The Kolle Rebbe creative managing director on why his agency makes a distinction between creative directors and creative principals, working for ‘the nice agency’ and why creativity must value people beyond their ideas
REKORDER, the Berlin-based film and photography creative production studio, is proud to support LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the German Edition, we will celebrate creativity and introduce some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry.
In this conversation, we talk to Thomas Knüwer, creative managing director at Kolle Rebbe. Here, Thomas reflects on making art while putting bread on the table, why some creatives shouldn’t become creative directors, and why working at the ‘nice agency’ is right for him.
LBB> Did you care about advertising when you were a kid?
Thomas> I always cared about creative things or creating things. I was always the weird kid, who was drawing comics, writing stories and inventing machines - the one that wanted to travel to other planets. That was always my thing and I always had the feeling that I wanted to do something with creation, ideas, imagination because I just loved it. For me, my mind's probably my biggest and most important companion. So, that's what I always loved. And the question, to be honest, was always 'is there a possibility to earn money with that?'
The first thing that came to mind was being an art teacher at a school, but I'm not patient enough for that! I have huge respect for teachers, especially right now in these Covid times. So, I looked at different things and my parents were always very worried - in German, that's the saying 'brotlose Kunst', breadless art - that would be my career, someone who can make beautiful things but won't earn a dime.
And then, by chance, there was a contest by an advertising agency for an NGO campaign which I saw. I studied graphic design because I thought I might find out how to earn money with what I wanted to do. So, I won the contest and the prize was an internship at an advertising agency, Select Communications in Berlin, and that was actually the first time that I really had an insight into the industry. To be honest, I had no idea that it was an industry, I was absolutely unaware. Once there, it really stuck to me that ideas can be so powerful, and there are so many different components in advertising that I always loved. It's storytelling, it's writing, it's art, it's filming, it's photography, and all of those ingredients that I always loved and adored in myself and in others, came together. So that's why I kind of ended up in advertising.
Also, the contest back then was for Aktion Mensch, an NGO for people with disabilities, offering different initiatives and offers for them, which funnily right now is now our client at Kolle Rebbe.
LBB> Where did you go from there in your career?
Thomas> Then I had a follow-up internship with Select in New York, which was super interesting because it was a completely different focus. Their New York office was completely focused on fashion advertising and fragrances, so they did the celebrity fragrances for J.Lo or Christina Aguilera back then. The emphasis was super interesting because the classical, inside idea was less important and the visual world was the thing that everybody was looking for. So a unique look, something that is iconic, and people like Rankin were in and out of the agency. It was a really magical time for me when I learned a lot, visually, but at the same time also learned that I personally need more of a conceptual or consumer-driven idea in whatever I want to do.
LBB> Looking back over your career up to this point, what do you think have been the projects and campaigns that really stand out as important for you?
Thomas> I think the most important ones are the ones that never came to light. The lost pitches and the work that crashed and really went to shit. That's where I learned the most and those experiences were very defining for me because I learned which path to follow and which not to follow. You learn not only your creative craft but also communication with teams, with clients and where to improve.
Talking about especially German insights or German culture, we aren't good with the 'failure culture' - we don't accept failure, we don't see it as a learning, rather as a moment that you ridicule others about. I think that's something that we as Germans should be better at because I think it's so important to be good at accepting failures and be proud of them, to be honest.
Obviously, I have passion projects that really helped me. Just last year the HELL-P that we did for Slayer
is the first record that you can actually play in Hell. I'm a long-time metalhead
. My whole definition as a youth was: metalhead. So, being able to do something with Slayer is not a career but a life goal to be honest.
I actually most adore the cases that feel less like advertising. A couple of years back, I did a board game for a kids magazine, it was called Meltdown. It was about climate change and the idea of how we can bring this really complicated and difficult topic of climate change into primary schools, in a playful manner.
One of the biggest and most surprising influences or inspirations in advertising is the externals that you work with, the super specialised people. Right now, we're working on an escape room idea and there are scriptwriters just for escape rooms, who know how difficult or easy it has to be to fill a certain length of time. When I worked on Meltdown, I had a board game developer who did nothing other than develop board games. He knew the effect of time, the effect of difficulty or the increasing factor of boredom, and I think these super specialised people that you get the chance to know and work within advertising really fuel my happiness.
LBB> You’ve spent almost 13 years at Kolle Rebbe. Why is it the right place for you?
Thomas> This would be the worst time to say that I'm quitting. Which I'm not! There are two parts: one, I am a very loyal guy, and I like everything to be long term, with life, relationships, jobs. I like staying to watch something grow and that's something that is always has been and will be important to me.
One of the biggest things is that I’ve got to know the agency’s different partners and clients. At the beginning of my career with Select but also at Jung von Matt I saw things that I liked and things that maybe didn't really work out for me that well.
One thing that is a cliché about advertising, but it is also sometimes a very true cliché, is that the advertising industry is very much built on competitiveness. It's about being the best and beating others. And I always hated that. Because it's not just with other agencies, but also internally with teams, the 'I want to be the one with the script and fuck you' attitude. And I hate that, absolutely, with all my guts. I think it's a very unhealthy mindset and it was definitely unhealthy for me.
Back then Kolle Rebbe was called 'the nice agency' in Germany. Growing up in that industry and seeing other agencies and how it worked, I actually wasn't sure if I could believe in creative excellence paired with niceness. I wanted to prove to myself that it can work and I hoped that it would actually be true. For me, that's the main reason why I'm at Kolle Rebbe and why I still want to be here for another 13 years, because I really strongly believe that the best ideas come from happy people collaborating and I think that is Kolle Rebbe in a nutshell.
LBB> You touched on creative culture in Germany. What do you feel is a specifically Hamburg style of creativity, or does that not exist?
Thomas> Not really, to be honest. I also think that it's less and less German-style. So there has to be a different emphasis on the UK style of advertising, or Brazilian or European or American - but I think it's less and less distinctive. With so many global clients and so many nationalities in our agency, everything becomes very much a global mindset with a local emphasis on it. It's not a secret that the whole industry is very much progressive, rather left-leaning, rather creative, rather open, rather diverse. So I think it's more of this open mindset that unifies us and there are fewer and fewer distinctions Between Berlin and Hamburg, for example.
If you want to talk about the most important cities in Germany for creativity, there are differences. Berlin is still is more hype and still draws more attention from creatives from other industries like fashion, which is huge in Berlin but not so huge in Hamburg - also illustration, the street art scene. So in general Berlin is a little bit more hype; it's more of a subculture, wilder and more punk, while Hamburg is a little bit more established and more down to earth - I wouldn't at all say it's more boring, it’s calmer.
But Hamburg can also be pretty wild. It also has a very vivid metal scene, which I always love. It's very punk and has a huge, huge club scene. So there are spots when you want to find subcultures, the parties and different cultures, you'll find everything - whatever you're into - in Hamburg, it’s not our motto that 'we are punk as fuck'. It's more of a down to earth kind of thing. And I like that because coming to advertising and the creative scene, I strongly believe that you don't need to be loud to be creative. You can also be calm, you can listen, you can be empathetic, and I think that's something that feels more like home for me.
LBB> I'm always intrigued by creative career paths because suddenly one day you're a creative director and you have to be a manager. It's a completely different role in many ways. What have been the biggest lessons that you've learned along the way about being a creative leader?
Thomas> I think we should train people more. Exactly what you just said, 'You're not a creative anymore. You're now a leader.' We don't train for it, but my natural career progression is from art director to creative director and I just became more senior. That's bullshit because the job profile completely changes when you change roles. At first, your ideas are awesome, and then you have to make other people's ideas awesome. That's a huge shift because a lot of people are trained to have ideas for themselves and are also trained to be a little bit narcissistic in a sometimes negative, sometimes positive way, but you want to fight for your ideas, right? They are your babies and you want them to survive. Then your job is to be more of a caretaker for the ideas of others. I think we suck at that training in the industry.
Not every good creative is a good creative director. Some people should just stay being a creative. They may be a brilliant copywriter, a brilliant art director, but really shitty at leading people and not the best communicators or not the best with conflict. I think we as an industry need to be more vocal in saying, ‘OK, you're awesome in what you're doing creatively and you should be more senior in that, but we don't see you as a leader'. I've seen so many people quitting or really getting sick because of people who didn't know how to lead but were brilliant creatives. That's why in our agency, at the beginning of this year, we established a distinction between creative director and creative principal. So, it's the creative director who has a clear creative leadership role and a career path, and the creative principal is a craft career. You just do your art thing and you have a distinct title. It has the same worth, a creative principal compared to a creative director, and maybe you even earn more as you become more experienced. But we don't expect you to lead teams or lead the client, but just be awesome in your craft.
LBB> Recently, what have you been working on that’s got you really excited?
Thomas> The last two and a half years, my focus has been Zalando, Europe's biggest fashion retailer. It's a super exciting brand because their story had a huge shift. They started as a tech company, as a commodity company, they wanted things you ordered to get to your house quickly. That's basically the key thing that they said at the beginning. So it's about convenience. And now they've shifted and become a proper fashion brand that you look to for inspiration. That's a huge shift because you need to be authentic for that, you need to be believable, you need to have fashion expertise, or you need to have a lot of fashion inspiration, and it's a shift from point of sale to point of inspiration. Especially for fashion, you shop where you get inspiration. So in terms of brand work, it is super interesting.
Together with Zalando and their social teams, we put a huge focus on social shopping, really going for shopping directly from the Instagram app, but also having campaigns with a good purpose on diversity, inclusivity and genderless fashion, for example. We always have a fashion angle but also a societal angle, and at the same time we don’t make it too heavy, but inspirational. Those are the different things we want to juggle. We've got important things to say, we've got a brand to shape and we'll also be going for a social-first strategy. I think that's one of the most interesting challenges that I personally am working on right now.
LBB> You've already touched on metal. What else is exciting to you at the moment in the world of culture?
Thomas> I'm a geek for a lot of things. Gaming influences me hugely, music as well and books. I love reading, whenever I've got time I want to dive into books. I always try to read out of my bubble, which is sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian novels and other genres like that. That's my jam that I always want to read because I started wanting to travel to other planets and I still want to do that and books. There's Afrofuturism, which is African authors writing science fiction novels. It's science fiction which I love anyway, but I think it's so interesting when you begin to read Afrofuturism novels, you realise how Western culture-centric everything is. It's always New York that gets destroyed.
There are these books called the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor and the space travelling society is from the Himba in Nigeria. They use the clay in Africa as a ritual and also to protect them in space. It's still sci-fi but through a completely different lens. Afrofuturism is just one example of how reading is one of my biggest inspiration points.
There's an awesome book called The Power [by Naomi Alderman]. It's super awesome. I always love 'What If' stories and it's, what if the women are the strong gender? They discovered that they have the power to electrocute others and they become the gender with power and it changes the power dynamics in the world. It's super interesting. It's also very, very dark. I love those books where you have a female focus in the storytelling, but also, what if this and this happens? What would change? Really going through the different implications is always inspiring for me.
LBB> What advice do you find yourself giving to people right at the beginning of their creative careers these days, or what do you think is a useful thing for people to know?
Thomas> Knowing your self-worth is super important. If I look back at when I started my career, it was more about nobody needing you and ‘you're lucky to have a spot in the top agencies’. The attitude was, ‘feel lucky that you're here anyway and if we treat you like shit, that's part of the deal.’ I hated the ad industry for that.
Knowing your self-worth, with everything that you are, not just as a creative person, but also with your identity, your heritage, your ethnicity and everything, know it and cherish it. That's fucking important. And only find a place where that is valued and respected, that's the most important thing. If that's the case, hardly anything can go wrong. Obviously, there can be the salary, or you find the wrong mentor or just the wrong chemistry, but that for me is the core point. You always need to ask yourself the question, why should I walk into that particular agency tomorrow? If they treat me like someone who is welcome and takes me for what I stand for and not just someone who produces ideas. I want them to not just want the ideas, but the whole person. And I think that's the biggest thing. So be confident.