of cooperation where client and agency operate as equals to produce some great creative work. A lot of it has won awards, and I don’t primarily mean creative awards but trade awards such as those presented by the food industry and the sustainability movement. From our vantage point today, followfish proved to be an almost fairy-tale-like story. This February, Jürg Knoll will be named Client of the Year at the annual ADC Germany meeting. I’m very happy for him because he proved to be a courageous entrepreneur and one who respects unconventional thinking. Our idea-investment projects – this is what I call it when, instead of money, we invest knowhow and ideas in companies that have no budget for communication – are basically our R&D department. Our latest project is a pizza delivery service that makes the pizza right outside the customer’s door. So they arrive with a really crispy crust, unlike those soggy pizzas you get delivered to agencies in the middle of the night. You can already make a note of the name: Franco Fresco.
L.A.: The first campaign by Leagas Delaney Hamburg that we featured in Lürzer’s Archive was a social campaign against “Rightwing violence.” It was for your very first client, Stern magazine, back in 2003. What have been some of your agency’s creative highlights since then?
Stefan Zschaler: We did a lot of first-rate work for our client Škoda. I’d like to point to the glass film for the Superb model. Our “Stop Talking, Start Planting” campaign for the Plant-for-the-Planet is known internationally and very successful. A lot of international stars and politicians, among them the Prince of Monaco, Gisele Bündchen and Harrison Ford, participated. The Tuna Tunes campaign for followfish has long since been awarded at Cannes. And I like our new campaign for Alno kitchens (Vol. 6-13), which shows those kitchens in the shells of half-completed buildings. And other stuff you can look up online in Lürzer’s Archive (laughs).
L.A.: In 2006 you, Hermann Waterkamp and Thorsten Jux opened Leagas Delaney Prague. Any other reason for that except Škoda, which has been your client to this very day?
Stefan Zschaler: No. If we hadn’t had the opportunity to work for this exciting longstanding brand – Škoda happens to be the fourth-oldest car make in the world – we wouldn’t have considered the Czech Republic to be a market that Leagas Delaney absolutely had to service. Still, we nowadays work for some other clients there as well and have done some great work for them, and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate our team for that. Leagas Delaney Prague was the most creative agency in the Czech Republic for six years running. This year, we were overtaken by another but that merely serves to fire up our ambitions even more.
L.A.: In one of your blogs, I found an interesting example of what may happen when “brands crazed by an obsession to earn even bigger forget their very core.” You illustrated this by way of a recent print ad for the iPhone. Can you elaborate and perhaps give us another example?
Stefan Zschaler: The text you mention dealt with a challenger brand that suddenly ceases to be the challenger. And it then throws overboard everything that made it become the challenger: courage, originality, and passion. They mutate into mainstream brands, watch as their core is eroded, and lose what first made them distinctive. Their growth, and the size they reach, leads to a situation where the courageous are partnered by the less-than-courageous. Out-of-the-box thinkers are held back by the objections of timid yes-men. And the creative founder gets replaced by a CFO. Shareholder value becomes increasingly more important than consumer value. Which ultimately means that the communication, too, becomes interchangeable and predictable. Where once things used to be fun and edgy, the motto of the day now becomes: “Don’t rock the boat.” Brands that have gone this way can be found everywhere – take Bionade, take eBay, or Nokia. And, from my perspective, Apple is beginning to exhibit similar signs. American soccer player Mia Hamm once made a comment I totally agree with: “True champions aren’t always the ones that win, but those with the most guts.”
L.A.: How has the job of the copywriter changed over the past three decades?
Stefan Zschaler: From long-copy writing to cross-media conceptionalist – that is how I would roughly word it in 140 characters and then link it to my blog.
L.A.: What, to you, is good advertising? What does it have to achieve? Can you give us a few international examples of ads from recent years that impressed you?
Stefan Zschaler: Good advertising grabs my attention, moves me. Even if I hadn’t had the slightest intention of taking any notice of it, I will do so. It won’t allow me to keep on clicking, to turn the page, or to switch channels. An example of this would be the film Chrysler did for the Super Bowl 2011 with that really clever and pathos-filled slogan, “Made in Detroit.” The latest campaign for Hornbach by our esteemed colleagues from the Heimat agency in Berlin, the one with the hammer made from tank steel – that, too, is a truly remarkable and unusual ad. I like intelligent and surprising perspectives, which, incidentally, is what truly outstanding campaigns are usually based on.
L.A.: Is Digital more than just another tool ad creatives have at their disposal? And how has Digital changed advertising over the past ten years?
Stefan Zschaler: As a result of digital communication, advertising has undergone an enormous change. For one thing, when looking for ideas technology plays a much bigger part than it used to. Also – and I must say that I find this almost revolutionary – brands are no longer able to fool consumers. Everything has become transparent. Crude machinations and dishonesties on the part of the brand are spread worldwide within seconds, forcing not only companies but also governments to act and to make changes. People are now able to enter into a dialog with the authorities or brands and challenge them. What’s happening now, and what is going to happen even more in the future, is nothing less than breathtaking. Yet everything is also becoming more confusing, fragmented, and perfidious (think NSA). Many clients are beset by uncertainty. Which could be a great point of departure for us because we can now reposition ourselves as solution-oriented creatives and competent advisors. Unfortunately, however, so much mediocre and ineffectual stuff was produced in the past for so much money that the suits and beancounters are now more strongly positioned than the marketing people. Suits think in numbers. And that is no way to lead a brand.
L.A.: Where do you get your inspiration? How important are external sources, such as the arts, for an ad creative?
Stefan Zschaler: Reading, cinema and art, that is all important input, as well as being a welcome distraction. Sometime less, sometimes more, it depends on my mood and capacity to absorb. The weekly shop at the local supermarket can be just as important for me, observing people and how they interact with brands.
L.A.: What would be your advice for new creatives in the business? What matters most today? Is this a good time to be getting into advertising when compared with the time you first started out?
Stefan Zschaler: It is an ideal phase to start out in communications. It is an industry that is undergoing great changes. This provides more opportunities for young and curious people than times in which processes have become established. Communication is the bridge between brands and people. There are quite a lot of brands which, for many consumers, have become bigger role models than public figures supposedly concerned about the greater good of the people. There is fierce competition between brands, and a brand will immediately be punished if it exaggerates, fails to deliver, or lies. In terms of acting on this knowledge, brands have gotten far ahead of politicians. Increasingly, it is a mix of intelligent and credible creativity that counts most. Which, I think, makes it a highly attractive field to work in. Furthermore, in our industry you’re – yes, still – able to get relatively far in a relatively short amount of time. I can say of myself that I was a shy little lad who didn’t really know what to do in life. Yet I managed to find a job that I still enjoy today, that still challenges me, and one that is extremely varied and constantly giving me opportunities to realize myself. And neither do I have to go hungry. Is there anything better to be said about it after 26 years in the profession?