Talking artificial intelligence, why finance is exciting and the evolution of planning with VCCP Berlin’s Director of Strategy
After ditching her initial plan to be an architect because it was a bit ‘geeky’, Wiebke Dreyer eventually found herself as one of the inaugural employees of DDB Berlin, working on brands like Volkswagen at the nimble little sibling of the DDB Germany network. Nowadays she plies her trade at VCCP Berlin, where she is the Director of Strategy. An avid traveller, Wiebke loves exploring new cities without the help of a map – a pastime that never fails to keep her inspired.
LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Wiebke on the sunny rooftop of VCCP Berlin’s Kreuzberg office to talk artificial intelligence, the role of planners in Germany, and why she’s so excited to get stuck into ING-DiBa, the agency’s new financial account.
LBB> How did you first get into advertising? Was it always the plan or a bit of a happy accident?
WD> Somewhere in between, actually. I wanted to become an architect because I was really into creating places and spaces that people enjoyed to be in. I love cities and I hate bad urban planning! But when I really looked into it I realised that I was more into the context and the people than the materials and statistics. Then, by accident, I ended up in an internship at an advertising agency - and that brought me to Berlin, and here I am.
LBB> You have previously worked at TBWA and DDB - what tempted you over to the more boutiquey outfit of VCCP?
WD> In all fairness, when I started at DDB Berlin in 2001, they had just opened the office and there were about 30 people there. Within the DDB Germany network it was like the little, nimble speedboat. It was chaotic, in a good way. There were a lot of creative vibes going on. When I left there were over 240 people, so things changed a lot. I loved working there on big brands like Volkswagen at DDB, and after you’ve done that you have to ask yourself where you should go next.
Nivea was a big pull at TBWA because it was international, but the problem in the end was that the creative work wasn’t that exciting. It’s not that TBWA didn’t develop creative work, they did. But, you know, the processes and the client - it often turned out to be the same in the end. I did a lot of good work on product development, strategy, and it never quite got anywhere. So when I got the offer from VCCP, I saw it as a great opportunity because it was a chance to literally build something from scratch. It involved a lot of responsibility but also a lot of freedom.
LBB> At VCCP you’ve recently won the ING-DiBa account. What’s most exciting you about this new client?, And what are the challenges that come with working on a financial brand?
WD> ING-DiBa has quite a unique attitude; they don’t see themselves so much as a financial brand but more as a service brand. They started out as a direct bank and have been very customer-focused from the very start.
The biggest challenge of working on a financial brand is the fact that pretty much nobody feel comfortable with managing their finances. There’s a lot of inertia and fear in the market, yet everything we do has something to with money. If you go travelling or don’t, if you work or don’t, it all needs money and some kind of financial management. The vision is to empower people to do that and feel comfortable with it in their own hands. There’s actually a famous quote that says, “71 per cent of millennials would rather go to the dentist than their bank”. So that’s the challenge that we face, there are a lot of barriers to overcome.
There are also lots of FinTech startups right now who are really trying to make things easier, more accessible, more manageable and more seamless, so it’s an exciting time right now. It’s a mix of opportunity on one hand and disinterested customers on the other. It’s about bringing them together and assuring them that it doesn’t have to be like it used to be.
LBB> Yeah, it definitely seems that banks have taken longer than most other sectors to embrace modern life and technology.
WD> Absolutely. And if you look into it, the biggest part of your life with regards to money is payment - and banks hardly play a role in that. Apps aren’t run by banks; even most credit cards are not issued by a bank. So when you have the most touch-points with money, banks are not really involved.
Every bank is looking into that and trying to catch up but they are quite startled right now. A couple of weeks back I was at the Wired Money Conference and all of the big banks were there. It was interesting to hear the major leaps that Deutsche Bank has recently made with its new app, and how they understood what people are looking for. It’s a mix of aggregation and gamification of your finances. It’s quite neat.
It’s exciting. There’s a lot of dynamic in this market. If you’d have told me 10 years ago that I was actually looking forward to working on a bank, I wouldn’t have believed you.
LBB> How do you feel the role of strategists is evolving and has evolved recently?
WD> It has become more and more interesting than ever, but also more and more challenging than ever, because we need to be able to do everything. It’s not enough that you understand brands and people and insights, and come up with a strategy on that level. Now you need to know how all channels work, how the customer journey works, how you can do connection planning, and orchestrate all of that stuff. The picture for the planner has become more multifaceted.
There all kinds of words flying around - brand planners, creative planners, digital planners, media planners. You will always have a focus on one of those sectors but you need to at least understand a bit of the full picture. That is the requirement really. But it doesn’t matter if you only understand the channels, you still need to understand what to tell people.
LBB> I heard from someone recently that the role of the planner in Germany is sometimes not given the same importance as in other markets. This obviously isn’t a problem at VCCP, but what would you say to that?
WD> Well, it’s different. You have to understand the history of account planning. It started in the UK in the ‘60s, and started in Germany in the mid-‘80s. The UK is 20 years ahead, if you put it like that. They have an understanding that the account manager and account planner are a team.
In Germany when planners started out, there was a lot of questioning of why they were there. It was not really clear what their role was and if they were helpful or not, because until that point everybody was successful with creative and account people doing the strategy. I think it was a bit of a rough start for those that set out the role of a planner within Germany.
The first planners were more on the business and consulting side, so they were definitely more linked to the account side than creative. I think that has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. I believe that planners are very well respected in German advertising right now. I think we might still be a bit behind the UK. But it was really hard to find good planners for a long time because there were no people training and educating them.
If you look at the industry now, there are lots of good, young planners coming from various fields. The numbers of planners within agencies is also rising. In the past you used to be the lone planner, whereas now there are proper teams.
LBB> In the age of big data, quantitative data has never been sexier. So where does that leave qualitative?
WD> I think it’s as important as ever. Just because you have a lot of data doesn’t mean you have the right data or any good data. There are heaps of data everywhere but you can have trouble connecting and analysing it. It’s not the amount of data you gather, it’s the quality of it.
In my experience, quantitative data is great to build assurance, but it’s not so good to build an insight. Sometimes it can happen - for example, people only calling at night because it’s cheaper - but if you are really looking for insight, it often comes from qualitative data. It’s that one observation you make in the supermarket or that one quote that hits you on social media.
Mostly, you find the ideas in qualitative and you back it up with quantitative. The nice thing though, is that qualitative data is actually easier to find through technology. People are much more likely to track their pathway to purchase for you if it’s via an app, meaning that qualitative data gets facilitated through technology. But in the end, the data is only as good as the people who interpret it, and that will never change. Unless we have artificial intelligence take over from us!
LBB> Hehe, do you see that happening?! We heard a story the other day that McCann Japan had appointed an AI creative director!
WD> Well, if you follow a programmatic approach, there are a lot of things algorithms can do. Targeting, retargeting, putting in the correct messages, imagery and banner. Why should a creative spend time with that? It’s work for dummies. If you can automate that, be my guest. But I think it will take some time before artificial intelligence actively comes up with ideas. Then I’ll get worried. Until then, I think they’re nice little helpers.
LBB> How does VCCP Berlin integrate with the mothership in London and the rest of the network?
WD> There’s a lot of integration, collaboration and knowledge sharing. Historically we all used to work on O2, except for the Madrid office. We’d exchange a lot of experiences and ideas with regards to that, but in terms of execution, we were always independent because the markets are so different. But it was up to the network to keep the brand coherent across all of the markets. It was like collaboration between siblings, in a way.
Another thing we do quite often is borrow people from other offices because, ultimately, collaboration works best in person. So whenever we have a pitch we get people from the other offices to assist, and vice versa, VCCP Berlin people do the same. They tend to stay there for one to two weeks to help crack the task at hand. This is something I learned while working in big networks.
This is a people business and there are no real processes in place. It all depends on people who are willing to work with each other and help out. It’s also extremely helpful to have different perspectives from different markets on the table.
LBB> VCCP calls itself a ‘challenger agency for challenger brands’. What do you mean by that?
WD> VCCP was founded back in 2002 as an antidote to the London agencies at that time that were a bit pretentious. It aimed to challenge the way the industry worked, and to focus on being collaborative, open, not precious, and to genuinely be a partner to their clients.
We’ve also always performed well with brands that need to change something, with the urge to change or die. We’re never just continuing what has already happened, it’s always about launching or relaunching a brand. That’s what we’re good at. But being a challenger agency obviously doesn’t mean that we are always revolutionising the world. Turning a not so good customer experience into a good one can sometimes just take a little change. For example, with Easyjet we had fantastic success by just improving their communication with their customer base. That made all the difference.
LBB> Which projects that you guys have worked on recently are you are particularly proud of?
WD> Obviously we are proud of everything but we were especially happy to win Bild. We were the complete wildcard. For us, this little shop, winning one of the biggest media brands in Europe is something we’re certainly proud of. But to bring it on a different level, something I’m personally proud of is the interaction between creative and strategy. It makes the work that we do even stronger.
We have a simple saying: ‘work that works’. It means that even our creative guys don’t want to do crazy stuff for the sake of it. They really want to do nice stuff that people enjoy and, in the end, is effective and achieves something.
LBB> Outside of work, what inspires you and how do you keep up to date with new insights?
WD> What inspires me is travelling. I love travelling. I love walking down side streets and sneaking into little yards, and getting lost. Very often I don’t have any kind of map, I just see where I end. That can sometimes get you in funny situations! But I make the best encounters like that.
To keep informed, it really is a case of reading. I spend a lot of time flicking through various news filters. It’s also helpful to connect with the planners from the rest of the network so we often exchange trends and insights. I’m also lucky to be based in Berlin so there are exhibitions happening all of the time. In fact, it has just been Gallery Weekend - half of the stuff I just didn’t understand, but the other half I found really inspiring. Ultimately though, you have to be open.