The Hunger for True Stories or: “No More Fairy Tales!”

Marketing has been a major feature in recruitment for a long time and storytelling is surely the latest in a series of buzzwords, after authenticity and content marketing, used to provide a working description of this new trend. “Telling stories” sells well – and not just in a sales situation. The way information is consumed is constantly changing, particularly by young target groups such as university graduates. News is now consumed differently and not only by millennials, or Generations Y and Z; authentic stories are more popular than ever. However, they must be original, easy to digest, and above all, snackable on the right channel. Due to these changes in the consumption of information, traditional news portals will undergo drastic change. Publishing houses are busy testing new formats for this young clientèle in order to adapt.

The new hunger for stories reflects our fundamental need to satisfy our curiosity with personal and emotive experiences. It is correct that telling stories is the perfect way for a company to address young people. It is also correct that stories can imbue this contact with emotion. Storytelling is now an essential part of recruitment.
But why? Let’s apply some logic and common sense. When we meet someone who interests us, we tell them about our lives through cool anecdotes or through stories that are as gripping as we can make them. That means: we simply present examples of how we experience or perceive things and how we dealt with certain situations. Let’s be honest about how quickly we use our intuition to expose braggarts or imposters. We react by turning away. We react by turning away. Why should that be any different for young people such as university graduates? Particularly if they do not yet know the company that wants to communicate with them?

This is exactly when stories are needed to address possible candidates and tell them how working with the potential employer really is. The emphasis here is on “really” – these target groups of young applicants are our most critical “customers”. They are on full alert because their future, their new job or their project is at stake. Companies must take this seriously. First impressions are important here: anyone telling fairy tales (no matter whether they take the form of false promises or run-of-the-mill empty phrases) stands no chance! Anyone on the receiving end will feel that they are not being taken seriously and will vote with their feet.

And then companies will soon find that we have arrived at the “Age of Recommendation”. Confidence in brands and products doesn’t just happen; it comes from recommendations and reviews. It’s not for nothing that companies use influencers to test products at events and that they face up to their honest opinions in the social networks – because ‘truth’ has become essential here too. It makes products and services more transparent.

So why not tell true stories straightaway?

It was only a question of time before employer brands also became transparent. For a long time, employers have been facing direct criticism – positive and negative – on evaluation platforms such as kununu or Glassdoor in the form of reviews by existing or former employees or in confrontation with reports of job interview experiences which went more or less badly. All out in the open. All straight-up. Today it is not enough to claim in a job advert or on a career website that a company is a good employer, offers a wealth of opportunities for development and cultivates a culture of fairness and respect, without any evidence at all. In this digital age, everything is checkable and in real time at that.

It is actually a positive development if truth is now an essential component of marketing and what is experienced or felt, what is genuine, once again have value, especially when it comes to communications from HR departments. So why not tell true stories from the start? Because that’s what university graduates expect, particularly in the decision-making phase, while they are still uncertain where their career journey should take them.

It is all the more important for personnel staff to develop a willingness to enter into dialogue and a consciousness of relations. An open attitude to new platforms. Dealing with direct criticism. Many HR departments freely admit that they do not have a process should an employee or applicant comment on them publicly. They are also wary, if not downright afraid, of seeking direct contact.

Personnel work has up to now been confined to “internal issues”, anonymous surveys and private meetings. No matter what technology is used to make an employer transparent: it is humans and their inner attitude to transactions and dialogue that will decide which companies successfully enter into conversation about their employer brand and which do not.

Storytelling presents a special opportunity for “hidden champions”

The “true stories” of convincing communication with this young, critical and very bright clientèle need the right foundation. Many companies have not yet really started, particularly those which up to now have not needed to do much to be well-known. Many companies have not yet really started, particularly those which up to now have not needed to do much to be well-known. At Serviceplan, we frequently receive enquiries from incredibly interesting “hidden champions” – unknown global market leaders in a specialised segment with products that need to be explained, usually technology drivers for familiar end products. The problem is that no one knows about them. Taking a closer look at these companies, we find people with unusual international careers with fantastic experiences to report which accurately reflect the true heart of the company as an employer.

The companies often do not recognise their own potential. As they frequently have rarely, sometimes never, shown this side to the outside, university graduates do not recognise the company nor are they aware of the exciting jobs on offer. Our own investigations have shown that this non-familiarity leads to sceptical thinking and incorrect assumptions, along the lines of “They’re sure to pay badly”, “They are at the back of beyond, I’ll never get away from there” or “That’s where careers go to die”. But it is precisely the big players in the provinces which often open the door to international careers with meaningful and well-paid jobs. It is particularly important that they can tell their story well and above all without embellishment.

To do this, companies first have to get to know themselves, to recognise their own potential, learn which stories they can tell and how they should tell them, so that they fit together. As in real life, a getting-to-know-you exercise is doomed as soon as you make a contrived or false impression. If one remains oneself and conveys an image of how one really is, the result is a positive reflection on both employees and job applicants. HR communication is therefore simultaneously internal communication because it is the employees who embody what is communicated to the outside.

I can still remember my first job interview in which I wanted to give perfect answers to possible questions. “I am very impatient….”. Of course I didn’t get the job. It is the same when companies come into contact with applicants. Each has their own character which exerts a huge influence on success. How the corporate culture is expressed, how people treat each other, how one conducts oneself and communicates. And of course how the product for which everyone is working is produced. In short: what the work is LIKE.

The first step: lie down on the couch!

The starting point is always this true and special thing at the core which brings a shine to the eyes of the employees. The good news is that everyone has it. The good news is that everyone has it. The bad news  is that not every company has found it yet. However it is the central strategic starting point for every communication. It is as hard for a company to describe and sell itself as it is for a person. When our agency is asked for help, the first unavoidable step of systematic employer branding is “getting to know yourself”, when every company has to “lie down on the couch”: When our agency is asked for help, the first unavoidable step of systematic employer branding is “getting to know yourself”, when every company has to “lie down on the couch”: using a qualitative analysis by means of internal and external surveys and individual focus groups and interviews. On a case-by-case basis, we do this either with our research agency Facit in the Serviceplan Group or with our partners in the HR business. The result is a history with an authentic perspective of the company. “What makes working in my company ‘attractive’, ‘authentic’ and ‘different’?” Working with the client, we condense these findings down into a key term (or sentence) in the form of an “Employer’s Value Proposition” and identify the characteristics, properties and facts with which the company delivers on its promise.

The EVP at Serviceplan

Serviceplan promises  “ownership”. We have ourselves practised what we have advised other companies to do. Using a qualitative survey, we found out that people working for us, from interns to the managing partners, find the opportunity to use their abilities to make something their own subject. For example, at Serviceplan there are eight colleagues who started as interns or trainees and today are Managing Directors running their own agencies. That’s why we defined the EVP with “ownership” – a promise which we deliver on with a wide spectrum of services for our colleagues.

A company will only have a basis for successful employer branding and a “credible” employer story when it recognises its own strengths. At Serviceplan we are developing cross-channel communication on this basis and have been working for over a year with personnel specialists YeaHR in order to ensure transferability and relevance to the Candidate and Employee Lifecycle. At Serviceplan we are developing cross-channel communication on this basis and have been working for over a year with personnel specialists YeaHR in order to ensure transferability and relevance to the Candidate and Employee Lifecycle. Because if we have learnt one thing, it is that substance is crucial.


This article was published in the Recruiting Journal on May 5th 2017.

Business is becoming increasingly digitalised and more international

Florian Haller, CEO of the Serviceplan Group, explains in an interview with Marketing Review St. Gallen on how the agency group is positioned and on current developments in marketing. He was interviewed by Sven Reinecke, Director of the Institute for Marketing at the University of St. Gallen and Friedrich M. Kirn, CEO of MIM Marken Institut München GmbH.

At the University of St Gallen (HSG) we teach students marketing and management. However, many of the people employed by agencies have not studied these subjects. You are a rare example of someone who has. Do you think that your training was helpful or would you choose a different approach now?

I benefited greatly from my time at HSG. And that’s because the advertising agency business has undergone some extreme changes over the last 20 years. Our core business used to be driven by gut instinct and was primarily creative;   I suspect a technical angle would not have been at all useful then. That’s all completely different now. Advertising agencies operate in a much more strategic and complex way. Advertising used to run on four or five channels; now we’re faced with twenty to thirty.  Not only that, these channels are also supposed to be interconnected. Apart from that, numerous new careers in the sector have developed over the years and now we can’t even imagine the advertising landscape without them:  just consider the digital forms of advertising. Business models have also developed enormously. It is nowadays essential that the management of a company the size of ours is based on strategic and theoretical principles. In this respect, I have no doubt that my course at the University of St. Gallen provided me with fundamental knowledge of great value. I think it’s a shame that so few high-achieving graduates from prestigious universities choose to work for large communication agencies.  However, maybe we should take it upon ourselves to put out a stronger message about the jobs and promotion prospects we can offer.

What were the events in your career so far that you would consider particularly “critical” and which have brought you insight?  

Each of the key points in my career was a real “aha moment”. Starting, obviously, with the course in St. Gallen and the “St. Gallen Management Model”. The most crucial thing I learnt was that managers should not settle for a superficial approach, but must recognise structures. The understanding and development of structures result in the design of successful strategies. Contact with businesses was strongly encouraged at St. Gallen: we gave presentations and contributed to manager seminars early on in the course. Even though we were quite young, it was quite normal for us to come into contact with senior management from Swiss and European companies. As a matter of course, this resulted in contacts which have endured now for decades. While I was at university, I realised how fantastic advertising can be. Incidentally, it was not clear at the time whether I would go to work in my father’s agency at some point.

Starting at Procter & Gamble after I graduated was an important time for me.  Going to Brussels and working for a pan-European brand in an international team was great fun.  The management helped us young marketing professionals feel personally responsible for our brands and we related very strongly to them. Over the six and half years at Procter & Gamble, I gradually realised that I would eventually want to work more independently so I joined my father’s agency.

How do agencies differentiate themselves from the others? Positioning, vision and principles at most PR agencies are very similar with little room for individuality, the focus is on brand management and creativity.

That’s true.  It is really difficult for an agency to set itself apart from the others in public perception. That is simply because agencies must live up to certain values. Customers expect agencies to be highly creative and not to damage their brands. It’s in their nature. There are no uncreative agencies.

We distinguish ourselves on the market with our four ‘i’s: innovative, international, independent and integrated. We are independent and partner-led.  We have an integrated structure, which, it should be noted, is not just theoretical, but actively part of our practice in the Houses of Communication. In our agency, traditional PR people work closely with media planners, data analysts and market researchers. Each agency within the group is a standalone unit. We have depth of specialisation but also integration. We achieve this by giving the teams geographical proximity and grouping them into customer teams. The other values that distinguish us are innovation and internationality.

Companies are increasingly pursuing a “one-brand” philosophy. Serviceplan operates as a group, but maintains very many “subbrands” and regional links. Is that not contradictory at some level?  Is it still necessary to maintain such a pronounced national presence in these global times?

There is a distinction between the service level and the brand level. At the service level, we do have separate agencies for specialist areas. For example, one undertakes nothing other than business intelligence. Another specialises in search engine optimisation. We see these specialist agencies as tools which customers can buy individually. Very specific expertise is developing in the specialist units.   Creatives look for other creatives and people working with technology need technology enthusiasts. As a group of agencies, we need to create the right environments and find employees that fit into the various areas. On the other hand, we are trying to cut back on the brand level. We don’t want each service area to have its own brand. That is not sustainable on the market. That’s why we have a brand for the creative product in the broadest sense:  Serviceplan. We have a brand for the ability to deal with channels – Mediaplus. The Plan.Net brand represents the digital segment, Facit covers market research and our newest brand, Solutions, deals with the realisation side of the business. The service areas are organised under these brands.

Does it make any sense at all now to maintain a regional presence in so many countries and on so many continents or should agencies rather look for synergies in the individual markets?

The Serviceplan Group is the first German agency to have a significant international presence.  We have either our own offices or partnerships in other countries. We currently have a presence in more than 35 countries, ranging from France to Dubai to China. Although Germany is so export-oriented, no German agency has ever  operated on such an international level as Serviceplan. This is unusual because German companies are valued for their reliability and technology-oriented thinking, amongst other qualities.  Global players such as BMW want to work with partners who can design international advertising campaigns and localize them for the country in question, so a company needs different expertise in the various markets. Anyone planning a campaign for the BMW 7-series must understand the Chinese market where many more cars are sold than in Germany, for example. In a nutshell: our customers are adamant that internationalisation is essential. I must point out that internationalisation is hugely enriching for the Serviceplan Group. Kick-off events at which teams from China, Europe and the USA get together and jointly develop a vision are memorable experiences for me. Internationalisation is unquestionably also an emotive matter for us. It is clear that our expansion concentrates on hubs which are economically significant. It is important to us that the agencies in the different countries are independent and look after their customers.    Synergies are created between countries, of course.

Serviceplan’s “House of Communication” model has integration at its heart. I don’t want to ask you about your favourite campaign – no one likes to rank their customers –  but which Serviceplan campaign best showcases integration?

(He laughs) We provide every customer with the service that is right for them. I am proud of that. Our day-to-day operations produce real flagship projects, of course.   I am proud of much of the work we do for BMW in which we combine creativity, media and the digital approach. A good example is the launch campaign for the i8. It is quite simply a fantastic product and developing the campaign for it was a pleasure. And then there’s the global aspect and the roll-out on every channel. This is a challenge even for a large agency. Everyone likes to see a satisfied customer. However, there are also less high-profile cases which I find really exciting. For example, we developed a campaign for the German Bar Association that worked mainly on a viral basis. Innovative thinking is paramount in a case like that.

360-degree communication is frequently called for – however, SMEs with modest budgets prefer an 80:20 approach.  Can you give examples of when “integrated PR” might not be the aim and what the importance of branding is?

In my view, the term 360-degree communication is not very helpful. The primary aim today can’t be to advertise on every single possible channel. Firstly, there probably is not enough money in most cases and there is also the question of the logic behind it. Innovative concepts do take careful account of the channels available, but try to find an intelligent way of linking that makes sense sequentially.

The current trend towards digitalisation presents us with more than one issue. Increasing digitalisation has the effect of bring the competition closer together. I think this makes the brand more significant. There used to be high barriers to entry. Customers had to go into a shop for advice before deciding on a new jacket. Nowadays we have the Internet and it is normal to carry out the comparison with a series of mouseclicks. It is therefore easy to defend the proposition that brand work today is as important as never before.

Research is currently examining the subject of “sponsor activation”. Why is sponsorship in many cases, despite the high costs of rights, insufficiently used and integrated in brand management?  Are there any examples of best practice?

The Serviceplan Group has a small business unit which is concerned specifically with sponsorship. This is an exciting subject and sponsorship can be enormously effective advertising. At the same time, sponsorship will never occupy a central place in agency operations.  Sponsorship decisions are often made with a great deal of emotion and caution is advised especially in planning a budget. Anyone who invests in a sponsorship, which usually involves a considerable sum of money, must ensure that enough remains in the budget to follow up with advertising.  Only this approach makes sponsorship efficient.

The communication landscape is diverging into many parts; it’s almost impossible to keep track of it.  The digital advertising sector is dominated by two major players. What will communication and advertising look like in 2015? How are corporate budgets changing, what is happening to the work done at agencies and by other market players such as market researchers

I’m not at all concerned about this. There are many subjects not discussed in the current hype surrounding digitalisation. Going forward, companies will still need partners who can develop creative ideas. Even in digital advertising, there is a huge need for consultancy. Agencies which rely on their purchasing power in the media will disappear, because computers will take on this work. There are still no answers to the questions of which customer data I can have, what price do I pay for it and how do I segment the available data? The need for consultancy will grow, not diminish. When I translate my channel strategy to Google or Facebook, it is probably  quite clear which channels my budgets are being used for. That is not something that advertising customers will want. Our future opportunities will lie in using different sources and putting together efficient offers for our customers.

Looking ahead: what will Serviceplan look like in 15 years time?

Let’s be happy if Serviceplan gets through the next five years successfully. Joking apart,  whatever happens, we will be even more digital in 15 years time. The proportion of digital services at our company is already over 50%. Today, 30% on average of our customers’ advertising budgets is spent in the digital area. The topic of data will be important in the future. Serviceplan will be doing more content marketing than is currently the case and will be even more international. Despite the justified scepticism concerning the frantic collection of data and the analysis of big data in many countries on this earth, we in Europe must be careful that we are not left behind. I am a committed defender of data protection and the controlled use of data, but the future will be to a great extent digital and the business models developing from this future are also digital. If we want to participate in this massive trend, we must remain open to the digital world. Particularly in advertising, we must ensure that it is not only companies in the USA in their safe harbour that do everything that is not allowed here and earn good money with it.  It is therefore important to stop people being afraid of Big Data.

Finally, can we have a few words on your commitment to Switzerland, where Serviceplan of course has a branch?

Happily. My father is Swiss and so am I. I did my military service in Switzerland and I’ve studied and worked there and I have many reasons to be grateful to the country. All things considered, we are the largest Swiss agency in the world.  Switzerland is also an important market for us, because it is a hub for companies with international operations.  For example, we work for ABB international global, which is based in Zurich. I feel very at home in Switzerland.

This interview was published in Marketing Review St. Gallen.

Three new routes to brand management

When brands become communicative self-starters without classic advertising. Tesla, MyMüsli or Westwing have shown us how it’s done

At one time, the advertising world was highly predictable. Three things formed the pillars of plannable marketing success: a big budget, extensive reach and clear positioning. This classic mix is certainly not outdated if someone wants to sell, say, gummy bears, toilet paper or beer.

Another approach is that of not making the classic media the exclusive central focus of a campaign – which often works like a charm:  Tesla’s off-the-wall carmakers, for instance, have achieved a brand awareness level of 60 per cent in Germany according to You Gov. Tesla is not a unique case: The breakfast cereal makers at MyMüsli or the furniture shop, Westwing, are brands who have largely achieved their fame by taking completely new routes. At the same time, their products, like their makers, are very different from one another. Nonetheless, they have certain common points that could be noted down in the new textbook for modern brand management:

A good story

A new product must have its own story. But not just any old blah-blah story. It has to be one that grabs the attention, that is different, and that interests people. And, of course, it has to be in touch with the zeitgeist. That means: successful brands pick up on mega trends – but in an unconventional, indeed sometimes even surprising, way. Tesla is surfing the wave of massively increased environmental awareness that has been building over the last few decades. It all makes sense so far. In addition, they are also triggering their very own brand surprise moment. Because in terms of design their cars are the absolute antithesis of accepted eco-style and functional, home-made solar-powered mobility. Their groundbreaking electromobility is housed in an extremely elegant, exceptionally desirable and very expensive car. It’s an elitist product that clearly separates smart ecological awareness from conventional green worthiness.

This game also works if you take it down to a smaller scale. MyMüsli has picked up on the trend for organic foods as its basis. It then fitted that trend with rocket engines, enriching the product with individuality plus convenience. An organic muesli that you can create yourself with online clicks is ornamented with personal fantasy names, and is then delivered by courier directly to your breakfast table.  Pour on the milk and get stuck in. Simply laid-back, tasty and healthy – that’s the way we live and eat today. On top of that, in order to show the maximum achievable, the product developers have got their calculators running red hot: according to the company, there are 566 quadrillion possible muesli variations. No-one can try them all in a single lifetime. You really can’t get more variety than that. It’s a great story that catches the fancy of every muesli maniac, and one that people enjoy sharing. However, since online sales and online marketing alone are not enough, for some years MyMüsli has increasingly been banking on its own shops in busy locations in relevant conurbations, staffed with real-life individual muesli consultants.

Westwing has also picked up on the quick & easy feeling brought to us by the internet. Some of their smart people took a look at what’s happening in our homes. There is hardly any other nation that spends so much money on furnishing their homes than we Germans. In addition, we really love being at home – what is known these days as “cocooning”. So it’s more than logical to find some way of sparing us a journey: the previously unavoidable trip to the gigantic out-of-town furniture megastores.  Instead, this clever start-up conveniently delivers trendy branded furniture and interior accessories to your home. Since furnishings are largely chosen by women, obtaining new armchairs and tables is now no more difficult than buying a pair of high heels from Zalando.

Westwing plays very well on the psychology of consumers. A clock can be seen ticking on the Westwing sale portal. If you don’t order within the remaining time you get kicked out, and can’t get the trendy product anymore. It’s something we’re familiar with from classic retail… only while stocks last. Only after all received orders have been bundled does Westwing order the goods and deliver them. But customers pay upfront.

The stars on the top of the tree

Brands that move people, arouse interest, enthral, turn customers into fans who then become part of the brand. Participation is the new mantra.

Additional help is provided when management has a substantial media presence. Because successful brands and their stories need narrators. And they have to take to the stage. It’s something one has to want and be able to do. Self-marketing was long reviled as personal vanity. Indeed it is still widely considered a dirty word. Those successful individuals who have mastered the high art of personal presentation to perfection couldn’t care less.   They do their thing – and benefit the marketing of their brands. Tesla’s Elon Musk is the virtually ideal protagonist in this regard: A billionaire visionary as the face of the company. A man who not only wants to level e-mobility’s way into the mass market, but who is constantly making headlines in the worldwide press with other sensational projects. Sometimes it’s reusable rockets, another time he’s thinking about colonising Mars, or building a tunnel beneath Los Angeles that will catapult pedestrians from Point A to Point B. A positive madman, but one who delivers perfect storytelling, thus continuously recharging his manufacturer brand.

Although the German counterparts are far more modest, they are just as effective. Both the MyMüsli management troika – all former students from Passau – and Deliah Fischer from Westwing, are being celebrated as showcase founders, and given awards. None of them has any qualms about appearing on talk shows or blowing their own trumpets for their brand in a high-profile way. And they always make a fresh, personable impression. Deliah Fischer, who studied fashion journalism, has certainly contributed the most to Westwing’s high profile to date. A power woman who is well-received, and who is the face of a vision, an idea and, ultimately, of a brand. Those who buy something at Westwing are always buying a little piece of Deliah Fischer’s spirit as well. Just like at Tesla, where the ingenious founder Elon Musk is somehow always there as an invisible front-seat passenger. A really good feeling.

Discover the new possibilities

These days start-ups usually have a different business model and they do their advertising differently too. They are consistently living out the game change in everything they do. And that’s a good thing. Three days after MyMüsli launched in 2007 it already had 16,500 hits on Google. The founders later filmed their first TV ad – entirely on an iPhone – because their funds were limited. In the meantime the company can also afford to invest in classic advertising. However this is often also in the shape of modern, interactive formats.

MyMüsli was a huge media hit because the founders recognised the signs of changing consumer interests and adapted them intelligently. Tesla is a media self-starter, powered by Elon Musk. The marketing experts from Rocket Internet – who know how to promote start-ups online – are behind Westwing.  With the examples of all channels from social media to influencer marketing. It is the art of winning people over without a big budget and without classic advertising. This works exceptionally well on the internet which is why it is often the preferred medium for the new brand marketing.

The agencies too have long since had a rethink. They accompany their clients throughout the entrepreneurial process from strategic product development to integrated, interdisciplinary marketing.

Three golden rules for digital change

Just to get it out of the way right now: I don’t like buzzwords. They are like annoying mayflies that seize our attention but serve no useful purpose. Their intrusive buzzing makes it more difficult to formulate clear thoughts. And too many mayflies at once block our view of what really matters.

That’s why I’m not overly fond of expressions like “agile” and “4.0”. Too often people slap these terms on in front of or after everything they can think of with the idea of exuding a little disruptive transformation zeitgeist and to signal: I’ve got my finger on the pulse, and I (supposedly) have everything under control.

Four letters that really spell things out

In contrast, I greatly appreciate the acronym VUCA – which has its roots in the US military world of the 1990s – because of its longevity and expressiveness.

The four letters stand for: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Four harmless letters that really spell things out. Because they very accurately describe both the current condition our world is in, and what we can expect in exponential doses for the future – with consequences for the organisation and the individual that are as yet very difficult to predict.

We are all well aware that the environment in which we move has an absolutely elemental influence on both the strength of an organisation’s value chain, and on every employee. VUCA thus challenges us to systematically question the existing rules of successful company management – whether we want to or not.

Because: methods, structures and doctrines that secured value creation over the long term in the past, have now already become – at best – toothless tigers. In a worst-case scenario they can cost an enormous amount of energy and destroy value creation.

But what does that mean for you as a CEO, CDO or CMO in concrete terms? In a VUCA-influenced world, how is substantial value creation produced? What are the new success factors of an entrepreneurial elite that is experimenting on the very front line with courage, curiosity and a sizeable portion of pioneering spirit?

I have been engaging intensively with these questions for around ten years. The key empirical findings can be summarised in three core theses.

1. Embrace, don’t fight.

Why fight against something that can’t be changed anyway? That costs a vast amount of time and energy. Time and energy that we’re lacking elsewhere – where we really can effect change and move things. So one of the elementary VUCA slogans is: Choose your battles wisely. And accept that our world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Stop complaining about the world as it is. Instead, interpret all occurrences and events as development helpers, as invitations to develop – for yourself, as a team, as an organisation and, ultimately, as a society – taking things to a new level of consciousness that is capable of seeing opportunities in a new light. Entirely in keeping with Einstein’s thesis that problems can never be solved with the same thinking as was used to create them.

2. Haste is the opposite of fast.

When the carousel of life revolves ever faster, one runs a high risk of succumbing to bustling actionism. Fast, faster, fastest. So that at the end of the day, we can all slap each other on the back and congratulate ourselves on how much we’ve achieved in such a short time.  Without realising how much the corporate organism is overheating. And without paying attention to what truly is value creation – and what isn’t. So one of the VUCA success factors is: learning to handle speed consciously.

In this context, “consciously” means not being driven but rather deciding in a concentrated way when to step on the gas (namely with regard to decision-making and implementation processes) and when reducing the speed is time well-invested (for example when it comes to integrating people into change, strategy or vision processes). To put it another way: In those places where communication significantly boosts value creation). The time required for this is won not by working faster, but by smartly working “differently”.

3. We-intelligence instead of I-intelligence.

Around 90 per cent of the data that exists worldwide today was created in the last two years. This volume of data doubles every year. The global knowledge society is increasingly dependent on thinking and working in networks – and realising that the individual (the individual person, individual department, individual organisation or individual nation) is not in a position to resolve VUCA challenges alone.

The future belongs to those employees or organisations who succeed in accessing official and unofficial networks as a resource, and using them for the good of society. When it comes to making the right decisions quickly, rigid hierarchies are obstructive, while clear rules and a shared understanding of the purpose of the common activity are beneficial.

Organisations that succeed in capitalising on the we-intelligence of colleagues have a lead.

They make use of a large number of new instruments. These range from hybrid role models (on Project A a person is the manager, on Project B the technical expert) to team self-organisation (for instance, the team leader is elected by his colleagues), to more effective steering instruments (collective goals replace individual goals) through to innovative decision-making methods (effectuation, consultative individual decision-making, etc.)

New rules for a new time: VUCA throws the existing rules of successful corporate management overboard. And invites us to successfully shape our future according to new rules with curiosity, passion and the gift of truly listening. In keeping with Karl Popper’s thesis: “Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate.”

Let’s embrace VUCA and make the best of it – together!

For anybody who wants to explore this matter in greater depth, I can recommend the following VUCA classics (in german):
•    Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux (2014)
•    Organisation für Komplexität by Niels Pfläging (2014)
•    Denkwerkzeuge der Höchstleister by Gerhard Wohland und Matthias Wiemeyer (2007)

Pepsi: 5 reasons why the soft drinks giant ended up in hot water

Companies often feel the need to claim that their products will make everyone happy, young, slim or sexy. That’s why I actually quite like it when they decide to promote values such as non-violence, diversity and freedom instead. In an era in which rabble-rousers abound and entire nations are being barred entry to other countries, taking a stance is to be commended. However, the soft drinks giant Pepsi recently demonstrated what can go wrong when you try to take a stance. All hell broke loose, and the company ended up sheepishly pulling an ad they had run. This comes as no surprise, as Pepsi made 5 mistakes with their ad.

First, the company made a can of Pepsi the hero of the hour, and in doing so gave the product priority over the stance they were taking. In the ad, Kendall Jenner takes a can of Pepsi and gives it to a stern-faced police officer who is watching over a group of protesters. The officer opens it and takes a sip, and everyone cheers – a happy ending to the ad, surely? However, whilst it’s only natural for an advertiser to want to showcase their product, in this case it would have been better if Pepsi had not shown a soft drink at all.

Second, the staging and imagery in the ad are totally wrong for the topic the company is addressing. Pepsi reinterpreted protests against racist police violence – which have previously turned into violent confrontations – as a gathering of young, happy, good-looking people. This must have provoked American activists, so it’s small wonder that they subsequently vented their anger on social media.

Third, it’s questionable whether it was a good idea to make Kendall Jenner, a white model, the protagonist of the ad. Whilst it’s true that Jenner, the half-sister of Kim Kardashian, is sure to have the attention of the tabloid press, she also advertises Chanel, Estée Lauder and the fashion brand Marc Jacobs. There’s no record of the 21-year-old model campaigning for non-violence or diversity in the past. As such, you could also argue that Kendall doesn’t stand for anything – and by extension, neither does Pepsi.

Fourth, values are the expression of a stance or an attitude, not a temporary part of an advertising campaign. If a company wants us to believe that it stands for certain values, it also has to put them into practice. For example, the CEO should make their voice heard when promoting those values.

Fifth, it doesn’t take a genius to expect an ad like this to, at the very least, kick off controversial discussions on social media. However, it seems that Pepsi didn’t expect this. It’s clear that they didn’t have a plan B to deal with the communications disaster. If they had, the company wouldn’t have responded with an embarrassing apology for the ad. Instead, they would have a recognised civil rights campaigner publicly express support for what the company was aiming to achieve, in order to take some of the wind out of their critics’ sails.

The green inclined consumer

“Manufacturer of sustainable products seeks solvent consumers with an interest in green issues.” This looks like a classified ad, bringing green producers and consumers together. Unfortunately, classified ads are out of fashion and those who buy green products are often very different from what many people think. So where do you find green consumers? And what do they look like?

A quick look back: in the past, people were distinguished by the fact that you could immediately tell who belonged to which group. Purchasers in organic shops in the 80s, for example, belonged to the green-alternative subculture. You could recognise these green environments by their clothing. For women: Birkenstock sandals and a flared skirt. For men probably a leather jacket and striped trousers. In this group they shared not only a passion for sustainable food but an entire world view. Whoever bought organic food was also simultaneously against rearmament and nuclear power but in favour of Nicaragua and the legalisation of cannabis. Tolerance was overlooked via small inconsistencies – such as the over-compensation of the beneficial effect of organic apples by mass consumption hand-rolled cigarettes. You would be against a crazy idea like an “organic supermarket”, using the jargon of the times, believing it to be an intrinsic contradiction, in other words an almost ridiculous idea. An organic shop had to be anti-capitalist, small and somehow or other be called Rapunzel.

Today, the world looks rather different. Organic foods have undergone an unparalleled career. There are not only organic supermarkets, there is even organic food at discount stores. And under the extended term “sustainable” there’s everything from fair-trade smart phones to holidays. But where has the clearly identifiable green environment gone?

A clear answer: it doesn’t exist anymore. Clearly defined environments in which one shared everything from fashion to ideology are either extinct, have shrivelled to insignificance or are more or less involuntary emergency associations (e.g. pensioners in dying villages). Instead, there is a patchwork existence as an individual equivalent of the patchwork family. You can make use of individual drawers of a huge lifestyle storage shelf and build up your own individuality together. And this is often not of pleasure, but because it has become a necessity. Where there is no environment to connect to, there is, so to speak, pressure for freedom. And the price of this freedom is firstly disorientation. Therefore, the search for guidance is as pronounced as ever. Each look at a Smartphone is a look to guide yourself. Am I still up to date? Have I missed something important? What should I do?

To illustrate how radical this change is, have another look back to our green-alternative environment of the 80s. Then it was discussed constantly, but only to reassure themselves that the shared ideology stood on a firm foundation. The perceived progressiveness of the group was at the expense of individuality within the group. If someone had said “No to rearmament” and “No to Nicaragua” simultaneously, one would have at best assumed that someone had smoked something wrong. This pressure to conform was not perceived as a loss – after all, they were indeed on the right side. In return, there was also a lot of love and security, and confirmation. And indeed this comforting feeling is lacking today. People who seek the company of others who think the same way as themselves have to go to a football stadium.

Of course, the desire to build communities beyond football is still there. And indeed it is the will to belong to the “community of the good” that drives sustainable consumption. Only it is simply no longer a closed environment in which this takes place. Statistically, about half of the population in developed countries belongs to the community of those who are “somehow sustainably oriented”. However, if one looks for similarities within this large group, it becomes vague. Trend: the wealthier and more educated you are, the greener you are. The poorer and educationally disadvantaged you are, the less interest you have in sustainable consumption. This is also obvious. It is more interesting to consider the motives for sustainable consumption. In closed environments with high moral ideals – like the faded green environment of the 80s – consequence was the most important driving force. In other words, you wanted the things that you stood for ideologically to be implemented as well and as comprehensively as possible. Implication: “Let’s create a better world.”

In today’s world of patchwork existence, however, it comes to compensation. Not everything we have pulled off the lifestyle-shelf and integrated into our lives is sustainable. Strictly speaking, much of it not sustainable. And because we are aware of it, we are simultaneously doing things to compensate for this: “I fly to Bali but I cycle to the office”, or “I live in a very big apartment but I have solar panels on the roof”. Compared to the idealistic consistency of the green pioneers this obviously appears a bit weak. Instead of saving the world we are content with doing a little something so that it doesn’t perish. Overall, the balance for sustainability is positive though: a) because there are many more people participating, at least sporadically, in sustainable consumption and b) because the range of sustainable products is growing steadily.

As a final question: how do we reach the great mass of consumers, some of whom consume sustainably? The answer is simple: by giving guidance. It has already been said that through the disappearance of closed environments and the emergence of patchwork existences a compulsion has arisen for people to define themselves. There is a correspondingly high demand for guidance. Guidance which companies must give. When consumers who are looking for guidance are simultaneously asked by companies what they would like, that’s not on. Figuratively speaking: It’s no good when two disoriented people ask each other for directions at a crossroads. It is the company’s task to bravely say where it’s headed. They must clearly formulate what they stand for as far as sustainability is concerned and state why they do what they do. The more attractive and credible this communication turns out to be, the more likely it is that guidance-seeking consumers will pounce upon it.

Interestingly, a circle closes here: the world again belongs to the persistent men of conviction – only this time they are on the corporate side.

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Brexit will force Europe to redefine its role

I must admit that I am biased.

To me, the concept of a united Europe is the most beautiful vision to have been developed after World War II. The EU is the means of making this vision a reality where we can enjoy free trade, borderless mobility, pan-European education programmes and standards such as Erasmus and Pisa, and social stability through European investments. The EU is even the strategic answer to helping us stay on par with China and the US. So, for me, Brexit is terrible!

Back to business.

The short-term implications for our business will not be good. Britain is a key market in Europe and many European marketing HQ’s are based in London. The UK will now go through a phase of insecurity for at least two years. If anything is poisonous to business, it is insecurity as it reduces the level of investment and consumption. Since the communication industry is also procyclical, ad investments are likely to be harmed by Brexit. Clients will proceed with greater caution in the short-term.

In the mid-term, the consequences are more difficult to assess.

One point to watch out for will of course be the result of the negotiations. I am doubtful that the UK and EU will resolve Brexit in such a short time and believe it will take much longer than two years to arrive at a suitable deal. And whatever the deal is, it will not be better than what we already have today, for either party.

But it should also be noted that the UK has considered the EU as simply a free trade zone, and not much more.  Brexit will in fact force the EU to redefine its role and priorities, therefore allowing the EU to evolve and align itself more with what Europeans expect from it.

Maybe we may see a stronger, more popular European Union emerge. This would be good news for all and especially for our business.

Let’s not miss this opportunity!

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What Makes a Good Manager?

Focus is the key to managing any business

What makes a really good manager?

Focus. Defining what that means, however, is difficult.

Ringing telephones, mails, Whatsapp, feeds, tweets, zealous assistants, hurried colleagues, following up on past meetings and preparing for future ones, purchasing, stock exchange, customer evaluations, weather reports, dripping tap, slow Internet connections…

Halli Galli. Subjective. Every day. From early to late. And beyond.

I ride a motorbike to help me focus. On tracks. Sometimes at a speed of almost 300 km/h.

I know what you’re thinking now: What, a family man? Irresponsible. Potential organ donor. Co2 delinquent. Complete idiot.

And to that, I say: That’s the darned best a manager can do.

When the next bend is all that matters, when whatever makes the next lap faster controls the subconscious, when it’s up to the much quoted gut to make the decisions.

Above you is the sun, below you is the latest generation of BMW super-sports model, the S 1000 RR (although I guess another motorbike will also work).

On the bike itself: a transponder. A transmitter that sends a signal to the stopwatch lap after lap.

Because on the racetrack, the truth is out there on the course.

The lap time makes the many processes, anomalies, information, actions and influences a measurable product of what happens out there.

The result is the culmination of many factors – and can be measured (in this case).

Just like in my job.

Making a good impression or flying headlong into a bend daringly won’t make you faster.

Having a plan and methodically and calmly putting it into action bend by bend, lap by lap, will make you faster.

Just like in my job.

Listening to someone who is (much) faster than you, that makes you faster.

Practice, practice, practice. It makes you faster.

Not distractedly tweeting, mailing, phoning before the job is done. Makes you faster.

Not always thinking about yesterday, the day before that, tomorrow and the day after, when it comes to the crunch. Makes you faster.

Braking at times to come out of the bend better. Makes you faster.

Sharing experiences with good people. Makes you faster.

Sometimes even thinking of absolutely nothing and taking a moment to smell the roses can make you faster.

Warming up the tyres so you can race against the clock. Makes you faster.

Faster makes you better.

Focus makes you better.


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SXSW 2017 – The New Digital Work Economy Needs More Real Brains

Life is full of choices. Where should I live? Should I get married? Which campaign do I choose for the client pitch? How many people should I hire or fire? Behavioural scientists discovered that everybody more or less makes 20,000 decisions every day. It reflects who we are, what we believe and how we behave.

But imagine if machines took all of this away? We will no doubt lose our identity. Now, we’re not saying that all decisions in the future could and should be made by machines! Artificial Intelligence already solves lots of problems and challenges now, and will probably solve even more in the future. And that’s brilliant, and is going to lead us to a whole new era. Every organisation must invest in future knowledge and new ways of working.

But in the long run it only pays off if, at the same time, they don’t stop developing the people that have to implement these new technologies. As our colleague Alexander Turtschan, Head of Media Insights & Innovation at Plan.Net outlines it so precisely: “My key takeaway from this year’s SXSW is that we now have fully entered the post-platform era of digitisation. AI, robotics and machine learning will transform every aspect of our lives, from the workplace to the home. While the technological side is moving rapidly, we are lagging far behind on the social aspects of this revolution, from legal frameworks to moral implications.“

SXSW in other words is sharing, exploring and inspiring every human centred aspect. There’s been a lot of press and interviews on the outcome of SXSW 2017, as well as a lot of sentiment over whether it is a good or bad event to attend.

From our experience this is not a black or white event. SXSW is what you make of it – hence everyone has a different SXSW experience. It’s such a large event, that covers a multitude of different topics. Within the official SXSW program and all around Austin at other branded open sessions, RSVP sessions and even hidden events – everyone rides the SXSW-wave.

For Nicolas Roemer, Head of Business Development International at Serviceplan, it is the strongest digital event in the US; in regards to mixing technology with socio-political and cultural ideological topics, probably the strongest event in the world. “As Virginia Rometty (President & CEO, IBM) put it, one doesn’t have one mentor, one learns and grows from everyone that inspires you. This can be across all kinds of areas. The people I meet at SXSW excite me and help develop and structure my approach every time I attend SXSW.”

He continues: “As I am heavily involved in building out Serviceplan North America’s presence this year, SXSW has been vital to see how other US agencies and brands sell themselves successfully at such events. Agencies and brands definitely promote themselves differently in the US. One can also tell that the high-risk tolerance level of brands for new technology has significantly grown. Brands are employing and enabling work forces e.g. Innovation Disruptors at HP to experiment with new technologies: Be it blockchain, experimenting with the different AI API’s, VR/AR etc. Especially in the AI field we will see a lot of change, even for the advertising industry with IBM Watson banner solutions, for example.”

So most people that attend SXSW Interactive already have a very strong background in digital, UX, technology, out-of-the-box-thinking…you name it. They have all heard of Watson, Nio and Drones before. Besides networking and experiencing the newest trends, what makes the SXSW experience so valuable? One of my observations this year was that many organisations are focusing on the workplace environment. For example, Fjord’s 2017 Trends report examines not only trends that will impact consumers, but also those set to impact design, business, organisation, culture and society in the next 12-18 months. IDEO spoke about innovation talents and how to keep innovators feeling creative, fulfilled, and committed as they grow in their careers. And Piera Gelardi, Founder of Refinery29, passionately spoke about ‘Courageous Creativity’ and how you sustain a childlike wonder and exuberant creativity as you grow a multi-million dollar, global business.

Moreover Meredith Haberfeld expressed her thoughts on employee engagement in relation to the economic advantage of a company: “From startups to mega-corporations, companies are wasting billions of dollars in the quest for employee engagement. But the only starting point for a fulfilled, optimally productive workplace is getting real about your CEO’s human intelligence. Leaders need basic human skills that aren’t taught in business school. Without them, engagement efforts are an embarrassingly shiny façade failing to mask underlying issues.”

Technology, work environment, tools and culture will massively shape the future of work experience and company success. These conditions will impact how adaptable organisations will be to change and upcoming trends. The human experience cannot be taken away by technology. Certainly people also have to adapt to the speed of technology. Learn how to fail and push creativity and innovation to the limit. Because, as Simon Steiner, Senior Consultant & Planner at Mediaplus described it, “In the digital age speed trumps perfection.”

This is the reason Serviceplan sent experts from the media, digital research, cultural strategy, and business development teams to distribute this knowledge across the group and into our 25 offices worldwide. Following on from the amazing networking opportunities from SXSW – as we did in 2016 with our educational VR-sessions – we will be hosting educational sessions for our clients and colleagues, on trends and topics we were able to take home from Austin.

While talking to IBM Watson in Austin I found out on that with my skillset I should be a Mentor. The Mentor is an “old soul”, relying on their past experiences to provide insight on what is coming next. They can answer all sorts of different questions with surprising accuracy, and have a healthy attitude about life. “Well, Watson – I don’t know about this! But thanks for the compliment anyway. ;-)” Lucky me that in the end I can decide weather I will make the Watson artificial intelligence my reality or not.

Howdy and see you next year in Austin!


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