Stephan Vogel is Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather EMEA, responsible for the creative output of over 50 locations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, having started out 20 years ago as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather in Frankfurt. Stephan has been a member of the Art Directors Club Germany since 2008, and was in November 2012 named President of the ADC. The numerous awards he has won at international shows – D&AD, London International Awards, Clio Awards, Art Directors Club of New York, One Show – include 60 Cannes Lions garnered in the last few years alone. Stephan holds a doctorate in psychology and scientific theory from the Universities of Mannheim and Munich and is the author of two books on these subjects. In the interview that follows, he replies to question put to him by Hermann Vaske.
Why are you creative?
Because, otherwise, I think I would be dead. When you grow up in a small village and have to spend long Sunday afternoons where nothing happens, you have to come up with some ideas to survive. I’ve got two boys and found out that, if you want to stimulate the creativity of children, the best thing is you give them the chance to bore the shit out of themselves. So boredom is a great canvas because it puts the pressure on you.
Could you elaborate on that?
Like, for example, I had some water paints and, I think when I was 8 or 9 years old, I was sitting down and started to paint things. Trivial stuff but, you know, this was one of the first things that I discovered: that I can draw. And I recently started again to draw some stuff. Also recently, I read a little conversation in which the child said: When I grow up, I want to be an artist. And the mother says: You have to decide. You can’t have both.
You are located in Frankfurt. How does the city influence your creativity?
It’s a big hub. For my international role, it’s perfect. From here, from the office to the airport, it’s something like 12 minutes, and from home 25 minutes, so if I were to do the same job out of London or Paris it would take me five times as long and this would mean a life “lost in transportation.”
Did your parents encourage you to be creative?
They left me completely alone. There was no ambition, there was no business to be taken over and things like that, so I could do what I wanted and there were no expectations. I think these were the best circumstances, you know, to discover what I want.
How important is ambition for creative people?
I think even the most creative person – without ambition – has zero output. It’s the formula of motivation, so it’s always motivation multiplied by skill. And if skill is zero and a very high motivation you’ve got zero, and if you have very, very high creative skills but zero motivation, the outcome is also zero.
How did you get into advertising?
I wrote my application for Ogilvy around the time when Lady Di died in that tunnel. And that is now 20 years ago, I still remember that, and from then on I came to this agency. I worked in the first year with everybody because I was not in a steady group and that was fantastic, so I could work on all brands that were there and with many different people. As my career progressed, the kind of projects got more complex, got bigger, got more technological, they got more digital, ultimately leading to projects such as “Back to Vinyl” or “Rabbit Race.” These were things, you know, which had a big, big scale and where there were lots of things to consider and a lot of obstacles to overcome. Also, the teams which were involved became bigger and bigger. And so it starts with you alone and a pen and a piece of paper, and it ends with a big, big equipment of people with digital skills, with film productions and with all the creatives involved. And, throughout my career, I discovered that, sometimes, it is better to make the music by yourself for commercials because you can’t afford the expensive tracks, and the cheap tracks sound cheap. We have a recording studio down here – or sometimes I was going to Berlin and working with some of the best musicians there to create tracks for Coke and German Rail. And so the good thing is, it was about writing lyrics, about humming the tune and clapping the rhythm and working with people who could put that into proper compositions, then recording the whole thing. Or sometimes even singing myself.
You are Chief Creative Officer for Ogilvy EMEA, and responsible for over 50 locations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. How important is international collaboration for creativity?
I landed this morning, I was in London, speaking to the top creatives there, and I’m always curious to hear what kind of new pitches they have won, what the new products are, what are they doing on it. Because one of the biggest creative leverages is on the strategic side. For example, I was very early involved when Dove in the early 2000s had this fantastic strategic idea which said: The world would be a better place if not the fashion and beauty industry but the women themselves were to decide what beauty is. So, this was a planning insight, and it came from New York and here in Germany, in Frankfurt and in Düsseldorf, we were working on that. And then Düsseldorf brought out this first campaign because Germany for Dove was a small test market – you know, this is Nivea country – and so the risk was not as big as in countries where Dove was the market leader. And so the big, big new strategic thought was the power of that first campaign. It was not the executional excellence, it was the boldness of this billboard campaign. But the insight and the strategy was the big point that was made and since then, for over 20 years, or for almost 20 years, it is there, and it always gets new executions. And so I’m traveling around in the markets: in South Africa, and I will be in Athens soon to talk to them about the projects and see if I can help with some insight or with a kind of creative new angle on the brief and help them to leverage the work.
In order to be different …
Yes. To be unique, actually. And if you are unique, you are different from everybody else. So you create a brand attitude that nobody else in the market has taken.
Be fearless, and be ready to attack your competitors, attack the standards of the category, and tackle tensions which are there. We are always looking for cultural tensions. Is there something you know that people are subconsciously suffering from, and is this something that we as a brand can tackle? For example, for German Rail we did the big ideal which said: The world would be a better place if two hours of travelling would be two hours gained, not two hours lost. So we came up with the tagline “This time belongs to you.” Or we found out that all those people who are working there in these bank buildings and all the consultants who are sitting there during the week – and at the weekend – when they go out into nature, they do exactly the same. They’ve got their pulse frequency gadget and they’ve got their schedules, and so they are out there but, actually, they are still in their cage of self-optimization. And this was the insight that led us to the brand proposition of Schoeffel, for example. This is a German outdoor brand which we differentiated against Jack Wolfskin and all the other big players by saying: “Schoeffel, I’m out.” And as soon as this campaign was out, you know, the people in the bank buildings were commenting on it very emotionally, from the bottom of their hearts on YouTube, so we found a brand attitude which is relevant and that was addressing a psychology which was actually there and I think this is one of the strongest things that you can do for a brand.
Let’s talk about your early works. Amnesty, for instance.
It was for the “Long Night of Museums” in Mannheim and we had a big, big audience, much bigger than during any other week in that museum. And so we said: What is happening in some kind of prison camps somewhere, in Pakistan or in the Middle East, we will bring as a piece of art in a normal gallery. It was a sculpture of a person hanging down, a person completely wrapped, you could see only the feet. And in this art context, what you normally do if you’ve got no explanation, you get close and read what the caption says. And there we wrote: “This is just a duplicate. The original hangs in a prison cell somewhere in China, Indonesia or the Middle East. Without witnesses. Without hope. if you don’t do anything against it. Help us to stop this happening: amnesty.de.” That means we are bringing the people very, very close to the things and created this emotional moment when they suddenly felt‚ “Oh my God, this is something which is happening now.” And so we created this unique emotional effect. We brought a real problem into the context of art. It was about creating goosebumps.
Can advertising help solve the problems of the world?
I think yes. In many cases we have seen that if you give the brand a purpose, like Dove, like women’s self-esteem, it connects better with the audience. Creativity is traveling well in a new digital media landscape. It is embraced, it is shared, people promote it, mass media are then referring to it, so I therefore think that, if you are brave and you’ve got a unique creative execution, you can gain awareness for the problems which are out there – and for possible solutions. I was writing an article titled: “Cannes saves the world – who will save Cannes?” It is about the fact that we should not forget the economic roots of our business. Our main purpose is to drive business. If this planet is to be saved one day, it won’t be an adman who saves it.
Can fear be a motivating force for creative people as long as they are in control of it?
If you want to be unique, then you have to do something that’s never been done before. And if you start doing something that’s never been done before, then you suddenly get a lot of problems. And then you feel the sweat on the palms of your hands. It was an Easter promotion for MediaMarkt, 10 rabbits running against each other, live on 9 TV channels. We wanted to do it prime time on the Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday before Easter. We had three months of training. But until the very last day nobody knew if the damn rabbits would run in the direction that they should do, and whether there would be a winner. And so, yes, fear was part of the process. And you need brave clients, you need brave productions to get something like that done. So if you do something great and unique, fear automatically comes with it and you have to deal with it.
Great and unique was certainly your work for Kontor Records in Hamburg.
This was an idea that came out of our Düsseldorf office. It was in a clutter of many other things and I saw the picture. It was a vinyl record, with an iPhone placed on it. The iPhone had the needle to play the record. And I said: If we can make this work technically, this will be awesome. I was speaking to our tech experts, the best digital people, and so we were programming and testing and programming it in-house. We had the best CRM people on it because it had to be a proper mailing for Kontor Records with all the specifications aboard. And the best designers to create the label and the turntable. And if you’ve got a real mail, you see that the print quality is very high also. And so there were a lot of challenges. And it all worked out! We all worked together and I think this made the whole project very, very playful, very unique, and it really was also a goosebump moment when you were following the instructions, putting your iPhone on it and then, at that moment, you suddenly heard that you could make the record play, and by swiping your finger you can shift the needle to the next track – and it all worked! This was also a kind of an experiment. At the beginning, we were not sure if we could make it work or not. And this is how unique things normally start.
Are you addicted to the creative process?
Yes, absolutely. Because I started very late in advertising, in the creativity business, when I was 34. I spent a long time at university and did science. And I found that science is great but science alone is boring and there are so many other things that I wanted to do, like writing and sketching and storytelling. And I found that, in the communication industry, it’s the perfect mix so when a client comes with a brand problem, first of all it’s an analytical thing and you have to be very well trained in terms of exactly describing qualities, because at the core of each brand there are no numbers; there’s nothing that a Boston Consulting or McKinsey consultant could measure. At the core of each brand, it’s the quality. And this is the emotional quality which is stored in the head and the heart of consumers. Although you can’t measure it, you can describe it with a few well-chosen words. And if you blur it, then you can’t steer the brand properly; you have to take it to one single point to describe the brand attitude. And this is an analytical thing. And when you’ve got that, you can think about how to give this attitude creative expression again and again. For example, the Dove story over the past 20 years shows that it’s always the same brand attitude – absolutely and precisely – but there’s a lot of creative freedom, and this is modern communication. So it is about steering the brand not by a thick book with restrictive formulas of what to do or not to do – like in the past in mass media, when brands were steered by rules. Now, you can steer them by one single brand attitude and a maximum of freedom in the creative execution. And also German Rail’s “This time belongs to you” was a thought that led to classical advertising and was also activation. We were looking to see what people were really doing with the two or three hours they are spending on a train and we were stimulating and talking to them, and made their kind of creativity part of the campaign. This is how things work best; it’s not you alone. With a good strategic thought, you are starting the engine and then make as many people as possible join the whole thing, bringing in their content, bringing in their ideas, and your brand is mainly the platform.
I find it interesting that you started out in science. You need to be creative to do good science, right?
Isaak Newton and Albert Einstein were, I think, great creatives because they created a formula which replaced a boring lot of information. It was a breakthrough. You can’t come up with a formula like that by deducting facts. It is an act of creative insight and thinking: “What if …?” So Einstein’s thought was like: What if Newton wasn’t right in all his things? What if time and space are not independent? And then he thought, he started exploring, and then he suddenly got to the point where he saw the whole thing, the universe, from a complete different angle, and this created a new picture. So I think that the big steps in science are also big creative steps. Like starting from the invention of the wheel. The invention of the wheel was a creative thing. That’s why I said: “Disrupting Deutschland.” In Germany, we are perfect at optimizing what we are doing. We invented the car in 1885 and we have been optimizing it in many, many steps. But I think even Angela Merkel now says this won’t last forever, and we have to think about something new but we are not good at this kind of disruptive thinking and thinking new, so Tesla is leading the way to the future in terms of mobility and creativity. They’ve got the more creative product than our big car manufacturers. Germany has to rediscover creativity and boldness because we are too much into optimizing existing business models and we are not enough into doing something really new and putting money behind it. Like we invented the MP3 player, but nobody here was investing in this technology and bringing it to the market. It was other countries which did that. Because we are still living from the optimization of existing things. Germany, I think, needs some big creative leaps to the future right now because we see the end of the car industry and I think one in three workers here in Germany is somehow tied to that and so we have to think of something new.
Who and what is killing ideas?
Success is a killer of creativity. There are a lot of people who say, well, we are so successful, or, no, this new project is only a niche, it’s not big enough, it’s not growing fast enough, we won’t invest in that. We will focus on our main business. This is a big killer of creativity and this is your death nail. If you think like that at a time when creativity in Asia is happening so fast, we have to be aware that we have to be open to new ideas and we have to invest in them and we have to look for them. Success is killing the thing. Routines are killing it. So we always did it that way. Skepticism is killing it. Being risk-averse is killing it. Processes also can kill creativity: Our industry is great in setting up processes of research, tests, pre-tests, pre-post-tests. Sometimes, they are investing something like 800,000 in testing and doing animatics for a commercial. And, after the whole thing is through, they only have 200,000 left for the real commercial. At a time like this, with this kind of media structure, you can take the one million you have and you can make five commercials and put them all out and see what the audience is doing with them. So we are still killing ideas, or trying to control ideas which don’t get any better when they are controlled.
No. Don’t be risk-averse. Accept failure. Try five things instead of making one sure one. That is the soul of innovation.
“End inhumanity,” reads the copy in this print ad for Amnesty International,
first featured in Lürzer’s Archive Vol. 3-2016.
On this and the pages that follow, we present some campaigns to which
Stephan Vogel contributed as creative director and/or copywriter.
Sculpture of a shrouded human figure hanging down,
exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts Mannheim, Germany,
and sponsored by Amnesty International in 2006.
Stills from a TV commercial for Austrian environmental mobility lobby VCÖ
showing a boss and a few of his staff, all of them bent on killing. Their favorite
victims: people using their cell phone in the car. Pay-off: Don’t use your
smartphone while driving. (Originally featured in Lürzer’s Archive Vol. 3-2014.)
“Late works of after-work culture,” reads the copy in this campaign for an exhibition staged at the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts
featuring images taken by fans of Sternburg, a popular German beer brand. (Published in Lürzer’s Archive Vol. 6-2014.)
Ad from the Matchbox series that won a Gold and Silver Lion at the Cannes Festival of Creativity in 2008. (Featured in Vol. 2-2008).
Ad for an initiative by Rolling Stone magazine designed to create awareness of how pirated material will make great bands
and gifted musicians disappear (Vol. 5-2010).
Ad for the Malteser ambulance service that garnered a Gold Lion in Cannes and was originally featured in Lürzer’s Archive Vol. 5-2007.