Before setting up advertising agency Thjnk, formerly Kemper-Trautmann, in 2012, Karen Heumann, 49, was head of strategic planning at Jung von Matt, one of Germany’s most successful agencies. Ms. Heumann sat down with Catrin Bialek and Thomas Tuma of Handelsblatt to talk about how times have changed in the the German advertising industry.
Ms. Heumann, Stephan Rebbe, co-founder of the Kolle Rebbe advertising agency in Hamburg, said that one reason he left the industry was because it wasn’t sexy any more. Do you agree?
Karen Heumann: No, I think our business is still exceedingly sexy. But Stephan Rebbe and I experienced a time when the first rule of creative advertising was to break the rules. It was supposed to provoke and horrify the stuffy, narrow-minded Germans a little. This drew a lot of people to the industry, some of whom enjoyed just being provocateurs.
Advertising as a type of political protest?
Exactly. And for decades there was a sense of purpose. They were blowing fresh air through German mustiness. Now it no longer works that way, because society is much too fragmented. Now other players are doing the provoking in other places.
Whom are you referring to?
When somebody like Uber founder Travis Kalanick begins to wipe out a market, in his case the international taxi business, it’s this kind of provocation, usually digital, that gets people riled up today. Provocation in advertising is sometimes a means, but usually not the goal.
A penchant for self-deprecation appears to be fashionable in your industry right now?
That is unfortunately true. This self-flagellation is ghastly and gets us nowhere. What unites us advertising people, however, is that we want attention and love for our clients’ brands. Advertising is a factory of dreams and ideas. We have to understand a lot more today to produce this complex material.
One cool slogan is no longer enough?
No, in that respect, things have changed as well. Maybe intelligence is the new sexiness. Why do people do what they do? We have to penetrate and understand that. This is where the long-scorned humanities become important again because that’s where genuine analysis is taught. Unfortunately, the humanities are completely missing in many social debates. We are undersupplied in Germany when it comes to intellectual voices.
Do you mean the debate about big data or the domination of companies like Google or Facebook?
Those too. We collect an incredible amount of data, so we know a lot more than we used to, but knowing isn’t understanding. And a contact on the net or elsewhere is far from being a real relationship between people and brands. How do we create something useful and rewarding out of this abundance? Hard mental work lies between big data and the big idea.
You once said your industry had been celebrating the go-getters too long. Has the era of the mavericks in the agencies ended?
Alas, it needs the mavericks too. There’ll be guys like that for a long time to come in the advertising industry.
Where do you see the greatest show of alpha dogs?
I have nothing at all against alpha dogs since I count myself as one of them. There are situations where I have to “have balls.” Yes, women need to have balls. And, more importantly, they have to show they have some.
How do you show you have balls?
By standing for something, not backing down, being clear.
Do women have it easier in your industry today?
Close to 50 percent of the executive personnel in our agency are women, but it seems to me to still be pretty dark elsewhere. And yet, we all have the same big problem: Where do I find the best talent given the ever-decreasing number of births each year?
I have to be so attractive as an agency that young people don’t just decide to join a start-up in Berlin. But it can be done, since the founder myth is getting a bit jaded now. Start-ups are just companies in their beginning phase and so they are often exhaustingly chaotic. Many choose our mix of a proven, highly professional structure and creative chaos.
So Thjnk is already an established German agency?
And you are Aunt Karen to the young people?
That’s even how I say it. As a post-1968 person, I am sort of the last of a wild era. The agency Christmas parties where everybody had sex are not just myths. I grew up in this industry, I always thought, “Yeah, this here is rock ‘n roll.”
And narcissism verging on megalomania?
That’s not necessarily true, but if you don’t think what you do is exceptional, you won’t succeed in getting it accepted. Ideas are like delicate plants. You have to cultivate them and be convinced of what you’re selling. A healthy ego certainly helps here.
As a market strategist, what would you say is the core of the Karen Heumann brand?
Some would say my ponytail. I have always worn it. But seriously, a brand isn’t created in the mind of its creator, but in that of the observer. So I should be asking you what the Heumann brand stands for. But it doesn’t matter whether I am talking to you, the pope or my mother. As much as possible, I remain consistent.
You also once changed agencies with a lot of theatrical thunder. After 12 years with Jung von Matt, you left the firm a little less than three years ago. How is the relationship today?
Good again. Jean-Remy von Matt and I are able to talk to one another again.
He recently lost the Mercedes-Benz and Springer accounts. What have you learned from the failure of your former colleague?
It is no failure to lose a client. It is part of the business and is absolutely normal. You just have to stand right back up again and carry on. Of course Jung von Matt is losing a lot of revenue with Mercedes. But why shouldn’t such a company downsize sometime? There is a motto at Jung von Matt that I also have taken to heart. Nothing forces us to greatness but everything to quality. And quality is what Jung von Matt still has.
You then went to Kemper-Trautmann, which became Thjnk, an acronym of the last names Trautmann, Heumann, Jochum, and Kemper. André Kemper has left the agency. Will you be called Thj in the future with the “Kemper” missing?
No, because, as one of the founding partners, Kemper will naturally always also be a part of our agency. At the same time, today the K also stands for the German word for colleagues: “Kollegen.” We have 25 of them involved in Thjnk at the moment, so this letter is especially loaded.
Mr. Kemper is considered to be one of the last of the scene’s super-macho guys. First, he left you with a big bang, then he went to Opel. Now, he is building up his own agency primarily dedicated to Mercedes. What do you think of his performances?
He knows how to establish a brand – even for himself. He is consistently André Kemper.
How dirty has the industry become in the fight for new clients and accounts?
I find it has gotten better and has a certain solidarity, given that conditions are continually becoming more difficult.
What does the future of advertising look like?
I agree with my colleague Amir Kassaei, who says we no longer produce just advertising ideas. Our agencies have so much creative power we are able to conceive everything that makes a brand relevant for people, also services or products. In times of the highest complexity and diversity of options, it is important to be a reliable compass for the customers. Our resources, our capital, are the fantastic, intelligent minds.
Thjnk recently gained many new clients, from McDonald’s to Thyssen-Krupp. Did any go down the drain?
Sure. Bahlsen, for example. Henkel. That always happens.
You publish your agency’s return on sales that’s around 15 percent. Why?
Why not? Naturally, there’s the question of whether we will want to continue publishing them once they are no longer so nice.
Your husband, Wolf Heumann, works as chief creative officer at Scholz & Friends. Even he is taking it easier lately.
That’s right. He wanted more time for his music. That is something that also drives him.
You are professional rivals. Do you talk shop between dinner and the good night kiss?
About advertising, but not about clients. When interns tell me they share the same apartment with people from three other agencies, but never talk about business, that is baloney. But Wolf and I, we have been doing it for some time now and we know where the boundaries are.
Video: “Land of Quattro” commercial for Audi Quattro 3.0.