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A Creatives’ Guide to Zurich: The Forward-Thinking Engine of Switzerland

Agency leaders from Publicis, Serviceplan and TBWA guide LBB’s Alex Reeves through the character and contradictions of Switzerland’s largest city

A Creatives’ Guide to Zurich: The Forward-Thinking Engine of Switzerland

“We are a dwarf compared to neighbouring countries,” says Serviceplan Switzerland executive creative director Raul Serrat. With a population of only eight million people, Raul is realistic about Switzerland’s scale. But his pride for his country is obvious and he loves the industry community that has evolved. 

“It comes with being a tiny country that the local advertising industry is small and collegiate,” he says. “In short, we bump into each other all time, be it in ad agencies or on the client side. Throughout your career you happen to cross paths with the same people time and time again and work with them in different agencies. And of course we also meet each other at industry events. Our relationship with our clients is a very familiar one as well because we often know each other from working together in the past.”

Matthias Kiess, CEO at TBWA\Switzerland AG estimates that around 80% of the country’s ad industry is in Zurich. He describes the vibe there as: “a kind of family groove. We know each other, we respect each other and inspire each other. In saying that, we also ensure we maintain our daily dose of competitiveness!”

“We have a beer together in the evening and the next day we pitch against each other. Or the other way round,” adds Publicis Switzerland creative director Peter Brönnimann. “Zurich is small yet international and the quality of life is great. Everything is just around the corner: trains, restaurants, museums, shops and even swimming in the lake.”

Raul from Serviceplan has spent his whole 27-year advertising career in Switzerland. “One of the things I love most about my job is that it requires me to travel a lot,” he says. But he’s not tempted to leave the pace of life in the foothills of the Alps. “Here, everything's a tad slower and calmer compared to cities like New York. Many people appreciate that. Also, because the city is rather small, most people in Zurich travel by bicycle. That keeps us healthy and that's why we can allow ourselves to have an extra sausage and beer in the evening by the lake. It's not for nothing that Zurich is time and time again ranked among the top five cities of the world.”

There are some intriguing contradictions at the heart of the city’s character though, as Matthias recognises: “With a stressful industry like ours, Zurich is a very calm and traditional place on one hand and a vibrant, international and dynamic place on the other! So, you are able to get the excitement of the city whilst also being able to embrace the relaxation embedded within Zurich’s beautiful natural environment. This is what makes Zurich such a wonderful place to live.”

With Switzerland’s four languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh) and its physical situation at the nexus of France, Germany, Austria, Italy and Liechtenstein, the country is uniquely placed as a junction for European cultures. “Although Switzerland is not in the European Union, we are still in the middle of Europe” asserts Peter from Publicis. “We’re multilingual and multicultural - so the thinking is both international and regional.”

The brands that drive the Swiss creative industries confirm this. Quite often, Switzerland’s ad industry is able to create its own national campaigns for international brands, not just adaptations. “As nobody knows the Swiss better than the Swiss, a lot of work is commissioned by local clients,” says Peter. He cites the big retailers there as clients who take this tack, like Migros or Coop, or the Swiss banks. 

Of course, everyone knows about the Swiss banks - an indicator of Swiss business’s inherently international nature. “Switzerland arguably has one of the highest number of international corporations in relation to its overall population,” ventures Raul. “Just think of companies like UBS, Lindt, ABB, Credit Suisse, Nestlé, Swatch or Rolex – just to name a few.

“We always have to keep sure that our campaigns have an international appeal because the business is driven by companies that depend on the export business to survive. There are many corporations that have their headquarters in Switzerland but generate the bigger part of their revenue abroad. It's very important for Switzerland in general to score high in international rankings for innovation, competitiveness, tech leadership, education and so on.”

The financial sector is probably the most crucial player in the city’s business landscape. In 2017 Zurich was ranked the second most competitive financial centre in Europe after London - 11th in the world - and this is a stimulating factor for all sorts of other business. Along with Zurich’s burgeoning pharmaceutical industry (Shire, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson are just some of the global pharma giants with offices in the city), financial businesses are playing their part driving a surge in technological innovation. Matthias notes that a cluster of cryptocurrency companies  has sprung up in the small town nearby called Zug - a surprising new community that’s become known as Crypto Valley.

Big tech is there too. Google has one of its key European centres in Zurich, points out Matthias, adding: “Other big companies [in the tech sphere] also hold secret entities here. I believe this is due to the fact that Zurich can supply highly talented and well formed people specific to these companies’ needs. This is in part thanks to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich), one of the world’s leading universities in science and engineering. Tech innovation is one of the big drivers across our city.”

There’s an elephant in the room, too. In line with Switzerland in general, Zurich’s tax laws are pretty consistently described as “attractive” to big business. There’s no doubt that this has a huge impact on the number of corporations in the city, but its impact on the city’s business landscape is ambiguous.

“In comparison to other places like Berlin or London, our start-up scene is small and we certainly lack some venture capital in the market due to our size,” says Matthias, who worked in the FMCG business before joining TBWA in 2004. “In saying that, there are niches such as fintech and blockchain where we have successfully positioned ourselves as a leading location. It's important to note that the high labor costs also affect the local dynamic too.”

Zurich’s entrepreneurial spirit is driven by culture, not just money, Raul is keen to stress. “There's an incredible amount of new pop-up shops and restaurants but also very cool small shops are emerging,” he says. “For instance the creative collective behind Soeder*. They self-produce sustainable products. They even run their own soap factory in Zurich. It's a trend that more and more creatives go into business for themselves and, for instance, open their own graphic design studios. This is part of the long tradition of Swiss graphic design which is highly regarded internationally in the creative industry and has been for decades.”

All in all, Zurich is a city that defies sweeping generalisations. It has a tension at its heart that Matthias addresses with a look to the city’s heritage. “Zurich has strong roots in the Protestant religion,” he says. “The reformer Ulrich Zwingli ‘liberated’ the city [from Catholicism in the 16th century] and initiated a very busy age that Zurich still benefits from. Zurich today, although governed by red-green parties, is still the largest economic centre in Switzerland. Compared to other cities Zürich is very energetic and forward-thinking, which drives the rest of the country.”



Quickfire Recommendations:

Food

A genuine, authentic Thai restaurant, complete with plastic chairs and hot curry just like in Bangkok.

Italian, loud and extremely delicious. 

A down-to-earth eatery in Wiedikon. A traditional restaurant which is very good for lunch, quick and cheap. 

Famous for its entrecôte 

Parisian café. The best place for Moules

Situated in the old town of Zurich, good for meaty meals

All about the burgers

Very Italian

Three minutes from the main train station, for your convenience

A “bathing palace”, if you fancy a refreshing swim before an affordable lunch


Drink










Brewdaz 

Culture

A cool design museum

- Graffiti, vandalism, street art
“There's a crew in Zurich that for years now keeps on making our city even more beautiful (in my view). Four letters that mean a lot to me: KCBR. Google it.” - Raul Serrat






- Skate or die at KornhausbrückeBrunau or Beckeranlag

Festivals:







The Great Outdoors

- Hike up the local mountain, the Üetliberg

- Go for a swim in Lake Zurich

- Chill at the Letten on the riverside of the Limmat
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