Ad Man Standing 'I am a Mercedes G-Class'

Jean-Remy von Matt is one of German advertising's most iconic characters. But losing the Mercedes account has been a major blow to his ego – and his agency's bottom line.
Jean-Remy von Matt mulls over Mercedes' move.

Last week, Germany’s most famous ad man, Jean-Remy von Matt, released a new online commercial for Edeka, Germany’s largest supermarket chain. Continuing the “Supergeil” (super hot) campaign that created a sensation in early summer, the new advert got more than a million clicks in the first three days.

It is a sign that Mr. von Matt still has the magic touch, even if the last few days have been some of the toughest of the 62-year-old’s career. The man whose Hamburg-based agency, Jung von Matt, is considered the most creative in Germany, lost one the country’s most prestigious accounts

Mercedes-Benz decided after nine years to sever its relationship with Jung von Matt and give its advertising accounts to a newly formed agency. Jung von Matt also lost the Bild newspaper account.

“I think the decision is courageous,” Mr. von Matt told Handelsblatt, referring to Mercedes. “And since we always demand creative courage from companies, I would also like to say ‘hats off’ to that. This agency is not and never was just Mercedes.”

Losing the multi-million-euro account is a heavy financial blow to the company, but what stings worse is the blow to his image, as the word was that Daimler, Mercedes' parent company, wanted a younger creative chief to lead its advertising campaigns.

It becomes clear that the Daimler decision is eating at him, not just the loss of the partnership but also how the automaker did it.

Mr. von Matt called it "the greatest defeat in my agency’s history.” It also represents a turning point for the German advertising industry, which has long looked to Jung von Matt as a pioneering image-maker.

The agency came up with marketing campaigns such as “Geiz ist Geil,” which means penny-pinching is sexy, for the electronics firm Saturn and created the award-winning Sixt car rental campaigns. The way Daimler has treated its long-time partner is roiling the industry as a whole.

Mr. von Matt also indicated that he will withdraw more from the day-to-day business, now that he is 67. Once so successful he could pick and choose his clients, he now finds himself being passed by.

He began his career in advertising 40 years ago, and it has been 30 years since his first campaign, for Sixt. He is part of an advertising generation characterized by edgy, rule-breaking eccentrics, such as Reinhard Springer, Konstantin Jacoby and Sebastian Turner. Today, Mr. Turner is the publisher of the Tagespiegel newspaper in Berlin, while Springer & Jacoby declared insolvency in 2010. Only Mr. von Matt is still standing.

But is the loss of the Mercedes-Benz account a turning point? Mr. von Matt is conflicted. On the one hand, he wants to move on, but on the other, he wants to explain how the Daimler decision is unjust.

Iconic ads like this helped update the Mercedes brand image.

He says that he harbors no resentment toward Daimler because he has so many other exciting clients. Yet it becomes clear that the Daimler decision is eating at him, not just the loss of the partnership but also how the carmaker did it.

A creative culture cannot be simply put together by buying it – it has to grow. Jean-Remy von Matt

Daimler has put together an alternative creative team consisting of André Kemper, 51, one of advertising’s more eccentric figures, and Tonio Kröger, 49, a former Daimler executive who has been head of the advertising network DDB Group  in Germany since 2003.

“A creative culture cannot be simply put together by buying it – it has to grow,” said Mr. von Matt, referring to Mercedes' move.

There is no trace of gloating over the fortunes of Jung von Matt in the industry, rather a sense of shock that Mr. von Matt could be treated so harshly by a long-time client.

Yet, in an industry powered by egos, words of sympathy are followed by harsh assessments. Hasn’t Mr. von Matt been at this for a very long time? Wasn’t he too slow to understand the digital revolution in the advertising industry?

Mr. von Matt said, “I am a Mercedes G-class. Even if I am not the latest model, on certain terrain, I’m still hard to beat.”

I have recognized I am irreplaceable. Jean-Remy von Matt

In an interview earlier this year, he declared, “I have recognized I am irreplaceable.” It’s a sentence that reveals a lot about him and his agency.

“I enjoy working, as long as I can make a valuable contribution for our clients and our agency. My metabolic age is 47,” he said. “And I would like to work until about 50.”

Whatever happens, he plans to move to Berlin at the end of next year, which requires the agency to find a successor. Thomas Strerath, the current head of Ogilvy, will join the Jung von Matt executive board and will be part of a strategic management team together with Peter Figge.

On the creative side, however, Mr. von Matt remains alone.

While he appears to recognize the importance of making an orderly withdrawal from the business, leaving is difficult because Mr. von Matt remains indisputably good at his job – almost all of the most memorable advertising in the past couple of years has come from Jung von Matt, and the firm continues to lead the creative rankings in Germany.

 

Jung von Matt and Mercedes had a long creative partnership.

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