How to crack an alien culture. Part 2

(This is part 2 of an ongoing series. You can read part one here)

You could argue that the German culture is the opposite of the Irish culture. We both like a beer or twelve but there the similarities pretty much end. Oh and we both share an historical animosity towards the English (the Germans’ cousins btw. Anglo-SAXONS…innit).

So when my partner and I got an assignment to create a Volkswagen ad to run in Germany, i felt nervous. The good part was we got to party in Berlin in the middle of summer for two weeks. The Berlin office of the international ad agency we worked for, headed by inestimable Amir Kassaei, felt that bringing in outsider perspectives would be a good thing. So an “American” team (us) and a crazy good Dutch team (Bart Kooij and Nico Akkerman) worked together. Well it started out as work and quickly degenerated into play. Berlin in the summer is a great place. After a briefing at the agency and a trip to the really cool VW factory in Wolfsburg we settled into a routine of going to bars and cafes and drinking beer and chatting and coming up with ideas. 15 hours a day! The Dutch clearly are prone to dehydration.

i soon emerged as the killjoy wet blanket who felt the need to do something culturally apt. Our Dutch counterparts worked on the Volkswagen business and knew the client well. so the conditions were good.

and then i went and did something so spectacularly stupid and awful that i cannot repeat it in this blog. but it had the effect of me falling in love with Germany and Germans in an instant. if you really need to know what it was i will be happy to email you. but the memory of it still pains me. it is not for public consumption.

the net/net effect was that i was suddenly really motivated to make Germany feel good. that was the silver lining. anyway the commercial below was the idea of ours that was chosen by the client. And i have to say Amir and company did a great job with the execution. I remember being emailed the final spot, which i wasn’t even aware had been shot, and being prepared to wince. And was actually pleasantly surprised. The director Sebastian Strasser did a great job. And i would like to apologize to Sebastian’s production company for the infamous “Felix Glauner Incident” at the Berlin Art Directors awards show dinner one year later. I will also be happy to email you the excruciating details of that one if you really must know. Again, too painful to recount here.

Turns out I have a knack for annoying Germans. But they like my ads. This commercial was a big hit in Germany. And then ran all over over Europe. It was the fifth most awarded commercial in the world in 2005. I like this one because i consider it the cultural equivalent of a German guy working on a Guinness ad for Ireland. And somehow it all worked. I was surprised, put it that way.

17 responses to “How to crack an alien culture. Part 2

  1. Great ad and great story (good to know in case I ever have to work with Hungarians – I’m also a great talent when it comes to messing with the “enemies”; most of my university teachers were Hungarians – no need to go on, for the same embarrassing reasons that have led to your half-spoken memorable episodes…).

  2. funny you should mention hungarians, anca. i was in budapest this past summer for my friend justin reardon’s marriage to his wonderful wife barbara. i loved it. new jersey meets hungary. i had trouble getting a cultural fix on hungary. i was only there for a few days. i could see german, mongol, gypsy, slav. i loved it.

  3. Hungarian culture is great, no doubt about it, between Romanians and Hungarians it’s not a cultural conflict, it’s a history-related conflict; both Romanians and Hungarians claim that Transylvania belongs to them, Hungarians even have a separate subject at school called History Of Transylvania, if you can imagine that, where they study a completely nonsensical theory about their rights in Transylvania.

  4. oh no! sounds like the hungarians are crazy. the funny part was i have this obsessive need to categorize people by ethnicity. so i was hoping to see a mongol! and a magyar. like a butterfly collector.

  5. It seems that you (too) like to burn your wings every now and then, you predatory bird!

  6. Anca, so you’re romanian. i know from experience of living in new york that romanians identify as “Latins”. what does that mean?

  7. In general terms, if Germanic cultures are mainly described by rigour, strict discipline etc., the Latin culture is more about the emotional side of things, it is more about enjoying what you do and rejecting “industrial” professionalism. And that’s what Romanians took from all the cultures that have influenced us: from Russians the great appetite for leisure and parties (and alcohol…), from Germans the aesthetic influences, from Hungarians the culinary skills, from Turks a great passion for ordinary things, even if they sometimes look cheap enough to make you sick (–and THAT’s what we hate about the southern part of the country).

  8. If I can interrupt the ping-pong (!) I would love to know the “excruciating details” that eventually lead to such a great ad. It often happens that when we make a mistake, embarassing or not, we over-compensate in an effort to “put things right”, which is really just to assuage our guilt! I know plenty of people who look for you to make an error, just to get the relationship on a footing where they have the upper hand.

  9. drivenbyjealousy

    I’d like to know the details of the first story too, pleases and thank you’s.

    also, i remember seeing this and thinking it brilliant.

    but it doesn’t seem to me to be a brief that requires new thinking from an outside perspective. it’s just a nice idea, and nice ideas don’t have geographical, political or cultural boundaries, do they?

    anyway, berlin for 2 weeks in the summer? network agencies can be so much fun, can’t they?

  10. dbj,

    yeah, i remember thinking (and still do) that that was the ideal way to create advertising. or anything. mix it up culturally. travel somewhere. work intensively.

    we actually worked on tons of briefs. that was just one of many.

  11. anca, thanks for that. lovely music.

    when i lived in NY i lived in the most ethnically diverse postal area in the USA. every race and nationality. There were lots of Irish and Romanians. And i remember i must have had a romanian doppelganger because romanians would accost me in the street and start speaking (in romanian) to me. only slowly realizing their mistake. i always wanted to meet that guy.

  12. I know the feeling, Vinny, probably all the Australians that land in Romania have the impression I’m one of them — I really don’t think I look like an Aussie, now I might have something of their accent as those ex-strangers have become good friends of mine (the advantage of being a citizen of an “exotic” culture, obliged to speak at least one foreign language).

  13. well anca, your command of english is quite impressive.

    interesting that aussies relate to you. aussies in romania, there’s a micro-culture! does it exist?

  14. (I’d certainly grow up faster English-wise if I took a long vacation in some English-speaking country – which I might at some point.)

    And the Australians are very few in Romania, not surprisingly; I think I’ve met all the Aussies that have seen Romanian skies in this century – probably not more than 20 – that’s why I’ve been surprised. I was probably the most obvious face (more exactly the most obvious hair) :)

  15. i must visit romania at some point. i’ve heard great things. and i haven’t forgotten about shooting there. i still want to do that one.

  16. You should, definitely. I’m sure you can’t imagine Europe this way.

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