The New Cool: Why Katowice is Poland’s Answer to Berlin
Three years ago Ravi Ruparel set up Pl-atform, a London-based agency creatively fuelled by a dynamic team of artists and tech-experts in Katowice, Poland. Having used this cross-continent approach to create experiential advertising for big brands like Novartis, Asda, and Greggs, to music stars ACDC and Imagine Dragons, Ravi explains why Katowice is a melting pot of talent and destined to be the next Berlin.
LBB> How did you first find Katowice?
RR> Purely because of friendship.
In my last business we grew a digital agency network, and we initially wanted to test our international structure, operations and processes somewhere close to home, but not the U.S. or ANZ. We met a guy in the UK, who had moved back home to Poland with his wife and child, and we liked him so much we gave him a test project to work on.
Within 18 months we had built a Polish business in Katowice with 70 people. That whole business was sold to WPP, and the office continues happily as part of a major agency network.
The friendships that were built in that time are lifelong, and what I discovered is that the people of Poland have a very similar sense of humour and wonderful work ethic. At the same time – life in London over the last five to six years has become expensive, fast paced, unstable, and people don’t have the same purpose.
So having access to a pool of people that are friends, had cool ideas, and were financially liberated enough to be creative, made it the ideal place to find the best talent. Of course there is an economic advantage but that’s not the primary reason.
LBB> What was the idea behind Pl-atform?
RR> We wanted to avoid the pressure of having a huge number of people on the payroll, being under pressure to sell them to clients, but instead focus on a very small talent of people who could work together to come up with amazing ideas and then make them happen. I wanted to open a new type of agency that worked collaboratively and delivered great tangible experiential campaigns directly to the client, while operating in a lean and efficient way. Everyone says that but the DNA of that is that we wanted to focus on ideas. We work with a huge number of experts, have a tight ideas and a focused team.
Having made my connections and fallen in love with Katowice, I knew it was the perfect place where we could find real artists, craftsmen and tech experts to bring ideas to life. The company name itself is indicative of the motivation – I had always intended to give Polish people a stage, and the spelling ‘Pl-atform’ is in reference to the internet domain for Poland (PL).
The lifestyle and the passion of the people has been a huge asset to our business and over the last three years we’ve built a small core team to collaborate with experts across the Silesian region in which Katowice sits.
LBB> What talents make up the Katowice team?
RR> The team in Poland includes video producers, creative directors, animators and project managers. We collaborate with agencies, not individuals, that specialise in anything from sculpture building to augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D, film, and even explosives. We draw upon the talent that already exists within the community.
Aleks has been there from the start and keeps everything together. Having worked in Dublin and travelled the world, she has the experience and skill to keep the plates spinning.
Dorota, who has just come back from maternity leave, is a graduate of journalism, social sciences and English philosophy. She manages digital innovation projects for Universal. She has done everything from develop apps and games for musical artists, to demolishing rocks in a quarry (for ACDC).
Piotr our film producer is a former barman with a lifetime of movie making experience and passion. Przemek, our newest member and still at Uni, is a brilliant web designer. And when he’s not coding, he’s an avid drummer. But mostly he just loves IT!
If you have seen our logo – that was painted by Daria, one of our creatives. She is a fine artist turned street artist and now even paints tattoos. She works on many projects including 2D graphic animation, and in her spare time she runs a ‘chill-out painting class’, a chance for locals to paint and relieve stress.
Above: The Poland and London teams together in Madrid
LBB> What sets it apart from other emerging cities of culture?
RR> Katowice has always been the underdog – always trying to punch above its weight.
It’s had a lot of investment in change because of the decline of the mining industry. Road infrastructure, airports, buildings; it’s where several leading big businesses have chosen to base their European operations. PWC, T-Mobile, IBM; they all have big offices there. It is favourable because after the investments the infrastructure is very good. It also has a lot of young people, and the attitude of being the underdog, so it wants to prove itself. I am sure there are a number of similar areas in the world or in Poland that have the same sort of mix, but having that collision with great people and friendship that has meant it’s a great place to grow a business. And I think that’s ultimately the edge – the people of Katowice have been easy to work with, creative and friendly.
Mark my words – Katowice is the next Berlin!
LBB> That is a big statement – what makes you say that?
RR> They have both had to evolve, change and reimagine. And just as Berlin became known as the frontrunner of cultural cool in Europe, Katowice is now moving towards that title.
After the wall came down in Berlin, new things were created and the city became a hotspot of inspiration. It remains the epitome of cool. But it is not the only place where dramatic change has led to this sort of creative outlet.
People don’t talk about it but formerly the main reason people went to Katowice airport was to visit Auschwitz. They saw a huge decline in the mining industry, and found themselves in a pretty undesirable position. But they did something about it and made a positive change.
It is now a melting pot of culture and events. The annual Katowice Street Art Festival is a huge event and last year the city was named a UNESCO City of Music. There are so many new initiatives and projects, and the people are the driving force behind it.
The people saw an opportunity to become cultured, and ultimately cool.
LBB> Define ‘cool’?
RR> By cool I mean that the world recognises it for new value and new ideas.
We think that, for whatever number of reasons, things have collided and this area is generating new ideas through passion, experience, education, and attitude. The work we are creating is cool and makes people smile.
And clients are buying it.
Above: Blowing up rocks for ACDC at the Alvernia Film Studios
LBB> What other kind of business is Katowice suited to?
RR> It’s got everything. Aside from the major company office I mentioned there are call centres, IT helpdesks, creative digital geniuses, incubators, and technology parks. And then there are a host of classic industries making things. We make so much in Katowice, there are people that can build something out of code, neon or clay. It’s got the full broad mix of everyone and every trade.
We do 50 percent of our work in Katowice and neighbouring cities. And then 75 percent within the whole of the Silesian region. We have very rarely veered away from that.
LBB> What does the economic advantage mean for clients?
RR> We will often go into a client and they will be confused about what we have just quoted them – is it a day rate or an hour rate? Because a lot of agencies around the world have become quite expensive. We are not trying to make our profit on reselling, on buying people for £100 and selling them for £500. We want to do lots and lots of cool work for lots of people. Make it affordable to take creative risk.
We can bring in right talent, for the right idea, for the right client – as opposed to sell them the resources that we have like so many agencies are forced to do today. This has meant that although in the last three years we have had a core team of six or seven people, we’ve collaborated with over 300 people and delivered projects in 15 countries, engaged over 100m people with the activities that we’ve done, and worked in sectors from healthcare to football. 75 percent of the creative production has come from Poland.
We are about good creative ideas and working collaboratively. Working with experts with an economic advantage, on top of great creativity, has made for a real sweet mix of things to deliver to our clients.
LBB> What changes have you seen in Katowice in the last 7 years?
RR> The investment is materialising. In the beginning I think the first phase was about learning and now a lot of that learning has been done.
Today the people here are as tuned into global creative knowledge as someone based in London or New York. That is a huge change, because now they are not a hidden element of the business. My team in Poland is not a cheap workforce but a huge asset and they have travelled to meetings across the whole world, from Switzerland to New York.
The big difference is that in Katowice people don’t have those same life pressures as London or New York. House prices haven’t gone up five times, people’s salaries allow for affordable living, so that gives them the freedom to explore hobbies and I think they’ve become mature in their world outlook without having the financial pressures of the big cities.
They are lucky to have the mental creative space and enjoy life. Walk to work, cycle to work, and not worry about how to pay the bills next month. It makes it a great place to be.
I have also seen a big shift in supporting women in the workplace. Dorota is one of the coordinators of Geek Girls Carrot – an organisation that supports women in technology. They meet once a month to talk about promoting women in tech and pursuing career goals, whilst juggling the work-life balance.
Piotr and Aleks Making Sculptures in the studio
LBB> Where is Katowice heading in the next five to ten years?
RR> I think that Brexit is going to have a massive impact on Poland. Nobody quite knows which way it’s going to go but today the exchange rate is working against the pound, so there is a 25 percent change in the currency. I think that places like Katowice will open themselves up to the rest of Europe more as a result and seek to work with neighbouring countries like Germany.
For Pl-atform we have the ability now to grow out from Katowice to other countries, so it has really become our European office, as opposed to our Polish office, which is quite interesting.
I think that more and more products will be generated out of these areas. So one thing is providing services, another is a providing product, and increasingly they are capable of developing the full product range.
We are working with some new guys recently who can go from raw idea to finished product. They can design, manage the Chinese manufacturing process, and deliver worldwide. Whether that be a toy or a spoon – they can make anything. I think there will be a shift towards products.
LBB> What would people be surprised to know about Katowice?
RR> You could go there on a Tuesday in the middle of May and walk into a pub for free, without anything being advertised, and there would be people abseiling off the wall, dancing to music, spray painting graffiti to electronic music – for no reason whatsoever.
And I can show you a video of that to prove it that I made whilst drinking a top local lemonade drink called John Lemon.
Genre: People , Strategy/Insight