‘Driven by fear’: A look inside the Berlin advertising market

This is Global Creative, a series by Digiday that highlights the nuances of advertising scenes in different parts of the world through the eyes of an established local creative.

There is, to be blunt, an often boring, regimented sameness to a lot of German advertising, and that’s in part a reflection of the workmanlike culture there. But with an industry based in Berlin, a bustling artsy hub, there’s no shortage of vibrant bright spots.

These were on display at the Epica Awards this week, an industry prize awarded to creative work from all over the world. Normally based in Paris, the Epica Awards this year hosted the event in Berlin as a nod to the city’s creative vibe. The awards committee — Digiday was a first-time juror — also found that there was a marked increase in entries from Germany this year.

“We chose Berlin because it is a creative hub, a center of startup culture and contemporary art. Many of the creative influencers of the future are being formed here,” said Mark Tungate, editorial director of the awards. “In terms of trends, a couple of elements  came up in the entries we received from Germany: many of them are emotional, inspired by true stories or touches of surreal humor.”

Achim Weber, ecd at Grey Berlin, said that German advertising as a whole is pretty homogenous, although there are certain themes in the standout creative work: a knack for storytelling and an understanding of history. And because of Berlin’s place in Germany as a young, hip and relatively affordable city, it attracts plenty of young creative talent that provide a fresher perspective.

Other markets in Germany are more old school, said Weber. There are a lot of musicians and DJs in Berlin, added Jan Lucas, ecd at Grey Berlin. “There is a lot to see and get inspired by.”

‘Realm of fear’
Berlin agencies and clients both put a high premium on the effectiveness of their advertising, which can result in a fairly monolithic style of advertising in Germany, said Weber. For example, last year, many pieces of work were done in a vignette style: dramatic, movie-like ads.

To poke fun at the trend, Grey Berlin created “Vignette Roulette,” a website that let you pick visuals and audio from different commercials and put them together. Turns out, every sound clip worked with every video clip, proving Weber’s point that the ads had basically become indistinguishable from each other. “It was our comment about this trend,” he said.

Clients are sometimes in hierarchical structures that create a “realm of fear” that doesn’t let them make mistakes. So the vignette spots, for example, do well because it’s standard and not too different.

Agencies that end up doing creatively different work usually do it after paying some dues, said Weber. “You have to earn it to be able to do that kinds of stuff. You have to do corporate shit then after a few years you can do the special stuff.”

Special stuff stretches the boundaries.
One Epica Gold winner, for example, was McDonalds’ Germany’s “Popov the Clown,” about Oleg Popov, the legendary clown and his dinner of choice. A beautifully directed video, it was different because it was so emotional, said Weber.

Another standout: “The Berlin Wall of Sound” by Grey for Soundcloud (which won a Radio Grand Prix in Cannes) was a visual memorial for the victims of the Berlin Wall. The agency never tested that before releasing it, opting for speed over rigoroous methodology. And the bet paid off, said Weber.

Another Berlin Wall-focused campaign also borrowed from history. To mark the 25th anniversary of German reunification, Airbnb told the true story of two guards from the East and West sides of the German border who met via Airbnb in a serendipitous encounter in 2012 — creating an emotional moment.

‘They go into the cellar to laugh’
Emotion plays a big role in the German market, but humor follows very specific rules. Sarcasm doesn’t work, said Lucas.  Lucas recalled one example where he pitched a sarcastic ad to a client that showed people using the product in a wrong way and not the way it was meant to be. Media buyers said no: “We don’t want to have people doing something wrong,” they told the agency. In short, self-deprecation doesn’t work.

There’s even a German proverb for how the culture thinks of humor: “They go into the cellar to laugh,” which means the culture in general is very straightforward and not too ready to be self-deprecating, sarcastic or too subtle when it comes to humor.

Ad blocking
Ad blocking is a much stronger threat in Germany compared to other European markets. Over 30 percent of Germans use ad blockers, according to PageFair — compared with just over 5 percent globally. And there have already been two court cases against ad-blockers in the country, both of which the ad-blocking company EyeO, which created Adblock Plus, has won.

Despite the troubles in the Eurozone, Germany’s ad economy has stayed robust. An Axel Springer report found that total ad spend passed $37 billion in 2014. In digital, ad spend went up 1.5 percent to just over $4 billion.

But on the creative front, that has meant that German agencies are rarely doing many banner ads, said Lucas. “What we’re trying to do is create something that makes culture and people share,” he said. “Ad blocking doesn’t affect us any more because we already know people aren’t clicking on that stuff. We’re focusing on good content that people want. Which isn’t anything new, anyway.”

So that means a certain tension is created between the old way of doing things — which makes for safe advertising — and a need for more viral content that shakes things up. Weber said the only way out is for agencies to pitch more risky work to clients and slowly get to that level. “We take a lot of cues from the United States now,” he said. “We have to be willing to take risks. It’s the only way.”

 Homepage image via Shutterstock


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