#3 Agencies are phased-out models

A conversation about the transformation of advertising

Transforming language into pictures is her strength. The same can be said for telling intriguing stories. When listening to Charlotte Popp, this quickly becomes very obvious. The screenwriter for business films understands her work – and with 30 years of advertising experience, she knows how the industry is changing.

Charlotte in her studio in Frankfurt.

Pictures and magazine articles adorn the walls. They are colorful, extravagant and arranged in small groups. They are the inspiration for future projects Charlotte plans on pursuing privately, with a paintbrush and drawing ink, in her small studio. Pictures are her hobby, but also her profession. Trained as a creative director, she has been working in the advertising industry since 1990. After her studies in Frankfurt, Florida and New York she was first employed by several prominent agencies. Charlotte then made the conscious decision to become self-employed – first as part of a small team, today as a solopreneur. The two of us each asked Charlotte three questions about the changes to her work in the advertising industry.

Stefanie: What transformation do you perceive for yourself, professionally?

It’s very clear – today I enjoy more self-determination and less obligation to be constantly accessible. Whether as an employee or as part of a team of two, whenever I worked with customers directly I had to be able to react on extremely short notice. In the past, I used to be available for emergencies directly. I can clearly recall a sunny Saturday morning: I was having breakfast on my balcony. An important customer called and I had to complete a contract as soon as possible. Three days later I found my cereal bowl and coffee cup, still outside. This was the turnaround. Shortly thereafter I changed my professional situation. Today, I am my own boss and have made the conscious decision to cooperate with agencies and production companies. Less contact with the final customer has given me greater freedom. Of course, there are also busy phases, where jobs that have been in the queue for a longer period end up colliding. In that case, there’s no choice but to grit your teeth and make it through. But the true transformation has been in my own behavior. Over the past years, I have learned to turn down jobs and to clearly communicate the times when I am unavailable to my clients. Now, personal appointments, whether a physiotherapy appointment or an excursion I have planned, are rarely canceled.

Stefanie: It sounds like you have an extremely variable daily work schedule. Are there certain things that give you structure, no matter what phase you are in?

A certain amount of structure is important. When you are self-employed, there is no one there to tell you when you must work. In the beginning, I thought it was absolutely crazy to work from my couch, in my pajamas, for the big banks of this world. At some point, however, you begin to feel uncomfortable with this. Quite quickly, I came up with the rule that I had to be dressed and at my desk by 9 o’clock  in the morning. A certain amount of structure and orientation is good – also in terms of finances. My account balance is an important help in making the decision of whether to accept the next job or not. In addition, of course,  to the question of whether I feel drawn to the job or not.

Stefanie: We are seeing many previously large agencies shrink and disappear. How would one convince you, against this trend, to return to an employment position?

That would be extremely difficult. The only chance an agency boss (Charlotte looks briefly at Ingo and grins) would have, would be if my account balance was rapidly decreasing. Of course, I occasionally miss good collaboration with permanent colleagues. Especially constructive criticism in the strategic/creative context used to provide me with opportunities for personal development. Today, I ask for this feedback in a targetted manner from my cooperation partners. And, in order to experience direct praise, I try to present my concepts to the clients in person. There, I get direct feedback – if the customer is satisfied, then, of course, that’s great!!

Newspaper artikel and pictures decorate the wall.

Ingo: What would employers have to do in order to attract young creative individuals?

My experiences as a teacher in Germany and in the USA have shown me that young creative individuals no longer want to work for agencies. Night shifts in advertising agencies used to be prestige. Today, overtime is no longer fashionable. Even money is not sufficient as bait. Some agencies offered their young staff free participation in creative schools in New York.  Not even this was effective in retaining these young employees. The only thing that advertising agencies offer young designers is valuable practical experience. Other than that, I see the classic agency as a phased-out model: they are too old, too inflexible. And amongst young people, advertising is no longer considered cool.

Ingo (slightly bemused): So you say the agencies are phased-out models? What other observations have you made that are associated with this tendency?

Many companies manage their advertising activities themselves these days. They – or their acquisition department – search for appropriate service providers online in order to solve whatever their current communication problems might be. What is lost in this process is real creative-strategic design and the long-term development of a brand. That is a shame, but probably not something that can be changed. On the customer side of things, short-term success parameters all too often dominate over long-term visions. Additionally, I believe that the ability to recognize good ideas and to implement these courageously is no longer particularly prevalent. This calls the traditional agency model into question.

Ingo: And where do you see your own activities in a few years?

Nowadays, almost everything is available on the net. But despite the rapid digital transformation, my job will still be around in 20 years. This is because screenplay writing requires knowledge about films, an understanding of production conditions and a feel for aesthetics. The technical possibilities will continue to make it simpler and cheaper for companies to produce their own films. But when you look at ten image films from different companies, nine of them look the same: dead boring. Telling a story via film and creating suspense is not something you can do with the press of a button; it requires experience.

Another question comes from Charlotte.

At the end, Charlotte gives us a little card to take along. During our travels through Europe we are asked to find answers to the following question:

In the future, what are the most important job criteria? Fun? Money? Status?…

Here you find the answer of Johannes.