What does the word independent mean to you? For years, I grew in the fertile environment of London's digital agencies, so I can't read the word without seeing the smiles of suddenly rich agency founders as they hand the keys for their funky empire to a delighted grey-haired man in a suit and tie. The script goes like this: you found a business, you build, you promote, you make coy, ambiguous pronouncements about how you have no current plans to sell, and then you sell.
German agencies get sold too. In recent weeks, Heimat and GGH have made the headlines of the trade press, the reason being that German independent agencies are normally "unbuyable". I’ve got two explanations for this.
The first one is a deep psychological factor: a sense of foundation, ownership and identity.
There are few better ways of illustrating this than property. Many Britons use property as an investment tool, and their country happens to be a convenient place to live too. Buoyed by a vibrant market, you’ll buy and sell a few times in your life, and property plays a role in your personal wealth. Meanwhile, in Germany, property is bought with an extremely far-sighted approach – tellingly, there exists no synonym for the term "property ladder". The same goes for business: it isn’t a means to an end; it is a means to exist and it’s part of your identity. The concept of Mittelstand plays a vital role in this; the term describes self-made businesses and SMEs, but it means so much more – it’s a state of mind that defines a sense of control, craftsmanship and clear focus on what your speciality is. The stable Mittelstand segment is often credited with allowing Germany to weather the recent economic downturn. In essence, a Mittelstand business is used to sell and grow, not grow and be sold.
When interference has a face, a name and a rationale, it is no longer interference but collaboration
The second reason is to do with creative work. Jobseekers seem to have a definite preference for independents. Why? They are perceived to be better-placed to deliver the work a client needs when smaller groups of empowered management get to make the big calls. The most senior people who can re-route our team, approach and work are located in the same building as me here in Hamburg. When interference has a face, a name and a rationale, it is no longer interference but collaboration. This makes us nimble.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. German entrepreneurs aren’t averse to selling an agency but, largely, owners stay put, giving our agency landscape a settled, structured feel. Perhaps these aren’t exactly attractive terms in an industry that thrives on excitement, disruption and innovation, but advertising is a people business, and settled and structured will appeal to anyone building a career. For everyone else, I’ve heard of some exciting new outfits in London.
Will Rolls is the planning director at Grabarz & Partner
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