In 2005, three men with three stories had one simple idea: to revolutionize advertising as we know it by breaking new ground and redefining communications for the 21st century.
They founded the Hirschen Group based on courage, entrepreneurial spirit and freedom of ideas to give each agency as much gravitation as necessary and as much individuality in the markets as possible to be successful, to have fun, and to change the world.
Blach thought long and hard about joining The Hirschen Group. Of course, he knew all about the Waldmeister campaign that had everyone in German advertising talking – and poking fun. But he saw it differently.
“The Hirschen aren’t an agency,” he says. “They don’t do advertising. In the beginning, they found an extremely intelligent way of fighting for attention, for themselves and their clients.”
With Mobilcom they made it into the media for the first time, then their election campaign for the Green Party ruffled feathers on a national scale. That’s when Blach knew. If you can do that and still hang on to longstanding accounts like Thyssen, Axel Springer, Europcar and the Federal Press and Information Agency, you really know how to communicate.
“All they were missing was strategic relevance,” he recalls.
So how did Blach react in 2004, when Loko and Heusinger asked him to join?
“I told them they needed a better client portfolio. I said they had three years to double their income and get into the Top Five of German agencies.”
Which they promptly did.
“Whenever anyone joins a company, they have a ‘best of’ scenario,” says Blach. “If they get 70% of what they want, they’re usually happy. I got much, much more than I bargained for. Here you get 200%.”
Blach was born in 1964. The same year as Loko. And Heusinger. And Scholl. He grew up in Perchtoldsdorf, on the outskirts of Vienna, the elder of two brothers. Their father worked in middle management, for a company with a staff of about 150. Blach likes to do things for himself. His first full sentence as a child? “Leave me alone. I can do it on my own.”
Blach went to a grammar school run by Jesuits. Eight years of Latin, six years of Greek. The priests ruled with an iron rod, but left Blach with “a very broad general knowledge, a solid educational foundation.”
In mathematics, he finished top of the class. But in the final yearbook he was the only pupil who failed to identify a preferred career. Having abandoned a first university degree in Toronto (home to an uncle), he soon graduated in Economics. “My big motivation was the desire to be independent,” he admits.
And that requires money. DJ, barman, ski instructor in the Alps. Plus a job raising money for charity. Paying memberships with a 25% commission.
What did that teach him?
“To feel at a glance if you can even get a foot in the door.” One day I did an experiment, to find out if it makes any difference what exactly you are selling.
“I told people, ‘It’s for our Ramasan. I’m sure you’ll want to be part of that.’”
Ramasan was made up nonsense. “And people said, ‘Of course, I’m in!’”
A university professor recommended Blach to Young & Rubicam.
“If you’re looking for someone, try Blach. He’s smart.”
“Was I interested in advertising? I thought it was just pasting things together and making up rhymes.” In the interview he pushed his luck and demanded 25,000 Schillings a month (€1,816.82 Euros). They took him on. As assistant to the M.D.
“That’s my motto: You can always get something.”
Blach has the charm that comes easy to Austrians, particularly the Viennese. An iron fist in a velvet glove. They land the punches, but it feels more like a caress. “Yes, people often tell me I get away with a lot.”
What did Blach to Loko’s agenda for 2015: To become Germany’s leading owner-run agency?
“Let’s do it! There’s a lot more in this agency yet.
I’ve always been a can-do man.”
At any cost?
“I’m no ad land Nazi. Nor a strategy terrorist. In my opinion, there’s only one way to do it. Someone different might have tried to change the Hirschen. I think it’s better to adapt myself to the their way of working. They’re clever people. They’re funny. I really believe we’re so successful because we respect each other and get on so well. We take each other as we are. It’s an amazingly relaxed agency. I can’t imagine something like our Cologne office could be possible anywhere else.“
The jacket is elegant, the T-shirt from Abercrombie & Fitch, the belt buckle the size of a postcard. Squareish, black, horn-rimmed glasses. On anybody else, a potentially cringe-worthy ensemble. Not on him. Loko saunters in. Dark skin and dreads. A tall, athletic man. He’s handsome, and a good ten years older than he looks. He puts his iPhone down on his iPad and his iPad on a pile of newspapers. I get a warm welcome. From a very likeable guy.
On the phone Loko said he wanted to talk about THE TRUTH, the newspaper his Golden Deer agency brought out. The Truth. Trips easily off the tongue, especially coming from someone with Loko’s background. His story starts with a young Congolese man who wants to study in Moscow but gets stuck in Leipzig on the way. Loko’s father. He meets a young German woman studying African history as part of her degree. In 1964, she gives birth to Marcel. His brother follows a year later. The family apply for visas to return to the Congo, but fly straight from Kinshasa back to West Germany. This time for good. The father has a job in the presidential administration of dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu.
What was it like growing up in the Germany of the 60s and 70s, I ask? Nothing like today. There are three state-subsidised TV channels, with Wim Thölke and Hänschen Rosenthal top of the ratings. They play Abba on the radio. Teenagers are into the Opel GT and shirts from Benetton. Double-page spreads in Stern magazine are your window on the world and, in telecommunications, the fax machine is the greatest-ever innovation. “Back then, video was Latin,” wrote singer-songwriter Funny van Dannen. And CD was a chemical element. Imagine Loko living in that society. Multicultural was a type of yoghurt, at best.
In 1974, they leave Zaire in a rush – on account of Mobutu. Next stop: West Berlin.
“I see standing out and being different as an advantage,”
says Loko. Back then, he was continually forced to adjust to new circumstances. And to question his own identity. “Now everyone lives in a world where it’s normal to only understand a fraction of everything we see around us. We’re all aware of what a complex place the world has become.” Does he see any benefits of growing up as he did? “Maybe my cultural background helps me understand the modern world a little better.”
They say Loko is a master networker. But every silver lining has a cloud. “I have trouble reaching a clear-cut, unambivalent opinion,” he says.
“There’s a lot of French in me, and in France it’s quite normal for managers to quote authors and philosophers when they’re trying to explain something. In Germany, if I use an allegory to explain something to a group of clients – let’s say, Hannibal crossing the Alps – they practically fall off their chairs. They say,
‘What on Earth has Hannibal got to do with this company?’
And I tell them, ‘Everything is connected to everything else.’”
Loko studied Economics, History and Art in Cologne and Paris. He once founded a club named after the Italian artist Boccioni, where the members organised exhibitions and made music and Super 8 films (“Somewhere between Achternbusch, Tarkovsky and Godard.”). Even then he wanted to “bring different people together and create something new.”
After graduating, Loko trained at Die Welt newspaper. From the start, he was allowed to both sub-edit and write. “I suppose they thought, ‘Oh look! A black guy who studied Economics and can write.’ And I thought, ‘Oh cool! I can write.’” In 1990, he joined Springer & Jacoby. There, he met Bernd Heusinger.
Together, in 1995, they founded The Golden Deer (Zum Goldenen Hirschen).
“We said to ourselves, ‘We’re as good at what they do as they are. Let’s start a company that’s a bit different.’”
I ask Bernd Heusinger if he grew up in the countryside.
“Who told you that? I come from the great city of Fürth. Our football team plays in the Bundesliga! And the world’s first train ran from Fürth to Nuremberg.”
The background is different. Heusinger Senior ran a printing business with big clients like Grundig and Quelle. His wife stayed at home and helped with the accounts. Very different. Heusinger is wearing a black jacket over a black shirt. It’s a harsh look. Side parting. Loko is the live wire, always smiling, bubbly and positive. Heusinger examines things a little closer. The razor-sharp thinker with lightning reactions. Snap! He’s found a flaw. The feedback is concise.
When you first meet Heusinger, as a person he’s difficult to grasp. He doesn’t look at you and he doesn’t make small talk. Rather he manoeuvres the conversation until he’s got it exactly where he wants it. Then comes the hypothesis, analysis and instructions. Loko can rant with a wonderful swagger, but his audience may fail to understand a word. Not so Heusinger. “I need 30 seconds to reach a decision. Or to know if a double-spread is going to work.” When he smiles, it’s impish.
The former envisions the castles in the air. The latter (Heusinger) the stairway that leads you there. Or the lift, because it’s quicker. It was Heusinger who, in 1995, had the idea for THE TRUTH, the Golden Deer’s first manifesto. But it was Loko who revived the idea in 2012. The second edition is more polemic, a call-to-arms for contemporary communications in the age of social media.
And it was Loko’s idea to make The Golden Deer the number one owner-run agency in Germany by 2015. (Or in Europe. He’s not too bothered which.)
As always, it’s Heusinger who gives Loko the stage.
“Marcel is more proactive with finances,” he says. “I’m better with campaigns.”
After studying Theatre, Journalism and German, Heusinger worked as a journalist and concepter at the Nürnberger Abendzeitung newspaper and at the Bavarian broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk. He left a trail of shocked middle-class intellectuals in his wake, a feat he repeated at Tempo and Theater heute, as well as at TV stations SAT.1 and RTL. During the theatre traineeship, he encountered Rainer Goetz, whose “manic” character blew him away. So he wrote two plays and directed them himself. One play contains a scene in which Claude-Oliver Rudolph smashes through a wall in an Opel Kadett before running amok. The other features doppelganger of Klaus Maria Brandauer and Hanna Schygulla, who are tied up and forced to watch a video of the play without being able to take part. Method acting with a twist. Heusinger penned both works under the pseudonym Detonator X. Theatre – that he can do. In the 2002 German general election, The Green Party hired The Golden Deer. At a rally for rival Chancellor candidate and Free Liberal Democrat Guido Westerwelle, dozens of young men in wigs suddenly held up signs saying “I Wannabe Chancellor”. And when a filmmaker fails to show up, Heusinger doesn’t just write the script. He directs too.
So how does a multi-talent like him end up in advertising? “I’m not in advertising,” claims the 48-year-old. “Whether I’m writing a newspaper by-liner, a play or a TV series, what’s the difference between that and creating a campaign for a new product? For me, the creative process is exactly the same. It’s all about communication and coming up with a good story. I work for The Golden Deer because we combine so many disciplines, and cover such a broad spectrum. My repertoire is more expansive than the director of a major theatre.”
And “a very large audience.” Larger than all the major theatres put together.
“Spreading ideas that reach millions of people. I’ve always wanted to do that,”
Heusinger never wanted The Golden Deer to do advertising like the rest of the industry – with its cult of personality around the heads of owner-run agencies, its deluded belief that Creative Directors have the solution to every problem, and its one-fits-all approach at the big networks. “What people think of as traditional advertising had already become irrelevant by the time we started,” claims Heusinger. “Marcel and I wanted to stand out, precisely in order to make ourselves relevant. I liked him. He had entrepreneurial spirit and unstoppable drive. He really wanted to do his own thing, so we were perfectly suited.”
It was exactly what the world of German advertising was waiting for. Two young men who replace the concept of an ad agency with an idea agency. And then give it a name that sounds like something out of a postmodern comedy club. Two newcomers who say,
“Let the established agencies have their 100, 200 and 500 employees already. We can have that too!”