Felix Fenz, CCO at Grabarz & Partner and creative lead at Grabarz JMP Space, shares his insight into the remodelling of the German ad landscape
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In this conversation we speak with Felix Fenz, CCO at Grabarz & Partner and creative lead at Grabarz JMP Space. Here, he reflects on the changing face of adland in Germany, his all-time favourite campaign, and the back-handed compliment that kick started his career...
LBB> How did you first get into advertising - was it something you always knew you were going to do?
Felix Fenz> As a kid I was always drawing and building stuff, but I also wanted to be an explorer, scientist and inventor. I went to art school and up until my last year, I still wasn’t sure what my next steps would be. We had maximum freedom to explore different areas, so I just tried everything. Would I become a graphic designer, a filmmaker, animator, UX designer or something else?
It was a guest professor from Austria that ended up helping me with my decision. After one good look at my work, she said: “your design looks like s**t, but your ideas are great” – so I became a copywriter. And I didn’t regret it for one day.
If I look back at my childhood and art school days now, with the things I currently do and love most about my two roles, it was always there.
LBB> How would you describe an average day in your role as CCO at Grabarz & Partner?
Felix> Depends if I’m in our Hamburg office or in our innovation space (JMP Space) in Berlin. At JMP, my role is more hands-on, ideating as part of a small team of innovation strategists and creatives to develop product and service innovations.
In Hamburg, our main office, the way my usual day looks changed a lot with the pandemic as we introduced a work-from-everywhere policy quite early and are now remodelling the agency to cater perfectly to the demands of this way of work. As we live a system of leadership as a service, I basically do whatever helps the team to achieve the best results.
LBB> Looking back over your own career, are there any projects or campaigns that stand out as especially significant and why?
Felix> My “perfect campaign” was definitely The Rabbit Race. An integrated promotion I did when I was with Ogilvy. It not only won us six Cannes Lions and a Grand Prix at Eurobest, but was also a very special experience in the process.
Very often you come up with a great idea and during the process of the execution it becomes smaller and weaker with every meeting. The Rabbit Race was the opposite. We were much more modest in the beginning and planned to do it just online and, if we were lucky, with one TV station. But despite the fact that when we started we didn’t know if the rabbits would even run in the direction of the finishing line, everybody at the agency as well as the client and even the German TV stations, were so enthusiastic about it, that it became bigger and bigger every day.
In the end we were live for two minutes at prime time across the nine biggest private TV stations in Germany. We had tons of online content and kids (not ad people!) still talked about the event three years after. And I still love it, which is rare ;-)
LBB> What advice do you wish you'd had earlier in your career?
Felix> To take more time and enjoy and learn. My career went slowly compared to what is common now in the ad industry in Germany, so I always had the feeling I needed to reach the next position faster. I didn’t realise back then, that with every step you take you do less and less of the stuff which originally brought you into this job. That’s no problem, as I also love a lot of what I do now, but there are still some things I just don’t do any more.
LBB> You've worked across Berlin and Hamburg - how would you describe the creative culture of the two areas? In what ways are they similar and in what ways are they different?
Felix> In my experience Berlin and Hamburg are not so different when it comes to the creative culture. The difference is more in the companies you work with. I have the feeling – but that’s very subjective – that Hamburg is still more the German capital of the ad industry, while in Berlin you see a broader way of how creativity is implemented to create business models or solve challenges beyond advertising.
LBB> And looking at the German industry more broadly, in what ways is your creative culture different from other European countries - and how has it evolved over the past few years?
Felix> Indie agencies were dominating creative rankings in Germany for a very long time, and only in the last few years have most of those shops been acquired by big networks. Funnily enough, most of them still kept their original name.
Another difference I realised when working with creatives from abroad is that in Germany, there is no clear separation between creativity and craft when you look at job titles. This means you can usually only become an art director when you have good skills in Photoshop etc. There are also very few “older” senior creatives in ad agencies. Either you become a creative director or you leave as a freelancer.
We’re working on changing this system as we feel it limits the opportunities and happiness of our creatives, of course this will only work if more agencies move in the same direction.
LBB> How did you see the pandemic changing the industry as a whole? Are there any new habits or ideas you have picked up which you feel will become permanent?
Felix> You can compare the effect of the pandemic on the industry to a magnifying glass. Every little issue became a much bigger one and every challenge became huge. But it also let us see the solutions and new directions much clearer and sped up the process. I wonder how many agencies would still live in the digital stone age without the pandemic.
At G&P we introduced work from everywhere which helped us to weather the lockdown. Now it also helps to improve and diversify the inspiration of our teams as they can live and work where they like best. This also helps us with finding talent, as the place where you live or the willingness to relocate is no longer that important.
We’re also in the process to remodel the agency, catering to the requirements of the new normal and change it into a space which adds extra value to the work of our teams, so they want to come in to ideate, collaborate or just spend time together. The ability to make the culture of the agency relevant and tangible to our employees even if they’re working remotely will be crucial in the post pandemic world. If it just feels like working as a freelancer why would anybody stay?
Ad agencies – especially indie shops like G&P – are much more agile and flexible and adapt faster than big companies and we can use our learnings and solutions to help others.
LBB> How did you stay creatively inspired in such a difficult time?
Felix> For me inspiration comes from countless sources – and luckily most of them were not limited despite the difficult times. For example, observing nature, reading books or watching films. All that was still possible. Sometimes you had even more time to do it.
And then limitations and challenges are often a great source for inspiration – we had many of those. Most inventions originate from a problem you have to solve. It was very inspiring to see how creativity helped people around the world to find great solutions for many things. To stay close and connected to their loved ones, stay safe or to create new business models.
LBB> What is most exciting you about the future of the industry now?
Felix> The one thing I love the most about the ad industry: it never gets boring. I love the people, I love digging deep into totally niche topics which are somehow super relevant for clients and I love the change.
Now more than ever the ad industry has to change and it has to change fast. And there’s a lot of stuff going on like new business models or more demand to use the power of our creativity outside of marketing.
LBB> And what advice would you give any young creative looking to get into the industry today?
Felix> Try to find something you love in everything you do. Learn from everything. Enjoy the company.
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