An Interview with Berlin School President Michael Conrad for Media Marketing Magazine

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1 An Interview with Berlin School President Michael Conrad for Media Marketing Magazine Author: Lea Stanković, Berlin School EMBA Participant, Class 10 I met Michael Conrad for the first time in Berlin in March this year, at my first EMBA module at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. He is the President of the School so it made sense for him to meet the new class intake but I did not expect him to be so involved in the whole process. Michael was there most of the time during our two weeks and out of that time he spent several days observing us in class, but also participating in discussions. During break times, we had the chance to talk a little more with him and every time there was an unexpected insight about a campaign we had talked about, or a class we had just attended. What made the greatest impression on me was how generous Michael was in sharing his experiences and knowledge, as well as how he found a way to still massively contribute to the advertising industry despite having retired from his position at Leo Burnett in It is hard to overcome this awe you feel towards someone as knowledgeable as Michael Conrade. However, this master of advertising is, of course, also a master of communication so we easily arranged to conduct this interview for Media Marketing during the 59 th Cannes Festival of Creativity. As Michael suggested, we conducted the interview during lunchtime, before and after a guest lecture at the Berlin School Creative Leaders Programme which is held during the Festival. Since, of course, that must be one of the secrets to Michael s success he never misses an opportunity to hear something new. Michael helped Leo Burnett reach for the stars during his 34-year long career. During his career at this agency, 27 Leo Burnett offices became agencies of the year in their countries and some even more than once. After such success, I wanted to know, how did the idea for the Berlin School originate? What sort of insights brought about such a programme? MC: I retired from my job of many years of being Chief Creative Officer for Leo Burnett Worlwide and got a phonecall from the Art Director s Club with the question hey can I help on education now that I have time. And I asked them what kind of education are you thinking about, they said something like Miami Ad School, so as it is my nature I said Miami School exists, why do the same thing. Makes no sense. And they had in mind to have education for the next generation, like the Miami Ad School and so I said, if we want to do something impactful for the next generation then let s help the creative leaders to become more effective leaders, helping the next generation with achieving better work. So actually with that thought we came to isolate that inferior quality is related to bad leadership. And it s also a clear insight that the creative people who are given the job to lead the company suddenly find themselves with a very different job description. And so then the thought was, why not give them the tools, the insights to be successful in that job. And that created the mission we turn great creatives into great creative leaders and it created the vision a creative CEO in every creative business.

2 There is a lot of talk about creativity and the right environment for its development, but somehow the creative and the business side are always separated. If creatives are not naturally good leaders, even with all that education, why do they belong that the heart of a company? Why is it so important that a creative leader had to be at the heart of a creative enterprise? It is simply that if there is not a creative leader at the heart of the creative enterprise, it is likely more a business than a creative place. And it s very important that the creative heart or the creative genius running the place has to determine the place, how do you want to differentiate yourself as a creative company from the rest. What do you want? What is your product like? What place do you want to take that is competitive versus the others? What kind of expertise do you want to build around, do you have to build around in order to make it a powerful competitive place. So that is the huge issue everyone is struggling with, but some really have nailed it like TBWA and Jean-Marie Dru with Disruption, so that is the place, disruptive communication, the expertise is around. Or BBH and Irreverence. So, and we help the people get to that place. Actually by being better with complexity, with handling complexity, analysis of complexity, strategies out of the analysis, better at decision making, better at creating alignment around decision and better at implementation. So it will help them in leading clients and partners, it will help them in leading the product quality, it will help them in leading the people, help them leading themselves and help them in leading the industry. LS: The Berlin School is a great success, as we can hear from its alumni and current students. Everyone has their own story, why they came there, what they learnt and what they changed afterwards. They say that if Berlin School were a country, last year it would have beaten the US in terms of the number of Lions won. That is a tremendous accomplishment for the School but are awards the only criteria of success? MC: We want our people to achieve creative excellence and it would be awful if the work that they do were not recognized at festivals. But it is not the main idea to win at festivals. The main idea is to give excellence to clients and create a culture of excellence in the company that is well defined, so that people live the idea of the place, and support it and are happy every minute they work in the place and this is the main things. The fascinating thing is that when you look at the work, like the Rom campaign, this is not wanting to win awards, it is a major idea in the market place that moved people. And then you have the effect. Actually we know that to have the ambition to win awards is very relevant because we have done researches for over 20 years and it is always the same results: that the highly awarded work in this awards show also sells products and achieves goals. LS: It is rare to meet someone with such vast experience as Michael s. More than 30 years of work, moving around the world, from the east to the west and then further west. It s all incredible, especially from the point of view of someone young. What advice is there for someone just starting out in advertising? MC: Study all the great work you see and have an opinion about it, be curious to how it came about, try to be with people that you feel make a difference, learn from them, practice Get involved! And that is one thing. But get involved beyond the area you are looking for. Look at various cultures. Begin to

3 understand culture and try to work on the crossroad of cultures, mix things. And by doing that develop your own culture. Give yourself the answer what you want to stand for as a person, what is the most important thing to you, so you can filter distractions and things that are irrelevant, which will mess up your time. LS: We are all greatly shaped by our childhoods and the environment we grew up in. I heard that you grew up in Eastern Germany. How did that shape your route in terms of your career and getting into advertising? MC: I have never really thought about it, but I have been in various situations in my life. And so, that educated me and gave me some input so that certain things that affect sometimes behavior and for sure that I had to escape at least to the West and so after the War I was one of several million refugees in the West, so you know what that life is about. So I have experienced that. I must say I am really happy that I ended up in the creative business. I also had a period where I was a salesman. Every day going out and selling something for a company and I was pretty good at that. But then, I think advertising as being close to people s wants, needs, lives and so forth, you have to become a poet too and I always tried to combine it and I think of my profession as a salesman poet. LS: And what about when you moved to the States. Was that a cultural shock? How was if to go from a German agency to go to the States? MC: It was haunting. Going West as a young man, coming from the East through the middle going to the West over the boarder That was at the right time and I am an adventurous person and we built two great agencies in Frankfurt and in a way, it was like what next, what can you do with it. That was somewhat there and suddenly came the offer to go to Chicago. My family members gave me the thumbs up, so there was a lot of excitement. And then, I must say, integration was really easy because the people I met in Chicago are opened arms people and actually two in the agency had the job to care about this, to integrate us. So from the first time on, we were invited to family feasts like Thanksgiving, going to sports events together. It was a great integration and I realized also that especially the United States, it is a patchwork of the globe. And other than that, life in Frankfurt, which was a place in Germany where you could really do stuff and you did not have to bring something with you like contacts and friends. If you had a good idea, in Frankfurt it was possible. Maybe not so possible in Dusseldorf, maybe not so possible in Hamburg, maybe not so possible in Munich. But I found the same thing in Chicago, when you had a good idea Let s go for it, if you think you want to do this, I will help you. So this kind of empathy and support you get, they make a difference. LS: Such a career, so many changes Did you ever feel this struggle that creative leaders feel, that you were talking about earlier, where you suddenly find yourself suddenly in a completely new job? MC: My job was to grow the creative quality of the agency and I had some experience before with being a part of growing two great agencies, which was TBWA Germany where I was co-owner and founder and Lurzer, Conrad, which merger with Leo Burnett. So I learned certain things there already. Lurzer, Conrad was No. 1 creative agency in Germany and also regarding marketing concepts so we were leading So I knew how to get good work done. But then it was a huge organization with so many

4 countries around the world, partly you could say, conservative clients, but I also had to understand this. Then, you develop your skills and I think that the best thing we did was to get this big agency and all its people behind thinking on quality in the same way. So we had a conversation going on throughout the world that created consequences, that created the consequence how companies manage and not by a single person but by cross functional leadership teams. The other consequence was we created cross functional brand teams where 4/5 people were in charge from different worlds, like creative, account management, planning, media and so forth. So then the drive that is linked to the bonus That created consequences and that came up over time. How can we push ourselves, how can we be honest. The worst thing is that you know that the work you are doing is average. It is the worst thing, because you are telling your client to finance average work and your client, they need superb work, they need to have work that is different to the cliché and fresh and new and innovative and engaging. So that created the consequence to be very frank with the clients and out of that new energy came. At a certain point in time, we had 27 agencies that were named agency of the year within five years and at least one was named five years in a row. That was actually a joy and it was not made in one day and it was getting better all the time. And I think the culture of looking every three months at the work that was done and evaluating it and learning from it and making decisions what to do next was just amazing because if you see the opportunities if you see the work that needs improvement and you see the clients in front of you when you look at the work then you call some actions. So it is in a way also almost a Japanese wisdom, constant improvement rather than doing one big thing. And that might be the mistake because the big thing doesn t work. You can t get an organization just behind one things. So it is if you get the alert that everyone gets the chance to put their ideas into the future of the company then it might work. LS: I think for me one of the biggest take outs of the first module was the importance of making mistakes. What were your mistakes in your career and what did you learn from them? MC: I made a lot of mistakes. Just stupid thinking. But I said before, I am an adventurer and I love to go to the opposite of the existing. Sometimes we say when something is wrong, the wronger is gets the righter it is. Especially when someone is saying you can t do that So then you are making mistakes. The idea is that in the long run you are making more good decisions than bad decisions. But every time the decision is a new try and if you want to have the complete confidence then it s a standstill so you will not decide on anything. Because it might be wrong. I think business is the same, about doing new things and you never know if they will work out. But you have to try a lot and obviously you learn from the mistakes. You learn from the mistakes and it s a good thing, you are smart. If you do the same thing the second time and the third time, then you are really dumb. LS: So you have seen a lot of change in your career. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing our industry now? MC: The biggest challenge is that you are fit to compete. If you want something, that you can do it best. Simple as that. And it goes for everyone. And maybe a part of that is education, that human kind is early on focused on the fact that they need to learn something in order to compete. And competing doesn t

5 mean I rule and it s my thing, it s competing within the society, within the community, with others together. It s like sports, sometimes you have eleven people on the field, or twenty-two, or with golf you are on your own. The fitness and the focus and owning something, being ready to compete is the issue for everyone and those that can t compete have to be helped.

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