Amsterdam Berlin founder on ‘unbranded content’ and why disruptive advertising just isn’t right anymore
Moritz Grub started out in adland at Jung von Matt Hamburg in 2003, before embarking on an almost-round-the-world trip via agencies in London, Copenhagen, New York, Cape Town and Amsterdam. Eventually, he was tempted back to his homeland’s capital, Berlin and the creative opportunities flourishing in the city. He spent a stint as a creative director at one of Berlin’s most respected agencies, Heimat, before taking the leap and setting up his own shop. He was inspired by a vision of doing things differently and properly. Amsterdam Berlin - the company is part of the Amsterdam Worldwide mini network - launched midway through 2015. It strives to make ‘popular culture’ along with its clients and partners. While chatting with Moritz in the agency’s Kreuzberg office, LBB’s Addison Capper learned about their eye-opening ‘unbranded’ projects and why Moritz reckons time is running out for the traditional agency.
LBB> So Amsterdam Berlin launched midway through last year. What inspired you to launch you own company and why is the Amsterdam Worldwide brand a good fit your vision?
MG> We wanted to create a new type of agency. I know this is what everyone always says but we actually have some pretty solid work and proof to back that up. I worked with Amsterdam Worldwide previously about six years ago, and we’ve always had a very similar taste. We’ve always shared the common belief that the work we do should warrant the time that we demand of people. That’s the common ground that we built this agency on in Berlin. They were really the only choice for a partner.
LBB> How is Amsterdam Berlin different from a traditional ad agency?
MG> I think it’s really in the work we do and the approach we have towards communications in general. We believe that an idea needs to be relevant to people’s lives. We want to give them something that they actually enjoy, and don’t believe in the old ‘disruption’ methods. I never really did!
Personally, as a creative I’ve always strived to create things that people genuinely enjoy. I’ve never believed in the Trojan Horse philosophy where you sneak through the back door – I don’t think that can ever reflect positively on any brand. This is really what we are trying to do here, create content that people genuinely like. It doesn’t matter if it’s a series or a standalone film or a portrait or an event. For us, form follows function.
Now I understand that isn’t ‘new’ news, but in the age of ad blockers you need to give people things that they actively want. In my mind that’s a good thing because it creates a giant playground. As long as you genuinely believe that and have clients with the same vision, then the possibilities are endless.
We find that people are actually very willing to accept ‘brand content’. And I say ‘brand content’ because I think ‘branded content’ implies something similar to placing a hot iron onto a cow – by nature the two things are not supposed to meet, but they do anyway. With brand content there needs to be an intrinsic link between the brand and the content we produce.
LBB> How do clients and potential clients take to your approach?
MG> My old boss and mentor at Heimat, Matthias von Bechtolsheim, would say that every agency gets the clients they deserve. And I believe that’s very true. People that want very traditional stuff wouldn’t come to us – and if they did they probably wouldn’t stay. We won’t bend over backwards just to get a piece of business because it wouldn’t make us happy.
I do think that there are people at brands that are beginning to understand where things need to go – I mean, look at what Red Bull is doing. Red Bull Media House is probably worth more than the drinks company now! So there are a lot of people embracing the future. But there are also a lot that aren’t. I think this will change very soon though.
LBB> You’ve worked in many cities around the world – London, Amsterdam, New York, Cape Town, Copenhagen – what brought you back to Germany and, more specifically, Berlin?
MG> Having worked all over the world, ultimately I am still German. For me, Berlin is a place that is very friendly to new things. If you wanted to open up an agency that was a bit more radical in attitude, it’s going to be much tougher in the rest of Europe – within the first few months there’s a good chance you’ll be in the red just thanks to your rent! It would be very hard to contain that and still invest in your true beliefs. We invest in things here with the pure purpose of showing brands the type of stuff we want to make, and I don’t think a lot of other agencies do that. For example, we create purely editorial content that is not ordered by anyone or any brand. It’s a great way to learn how different types of content work and how people react to it.
One example we’re working on is called The Berlinians – it’s set to launch later this year. We thought to ourselves, as a Berlin agency with a focus on content, why don’t we create an online magazine that is purely about Berlin? It’s really set to be a portrait of the city and the people that make it great. I don’t think that many other agencies create stuff like that. Other cities, like New York or London or Paris, make it difficult to do so, thanks to costs.
This city really is full of inspiring people that make great stuff, and that’s really great for us – not in the way of exploiting cheap creative labour, but in the form of partnerships and people to work with. It’s our aim with The Berlinians to capture that.
LBB> The first service you list on your site is ‘unbranded content’, which is pretty surprising for an ad agency! Can you reveal a bit more what you mean by that?
MG> Well it’s a bit ‘weird’ on purpose because, of course, unbranded content isn’t strictly a service we offer – it’s just something that we do, for example The Berlinians. But then you can actually find very interesting links between these unbranded projects and brands later in the process.
We might not create something to actively sell to a brand but there’s every chance you meet a suitable brand along the way and make something together within the framework of this unbranded content structure.
LBB> Is there anything more you can tell us about The Berlinians?
MG> Berlin is ‘so hip right now’ – Gucci is shooting new campaigns here, people are moving here from all over the world. But it seems that a lot of people still see it as just the party capital of Europe, and I just felt compelled, as a creative agency that sits in this city, to shine a light on the true engine of Berlin. This was the idea behind The Berlinians. We’ve shot the first seven films in cooperation with Iconoclast, there will also be written content, and hopefully we will launch soon.
LBB> Another of your unbranded content projects is ‘Die Genießer’ (which translates from German to ‘The Enjoyers’). Tell us more about that.
MG> Die Genießer
is actually a project by my two sisters, Marie and Feline
, who are twins. It’s a very charming project that was born around four or five years ago. It’s a lovely, simple idea – it’s about enjoying the little things in life and is all demonstrated via beautiful illustrations.
I think it’s really relevant to everyday life. There’s never any negativity in their work – they don’t take an invasive approach, telling people they ‘need’ to slow down and enjoy life. They do it in a positive way. It’s a lifestyle guide about enjoying life with very non-monetary things, like taking a walk in the forest after the rain when it smells nice, holding your cold feet against the radiator in the winter, where to find the tiniest croissants in Berlin. They’ve illustrated the Die Genießer characters, we’ve published the first book [Amsterdam Berlin is also part publishing house] and there are a lot of people who really like what Die Genießer are doing.
The whole project really lives online but there is also the coffee table book and an illustrated set of cards. But at the core it’s a digital thing, there’s a Google Map with little marks of where you can ‘enjoy’ different things. It makes it very tangible. You can look at it and get inspired. I love it. It’s a relevant topic and really it gives back to its users. It does everything that Amsterdam Berlin believes in and in my opinion is the primary case project of what we’re about.
Within the company structure, my sisters technically aren’t part of Amsterdam Berlin, but they are based here, supported by us and we publish their book. It’s great for us to show clients this way of creating great, relevant content. The book’s first run has completely sold out and we are getting really great mainstream press.
This could be done by a brand, it’s not that hard to imagine. You could easily develop a concept like this for a brand – just look at what Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton have done with Nowness. This is content that people want to enjoy. They’re not just creating ads, they’re creating a modern massive media monster, and for me that’s how brands should be acting today.
LBB> Another thing that stood out to me on your site is the use of the phrase ‘creating popular culture’. Could you elaborate on that?
MG> That is at the core of what we do. Despite the way we want to work, we don’t want to be niche. We’re not here just to make nice art, sit in a basement in Kreuzberg, Berlin and phone our parents every month, asking them to support our art project! We want to make things for a lot of people to enjoy, to love, to spend a lot of time with.
Pop culture is a term that I really like. I don’t believe that everybody liking something makes it good, but I do believe that something that is really good will eventually be liked by a lot of people. Having said that, I think we always strive to create things that become a part of people’s lives and culture. The times of taking are done and the times of giving have arrived.
LBB> Apart from yourself, none of your team at Amsterdam Berlin has an advertising background. How did that come to be?
MG> I found that with the kind of work we do, the traditional advertising background isn’t quite as helpful. Even if we make a TV spot, we will try to do it differently. I’m not saying that all people with a traditional background aren’t welcome to work here – I have a traditional background, I’ve only ever worked in advertising agencies. But I find it interesting how people that come from a more editorial background communicate, they just think differently. It still involves amazing creative thinking but seems to be much simpler. People don’t want to be given riddles via advertising anymore.
I also don’t want to position ourselves against advertising agencies because ultimately we are making communications. I just don’t believe the term ‘advertising’ is so relevant anymore. People won’t be advertised to in the future, that isn’t how it’s going to work.
LBB> What could the industry be doing better right now?
MG> My main point is that it definitely needs to stop taking and start giving. I think people in the advertising industry realise this – after all this industry houses some of the most creative and smart people in the world. But there also needs to be a change on the client side – again, some people are starting to realise this now. Often when people ask for ‘content’, what they really mean is just a long ad. But that’s not what content is. It isn’t going to work and both brands and viewers are going to be frustrated.
LBB> What’s exciting you in the industry?
MG> I think we are on the verge of a completely new era of communication. I think the ad agency as it is, and has been for a very long time, will come to a very abrupt halt. I think people just aren’t going to keep playing the same game and the industry can only hold that change off for so long. Clients and agencies will have to adapt and be forced into new ways of working and creating, and I think that makes for exciting times. The possibilities of what you can do at the moment are endless, for both brands and agencies. And that becomes more apparent every day.
LBB> How do you see Amsterdam Berlin evolving in the year ahead?
MG> I think we will find great partners on the client side to do great stuff. We’ve got some really neat work coming out very soon that unfortunately I can’t talk about, but I’m sure it will be talk of town in Berlin and maybe beyond. But ultimately, I just want to be able to make things that we and the outer world enjoy. This is the goal for the next year, to do more and more and more of that. We don’t want to be a gigantic, huge agency; we want to be a comfortable size that allows us to create cool things. And if we can achieve that then we’re all happy.