Joana Stolz talks about her job as Cultural Strategist at the Serviceplan Group and gives insights into her “every day work”.

First published in Red Bulletin Innovator.
Interview: Christoph Kristandl

Creativity is elusive. Only too well we know of situations where it abandons us. If we need an idea, if we brood over the solution to a problem – simply nothing comes to mind. It happens. But what if creativity is your occupation? If you have to drive yourself to peak creative performance every day in order to create something new, something as spectacular as possible, and to convey a message as well. And what if it’s a message that nobody wants to see? – Advertising. A conversation with the multiple award-winning Matthias Harbeck.

The Red Bulletin Innovator: You were honoured with more than 600 national and international awards, including 22 Lions in Cannes. Do such honours mean something to you?

Matthias Harbeck: Naturally. If you win a Golden Lion, that’s a feather in your cap. There are people who say that Cannes is something like a parallel society. The true needs of the client would not count for anything there, and it’s a vanity exhibition of creatives who celebrate themselves there. There is even a grain of truth in that. But apart from the fact that quite excellent work from day-to-day business is also honoured in Cannes, you have to view it as similar to prototypes at an auto show or the haute couture of the great fashion shows. What you see there you will never encounter on the street.

Why produce it then?

What’s extremely successful moves the industry forward. Sometimes the idea is so extraordinary, often the technology too. It works with media innovations that can set trends for everyday life.

With what, for example, have you been successful in that regard?

With real-time advertising, for example. With Serviceplan we were able to score a coup with that a few years ago: over 90 minutes of the Champion’s League Match of Arsenal against FC Bayern we switched six 60-second live spots directly into commercial blocks of Free-TV channels. You’re watching normal advertising, for example, on PRO 7, when suddenly an announcement comes, the game is seen live for 40 seconds, and at the end, the Sky-Order Hotline appears, so that in the future you can see such games completely live. The response was huge. Also because, of all things, in one of the slots Lukas Podalski scored the goal which left Arsenal only one down at 1:2!  The idea was relatively simple, but the technical implementation was complex. But that’s the sort of thing we’re attempting: something extraordinary, which makes the industry sit up and take notice and which can then take a pioneering role, too.

What advertising trends can we expect in the coming years?

Consider the films in our newsfeeds on Facebook, where you only hear the sound when you intentionally click. That’s not a trend that comes from advertising, but it changes the thinking of the creatives. You have to succeed in being so good in the first two, three seconds that people click on that video. That also means that the sources of inspiration change. You focus on silent film, for example, and why Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin were so good at it. Perhaps we’ll soon also produce moving images in 15 different versions in order to optimally satisfy users’ differing expectation profiles and to be able to address them digitally in individual ways. And then there are hardly any campaigns that are originally made for the mobile phone screen. That is a big issue.

“Advertising must be so good that, ideally, people even actively search it out.”

How do you deal with the fact that nobody wants to see advertising?

It is a step forward that increasingly we can provide people with customised content. In the past that was not possible technologically. But that does not make good ideas superfluous, on the contrary. More than ever, we have to surprise and involve people through a new kind of staging. The trouble is that we’re in a permanent competition with thousands of advertising messages, indeed, messages of every sort. On top of that is the public’s practised avoidance of advertising. Therefore, the good idea, the great story, the fascinating staging is more important than ever. Advertising must be so good that people don’t want to just see it and share it, but rather, ideally, they even actively search it out because people are talking about it.

With all the staging, doesn’t the product sometimes get left behind?

That is the great challenge. On the one hand, communication has to become ever more entertaining. On the other hand, there are clients who pay for it and say, “Now where is my product that I want to sell?” Just to say that a screw costs 2.99 Euros is not communication, that’s information. You have to do a balancing act: to maintain contact with the brand and at the same time deliver a certain factor of desire.

Advertising has changed in recent years towards more responsible communication. Even in competitions like the one in Cannes there were many awards for works with a higher purpose aspect. Why are these predestined for a lion?

For a few years, there have been complaints about the fact that more and more Cannes winners have less to do with the advertisement of the good old product advantage, but put “social” issues to the foreground. I think the excitement about it is outdated and amiss. Cannes merely reflects the social prevailing mood, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, and that simply goes in the direction of social and sustainability issues. Even ten years ago, environmental protection was a marginal issue in the US, now VW is being pilloried. To stay with the example of cars: today it is not longer a question of how fast a car accelerates from 0 to 100, but how it helps to cope with the mobility and environmental challenges of tomorrow.
Generally, people today are rather discussing issues like the environment, refugees, terrorism, equality or integration than the question of how a particular product characteristic gives them a more comfortable life. Cannes takes up this mood pointedly. And therefore works with a higher purpose have high odds of winning. Undoubtedly some juries exaggerate by also distinguishing work, that in fact has a higher purpose, but does not really show an unusual idea, a really fascinating implementation. But that will settle in.

How useful do you think the festival is?
One can accuse Cannes of a lot. A parallel world of colourful extra ideas that have nothing to do with our hard daily business. A tremendous money-making machine that only makes the organizers rich. A party of vain self-congratulation rather than humble work in the service of the customer. All correct. And all wrong. Cannes is the most important platform for new ideas that truly advance our industry. After all, even the most conservative client asks at some point: Is that all you have to offer me? Then: Cannes is not only a huge money-making machine, but also a huge inspiration machine. Nowhere in the world will you be so bombarded within a week with so many ideas, so many lectures, so many conversations. You can feed of it for a whole year. And the topic of parties and prizes? Both are, beside all the tam-tam, the best motivation for employees that one can imagine.

In 2016, the category Digital Craft is new, amongst others. To what extent do the Cannes Lions of digital development in advertising accommodate the new category?
I am excited about the new category. Because what we are talking about when we talk about digitization? Which terms do we use? Clicks, shares, likes. Websites, moving image, banner. Targeting, conversion rate, ROI. Primarily technical terms that describe certain categories, functions and modes of action. We talk too little about beauty. Too little about how technically well something is made. And yet it is precisely this quality, especially with regard to the impact, that is an enormous factor. Especially against the background of limited spaces with a lot of information, with which one is often confronted digitally. The introduction of the Digital Craft category is setting a positive sign here.

Which creative factor can win a prize in Cannes (for example, humour, higher purpose)?
The most important is still the idea. How surprising, how new will something be sold to me? How surprising, how new is the Insight? Is it simple and understandable enough for the often-quoted Indian on the jury, who has no idea of the German market conditions? Very important: Does it move me? Especially us Germans indeed still have our fears in dealing with emotions. Higher Purpose? Helps. And humour? Can not hurt.