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5 Minutes With… Steffen Gentis

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Chief Production Officer, BBDO Germany Network

5 Minutes With… Steffen Gentis

They say necessity is the mother of invention – and it was necessity that sent Steffen Gentis into the world of production. Starting out as a photographer in his native South Africa, he moved to Europe during the mid-80s in hunt of the continent’s fashion hubs. He soon found himself dabbling with moving image and by the time the Berlin Wall fell he was ready to set up one of the city’s first commercial and music video production companies. His experience as a director and producer made him an unusual prospect for BBDO Germany, who took him on in 2004 as Head of TV. In his ninth year at the agency, Gentis has been named Chief Production Officer. He recently set up CraftWork, a production agency for the whole BBDO Germany network and when he’s not busy bringing advertising projects to life, he hosts the Directors Lounge, a networking event which has become one of the best platforms for breaking directors into the German market. Oh, and did we mention he set up the Royal Lesotho Horse Riding Society? Laura Swinton spoke with Gentis to find out more. 

LBB> This summer you launched CraftWork, BBDO’s new production division. Why was now the right time to do it?

SG> From a personal perspective, if you look back at my CV and connect the dots it was the logical thing for me to do. After being head of TV for BBDO for the last eight years, I needed a change in my life. 

From a BBDO perspective, it is useful to have somebody in a network that is very familiar with all sorts of production, given the very, very diverse agencies that we have. We have a design agency, a PR agency, an online agency, an event agency, a classical advertising agency and a technology agency. We saw that across these agencies there were lots of people doing production in some form or another but their expertise was scattered across the network. We decided to bring it all together so that we could see what synergies there were. Creating CraftWork as a production agency inside the BBDO Germany network is a logical thing for BBDO Germany to do and it’s been a very positive thing.

The other perspective is from the industry. Ten years ago we would be looking for a film production company to do a 30 second ad for 300,000 Euros – but now we’re looking for a company that can create an event for half that budget, and from that ‘event’ we can pull all of the audio-visual elements we need for all of the various touch points. Technology has been accelerating so fast. It means we need moving images and graphic design not only for print, TV and online but for out-of-home, point-of-sale, everything. I was at the airport this morning and walking through it I was struck by the number of electronic touch points.  

I find that although the film production companies have got the message they haven’t really created the right structures to do that. From an industry perspective we’re looking for the right partners. We’ve found some great companies that we’re working really closely with, but for other stuff we’re just doing it ourselves. We know how to do it better than anyone else. 

With Craftwork, while we’re still going to do our master copy with directors and production companies that we’ve worked with for years, it makes sense if we take care of getting all of the other assets from a shoot.

LBB> Are you finding production companies are able to work with this new agency production model? Are you able to find partners with the right mind set?

SG> There are people out there. We’re not taking work away from anybody. It’s just that we’re being confronted with a whole new net of demands and we want to do the research and development ourselves. I’ve been speaking to film production companies for years, telling them that they have to get out there and change. A lot of them are embracing it, but a lot of them are still working like a TV production company and there isn’t that flexibility. I wouldn’t generalise in any way – every project is different and needs different skills and tools. I’ve been producing for years so it’s quite normal and natural for me to put together the customised toolbox we need for the job instead of leaving it up to the film production company.

I really must emphasise that one shouldn’t compare CraftWork with a film production company. It’s not the same thing. We’re a production agency. What we’re doing is going through the network and identifying anyone who is doing any form of production, be it in print, photography, digital, events, PR, and we’re saying ‘share your skills with us, join us’. We’re pooling all that expertise and making it available to a larger group of people.

LBB> And from your perspective, how buoyant or busy is the German advertising and production market at the moment?

SG> Germany is one of the healthiest economies in the European Union. We’ve had consistent growth over the years. As an agency we’re global lead on a number of accounts. I haven’t seen a quiet day since I joined BBDO.

LBB> How did you get into production and then advertising? As I understand it, you took quite a circuitous route…

SG> I started in production out of necessity. I was a photographer in South Africa and I did quite well in Cape Town. In the mid-80s I came to Europe to spin through the major fashion cities and the first city I landed in was Munich. It was the editorial hub of Germany and by the end of the week I was booked for weeks in advance. I kind of ended up hanging in there. Very soon I started working for all the Condé Nast magazines and mixing with all sorts of people, like filmmakers. I started taking Super 8 cameras to my photo shoots and telling little stories. I spent more and more time doing that, and then I started shooting TV commercials and music videos in Italy. It felt like the logical step.

LBB> Having that experience as a photographer and director, as well as having production company experience, is not something that many agency producers have under their belt. How has this experience influenced your approach at BBDO?

SG> When I joined BBDO in 2004 they had had eight heads of TV in six years. They decided to get someone in who had never worked in an agency before, had a filmmaking background and looked at things differently. There was obviously a bit of good fortune there – I happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right set of skills. There was a problem that needed to be solved, that’s all. 

There was a bit of trial and error. When you are doing things differently, you notice very quickly if they work well or not. It’s the same with Craftwork. We don’t really have a crystal ball but we’ve connected the dots and we know this is the right thing to do. We know we’re going to make mistakes; if we don’t make mistakes we’re not going to make any change. We’re living in a very, very fluid environment at the moment where things are changing so quickly. We don’t want to be reacting to that change; we’d rather be driving it. 

I think that’s in my axiom and everything I’ve done. Not hanging around for the change to happen but going out and actively embracing it. I moved to film when the Berlin Wall fell down and I knew that it was going to be an exciting city to be in for the industry. In Berlin there were no real production companies doing short films. I created one with some partners and we produced music videos and TV commercials. We had to go to equipment rental places and explain to them that we only needed the equipment for one day, which was something they had never heard of that before. It was very, very interesting to be producing out of necessity.

I’m also used to a very flexible way of working. When you’re a photographer you’re used to organising things. I have a photographic background and I have experience shooting low budget music videos and high budget commercials which require a high level of commitment. You have to be very resourceful and have everything in place. 

I’m also very fortunate to have a strong team around me with a really multi-disciplinary background. This mixed background brings lots of shiny bright tools into the tool box that one may never think of using if you were just working along classical film lines.

LBB> How do you attract the talent? Is production still an appealing prospect for young people?

SG> Of course, even more so nowadays. They are given so much freedom. I often send out young energetic people with a video camera. They have so much freedom and so many possibilities to come up with new ideas and new concepts, and to do things in their own individual way. 

LBB> And that production personality is an interesting one – a combination of pragmatism and creativity. 

SG> I agree. Producers are interesting people. They are optimistic and have a really can-do attitude. Sometimes it really bugs me because they also have a hard time saying no. But there’s an intrinsic desire to fix things and they like this challenge. 

Producers use all sorts of technology. When anything comes out they are the first to try it. If it works they’ll use it. If it doesn’t they’ll forget it. It’s a certain amount of pragmatism, creativity, vision and conscience. There’s a lot you can do as a producer to add value and you can contribute to our planet in terms of the way people work and think. In this industry there’s a tremendous opportunity to boost sustainability. As a filmmaker you’re enormously influential because you’re working in this fabulous medium which really allows you to convince people in an emotional way.

LBB> You’re also the founder of the Directors Lounge, a regular networking and screening event to introduce agency people to directors. What motivated you to start it up?

SG> It was a very simple thing; I came to an agency that I thought was doing good work but didn’t know enough directors personally. Having been a director before, I was used to having agency friends phone me and say ‘hey, can you cast your eye over this’. Even if I wasn’t shooting a project, they valued my opinion on it, as friends. 

Dusseldorf is the capital of advertising in Germany, but it’s not like London or Paris or Berlin where lots of people like to come to hang out. I was trying to figure out how to get creatives to meet directors personally. If you meet them at the PPM [pre-production meeting] it’s way too late. I also wanted to give directors a platform to show their work to a captive group of creatives. I thought I would open the bar once a month and that’s really all I thought it would be.

It started off very small and grew because more and more people wanted to come. I thought that there was absolutely nothing wrong with opening this up to other agencies. I thought ‘what the hell, there’s no big secret here’. In the end we were very fortunate to have a nightclub across the road called Nachtresidenz, which was Germany’s oldest cinema. They turned it into a fabulous venue with a big screen and projector. Half the directors have never seen their work screened like this before!

We do it now three times a year. Now and again I do it in Berlin because we have a very creative agency there and I wanted them to see it too. It’s become one of the best places for directors to launch their work into the German market. 

LBB> One thing that really caught our eyes is that you are the founder of the Royal Lesotho Horse Riding society – how did that come about?

SG> That was a really fun project, but I’ve had to put it on ice since starting at BBDO. 

I came to horse riding late in life and the first country in which I tried it was Lesotho. I came back from a holiday there where I’d been horse riding and I thought ‘wow’. I took lessons at a really great horse riding academy owned by one of Germany’s most successful show jumpers. At one point I asked my trainer why a nation like Lesotho, which is a whole nation of horsemen, didn’t have an Olympic team. He replied that it was really simple – they couldn’t afford the horses or the training. 

I got in contact with the King and the Prime Minister in Lesotho and in a short space of time we created the Royal Lesotho Horse Riding Society. We went down with a group of trainers and selected the best horsemen we could find from the police, the army and anywhere they could be found. There was a really fabulous selection at the barracks and the Royal Lesotho Mounted Police – they are just like the Mounties. I could imagine them wearing their helmet decorated with an ostrich feather riding in the Olympics. It’s what drove me. We met brilliant people and brought them over to Germany for a couple of years. Because a couple of them were with the police, they got involved with a police exchange programme. We ran out of money because one really big sponsor decided to spend his money differently. We had a lot of small sponsors that helped us survive for two or three years, but when I joined BBDO I had to make a decision. But it’s something the Lesotho government can pick up any time they want to. 

LBB> Wrapping things up – you’ve lived in Germany for such a long time and have become very deeply involved in the local advertising community. What is it about the country, and Dusseldorf in particular, that has kept you?

SG> It’s the beer! I grew up in an Anglo-Saxon society and came to Germany with a very open mind. It just so happened I came to Germany first – I could have very easily landed in Italy or in France or in England. I don’t think I would have lived in the UK - at the time I knew so many friends who were struggling in London. I thought ‘do I want to go through that right now?’ 

I found that the culture in Germany was far more open to the work I wanted to do. I just ended up here and hung around. My group of friends grew and I now have a family and children here and I’m really, really happy in Germany. I think there’s a tremendous amount of very creative work that’s being done. We’re really in the driver’s seat and it’s a very robust economy. I’ve lived in Munich and Berlin but the people in Dusseldorf are just so incredibly friendly. They are very open and gregarious and warm-hearted. That was a big, big plus about coming to the city – I had had no idea. It’s a well-kept secret.

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Genres: People

BBDO Group Germany, Wed, 04 Sep 2013 16:18:37 GMT