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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Florian Haller

The Serviceplan Group CEO on overseeing the company’s international expansion from its Munich roots and why he delivered a speech on innovation while skydiving

5 Minutes with… Florian Haller

Peter Haller founded Serviceplan in 1970 and nurtured the business as its leader for 32 years. But in 2002, after a six-year stint on the client side with Procter & Gamble, Peter’s son Florian took the reins as Serviceplan Group CEO. Since then Serviceplan has expanded from a Munich-based agency to one with ‘Houses of Communication’ all across Germany and others founded in international markets, making it the only German advertising agency to truly export itself globally. ‘House of Communication’ is the company’s moniker for its full-service locations, with creative, media and digital agencies under one roof, and their expansion shows no sign of slowing. It’s also worth noting that Serviceplan is still an independent business that is managed by its owners. LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Florian at the opening of Serviceplan’s new Berlin HQ to find out more about nurturing the business’ expansion, how working client-side aids in agency life, and the trials and tribulations of delivering a speech while skydiving.


LBB> Let’s begin by talking about your childhood - your father founded Serviceplan in 1970, three years after you were born. So, with that in mind, was it always your plan to move into advertising / marketing?

FH> No it wasn’t. When I was at school my father’s agency wasn’t very dominant at home so I didn’t grow up with the awareness of being the son of an advertiser. I was just a normal, young boy. When I finished school I wondered what I could do with my life and I wanted to go into a field where I could effect change. The most obvious way in my mind was to get into economics so I studied economics and business. 

Marketing was the sector of business that was most interesting to me so I focused on that and then joined P&G afterwards. It was then that I realised that it was really the advertising side of the business that drove me. But I began to wonder if I wanted to follow this career path at a big corporation like P&G or as more of an entrepreneur within an independent company - which is something my father’s agency offered me. So it was a case of things working out - it offered me the chance to pursue my passion of communications and branding but within an independent business. 


LBB> Your first job was at Lintas in New York, but after that your next job was working on the client-side, for Procter & Gamble. How has this experience of working on that side, especially so early on in your career, aided you during your time at Serviceplan? 

FH> I had a great time at P&G and I’m very thankful for what I took out of those six years at the beginning of my career. One big thing that I took out of the experience was a better understanding of marketing as a broad discipline. At the end of the day, what advertisers do is quite specific, it’s an interesting but small part of marketing. To have that broader understanding really is helpful. I also learned a lot about management skills at P&G. It’s a corporate company that invests a lot in its people, so I had opportunities to attend a lot of workshops and management seminars, which taught me how to be a better manager. I think if I’d have started in an agency, I wouldn’t have been as strong at that. And finally, you tend to better understand clients’ needs. You can understand what the person on the other side needs and wants. 


LBB> You took the reins of the business in 2002 - what were your main aims and ambitions at that time? 

FH> I am always envious of those CEOs who begin their job with a vision and fulfil that vision! I didn’t do that - I had no clue! In my case, my vision started to exist when I started running. When I started running I was already the CEO of Serviceplan and I had the idea of making our agency in Munich more of a ‘House of Communication’. We had an advertising agency and a media agency but then came all of the other disciplines and I realised the opportunity of bringing all of those under one roof together, and creating a different form of communication agency at that time. 

Then I realised that being in Munich was limiting us to a certain extent because the advertising layout in Germany is very spread out, so we were perceived as more of a regional agency. But we wanted to be a national agency, so we opened in Hamburg. At the same time this was a wonderful opportunity to get new creative people in, particularly Alex Schill [Serviceplan Group Chief Creative Officer], to make a marketing driven agency also creatively excellent. Then came Berlin and Cologne so we could say that we were present in the most economically important cities in Germany. And then after that I thought, why can’t we be an independent, international group? The first one out of Germany. And so we started founding Houses of Communication in markets abroad. So, the vision really began evolving while I was in the job already. 


LBB> I’ve always thought that following in a parent’s footsteps in business must be quite a daunting task - what were your thoughts at the time and how has your father been a source of inspiration? And, in addition to that, how did you forge your own identity separately to him? 

FH> There are two factors to this. Number one is the transition process. This is where a lot of family-related business handovers don’t work out. For me it was important that my father handed over without throwing away. There would be some people that would handover and say, “I’m out of it”, but that’s a problem in such a complex, people-orientated business. I needed time to pick up the job. On the other hand, there are those that never give away and stick to their jobs - their existence is almost defined by that job. Then you’re in a Prince Charles position, where you’re going to be the successor in two, three, four years time, but you can never get going. In our case I think we managed it quite well. My father let go, stepped into his new role of Managing Director of the group, and I had the time that I needed to take over. 

The other important factor is the relationship. You hold different opinions at times, in business and private life. There are a lot of sources for conflict. But if you have a good relationship you will always be able to find a way around it. If you don’t, it’s an issue. 


LBB> There are various companies in the Serviceplan Group - Serviceplan, MediaPlus, Plan.Net. How closely do these parts of the business overlap and collaborate and how do they fit into your ‘House of Communication’ structure?

FH> We’re trying to achieve two things at the same time, which from my point of view correspond to the needs of our clients. Clients have two needs which seem to conflict. One is a need for more specialists. So with regards to performance marketing for example, it’s not helpful to have an art director that may have done a performance marketing internship ten years before - you want a full-blown performance agency or team. So we’re trying to establish those special disciplines in silos within the agencies that focus on nothing else. The other need our clients have is integration. And the positive thing about a silo - which is a word that’s often negatively perceived - is the energy and specialism that it creates. Then we can integrate those silos onto different jobs, putting different people from different agencies onto the most relevant projects. 


LBB> You began the internationalisation of Serviceplan in 2006 and, since then, the business has grown hugely and shows no sign of stopping! From counting on the company site, there are now around 39 Serviceplan locations across the globe. What have been the processes of overseeing that kind of growth in just over ten years? How have you pulled it off? 

FH> Some of those figures are not quite right. I had a first run at internationalising the business, and I planned to do it with our digital agency Plan.net. It was a good idea because digital was very appealing to our clients, it was a growing market and we felt that we had a competitive advantage. But it turned out to be not very entrepreneurially viable, it wasn’t big enough to build a business upon. We also found out that our differentiating factors within digital weren’t as differentiating as we thought. But what really makes us different is Plan.net with Serviceplan and Mediaplus under one roof. So 2011, with our purchase of Liquid Campaign, is when we started to really find our international strategy. We wanted to create Houses of Communication in the most important markets around the world. Today we have Houses of Communication in 13 countries. 

A big part of what we do to make this work is give shares to local partners. We create parallelism of interests. Our biggest insurance against going bankrupt is that our partners also do not want to go bankrupt. Obviously we have controls in place too, but it’s always in our partners’ interests to want to make money and be entrepreneurially sound. 


LBB> Last year for the Serviceplan Innovation Day you jumped out of a helicopter as part of a 360 film shown to all attendees at the start of the day! Who came up with that idea and what was the meaning behind it?

FH> The idea came from Red Bull, which is our media partner for Innovation Day. More funny is the story of how it was created. I got an email from my colleague Julia Becker, who is responsible for Innovation Day, but I was on vacation. It read “do you agree?”, so I emailed back “yes, of course I agree” because I know her so well that I’m going to agree with what she has planned. She replied again: “Florian, please read the email. Do you agree?” Then I realised that I had to jump out of a plane!

The trickiest part though wasn’t jumping out of the helicopter, it was the speech part of it! We went upside down and it really does make you feel sick!



LBB> Tell us about Innovation Day - when and why did you launch it? Why is it important for Serviceplan to host such an event?

FH> Our industry is changing at such a rapid speed, there are new trends appearing every month more or less. Our clients and ourselves are interested in what’s going on, so the Innovation Day is our attempt to step back and really look at what’s going on. 



LBB> Which markets do you have your eye on for future expansion? Or is it more a case of cementing where you already are?

FH> I always say that we’re in the beginning of this journey - we have some way before we’re there yet. For the time being we have two priorities. We need to make sure that our international Houses of Communication become even stronger - for example, we’re currently working on firming up our digital offering in Spain. This is our number one priority. Number two is looking into new markets. We want to find a better solution for the US because this is a market we are still missing - but I can’t tell you when it will open. 


LBB> I have to ask you about the German industry - it’s huge in terms of money and size but, in reality, there are few agencies that are founded here and exported abroad (like Serviceplan). Why do you think that is? 

FH> This was the starting idea for our internationalisation. We are the biggest exporter in the world but there is no agency from Germany that has ever gone properly international. When you look at it, it seems funny. But in the ‘50s Germans didn’t really go abroad because the world didn’t look so kindly upon us. I think there was a kind of shyness which prevented us. Also, in Germany we’ve had for many years a culture of exporting goods. We were sending goods into countries and they would buy them, but being an engineering-driven nation meant that we didn’t have strong feelings about being marketers and exporting brands. Over the past 30 years this has obviously changed - just look at our car brands and things like Hugo Boss. But the advertising industry hasn’t followed suit. So we definitely feel like there’s a chance for us to create a business.