CEO of the German-born international comms group Florian Haller tells LBB’s Alex Reeves about the pivotal moments in the company’s five-decade history
In 1970 Rolf O. Stempel and Dr. Peter Haller founded an advertising agency in the back of a clothing department store in Munich. They began with only one client, but were determined to give them much more than any other agency could offer. As Dr. Peter’s son, now Serviceplan Group CEO, Florian Haller, puts it: “They shared a belief in a new type of agency model. Serviceplan was founded with a blueprint of a fully integrated agency model, which was way ahead of its time - interdisciplinary and holistic.”
50 years on, it seems Rolf and Peter were onto something. From its humble beginnings their unique agency model and determination meant that they quickly won clients and expanded. In Munich in 1970 they had been part of a similar boom in the advertising industry to what New York and London saw, with lots of independent agencies springing up. “However, out of the independents that started in 1970, Serviceplan is really the only one that endured,” says Florian.
As a child, Florian’s view of his father’s business was mostly formed around the products that Serviceplan’s clients made. He remembers being surrounded by Nippon Puffed Rice, coated in chocolate, and Champignon Cheese. “I tested the products at home and loved the chocolate but didn't eat the cheese,” he says.
Eventually his view of the agency developed to encompass how it worked as a business, as well as the consumable goodies it brought home. “It was a very solid, strategically smart ad agency,” he says, “but I decided to go to Procter & Gamble after graduation.” Working client side, he reflects that he gained a better understanding of marketing as a broad discipline, but the family business was always intriguing to him.
By this point Serviceplan was contributing to culture in Germany, like good advertising always does. There was a legendary campaign for German public TV network ZDF in the ‘90s that Florian remembers as a defining moment in the nation’s advertising history. ‘Mit dem Zweiten sieht man besser’ (You see it better the second time). “Everyone in Germany knows this slogan until this day,” he says.
The magnetic pull of Serviceplan eventually dragged Florian in in 1996, by which point it had grown to become a group of varied communications companies. He started as managing director of one of these, in the year 2000 took over a role in the Serviceplan Group holding and in 2002 became CEO of the group. “This is when I began to implement my vision of the first global agency group with German roots,” he says.
Around this time the group unveiled its ‘House of Communication’ concept. The advertising agency had been joined by Mediaplus being founded in 1983 for national and international media planning and purchasing, followed in 1986 by Facit - market research specialists and Plan.Net in 1997, the digital agency of the group, covering the entire online segment. Florian realised the opportunity of bringing all of those under one roof, and creating a different form of communication agency at that time, taking Serviceplan’s founding vision of an integrated model to a whole new level.
In 2006, Alexander Schill joined Serviceplan - “a top creative mind,” in Florian’s words. He knows this was a key moment in the growth of the Group. “At the same time we became a national agency with the opening of Serviceplan in Hamburg,” says Florian. “Alex joining us represented a strong commitment to creativity, and ever since we have been one of the three most creative agencies in Germany.”
After over 35 years of serving its clients within Germany Serviceplan was ready to look outwards. Florian was confident. “We have a very healthy and strong culture in our group,” he says. “The more you grow globally, the more distance there is physically, and with that the biggest challenge is to maintain the Serviceplan working culture despite the geographical distance.” Confident that this was a strong foundation, the group started setting the wheels in motion to look beyond Germany’s borders. Its offices in Munich, Hamburg, Bremen, Berlin and Cologne were soon joined by agencies in Paris (2006), Zurich (2008), Vienna, Brussels, Dubai (all 2010) and Milan (2011).
Florian flags up another key milestone after that, when Markus Noder joined the company in 2013 as managing director and partner of Serviceplan International. “That was when we went full throttle into our internationalisation phase,” he says. “The internationalisation culminated in the latest opening so far, in 2018 when we opened our House of Communication in New York. To date, Serviceplan has put down roots in 18 countries around the world, from Madrid to Seoul.
For a German company to go truly global like this is rare, perhaps surprisingly considering the economic clout of Germany’s business landscape. But Florian has a very frank explanation for why Serviceplan remains something of an anomaly. “Following the Second World War - during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Germans were a bit reluctant to go international,” he says. “So there were French and American companies that went international, but not so much German ones. Germans are traditionally an engineering country known for making high-quality products. We believed in exporting in the sense of shipping our products to other countries in order to sell them. It was only about 30 years ago that businesses began to understand that you could also export brands successfully to other countries.”
No city symbolises that German pride for quality engineering more than the motor-opolis of Munich, home of BMW - one of Serviceplan’s most iconic clients. And Florian attributes a lot to the group’s Bavarian heritage. “To be born in Munich I think was lucky for us,” he says. “It’s the fastest growing city in Germany with an international airport, and 100,000 students in four universities, two of which are elite. The competition amongst agencies is good, but not as competitive as in Hamburg. So it was a good environment to build our brand in. We’re pretty precise and organised. In the ‘80s and ‘90s expanding globally wasn’t on the radar, it was too early. Coming from P&G and working on pan-European projects, I was fascinated by working with people from different countries and cultures, and when I joined Serviceplan I wanted to continue to work with teams on an international level from all around the world.”
Florian is most proud of the work the agency has done in recent years. “One of our most formative clients is BMW, and the most recent BMW campaign that really stands out for me was the launch of the BMW 8 Series, where a car was driven through the streets of Venice for the first time.”
Using another metric, Serviceplan’s biggest work could be its 2015 Coca-Cola campaign ‘Happiness Starts with a Smile’ - a stunt on Antwerp metro as part of Coke Belgium’s ‘Choose Happiness’ campaign, turnin moody subway faces into smiling ones. People went wild for the good feels it gave them and it became the most watched ad Serviceplan has ever created.
Add to these examples of the group’s most awarded work - the DOT braille smartwatch from Serviceplan Germany and Korea - and you can see the incredibly diverse forms of creativity that the network is able to deliver for its equally diverse collection of clients.
To survive and thrive over five decades is impressive. But to do it while remaining independent all that time is rare indeed. Florian is rightfully proud of Serviceplan’s continued independence. “I personally believe that if we hadn’t remained independent, we wouldn’t exist anymore, we would have been sucked up by a big network,” he says. “Being independent gives us the freedom to take our own decisions and making them fast, which is crucial in such fast-paced times. We have the luxury of being able to make our own entrepreneurial decisions. “
Another key pillar of the group’s success is linked to its independence - the fact that it works as a partnership model, where senior management and managing directors have shares in the group. “[They] are co-owning the agency so to speak,” he says. “This means of course a completely different motivation and mind-set and results in long-term, trustful relationships. Generally we trust people a lot, and give them a high amount of freedom in comparison to big corporations who are stock-listed.”
To coincide with the 50th anniversary of Serviceplan, the group has rebranded its House of Communication concept and revealed a new 50th anniversary logo inspired by the original logo of 1970. “The anniversary logo references the fact that Serviceplan was ‘Born integrated’, with creative, digital and media under one roof,” says Florian.
That’s a symbolic repackaging of what the international marketing business offers but Florian but remains convinced that the underlying structure of Serviceplan Group is robust enough to cope with the shifting landscape around it. “When you look at consultancies trying to enter our business, like Accenture, they buy creative agencies and I don’t understand the logic behind how they pick the agencies,” he says. “I see consultancies trying to enter our business but so far I’m not impressed by them.
“We’re pretty close structure-wise to where I want to be. In the future I would like the Serviceplan Group to be a relevant player on three different continents; Asia, Europe and in the US, and to be in all the markets with Houses of Communication built on the three pillars of: creativity and content; media and data; technology and strategy.”
His vision is singular, as he sums up what the next 50 years for the group will look like: “I would like us to create more spectacular and innovative cases which deliver on our promise of ÜberCreativity. This is our Serviceplan definition of a higher form of innovation, which happens when diverse disciplines, cultures, talents, media and technologies collaborate and interplay. ÜberCreativity is how we build Best Brands.”