How does one go about reinventing a traditional brand? How important is sustainability for successful brand management? Which skills does the CMO of tomorrow need and what kind of role will they play in companies in the future? Florian Haller and Susann Schramm, CMO McDonald’s Germany, met up for an interview to discuss the answers. 

Florian Haller: Two years ago, you ushered in a new era of brand management at McDonald’s. How does one go about reinventing a traditional brand?
Susan Schramm: I think the secret – and not just for McDonald’s – is not to allow a brand to become a “traditional brand” in the first place. You have to permanently breathe new life into it. At McDonald’s we’re constantly asking ourselves how we can do things better, how we can look at things in a different way. McDonald’s is a brand that manages to move with the times and keep an eye on its customers’ needs. In brand management, you have to really take a close look at the everyday lives of your target group. There can also be a certain element of tradition in the consistency of change and development.

It’s a well-known fact that digitalisation is the biggest driver of change. What role does it play in the rethinking of a fast-food brand?
Susan Schramm: At first sight, digitalisation doesn’t seem to really apply to a company like McDonald’s, because the act of eating is always analogue. But losing sight of the digitality in our lives would be a huge mistake for us as a brand. Our extensive digitalisation – with our ordering kiosks, app, CRM system and lots more besides – has fundamentally changed our service concept, our production options and our overall business model. Especially now, in the crisis, focusing on our digital further development is really paying off for us as a brand. We are seeing that the path we have chosen was the right one. This means that we now have completely different ways to communicate with our target groups and also offer them virtually contactless services.

What form does digitalisation take at McDonald’s?
Susan Schramm: Launching our app, which I can use here as an example, has benefited us greatly. Sure, there’s nothing revolutionary about an app in itself. But in next to no time we gained over 15 million registered users and therefore also the opportunity to learn something about our customers and target them effectively. And it means we now also have a tool that we can use to make perfectly tailored offers for specific target groups. As a company, keeping up with the times is very important, particularly for our target groups in their teens and 20s. The app gives us a form of communication that we can use to reach them in the digital environment that is such an integral part of their daily lives. And the “Mobile Order & Pay” feature that is integrated in the app is proving extremely useful during the current crisis.

Would you say that McDonald’s has developed from a mass brand into a personalised one?
Susan Schramm: We are definitely getting there. Now that we can appeal to our customers in an increasingly personalised way, our communication with them is completely different and we can build up a sense of familiarity and trust. The only way to find out who our customers were in the past was through research. In future we won’t only know who visits us, but will also be able to enter into a 1:1 dialogue with them and provide them with individualised offers.

Will the coronavirus crisis leave a permanent mark, or will things eventually get back to normal?
Susan Schramm: I don’t believe that there will be a “back to normal”. We have all learnt a lot from the crisis, I think, and it is precisely these findings that we will take with us into the future. What I could envisage is a shift towards more sustainable consumption, to a greater sense of responsibility and appreciation of things.

So will sustainability and purpose remain megatrends?
Susan Schramm: I have the feeling that these topics will become even more relevant. The pandemic has shown us that we humans are lot more vulnerable than we thought. Our entire generation didn’t ever imagine or expect such a crisis to happen to them. We are suddenly realising that a lot of things we took for granted are being questioned and can fall asunder quickly. So in that respect, I believe that sustainability and values will gain in significance – even though we are seeing a certain discrepancy between morals and consumption. And if a brand wants to be relevant in the long term, it has to face up to that. So as a company of course we have to look at what our customers want and what is actually being purchased and consumed.

McDonald’s isn’t a brand that most people would associate with sustainability. How do you want to change that?
Susan Schramm: By moving with the times and constantly developing, we can always ensure that the measures are visible and transparent.It all comes down to authenticity, i.e. the things that you can credibly represent. The McDonald’s of 2020 is a far cry from the McDonald’s of 30 years ago. A lot has been achieved: more sustainable packaging, a vegan burger, free-range eggs and lots more. We know that certain things cannot be changed from one day to the next, but that it takes time – for example in the case of supply chains that have to be built up. There are a lot of small steps that we are taking with a view to becoming better in the long term.

In an interview you once said that loudness wasn’t your thing. But in this day and age, how can you be heard without being loud?
Susan Schramm: A lot of brands can be loud – sometimes all they need for that is the right budget. But many loud brands are still not very convincing and aren’t necessarily successful either. And volume alone doesn’t enable you to get your message to stick in people’s minds, not by a long chalk. Relevance and authenticity are more important here. There are many great ideas that start out small and then often spread a lot more successfully than if you were to just shout them from the rooftops.

Speaking of which, how do you use social media as a brand?
Susan Schramm: We use a lot of social media channels to communicate with our customers, but it’s about keeping the dialogue going here too. Marketing messages don’t work in the same way on all platforms and in terms of channel-adequate messaging, we have experienced an enormous learning curve in the past few years. Just because something works on Instagram, that doesn’t mean it necessarily also has to work on TikTok. A lot of work and orchestration are required: what is the target group, on which channel, how should we target them and what messages are relevant?

But when it comes to social media, there is still the question of how you scale all of that. You need a widespread impact, after all…
Susan Schramm: That’s why I always say that social media and digitalisation are absolutely indispensable. But simply writing off TV, outdoor and print advertising is the wrong approach in my opinion. Conventional media still have a very strong impact and are moving more towards interaction with online and social media. You need to find the right media mix: which medium is the best for which purpose? I’m a firm believer that success all comes down to having the right mix.

Does a brand need one big idea, or does it make more sense to appeal to the different target groups on different platforms with lots of different ideas?
Susan Schramm: If I have an amazing idea that works on all platforms then that one idea is enough. But that’s rarely the case, which is why you usually need lots of ideas. You have to keep surprising people, while always keeping your eye on the current zeitgeist, trends, medium and target group. And also make sure that all of that is in harmony with the brand’s core. The trick is to ensure that the brand is recognisable at all touchpoints in the long term, without always being the same.

What do you see as the core of your role as CMO?
Susan Schramm: I have a very young team made up of lots of great people – and it is my job as CMO to motivate and inspire them and to create an environment in which employees are confident enough to develop things and also themselves. Ideally, I am the person who has the vision for the brand and says where we need to be heading. And then we develop the path to that goal together.

Is working with the younger generation different these days?
Susan Schramm: It used to be about accumulating knowledge and then passing it on to the next generation. But it has become more of a give and take. As an experienced CMO, you bring a certain calmness to a situation – you are able to analyse things and recognise opportunities and set out guidelines in certain areas. But there are also areas in which I learn an incredible amount from the young people I work with, for example when new channels gain in relevance among the young target group. That’s a lot of fun and always exciting.

Do you expect the CMO to have a more or a less important role in companies in the future?
Susan Schramm: I’m an optimist as far as that’s concerned. Basically, I think the CMO will gain in significance, although it does of course depend a little on the company structure. McDonald’s, for example, is very much a marketing-oriented company, and we as the marketing team are not only responsible for the brand but are also measured by sales and have a responsibility for them. We get the figures every morning at 8:00 am, and that’s when I can see how our products and offers are being received by the customers. That success is much more quantifiable than if I am “just” responsible for shaping the brand. And it means I have more of an influence on the company’s profits and direction.

One point is certainly also that digitalisation is breaking down barriers to market entry. That is levelling the playing field, which in turn is leading to marketing generally becoming more important.
Susan Schramm: It’s true that digitalisation is making it more important to develop your brand and clearly differentiate yourself from the competition. If you want to stand out, you have to engage with new channels and ways of interacting with the target groups. The greatest challenge here is creating instant recognition value and communicating it as individually as possible at the same time. A lot of people underestimate how difficult it is to develop a brand and keep it relevant and modern. So I believe that intelligent marketing will continue to make the difference here in the long run.

Does a CMO need to be a forward-thinker when it comes to innovation?
Susan Schramm: Ideally, the marketing team should bring creativity and a new way of thinking to the company. I think all companies would benefit from giving their CMOs the freedom to innovate – perhaps even the formal responsibility for innovations.

What will be the major brand management issues in the post-coronavirus world?
Susan Schramm: The main issue in our post-pandemic future will be what kind of an effect the crisis is having on consumers and consumer behaviour, and how brands can communicate accordingly. That’s not really something that anyone can predict yet. Security and trust are important factors here. It will be important to understand what your own brand stands for in this new context. Reconciling both those factors in the future will be quite a challenge.

What skills do brand managers need to bring to the table to achieve this?
Susan Schramm: That can only be achieved with a certain amount of empathy, a quality that is becoming more and more important. If I want to understand how people tick and how my communication is being received, then I can research everything and prove it with data. But I am still convinced that it won’t work without empathy. A CMO should also have the guts to be able to make certain decisions and think differently. It’s important to keep an open mind. And that includes not being too self-important. I think that this openness and the ability to listen to others are extremely important qualities for someone who works in marketing.

Thank you very much for the interesting interview.

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”.  The e-paper is available here.

COVID-19 has changed the world as we knew it and turned everything on its head. Uncertainty, fear and isolation, threats to health, unforeseeable economic developments as well as restrictions on our personal freedom and freedom of movement are just a few aspects that the global pandemic has had – and will continue to have in the foreseeable future. These far-reaching changes to our lives can also be observed in the way that media has been consumed over the past months, especially on the digital platforms: online shops and live streams have been positively booming and news portals have experienced the kind of traffic that they haven’t seen in a very long time. The global restrictions in the offline world sent people to the world wide web in their droves. COVID-19 has changed the world as we knew it and turned everything on its head. Uncertainty, fear and isolation, threats to health, unforeseeable economic developments as well as restrictions on our personal freedom and freedom of movement are just a few aspects that the global pandemic has had – and will continue to have in the foreseeable future. COVID-19 has changed the world as we knew it and turned everything on its head. Uncertainty, fear and isolation, threats to health, unforeseeable economic developments as well as restrictions on our personal freedom and freedom of movement are just a few aspects that the global pandemic has had – and will continue to have in the foreseeable future. These far-reaching changes to our lives can also be observed in the way that media has been consumed over the past months, especially on the digital platforms: online shops and live streams have been positively booming and news portals have experienced the kind of traffic that they haven’t seen in a very long time. The global restrictions in the offline world sent people to the world wide web in their droves.

And even though a lot of people spent the first few weeks and months mostly hunkering down in their own four walls, this crisis created a new sense of togetherness. A new ‘we’ that manifested itself not only but predominantly in the social media. And with that, Facebook, Instagram, etc., got back to doing what they had originally set out to do: bringing people all over the world together and giving them the opportunity to interact and network. A wonderful idea that seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years in the relentless pursuit of clicks, likes and sales.

But due to coronavirus-related contact restrictions and the resulting social isolation of huge swathes of the global population, the intensity of social media use has risen sharply. In a survey, 18 percent of Germans over the age of 18 admitted that they were using Facebook more during lockdown; and Instagram saw even more of a significant growth among 48 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds.* People were increasingly turning to the social web to find out about and discuss the daily news and to keep in touch with others. And – in later phases of the lockdown – to seek distraction and diversion, to take care of others or to show solidarity.

But this new approach to using social media actively and passively was not the product of a smooth and gradual evolution. From the time the first cases were reported in Germany to the lockdown and the ‘new normal’, people’s usage behaviour changed – and can be divided into five phases:

Phase 1: News, news, news – what’s happening out there?

“Stay home, stay safe.” This slogan defined the first weeks of lockdown like no other. The police patrolled the streets of big cities, blaring warnings through loudspeakers and instructing citizens to stay inside their homes and only leave in urgent cases. The disconcerting feeling of an invisible threat began to spread – and raised a multitude of questions: Is my city also badly affected? Just how contagious is the virus really? Am I allowed to leave my home to go food shopping? What happens if I need to go for a test? Do I need a mask, or is it best not to wear one? In the initial phase of the lockdown, news websites and the accounts of official authorities experienced an unprecedented boom. Facebook – which has long since morphed from the original ‘book of friends’ into a digital newsfeed – also profited here. And what better place to post teasers on a situation that was changing by the hour than Twitter, where, for example, the German Ministry of Health’s account increased its number of followers to almost 200,000 – with no advertising or promotion at all.

Phase 2: In search of community

In phase 2, a lot of brands used the social web in a very different way, forcing classic advertising to take a back seat for the first time. Brands were putting more of a focus on content that either added value for people, promoted a sense of community or made lockdown life easier.

One example of this was the activities instigated by numerous health and fitness brands: regular live sessions with top trainers via Instagram brought the gym into our homes – and gave us a feeling that we were being active together, despite the many contact restrictions in place.**

And even celebrities were committed to getting fitter, despite being in lockdown. Under the hashtag #StayAtHomeChallenge, the internet community shared their most creative ideas for exercising at home – including famous football players like Jérôme Boateng and superstar Neymar.

German supermarket chain Penny***, on the other hand, chose to focus on solidarity and community. Facebook became a place to recruit fruit pickers to help fill the shortage of workers from abroad, to organise help and grocery shopping for elderly neighbours within apartment buildings and to call for applause for key workers, the “everyday heroes” of the pandemic.

Keine Fotobeschreibung verfügbar.

Many brands used this new field of action on the social web to raise their own brand profile and position themselves for the time after the pandemic. The tired notion of “creating purpose” is given a new lease of life in times of crisis. It’s all about attitude, about solidarity, about being part of the community as a brand – and using the power of your own reach for the common good. And anyone who acted smartly here stood themselves in good stead.

The brands’ actions were observed very closely by consumers. Companies that were only acting in their own interests, that were searching for legal loopholes in the new legislation, or that simply carried on advertising regardless were penalised without hesitation. Like several major retailers, for example, who announced their intention to defer rent payments for their store premises in order to remain solvent in spite of coronavirus-related closures. A decision that had serious consequences: customers appealed online for boycotts of their products and a huge backlash erupted on the brands’ social media profiles. This caused some of the companies to backtrack and announce that they would be paying their private landlords after all – but the damage to their image, on the social web in particular, was already done.

Phase 3: Escapism

“Can we talk about something else, please?” After a while, this sentence started cropping up more and more often in conversations. A completely normal reaction in times of crisis: people accept the things they cannot influence, and long for normality and some semblance of everyday life in a world gone strange. While at the beginning we devoured the news, reading every article on all relevant news portals and looking forward to the next applauding of frontline workers, phase 3 of the crisis was defined by a desire for distraction, which people hoped to find in their social media newsfeed. Amusing videos of dogs over the moon that their beloved owners were now at home with them all day proved particularly popular. Users were also taking photos of empty toilet roll shelves in supermarkets and collectively wondering why yeast was flying off the shelves. And something else was new: for the first time we were acknowledging the crisis with humour. Countless memes about piling on lockdown kilos or recipe tips for the best banana loaf started doing the rounds. The popular hashtag #coronahaircut showed the failed attempts at replacing a visit to the salon by reaching for the kitchen scissors at home****. In the first two months alone, there were more than 8,000 posts under the hashtag on Instagram.

Phase 4: Fake news on the rise

But this increased consumption of social media soon also revealed the dark underbelly of these platforms. Nowhere else can conspiracy theories be spread, distrust fuelled, or fake news proliferated better than on social media. Very early on, the spread of the global virus was accompanied by rumours and fake news, with the WHO even issuing warnings about an “infodemic” of misinformation.

Facebook announced that it was seeing a “significant rise in the number of forwarded messages, which could also contribute to the spread of misinformation”. As a response to this, they promptly limited WhatsApp’s forward function for frequently shared posts in chat groups. Users could also send news items to a kind of fact-checker organisation to determine how much truth they contained.

In May, Twitter also reacted, after the fake news reports started getting out of hand. “Tweets with contents that are deemed by experts to be misleading or factually incorrect and that could cause harm to people will be deleted*****,” announced the company. In the future, contents will have to be clearly identified with a trustworthy source in order to pass the test.

But the battle against fake news is far from being won: telling the difference between fake news and genuine news – even today, many months after the lockdown – is one of the most important challenges faced by platform operators, news portals, but also consumers of news.

Phase 5: The new sense of unity?

New forms of digital communities, cooperations and collaborations are popping up everywhere and giving us a warm and fuzzy feeling. We are organising Facebook groups to help people in the community, using WhatsApp groups to arrange music performances for the healthcare workers in hospitals and posting our own encouraging statements on Instagram while calling on our followers to do the same.

People living on a street of terraced houses in the German town of Bamberg released their own personal rendition of “Bella Ciao” to provide comfort and show solidarity to the people of Italy, who were hit especially hard by the pandemic. Under the hashtag #nachbarschaftschallenge (#neighbourhoodchallenge) on Twitter, users in Germany called on others to support the elderly or ill by doing their grocery shopping or running other errands for them.

And if we were to examine the number of times the phrase “thank you” cropped up in social media, we would see a significant increase from February to March. We have been thanking people in care professions, doctors and nurses, supermarket employees – or just the friendly neighbour who did our shopping for us.

So the new ‘we’ is all the rage right now. A social togetherness in a time in which everyone seems to have the same invisible enemy, an enemy that doesn’t differentiate between men and women, poor and rich, white and black. This is uniting us and making us feel a very strong sense of solidarity. But how sustainable is this new culture? Will this solidarity also remain after the acute crisis – once we have got used to the ‘new normal’ and have returned to our busy everyday lives?

If we take a well-known example from Jean-Paul Sartre’s work “Critique de la raison dialectique” (Critique of Dialectical Reason), there are justified doubts: the book tells the story of a group of people who wait for the same bus every day. Always the same people in the same place at the same time. They don’t speak to each other, each of them waiting on their own. They don’t even acknowledge each other. But then one day the bus doesn’t come. For the first time, the people have to reach out: they take action, get creative, offer help – and work together to find a solution. If we take this story a little further, we inevitably have to ask ourselves the question: what will happen when everything gets back to normal, when the bus departs at its regular time again the following day?

It is definitely possible that this sense of community will last, that the newfound bond with family, friends and neighbours will remain. And social media could play a significant role in maintaining some of that, or at least a friendly greeting at the bus stop in the morning or a helping hand getting on the bus. Because these media offer virtual spaces for interaction in a time when collective action in a traditional sense is not (yet) possible. Social media have a huge influence on how we experience our everyday life – they open up opportunities for shared experiences with people, regardless of whether we know them or not. And in times of crisis, such experiences take on an enormous significance. They stabilise us and give us support – and allow us to look more optimistically towards the future. So what are we waiting for? Let’s make the most of this opportunity!

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”. The e-paper is available here.

* Source: MEDIAPLUS | Insights.​ Question text: To what extent has your media usage changed as a result of the coronavirus?

** Source: Foodspring on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/foodspring

*** Source: Penny on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/PennyDeutschland/

**** Source: #coronahaircut on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/coronahaircut

***** Source: https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/product/2020/updating-our-approach-to-misleading-information.html

Florian Haller: Thinking outside the box, constantly reinventing yourself – is “rethinking” part of the DNA of tech companies like Facebook?

Angelika Gifford: I would even go as far to say that constantly questioning and rethinking things is a key part of our Facebook DNA. Our guiding principle is that, in everything we do, we remain true to our company mission, i.e. using our platforms to bring people together and give them a voice. When rethinking the services we provide, the question we ask ourselves is: what do people who use our services need right now? Only last summer, for example, we launched Messenger Rooms – a simple video conferencing tool in Facebook Messenger that anyone can use – and also increased the number of participants for group video calls in WhatsApp to eight, all based on feedback we had received. For me, rethinking also means never being satisfied with how our product currently stands, but instead always asking how we can improve things – how we can simplify, speed up, adapt and further develop them. This kind of thinking is very prevalent at Facebook.

Florian Haller: The Facebook we know today is very different to what it was 16 years ago. Were there any specific milestones that marked key changes during this time or was it more of an ongoing process?

Angelika Gifford: It is an ongoing change process, which is why adjustments often occur continually and gradually over time and are not immediately obvious. On the whole, however, we have clearly evolved – for example with regard to “election integrity”, i.e. everything we do to ensure transparent and secure political elections. I am also seeing a significant change on the communication front: I believe that, over time, we have got better at explaining who we are, what we do, how we think, how we approach things and why. Giving a face to Facebook is also my personal ambition. We need to be more accessible, more tangible. Needless to say, we make mistakes too – and have a long way to go before we are where we want to be. But at the same time we are a learning organisation and are constantly advancing and reinventing ourselves.

Florian Haller: With regard to innovation, what do companies have to do to keep one step ahead?

Angelika Gifford: I have worked for very successful entrepreneurs in my time – 21 years for Bill Gates and now almost a year for Mark Zuckerberg. And I see a lot of similarities. Point one: the vision and perseverance needed to launch strong, relevant products on the market. Point two: a high level of diversity within the company – not just a healthy gender balance but also a healthy mix of people with different religious, geographical, ethnic, cultural and political backgrounds, etc. You need to hear a lot of different voices and reflect the diversity of users and customers within the company. Point three: a certain restlessness that you need to be able to keep pace with. The Americans really toughen you up in this regard! This means resolutely business-minded thinking and the willingness to change, to create a learning organisation. In other words, making mistakes is allowed – and even encouraged – as long as you learn from them and use them to grow. And the fourth point: keep employees in the picture, empower and encourage them to constantly question themselves and the company.

Florian Haller: What form does empowerment have to take so that it actually makes itself felt by your 56,000-plus employees around the world and has an impact? What is your secret?

Angelika Gifford: First of all, we try to materialise our culture throughout the company – including physically. Our posters, screensavers, stickers and documents, for instance, carry messages like “Be bold”, “Move fast” or even “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. You have to inspire and encourage people again and again, reminding them that we are all in this together, that all opinions are heard and everyone can and should make a contribution.

Florian Haller: Posters and screensavers – is that all you need?

Angelika Gifford: No, those are just a few specific examples. Overall, we are a very permeable organisation with a very transparent, participative corporate culture. Some companies have an open-door policy – in many cases, the workspaces in our offices don’t even have doors! Apart from that, I really love the notion of making others look great: if you have a cool idea, you should feel that you can develop it and get other people on board and actively involved. And you should also have the courage to approach management with it – that’s the most important thing as far as I’m concerned.

Florian Haller: German society is not – as yet – very diverse. How do you bring diversity into your organisation at all your different locations?

Angelika Gifford: First of all, by setting great store by diversity in our recruitment and training activities. Everyone involved in job interviews has been trained in dealing with prejudices and taken many other mandatory training courses as well. As a global, English-speaking company, we can offer many employees the opportunity to move to another country – Germany, for instance – for two or three years to get to know the market and the customers there.

Florian Haller: How much mobility do you expect from potential employees?

Angelika Gifford: Right now, we are also hiring people in places where we don’t even have an office and providing them with the equipment they need to work from home. This allows us, for instance, to secure top Eastern European talent who are not necessary willing or able to work in our central office in Warsaw. I see this as being yet another step towards more diversity at Facebook but also towards new, more flexible working models. We estimate that one in two Facebook employees will be working from home permanently in the next five to ten years.

Florian Haller: What role do high-profile entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk play in the context of innovation? Are they overrated by the general public?

Angelika Gifford: These entrepreneurs have a strong vision and an exciting business idea. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is a truly exceptional person: he is 36, a visionary, disruptive, unconventional and also provocative in certain ways. And he has a very clear vision: to give people all over the world – more than 3.1 billion people at last count – the chance to interact and form communities. As well as this, he established a truly open, trust-based and feedback-oriented culture at Facebook, where everyone is enabled and encouraged to question their own thinking and act on their own responsibility. He shares not only his ideas but also things that have not gone well. He is the only CEO I have ever seen that answers questions from his entire workforce every week. These are not discussed beforehand – anyone can bring up issues that they are concerned about, from IT equipment to corporate strategy, and Mark addresses it and explains his standpoint. As majority shareholders, entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg also have the scope they need to pursue a long-term, coherent strategy and to invest in innovations.

Florian Haller: Most of Facebook’s employees are quite young, which must make you the “adult in the room”. Shouldn’t the European boss be 28 or 30 years old too?

Angelika Gifford: Perhaps that would be better (laughing)? No, I don’t think it would, actually! We have no end of highly creative, agile, quick-thinking, smart people at Facebook. While participation and empowerment of individuals are important, agility can’t be allowed to lead to chaos. We are growing as a company, which calls for clear framework conditions, game rules and a definite course and set priorities – all to establish order out of this rich creative chaos and to derive a goal that everyone can then work towards. As I see it, what is needed is a symbiosis of structure-giving management on the one hand and creativity and agility on the other.

Florian Haller: Germany isn’t exactly cutting a very fine figure on the digitalisation front. What factors would you urge the country and its companies to rethink?

Angelika Gifford: I have long been disappointed by the level of digitalisation here in Germany. The fact that we are doing so poorly in this respect also has something to do with our mentality. People in Germany are often afraid – or, at the very least, sceptical – of new things. I get a sense of that when I talk to people, and especially when I talk to small and medium-sized companies. People often have reservations about technology; they are afraid that artificial intelligence will rule the world. We need to assuage this fear. A change of mentality is needed – people shouldn’t see technology as a threat but rather as an opportunity and as something that enriches their lives. And then there are the bureaucratic hoops that you have to jump through in Germany today if you want to drive forward innovation. Don’t get me wrong: we do need strong data protection laws, for example. But if, as Bitkom claims, new, innovative projects fail in half of all companies because of data protection concerns, then that is very alarming indeed. And then there’s also the matter of implementation: there’s a lot of talk about digitalisation and plenty of brightly coloured charts being bandied about, but very few companies actually invest properly or actually implement things that would change their business models and their culture. However, all of this needs to happen if a company can be said to have successfully embraced digitalisation.

Florian Haller: From Facebook’s perspective, where is the technology journey headed? What is the “next big thing”?

Angelika Gifford: Our focus is on three areas in particular. First of all, we have our Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Lab with an international team that conducts fundamental research in the field of artificial intelligence. I’m not a techie, but what this team is doing is truly cutting-edge stuff. My other favourite subject is what Mark Zuckerberg sees as a major mobile trend, namely virtual and augmented reality. We only recently unveiled the latest version of our Oculus Quest headset and there are very exciting application opportunities, not only in the private sphere but also in a business context: such as virtual training sessions in DHL distribution centres, virtual operations training at Johnson & Johnson or virtual hotel tours for Hilton staff. Smart glasses are also set to make waves next year. We are working on integrating all applications in a small pair of glasses, which, for example, would allow you to have directions displayed when exploring Munich on foot. A third area is sustainability. Many people are not aware of this, but Facebook is already the second-largest user of renewable energies in the world. We have also set ourselves clearly defined climate neutrality targets for 2030: this means that our suppliers will also have to have implemented sustainability targets of their own and we want to have the world’s most innovative data centres on the net. We have also created a climate information centre, a tool on Facebook that anyone can access from their menu – by providing specific examples and facts here, we aim to inspire our users to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.

Florian Haller: Speaking of which, can I mention that you are talking to the boss of Germany’s first climate-neutral agency group? We were certified after just one hundred days and are very proud of this. But to return to an earlier point, I have the impression that things have gone rather quiet on the AR and VR front in recent months. I don’t feel there is a real connection to people’s everyday lives.

Angelika Gifford: At the moment, we are working on this very aspect – bringing technology into everyday life, for example in glasses that we want to develop together with EssilorLuxottica brand Ray-Ban. It will definitely take years before we have a mass-market product that people can put on in the morning like a normal pair of glasses. But our vision is to develop useful products for people and we are also taking them with us on this journey of innovation.

Florian Haller: What is the most important advice you would give companies regarding future viability?

Angelika Gifford: If I had the magic formula, we probably wouldn’t be talking here today (laughing)! Seriously, what do we need to do? We need to advance digitalisation resolutely, to actively drive innovation. To do that we need the relevant skills. Which in turn means teaching our children these skills and making IT and digital media fun for them. And this is exactly where policymakers need to create the right framework conditions, be it for education and training or for flexible working models. And we all need to recognise that technology is an opportunity rather than a threat. We need to use it sustainably to keep ahead of the pack in the globalised world.

Thank you for talking to us.

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”.  The e-paper is available here.

It was back in 1992 when Herbert F. Barber came up with the term VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – but it also happens to be a near-perfect description of how things are right now. Although initially introduced by Barber as a concept for strategic company management, VUCA also reflects the problems currently facing managers – including outside of their respective organisations. Today, it describes the influences that global dependencies, political controversies, technologisation and changing consumer behaviour are having on companies and entire sections of society – and therefore keeping 21st-century managers on their toes.
However, hardly any of these influences has brought about such far-reaching changes as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been hanging over us since March 2020. It has led to events that many people had previously thought impossible: e-commerce penetration in the US grew from 16% to approximately 34% within the space of three months (by way of comparison, it took about ten years to increase from 5% to 16%); internal projects for which a timescale of around three years had initially been planned were launched over a single weekend; and entire industries were turned on their heads – restaurants, healthcare and traditional retail being cases in point. The coronavirus has led to longstanding certainties losing their currency and being replaced by a new normality – meaning that VUCA has taken on a whole new importance.

Digitalisation: the constant factor in the new normal

In the ensuing uncertainty, digitalisation is now a central instrument on the agenda of all company bosses as it allows them to respond more flexibly to these volatile influences and to introduce countermeasures. Although it had already been quite a challenge for many companies to take their company processes to the next (digital) level, the advent of the coronavirus now means that this has become a survival factor that will determine each company’s future. Whether it’s a question of expanding the online area to include offline sales, implementing projects entirely by digital means or managing teams via digital channels – digital services and platforms facilitate these initiatives in only a fraction of the originally intended time and are therefore a central component of company management. And one that is here to stay.

The challenges for managers involve overcoming the physical distance to individual colleagues brought about by the need to work from home and, in spite of largely decentralised teams, to create digital interactions with a view to implementing project processes and encouraging team spirit. As a result, the pandemic has increased the urgency of implementing digital solutions as this is the only way to counter the crisis adequately and to respond more swiftly to the impact that it is having. So it’s no wonder, then, that – according to a DMEXCO trend study – approximately 70% of managers based in the DACH region indicated that the pandemic will speed up their planned digital transformation projects to enable them to meet the new requirements.

Adaptability will determine future company success

Managers are currently being given a crash course not only in digitalisation, but also in change management and New Work. Here, one of the main critical success factors will be how individual managers practise ‘remote leadership’ in companies – this is because the agility and flexibility of the predominantly cross-functional and decentralised team members must be ensured continually. One fundamental aspect for companies is therefore how skilfully and quickly they can respond to crises and changes in their organisational environment and adapt their organisation accordingly.

VUCA 2.0 – an antidote for the current state of uncertainty

Driven by external influences, managers feel forced to explore new avenues and acquire new skills so they are in a position to face up to increasingly pressing questions. This is why it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the organisation’s common orientation and to be able to convey this successfully within the company and tackle the challenge together.

This is done by communicating a Vision, by Understanding the context, by presenting these with Clarity and implementing them with the necessary Agility – or, in short, with VUCA 2.0. This can be seen as the antidote to the VUCA term introduced by Herbert F. Barber. VUCA 2.0 gives managers guidelines that they need to apply in their operational management functions in order to keep on top of current and future challenges:

V ision:

More than ever before, managers need to be able to provide continual orientation in the context of changes and to put forward a vision that the organisation can gear itself towards. This not only requires the definition of a ‘guiding star’ but also the necessary degree of transparency that will allow each and every employee to devote themselves to the mission at hand. At the same time, it is important to create a common understanding of values and the organisation’s strategy so that managers are in a position to make relevant company decisions, thereby enabling their teams to take the same route.

U nderstanding:

As well as defining a common vision, a far-reaching understanding of structures and processes is important in order to be able to apply skills that exist within the company quickly and effectively. At the same time, an in-depth understanding of the company context must exist – this is necessary for adapting flexibly to dynamic requirements from customers, competitors and changes in the political climate. To this end, transparent communication and networking need to be established throughout the company so that any volatile influences can be nipped in the bud. Only in this way is it possible to respond flexibly to external changes, to minimise risks and encourage resilience.

C larity:

One way to deal with the complex internal and external organisational environment is with focused and clearly formulated company management. This will bring clarity to the existing fog of chaos, enabling effective countermeasures to be defined and implemented. As a result, processes can be structured more clearly, communication channels used more efficiently and company decisions conveyed quickly and resolutely so that, in spite of the existing complexity, they can be communicated transparently to employees and continually made visible.

A gility:

In order to remain viable for the future, companies need to be agile enough to adapt to external requirements and flexible enough to respond to a changing environment. This means that agility not only needs to be reflected in the company structures and processes – at the same time, it constitutes a leadership quality that is evident when managers demonstrate an agile mindset. This is why initiating a cultural shift and establishing flexible processes and cross-functional cooperation models is a central function for managers today. To do so, they must be able to communicate openly within the organisation and find suitable solutions for external changes quickly – without losing sight of the aforementioned ‘guiding star’.

Digitalisation is central to the success of VUCA 2.0

VUCA 2.0 offers managers an approach that can guide them in times of mounting uncertainty. However, this also means that suitable technologies need to be used, digital platforms set up and internal knowledge transfer geared in such a way that relevant information, data and transparency can be exchanged quickly and flexibly with regard to the changing situations. To this end, organisations should do away with siloed thinking, encourage integration and collaboration between different areas and establish mechanisms that motivate self-reflection. In addition, companies have to create an environment for ongoing learning and a values-based culture in order to provide employees with the tools they will need to deal with sudden, unforeseen events. This empowers individual teams and employees – through personal responsibility and reflection – to counter the combination of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that is set to be the norm for the foreseeable future. Such an approach ultimately enables employees and managers alike to make use of the necessary information strategically and in the interests of the company – all with a view to optimising resource distribution and avoiding inefficiency.

VUCA 2.0 as a core skill of today’s organisations

Implementing the guidelines of VUCA 2.0 is ultimately a critical factor for managers when it comes to withstanding the challenges posed by the VUCA influences today and in the future – and emerging stronger than ever. By defining a vision, understanding their own organisation and ensuring clarity in their communication and agility in their actions, it is possible to take the edge off uncertainty and, in turn, to follow a common vision together. Changing management and employee conduct in line with VUCA 2.0 will well and truly bear fruit once it has been aligned with the right tools, platforms and technologies. However, intended change only occurs when its wheels are set in motion – and what better time for change than right now?

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”. The e-paper is available here.

As any marketing manager will readily confirm, your brand needs to create – through its specific characteristics relating to history, market, target groups, distribution channels, competitors and objectives – an operational marketing ecosystem of its own that, from a strategic, creative and media perspective, is faster and smoother than before. The aim here is to facilitate a consistent, compelling and high-performing brand experience along the purchase decision processes.


In order to meet these challenges, visionary marketers from both client and agency sides are now coming together in a collaborative process to ask the C-question: how do we configure a marketing system partnership that does away with the tedious, coordination-heavy back and forth between special agencies, lead agencies and marketing departments? Which systemic configuration is more capable of addressing the direct challenges of the market and the specificities of the brand and company? Which functions from strategy, consulting, creation, digital, data and media should be integrated and to what degree? On which shared basis relating to content, processes and technology? And how can a new ecosystem start quickly, be kept flexible in its timing and evolve and scale new requirements?
One thing was clear to everyone involved in this forward-looking project from the outset: no run-of-the-mill creative pitch can give a valid response to such a strategic question. After all, how can a creative blind date, held quickly with usually a minimum of interaction, provide any lasting answers? Instead, the job requires scrutiny of the objectives together, mapping out the ways and means of achieving them and, of course, complete transparency and mutual trust. Which is exactly the approach taken by the players in four phases within a period of around three months. Here, it’s all about coming together, moving forwards and getting to the heart of the matter.

The process starts off with an initial workshop where a vision is outlined together. Projective techniques help to synchronise ideas and visions and define success criteria in precise terms. And the day is rounded off with a step back into today’s reality and its deficits, a first draft of the central core function of the new ecosystem and a few initial thoughts about the business model.


The next step after this first draft is to design the processes between the now weighted and precisely defined roles and responsibilities. Accordingly, a barrier-free, flexible, synchronous and highly efficient end-to-end configuration is the result of the second workshop.
The HR and IT requirements are still being determined at this point, so that the technological collaboration infrastructure can be implemented and the recruitment of the team started in the third phase. The business model, including any corporate law parameters, is discussed and finalised with the utmost transparency, together with the change management plan.
The fourth phase – the ramp-up – begins with an inception workshop for the entire team and focuses on an initial representative project. This endurance test offers a wealth of experience and improvement opportunities that can be addressed together in a way that is open, professional and entirely devoid of ego.

This is how strategic partnerships are formed – strategic partnerships that result in living and breathing customised marketing ecosystems that work quickly, efficiently and powerfully. It is said that this is the best configuration for developing, retaining and managing a winning, holistic brand experience.

We spoke to three C-level brand managers who decided to transfer at least part of their marketing activities to such an integrated configuration. Here are their experiences and recommendations.


NEW CONNECTION TO THE FUTURE
10 questions for Michael Falkensteiner, Head of Brand O2/Telefónica Deutschland, about the individually designed marketing ecosystem “Bubble”


1. You made the decision to bundle parts of your marketing activities in an integrated agency set-up. Which functions did you ask to be integrated in the model?
Michael Falkensteiner: If you have big and long-term goals, you need a set-up that can respond to any market contingencies quickly and with pinpoint accuracy. That’s why our new ecosystem consists of a core team combining three fundamental skills: strategy, consulting and creation. This core is the nerve centre and acts like a bubble. In other words, it is always moving and draws on additional specialists from other skill areas whenever needed, whether for a short time or an extended period. Either internally from its own ecosystem or externally by working with others on a partnership basis.

2. What were and still are your reasons for doing this?
Michael Falkensteiner: Past experience has shown that models that restrict themselves to a conventional lead agency tend to fall short of the mark – the “closed shop” principle. After all, agility and cross-functionality are more significant than ever these days. It was particularly important for us to have a customised model in which not only the lead level was guaranteed to work perfectly, but the interfaces between the individual specialist areas as well.

3. What is the geographical scope of your branding activities?
Michael Falkensteiner: We are focusing on German-speaking markets to begin with.

4. Please tell us how it all began – when did the collaboration start?
Michael Falkensteiner: We interacted with the agency early on – in great depth and taking in all angles of the collaboration. What does a modern agency-client system need to provide? How do we guarantee agility? How can we make sure that partner agencies and special agencies work towards the same targets as resolutely as the lead agency? This, roughly, was the beginning of the “Serviceplan Bubble” agency that Serviceplan went on to set up. And it was the beginning of an enduringly productive dialogue – the basis for a successful collaboration.

5. How have you achieved your preferred agency set-up?
Michael Falkensteiner: A set-up like the Bubble is the result of a thorough, open and, above all, honest analysis. As a basis for a successful and transparent set-up, we have analysed a number of fundamental areas: avoiding errors from the past, challenging the status quo and comparing short- and long-term brand objectives. To achieve this with maximum efficiency, we developed – in the course of several workshops together with the agency – a whole new system that was tailored towards our needs: the Bubble.

6. What was essential to your success?
Michael Falkensteiner: The most crucial aspect was how we went about it. This is because open communication and close cooperation allowed us to overcome the barriers between the client, agency and other partners. We believe that we will only achieve our goals by investing a lot of personal effort, by being radically honest and by resolutely questioning the status quo.

7. Were there any specific hurdles?
Michael Falkensteiner: Anyone who is striving for change will first have to contend with naysayers and doubters. So the question is not whether there are obstacles but rather how we can clear them out of the way. In our experience, it is best to get everyone on board for this journey insofar as possible. Until we achieve our goal: a change for the better.

8. How has the set-up changed since the beginning?
Michael Falkensteiner: Even though we are only at the beginning, one key factor is already proving its worth – the fact that we have a living, breathing, organic system. This means that we are in a constant state of controlled change. If something isn’t quite right, we analyse the problem together with the agency and implement possible solutions directly.

9. What were the challenges or opportunities where the integrated cooperation paid off?
Michael Falkensteiner: As I said, our collaboration is still at the beginning. But we are confident that integrated cooperation doesn’t depend on either crises or opportunities. With the Bubble, we worked with the agency to develop a system that enables us to respond efficiently and effectively to all possible market situations.

10. What are you planning for the future?
Michael Falkensteiner: In the past, the O2 brand has always been good for surprises in the communications market. That will continue to be the case in the future as well. But more than anything, however, we want to make ourselves strong – for our customers. They should get to benefit more than ever before from our brand. Thanks to the Bubble, the way we are now positioned means that you’ll definitely be hearing a lot from us in the future …


METRO x SERVICEPLAN INTEGRATED
10 questions for Gisele Musa, VP Global Branding at Metro AG, about the evolution of its tailor-made marketing ecosystem “Metro own Agency”


1. You made the decision to bundle parts of your marketing activities in an integrated agency set-up. Which functions did you ask to be integrated in the model?
Gisela Musa: In 2018, Serviceplan crafted a tailor-made and dedicated agency perfectly fitting to our vision, structure and needs. With this dedicated agency, Metro own Agency, we are working at eye level in all relevant skills, such as strategy, creative, digital, social media and brand PR.

2. What were and still are your reasons for doing this?
Gisela Musa: I believe in the value of lasting relationships. And I’m convinced that the deeper an agency knows a client – and all the things that happen behind the scenes – the higher the likelihood that the partnership will grow stronger and, along with it, the quality of the work you do together. And this takes time and dedication. Previous years have proven that, due to an increasing complexity for marketeers, a constant, customised and close cooperative branding ecosystem is the right agency model for us to face the challenges ahead. With the objective of further strengthening the brand and driving forward the development of a holistic brand experience for Metro.

3. What is the geographical scope of your branding activities?
Gisela Musa: As the Global Branding department at Metro, we are responsible for the branding agenda for 26 countries and all Metro wholesale sister companies within the group.

4. Please tell us how it all began – when did the collaboration start?
Gisela Musa: In mid-2014, after a multi-step chemistry process with cautiously selected agencies, Metro started working with Serviceplan on a project basis. The type and dimension of projects were very different back then.

5. How have you achieved your preferred agency set-up?
Gisela Musa: Right from the outset we have been constantly monitoring, analysing and optimising our partnership, which is built on transparency, honesty, important conversations and a lot of dedication from both sides. And a fair share of long nights as well. Today’s agency is therefore not only the result or the consequences of the past but also the starting point for the future.

6. What was essential to your success?
Gisela Musa: A milestone in our collaboration was in 2018 when Serviceplan developed the Metro own Agency – the first-ever tailor-made and dedicated agency by Serviceplan.

7. Were there any specific hurdles?
Gisela Musa: One of the major challenges was the launch phase of this newly crafted agency. We jointly focused additional management attention on the phase of bringing the defined vision into performing mode, e.g. finding the right skilled team, defining, and more importantly, establishing the right structure, the relevant tools and easy and efficient ways of working.

8. How has the set-up changed since the beginning?
Gisela Musa: Not everything comes up roses, right? It has been a long journey for us. Over the past six years our relationship has advanced significantly, and we feel encouraged to work with this fully integrated and dedicated agency, with the potential to flexibly embed additional skills and talents when needed.

9. What were the challenges or opportunities where the integrated cooperation paid off?
Gisela Musa: It was during the biggest challenge that our collaboration experienced its strongest success. In early 2020, when COVID-19 reached pandemic level, from one day to the next we had to step up and find totally new ways to support our customers – the independent businesses – to survive the economic, social and health consequences. Almost on a weekly basis we developed and provided ready-to-use communication packages to our national Metro marketeers in order to support their local customers with the most recent information and with additional relevant products and services enabling them to transform and to keep on running their businesses. If we didn’t have such a close collaboration with the accounts and creative teams, that wouldn’t have been possible.

10. What are you planning for the future?
Gisela Musa: I would say that we still have plenty to do. There will always be areas that we need to improve as partners but, more importantly, we need to ensure we keep developing our people while bringing new blood to the teams. Also, the brand has evolved significantly, expanding its scope from talking mainly with our independent professional customers to reaching a broader audience. With the Metro social impact “Nurturing the success of independent business owners fosters a wider variety of choices – for everyone”, we have now entered into a dialogue with the customers of our customers. Crafting such a rich communication programme will require innovative thinking, testing and learning, as well as a strong heart to keep it – and us – all together.


SHAPING OPPORTUNITIES TOGETHER
10 questions for Felix Withöft from stairlift company Lifta about the opportunities and possibilities of the integrated Lifta agency team cooperation

1. You made the decision to bundle parts of your marketing activities in an integrated agency set-up. Which functions did you ask to be integrated in the model?
Felix Withöft: Traditionally, German consumers know us from our ads in ADAC Motorwelt and Prisma. These days, however, the internet is our most important source of leads. The central component for our Lifta agency team is therefore the combination of creation and digital, flanked by strategy and media, both online and offline.

2. What were and still are your reasons for doing this?
Felix Withöft: We used to have a “conventional” agency with a strong focus on print and TV as well as an astonishing number of small agencies specialising in online and digital. It was only a matter of time before the complexity got out of hand. Now everything is bundled in a single team. Which means shorter communication channels, faster decision-making processes and better integration of measures – across all channels.

3. What is the geographical scope of your branding activities?
Felix Withöft: With Lifta and our other brands, we are mainly active in Germany and Austria. In other words, the primary focus of our collaboration is on German-speaking markets. As a Cologne-based family company, it was really important for us to have our supporting team here in the city. The Cologne House of Communication is only a five-minute walk from our marketing unit. Even in these times of the coronavirus pandemic and collaboration tools, personal interaction is still very close to our hearts.

4. Please tell us how it all began – when did the collaboration start?
Felix Withöft: Right at the beginning we had our media strategy and planning audited by the PlanNet team. This team included experts with whom I had already worked very successfully in the past tackling other marketing challenges. This soon led to further interesting points of contact at the House of Communication. And shortly after that, we asked the team to make a pitch for our creative budget as well. And they nailed it!

5. How have you achieved your preferred agency set-up?
Felix Withöft: We started off with a small core team to develop the central components of our new brand campaign: strategy, creation, media and digital. Then we noticed very quickly that we would need a “dedicated team” in future – a team that would work with us on an ongoing basis on our areas of focus and continually develop them, and that would also be able to look after our other brands. But that, at the same time, was always adaptable depending on the situation.

6. What was essential to your success?
Felix Withöft: Well-defined responsibilities for both parties and clearly established interfaces. Right from the very beginning we established an SPOC on both sides with a view to maximising transparency across all workstreams and ensuring fast decision-making channels.

7. Were there any specific hurdles?
Felix Withöft: It isn’t easy to set clear priorities and reduce complexity at the start. To begin with, our new agency team was rather swamped by the sheer number of subject areas, products and priorities. It would be better to plan a suitable familiarisation phase from the outset rather than wanting too much from day one. Otherwise you’ll soon have to face a reality check.   

8. How has the set-up changed since the beginning?
Felix Withöft: Having started with a small core team, we are now gradually expanding additional disciplines such as PR, social media, performance, SEO/SEA, etc. It is also important for us to constantly have new momentum and fresh expertise to draw on but also to ensure continuity within the team at the same time. To have people in our team who know our company, our target groups and our products. People who we can discuss these matters with as equals.

9. What were the challenges or opportunities where the integrated cooperation paid off?
Felix Withöft: We are currently working on a whole new brand campaign. This is the first time that our company has taken an integrated 360° cross-channel approach. Without this networked and close collaboration throughout the various disciplines and skills, I can’t imagine how else we would have launched it in such a short space of time.

10. What are you planning for the future?
Felix Withöft: We have set ourselves a common goal: to take the stigma out of stairlifts so that they are no longer seen by consumers as a last resort. And to convince senior citizens earlier on that stairlifts are “the key to self-determination”. This is something that will be extremely important to the baby boomer generation in particular when they “come of age” in the next few years. People from this generation want to remain in the prime of life.

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”. The e-paper is available here.

Can art create a better world? In our interview, Jonathan Meese – one of the most important contemporary German artists – calls for a radical new beginning, founded on individuality, respect and doing away with established realities.

Florian Haller: Whether it’s international relations, our economic model or consumer behaviour – at the moment we are busy rethinking our entire world. But of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing we had before is of value. You were once quoted as saying: “Art is the destruction of the prevailing order.” Isn’t that a very negative way to look at the world?
Jonathan Meese: That’s just a kind of rallying cry, of course. I do tend to make a lot of proclamations and manifestos and a certain amount of exaggeration is par for the course. Art is destruction, yes, but that’s not what it sets out to do – it’s just something that happens. For instance, art destroys ideology. Or mediocrity. The concept of “average” doesn’t exist in art, which is why there is no democracy there either. But art doesn’t destroy the past – it calls it into question, examines it, classifies it anew. Sometimes it is supposed to eliminate the obstructive taste it leaves behind. Or its naysayer negativity. I’m not negative in the slightest. On the contrary, I hate bitterness and resentment.

From a personal perspective, what have you destroyed in your own life?
Jonathan Meese: I have burnt a lot of bridges. For instance, I have no time for people who have betrayed me. Or who want to stop me from looking to the future. There are people who are always out to scare you. This fear of moving forwards is something that we should do away with. Is the future going to be horrible? No, it’s going to be great! That’s also what you have to tell children instead of harping on resentfully about how terrible everything is getting.

Is it the idea of creating something new that drives you?
Jonathan Meese: Yes. Art creates new things, embraces them, guarantees them and never fails to endure them. Most people are no longer even able to cope with a new thought. They get caught up in the old vicious circle of religion, politics and mindless conformism and think that the next guru who arrives on the scene is going to rescue them if they worship him. That’s a load of nonsense. Nothing is coming to rescue us. You have to sort yourself out and learn to come to terms with yourself.

The coronavirus has forced us to learn that the hard way …
Jonathan Meese: Yes, that’s the most important thing about this whole coronavirus situation. People can no longer stand themselves because they can’t relate to themselves anymore. Which is why they are taking to the streets in their thousands, thinking they are being individualist free spirits. But you can only be individualist at home. If you’re standing on Alexanderplatz in Berlin with 50,000 other people, you’ve pretty much subordinated yourself to a guru-led system of conformity. It doesn’t matter if the guru is Greta Thunberg, the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin or Angela Merkel. Or you say that you stand behind what you think and do and will do that alone. People always think they’re strong when they’re with a big crowd. But the strongest people are those who go it alone.

Do you drive your art or does art drive you?
Jonathan Meese: I give myself over to art. By this I mean that I get rid of the ideologies, religions and everything else that gets in its way. And then I am free and the field of art is there to be cultivated. The field of Jonathan Meese’s art, which can then grow larger – as large as the whole world. I have complete trust in the total freedom of art. But I don’t need to throw myself at its feet. At the same time, it’s not something I can choose or reject. I’m not a conformist – I don’t choose anything. I’m not even interested in voting – that’s just zeitgeist and has nothing to do with art. Art is something timeless – it is what has survived. Every god and every political system has had its time, but art is always there and is still going strong. Why don’t we allow ourselves to be ruled by the strongest and most amazing thing we have? Art!

When you’re working on your art, do you have a concept in mind?
Jonathan Meese: No, I put myself in the hands of art. Whenever I don’t know what the next step is, I just go to sleep. That itself is art because I dream when I’m asleep. I’m in a place of longing, in an alternative world, in another time. Rather than having a concept, it’s all about giving yourself free rein and letting it happen. After all, art is the great liberator, freeing us of emotional baggage, misgivings and fears.

How do you achieve complete artistic freedom?
Jonathan Meese: When, for example, I’m painting a picture, I don’t let myself think of the person it’s for. I never create art to please someone or to satisfy their needs. I do it simply for the sake of creating art. And if someone loves it, great. Most young artists ask what they should do. To which I can only answer: do what you think and what you want. But please don’t do what I’m doing. Lots of people come to me and tell me that they want to do what I’m doing. But that’s not how it works. I can’t do what they’re doing and they can’t do what I’m doing. Otherwise we’d have a guru-type situation all over again. I don’t want people to see me as some kind of guru. That’s horrendous. They need to do what they do with love, respect, humility and radicalism. And if they have nothing to offer, then they’d be better off sleeping.

Your work regularly deals with art and reality and you also use virtual reality, like in the VR installation you created with your mother in 2018. What is the relationship between art and reality?
Jonathan Meese: Art allows us to rise above this dreadful reality that we are currently experiencing. And we should make room for other realities. For Catholics, there is only Catholic reality, for SPD members, there is only SPD reality and for the CDU only CDU reality. This kind of thinking is wrong – it is petty-minded nonsense. I find the idea of wanting to force Germany into such a small reality quite obscene. Art is above our reality, above our lives – it is what allows us to survive. Art is above all things. Of all the things that once existed, only art has always survived. Let that sink in for a minute.

In a recent interview, you said that censorship was back again but it was the artists who were censoring themselves. What did you mean by that?
Jonathan Meese: There are several aspects to consider here. There are artists who are terrified of making a wrong move and end up producing obligingly compliant work. Other artists realise that they are not really very good at what they do and become political activists instead. They feel safe in a group and look down on individualists. They even look down on Van Gogh. An artist like that is almost impossible to find these days – someone who simply does their own thing. People like that are almost laughed at. To young artists, I can only say: don’t censor yourselves, don’t actively serve any clientele, never get sucked into the guru system – just do your own thing and stick to your guns.

How exactly have you seen artists censoring themselves?
Jonathan Meese: There are artists who claim that people shouldn’t paint certain things anymore. That’s hard to get your head around. And there are actually artists who want to destroy old sculptures without contributing anything themselves. Those are the destroyers who want to destroy something that is far more impressive than they are. If you’ve nothing to offer yourself, all you can do is destroy things. True to the 1968 mentality of tearing down things that you feel oppress you. That’s another of those collective efforts. I hate collectivism. Most artists nowadays are collectivists-by-necessity that only make an appearance in groups, completely anonymised. They no longer have any faith in their own ability and start censoring things so they at least have something to put their names to. They say a white person can’t paint a black person or vice versa. So does that mean I can’t paint an animal because I’m not one myself? It goes without saying that artists should be allowed to paint, write or say anything and that they should avoid sanitising the past. There are certain words or phrases that were normal in the past that are no longer acceptable today. But I can still accept them with a little humour. Like a statue of a slave trader. It’s a bronze sculpture, the guy is long dead and it’s ancient history. You have to be magnanimous with stuff like this. I wouldn’t destroy a single sculpture from the past but rather put another one next to it to counteract it. People should take things to the point of absurdity – including themselves and their way of thinking. And stop just making it about themselves for once.

How do you react if someone tells you that you can’t do something?
Jonathan Meese: If someone tells me that I’m not allowed to paint something, I really feel sick to my stomach. And then I’ll get stuck into painting it. I wonder why these people don’t invest their energy in the future instead. It’s not as dependent on the past as people think. The fact is that art is different from culture. Culture is what used to be; art is what is coming. And it usually comes like a lightning bolt with a completely crazy idea that people initially can’t imagine ever working. How many times in my life have I heard things like “You can’t do that”, “That won’t work”, “That’ll be the end of you”…? I was kicked out of the Bayreuth Festival and removed from the German Literature Archive in Marbach because apparently I’m too radical. There are so many times that I’ve been censored, insulted and shown the door. You have to get up again each time and say: it’s about the future, about taking a risk – a personal risk.

Is it art’s job to be radical?
Jonathan Meese: Yes. You have to be radical towards anything that is not art and radical towards yourselves and other people. With a good dose of humour thrown in. As I said before, art does not tolerate half-measures. We can’t accept mediocrity any longer. Art is not up for negotiation; the future is uncompromising. Art is uncompromising. It can’t be defined by politicians or religious types. Politics is the opposite of art, the enemy of art.

Where does art come from? Where do you get your inspiration?
Jonathan Meese: Art always comes from the child within me. You have to play freely. And I’m even freer than a child because I know what it means not to have that freedom. I am so free – that is my only real quality. But these days, being so free in your thoughts and actions also leaves you open to attack. Other people constantly want to show me where they personally draw the line and lure me into their clientele. But I have zero interest in that. I want Germany to be ruled by art – I want the political parties to leave the stage and for us only to serve art. And that day will come! It’s just a question of how long it will take.

What role does the current crisis play for art?
Jonathan Meese: Art is independent of everything because art is what always remains. But I’m noticing that, as a person, I’m getting softer, almost considerate! I am liquefying myself. And I’m fine with that. But many people around me are finding it hard to deal with. They say that these are tough times and that I need to toughen up.

Looking to the future from the current crisis situation, what kind of a future do you envisage for yourself and for the rest of us?
Jonathan Meese: We just need to have a rethink and question ourselves, and to straighten out ourselves and our egos. To really see if we want to carry on as before rather than opening up to change. Everything that we are currently experiencing – the US elections, for instance – all of that comes and goes, they’re just temporary phenomena. None of that is of any importance to art.

Lots of people are very concerned that a large part of what we call creativity will eventually be taken over by AI.
Jonathan Meese: I think artificial intelligence is brilliant. And I really love it when robots and computers take over certain functions – because this opens up other “playing fields” again. All we need to do is identify these other playing fields and get to know them. We also need to constantly examine, question and rethink things. This fear of robots is a load of nonsense. The constant insistence that we need to carry on as before because we are the be-all and end-all, the pinnacle of creation, is nothing but presumptuousness and hubris. Yes, we are amazing but something better might come along. Perhaps the most amazing thing really is the supercomputer Colossus from that film. Or maybe Darth Vader is the most amazing person who ever existed.

What is your idea of a good future?
Jonathan Meese: We can finally start to turn Germany into one coherent work of art. Right now, we have the opportunity simply to say: okay that’s it, we’re going to put it all in a museum. I would put all political parties and religions into a museum. Start again from scratch. Just be open for a change. We should also question things that we always thought were set in stone for all eternity and cheerfully admit we were wrong about lots of things. But you have to take risks. You also have to risk people thinking you’re a nutcase. You also have to risk losing friends, encountering obstacles, having to deal with resistance. And not just in art but everywhere. In other words, we have to prepare the ground for something new.

What are you personally doing to help bring about this future?
Jonathan Meese: I’m ploughing my own furrow and doing things the way I want to and how I think best. Unfortunately, there are lots of artists who are only interested in depicting reality. They look in the newspaper and see a subject they can do something with. But that’s wrong, that’s just day-to-day politics. Many artists just want to make reality even more real. That’s the biggest mistake. It produces so many victims; it’s so cynical. Art doesn’t produce any victims – it just simulates them. If you see it through seriously, with love and humility, you can relocate all wars to the stage, to the screen, to advertisements and to the pages of a book. We need to come to terms with evil – but through the medium of art! We need a Bond supervillain to help us with this. A whodunnit where someone is murdered. We need it in all these fields that are art, plain and simple. But not in reality. We need to combat reality with something other than reality itself.

Thank you for this interview, which was certainly anything but mediocre!

This interview first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”. The e-paper is available here.


Disruption in viral form

For the past year, the coronavirus has been turning our world on its head. Rules and practices have changed radically and this is making itself felt on all levels of communication, particularly personal interaction. Working from home and video conferencing are the “new normal”. This poses a dilemma for business meetings, but above all for sales events, trade fairs and product presentations that depend on large numbers of guests coming together.

How is it possible to communicate in a way that is still personal? How can events continue to be organised and staged in such a way that they are relevant and stimulating? How can products be presented to prospective customers if presentations are not permitted because of coronavirus restrictions? This is a situation in which digital standard marketing and the structures that have evolved around it are being severely tested.

“Say goodbye to handshakes and the old way of doing business.”

Charlie Fink, AR/VR evangelist and Forbes columnist, sums it up in a nutshell. Instead of analogue and personal, we are suddenly faced with digital and virtual. What still seemed like a long way off yesterday is now here with a vengeance. Digital video conference tools like Zoom, website videos and online collaborations are nothing new, but it is only now that they are being widely used and well on their way to becoming standard.

These tools can also be used to set up digital communication channels for product presentation and staging relatively easily. However, all companies step up to challenges differently and not all products lend themselves to being presented on a digital stage.

What exactly is a digital stage anyway? Here’s an example: Apple, better known for highly choreographed live events with presenters on a stage talking to press representatives and the fan community about new products, unveiled the new iPhone 12 accompanied by nothing more than a video on its website. However, the staging of this video was highly impressive: a number of different speakers took it in turns to have their say and the scenes were blended together seamlessly with tracking shots and zoom-ins, meaning that around two hours of information were turned into an experience in feature-film quality. Afterward, viewers had the opportunity to try out the showcased products for themselves in web-based augmented reality experiences on their own smartphones – all via the website.

Another form of digital stage event was the 2020 Emmy Awards and their virtual award ceremony. The nominees were filmed in their own homes and interacted with a live studio presentation in a mixture of pre-produced clips and live sequences. Although there were no great scenes of jubilation, it did prove that the show must go on. And it worked. Essentially, it was nothing more than cleverly combined variants of normal communication tools that people use on a daily basis when working from home.

Anyone following the 2020 NBA season restart and playoffs will have noticed that the games all took place with “virtual fans” instead of real spectators. Via Microsoft Teams and the new “Together Mode” function, lots were drawn for virtual seats that showed the spectators’ webcam images on large LED walls during play. This is yet another form of participation – with the added bonus that fans might even end up appearing next to live images of actual celebrities.

These tools can also be used on a smaller scale and in other contexts to help stage digital events successfully. Here, a brand or company needs to concentrate on what is important – after all, the real challenge lies not in transforming an analogue event or sales format into a digital one, but rather in selecting the right communication focus and the right mix of content and, of course, in how it is organised. Technology is just the tool used to make this happen.

Digital and analogue events are not the same

Benchmarks in the digital world don’t correspond to their real-life counterparts. This is true of both size and execution and also with regard to internal and external expectations. Video connections and virtual participation notwithstanding, participants are ultimately alone at their computers. The spatial context of an event location is missing and, in most cases, interaction with other participants as well. This means that mistakes are more glaringly and unforgivingly obvious. While AGM participants always had the buffet to look forward to in the intermission and audience members at shows could always chat with the people next to them during slow sections and technical snafus, the online format comes with a merciless exit rate. After all, why would you spend several hours concentrating on a boring stream when you feel you could be doing something more useful at the same time?

It is a cardinal error to assume that an offline event can be transferred one-to-one to a digital format. Rather, it is a question of getting to the heart of the most important aspects. Online participants behave differently than they would at real events. Rather than a carefully paced drama, they expect a snappily staged affair, a summary of which can be clicked together quickly if necessary.

Similarly, it is rarely a good idea to transfer an event architecture one-to-one on a visual level. At the end of the day, even an expertly staged virtual reproduction – a 3D trade fair hall, for instance – is still just a copy and there will always be limits to how it is perceived. However, a small number of virtually recreated architectural elements can be used to wonderful effect – as long as they are staged with a specific objective in mind. For example, a smart alternative can be to use a deliberately exaggerated virtual representation of a fictional architecture. And while we’re at it, why not stage the kind of (brand) worlds that would be unthinkable in a real event context? When all is said and done, it’s all about keeping viewers and users entertained.

The costs and work involved don’t have the same proportions either. With digital events, costs for catering, stage-building and logistics are not likely to amount to much. At the same time, however, it would be a mistake to think that only website costs will be incurred. Depending on the type of event and how it is staged, it is necessary to factor in budgets for production and, in some cases, video feed scripting and 3D design for virtual spaces. And then there is streaming infrastructure for guaranteeing a smooth, immediate experience and, of course, conceptual design.

Self-recognition and self-examination

When raising their digital profile, companies need to ask themselves the following questions: who exactly are we? What is our essence? What is our brand message? With digital events, anyone who wants to be authentic cannot simply hide behind show interludes or celebrity presenters. And for the most part, digital events are not designed to take up the whole evening – they are significantly shortened online brand shows that very much cut to the chase. The kind of bells and whistles that are par for the course at gala dinners are not found here. And users are a tough crowd. If the broadcast is long-winded or a product presentation fails to capture their interest, their attention wanes and their staying power is tested. This means that companies and brands need to examine themselves and their structures.

Are we the brand? Are we the product?

Experience has shown that the best ambassadors for a brand or product come from the ranks of the company’s own workforce. After all, who better to extol the virtues of a product than the people who design, produce and market it, day in day out? Yes, we have seen this before with analogue events. But in times of digital perma-availability with communication and collaboration tools, production and participation is being retained more and more in-house. Which brings us to the next challenge: how digital-savvy are your employees and how flexible are your company structures? With digital events, it is immediately recognisable if, for example, the company behind the event is making heavy weather of the presentation technology.

Is live really live?

When there is no onstage programme, there is no pressure to keep to a schedule in real time either. The main advantage of an online event format is that anyone can call it up at any time. And since it is not strictly necessary for presentations to adhere to a specific timing, it is a good idea to pre-produce some or even all event sequences. Live elements can then be mixed and matched with pre-produced content. Avoiding elaborate live transmissions also helps to reduce errors and keep down production costs.

An exception to this rule are formats that call for direct and close communication. Webinars might be a good choice for digital events with a manageable number of users. This is conducive to a more personal exchange, including between the event participants themselves. Another possibility would be to start with a pre-produced main event, followed by a direct live exchange with smaller groups.

Digital event and virtual showroom

A digital event can have an additional, explorative aspect. Combining a digital event and product staging with a well-balanced mix of short video messages and interactive content helps to keep things interesting while ensuring that viewers remember what they saw.

Virtual showrooms are another possible addition that has the added advantage of fluid boundaries: once an event has taken place, users can try out the products in question. Here, the “digital” factor opens up a virtually endless volume of staging possibilities, which can also be interactive (and which can hold their own without the event part). Differentiators can include technical features that offer a whole new kind of product experience.

Thanks to advancements on the augmented reality front, users anywhere can dive into brand worlds at any time without having to wait in line or hang around in crowded spaces. Products are no longer touched by countless people before being purchased but can be discovered by prospective buyers in holographic form at their leisure and in the comfort of their own homes. And best of all: it all already works via the web, which theoretically means that anyone can access it without difficulty.

Here, one event part can transition seamlessly into the next. For instance, mobile microsite URLs can be inserted into the current stream via a QR code so users can visit them that way. While a moderator is presenting a product, users can try it out on their smartphones virtually and in 3D – in a kind of parallel AR showroom. And the holographic avatars of sales assistants could be on hand to help them. Another conceivable idea for fashion brands would be to allow users to try on clothes virtually using AR via a selfie camera on their smartphones – perhaps even with links to the online shop. Tourism locations could use AR to “teleport” users away to other destinations – without them ever having to leave their own living room.

A new opportunity for brand and event communication

Bearing all this in mind, the coronavirus crisis can therefore also be seen as an opportunity: all of the aforementioned technologies have been around for years but are only just gaining widespread acceptance now – and, in turn, demonstrating their true value for society. Digital events and virtual showrooms are a welcome addition to traditional brand and event communication. For one, they help to ensure ongoing customer proximity in the age of social distancing and unanticipated coronavirus restrictions. As well as this, the best practices that are now taking shape will, even in a post-coronavirus world, establish themselves as an equally valid part of the communication and service mix – one that is expected by users.

On closer inspection, it’s not really all that complicated. Companies will need to muster up a little courage but will find that it is well worth the effort to establish new ways of thinking and new production approaches. Those who are busy investing in digital staging now will not only be seen as innovators but will also be able to continue honing their digital edge once the coronavirus has passed.

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”.  The e-paper is available here.

Job profiles at Serviceplan Group

They have the plan: media planners make great and creative ideas visible. They know exactly where to reach the target group. But what does good media planning require? What does a typical working day look like? And what does it all have to do with soda? Victoria Wissmann is a Consultant & Planner at Mediaplus in Munich and knows the answer to all these questions and more! Click right in and check out our new episode of Job Titles Bingo.

Job profiles at Serviceplan Group

Let’s play another round of Jobtitles Bingo! Our colleague Markus Kral from Plan.Net reveals why a Data Engineer sits at a computer much less than one would expect and what his job has to do with a so-called “Herrengedeck”, a beer in combination with a shot.

Click here to find out!

Serviceplan New York slowly begins reopening its House of Communication to allow for a mix of remote and office work.

In the wake of a global pandemic that is showing no signs of slowing, companies are forced with difficult decisions around their work from home policies. While offices are permitted to open in many regions, companies are fearful of the risks still posed to employees during long commutes on public transit and in close office quarters. With this in mind, mixed office and remote work will be the new normal for the foreseeable future.

Productivity hasn’t suffered – yet

In a survey conducted by YouGov in partnership with USA Today and LinkedIn, 54% of respondents reported that working from home created a positive effect on their productivity, mainly due to fewer meetings and no commute. However, 51% of employees reported feeling lonely at home. While productivity may remain stable in the short-term, it is difficult to say how long this will last.

Employees are working off the knowledge and intrapersonal relationships that were built in the office and growing these relationships while isolated at home is a significant challenge. While video conferencing can make up for some lack of physical connection, true innovation, collaboration, and fulfillment that vibrant office culture provides will be difficult to replicate virtually on a permanent basis.

Employers should be aware of the mental health toll

The associated mental health toll will also begin to take an effect on employees, regardless of their living situation. For those who are working in their homes alone, feelings of loneliness and isolation are surely increasing. The same study reported that, to combat loneliness, 49% of respondents are reaching out to friends and family via phone during the day or spending more time on social media – measures that are generally considered counterproductive.

On the flip side, those with children who are no longer able to attend day care or school are presented with constant distractions during the day, making deep focus difficult to achieve. 23% of survey respondents are sharing workspace with a spouse or partner, and 14% are sharing it with children engaged in online learning, which requires near constant parental engagement.

People are empowered by choice

Work from home policies are incredibly valuable in normal times. When you empower a hardworking employee with the choice to create a flexible work schedule that suits their needs, the benefits are clear. However, the operative word is choice – which has been removed in the current setting. Without choice, the benefits of empowerment and independence achieved through flexible work are not quite the same.

The House of Communication

The US House of Communication office space on 102 Madison Avenue, New York, New York

For Serviceplan Group, the House of Communication setting has always been central to the way we work and communicate. Integration and innovation are core to our company culture, and to the services we provide. While we have found ways to utilize technology and foster communication and teamwork in this remote setting, we are excited to begin a slow, safe reopening of our House of Communication to be with our colleagues again.

The benefits derived from a vibrant and encouraging workplace cannot be understated. We are human beings first and employees second, requiring human connection to be satisfied in anything we do. Going forward, we will be armed with new experiences from both the physical and virtual working world, better preparing us to tackle any project, anywhere in the world, with any team. Being flexible and responsive to our employees and clients remains at the heart of what we do, no matter where we sit.

by Madison Rhyner, US House of Communication, New York