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The Shock of the Neue

Posted on January 24, 2013 and read 2,148 times

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bayfield The Shock of the NeueMike Bayfield
Freelance Copywriter

The single most important thing you need as a creative isn’t a fancy new Mac.

Neither is it a thick skin.

Or even a great sense of humour. Though that can help quite a bit.

Do you really want to know what it is?


Curiosity about how the world works and what makes the people in it tick. As creatives, it’s what drives us and feeds our imagination. But you can only satisfy your curiosity so far on Facebook, Twitter and You Tube. At some point you need to open yourself up to a different set of experiences, upset your status quo,  shock your system – like by quitting your steady agency job and going freelance for example.

A week after I did, I was starting my first assignment. In Düsseldorf. Working for a large international network agency. That was five months ago.

I spent the first couple of months commuting back and forwards from the UK. Then I decided to move to Holland. Now I’m a ‘grenzpendler’ – a border swinger – flitting backwards and forwards between two countries and languages. All in all, pretty different.

Saying that, as far as agency life goes many things here are the same as back home in the UK,  like they probably are in most agencies around the world. We often work stupidly long hours, drink too much and whine about clients – or even each other. But it’s the differences that inspire me, and help me to stay fresh.

When I meet friends from where I used to work, they’re curious to know what those differences are.

Well, on the one hand you have a more structured and formalised workflow; every job is trafficked with typical German-style efficiency. But that was my old agency. In my new one, although there is a lot of pressure to deliver, there’s also a lot more freedom to do it. And no traffic system.

As with anything, there are pros and cons. With the more structured approach, you could see ahead more clearly what you would be working on and the workflow was quite steady.

Here, there may be periods where you’re not actually working on anything specifically. Then all of a sudden you have four jobs to do at once. The downtime though is a great opportunity to satisfy your curiosity even further by doing proactive work for any of the agency’s clients.

Another big difference is the scale of the work. Here it’s much more international. Most of what I do is for global markets. Again, this could have been the case working at a large network agency in London, on an international account. But what I don’t think I would have found is the same fascinating international make-up of the agency itself.

There are around 250 people here altogether. And, among the 50 or so in my division, 15 different nationalities – a Namibian creative director, Brazilian account director, Romanian account manager, Russian art director… Then of course there are the Germans – lots of them – who have proven to be the most interesting of all.

In our constant search for originality in advertising, clichés are something we are always trying to avoid. But we’re often guilty of relying on stereotypical scenarios and characters to convey our messages. Just turn on the TV.

We sometimes can’t help but fall back on stereotypes. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism. But the problem is they tend to blinker us so much, that we need to constantly fight against them to get nearer to the truth and to create something new. Take the Germans for example.

Contrary to popular preconceptions, my German colleagues generally have a great sense of humour. They can also be ruthlessly inefficient. Efficiency and creativity will always be strange bedfellows, so it’s reassuring to discover the work process is often constructively chaotic, as any good creative organisation should be.

But there are obvious cultural differences, which do affect the way we work. The main one is the directness. Germans get straight to the point, which can sound quite brusque. Or downright rude.

You always know what they mean, even if it’s not what you want to hear. In the UK, colleagues (or clients) reviewing work would often say, “I like it but….”. You rarely hear that from a German.

What, of course, you do hear is a lot of German. English is the lingua franca of the agency and my German colleagues speak it excellently, but when they don’t I’m curious to find out what they’re saying.

That means—as well as learning the ropes of how things work in a new agency—I’m also grappling with the intricacies of German grammar. But, with learning any new language, you also gain a far greater awareness of your own. Which, as a copywriter, can only be a good thing.

Curiosity in German by the way is ‘neugier’, literally ‘new greed.’  As creatives we should always be greedy for new experiences. It might be working on a different brand, moving to another agency or simply meeting some new people outside your normal circle. You don’t have to move to Düsseldorf.

However, if you’re working on worldwide campaigns, it’s a good idea to develop a better ‘weltanschauung’ as they say in Germany, or ‘world view.’ That means venturing further out into it. Research has shown that the more diverse experiences someone has—especially living and working abroad in other cultures—the more creative they tend to be.

Those experiences only come through staying curious. But I read recently that your natural sense of curiosity, like your hairline, starts to recede after the age of thirty.  I’m way past that, so was rather shocked to hear it. But if it’s true I want to know why.




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