Red Dot Award: Communication Design

Interview with thjnk (part 1)

About self-understanding and daily work: interview with thjnk, Red Dot: Agency of the Year 2017 (part 1)

thjnk is a Hamburg-based agency which follows the philosophy of finding better solutions for both its clients and its employees – true to the motto “A single thought has the power to change everything”. It is working out of ten agencies in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Munich, New York and Zurich. In 2017, thjnk was awarded the honorary title “Red Dot: Agency of the Year”. Red Dot talked with two of the founders, Karen Heumann and Armin Jochum, about being part of an agency network, self-understanding and their daily work.

There is no “I” in thjnk

Launched in 2012 by Karen Heumann, Armin Jochum, André Kemper and Michael Trautmann, thjnk made quite an impression in the industry ever since, especially as the founders belong to the most successful strategists and creatives in Germany. The management team has since been complemented by Ulrich Pallas. The agency name is composed of the surnames of the founders, whereby the “K” has stood, since the departure of André Kemper, for “Kollegen” (colleagues) to convey the community approach. Right around its fifth birthday, in mid 2017, thjnk became part of the globally active agency network WPP, but is nonetheless still managed as an independent brand.

In 2017, thjnk turned five years old. How would you describe the stage the agency is at right now? Is it still in its infancy, in a turbulent adolescence or well on its way into adulthood?
Jochum: Our Swiss colleagues found a nice way of wording: we’re a “grown-up start-up”. Given our many years of professional experience, we figured we could leave aside puberty. We try to make mature, bold decisions so that we can be a serious partner for the brands we look after. Doing this, also calls on our clients to make courageous decisions.

Recently you became part of the WPP Group. How important was this step in the agency’s development? How does that feel?

Jochum: It feels great. The step was deliberate and strategically very important, because the very last thing our clients want is a partner who isn’t on equal terms with them in every respect. Nobody can excel at everything. That’s why we emphasised collaboration from the very start and have joined forces with those who best complement our skill set, such as fischerAppelt for our customer Deutsche Bahn. But we also realised quickly that this became increasingly challenging with our rapid growth and the pace of our time. If only because you can’t really stay abreast of who offers what and at what quality. That’s why we aimed for a truly excellent network of experts that we could draw from. We now have possibilities that we never had before. This helps our clients, and it benefits our employees.

Heumann: “Being independent” always sounds so unconditionally positive, while the opposite, “dependent”, doesn’t come across as very promising. But in the professional context, “independent” often means “alone”. At present we’re still self-determined, since thjnk remains thjnk, and in our decision-making structures almost nothing is changing – but we’re no longer alone. I now have much better access to specialist knowledge, such as market research designs or data analyses. And every day, we discover other interfaces that might be of use at some point.

Let’s talk about your self-understanding. How would you characterise thjnk as an agency?

Jochum: Even in the founding stages, we knew that there was no need for another agency, just to find our own name at the door bell nameplate. We simply wanted to build a team that was more in tune with the times and that could address some of the problems that have prevailed within our industry in a whole new way. With regard to the way of working, for instance, we wanted to leave behind the bugbears of working endlessly late into the night and of an excessive self-exploitation. With our founding, we also wanted to overcome the old silos and reconfigure some of the key functions by creating a unique combination of creation and strategy, for example. It all began with the conviction that unique, independent thinking was our secret weapon and the basis for an outstanding product. To this end, we took the liberty to seriously question virtually everything that our industry has done and represented so far.

Heumann: This is what comprises the difference today. At thjnk, everyone backs the strategy of only proposing solutions to the client that have a solid conceptual foundation and that can be sustained over the long term. Of course, they also have to have a distinctive creative design and a clear goal. Only then can our contribution truly have an effect.
Jochum: Exactly. The effect is what it’s all about! We want to change opinions and attitudes. Smart communication has the power to induce changes rapidly. Also – and above all – when you’re at high sea with head wind.

Do you have a guiding principle, a philosophy?

Jochum: A single thought has the power to change everything! That’s our guiding principle. We want to liberate ourselves from reservations and biases, from the “that won’t work” attitude. For that, we take a step back in the process and identify the guiding principle for every new task. Once that’s determined, it’s much easier to embark on the task with full force. This basic idea then defines the entire process, in consultation with our client.
On your website, we find the phrase “There’s no I in thjnk”. What does this mean?

Jochum: First of all, it’s simply a fact. Secondly, we aren’t “egodriven”. Therefore, there’s no “I” in thjnk. However, it is also somewhat important to remind ourselves and be aware of it each and every day, as we certainly do have a strong ego.

Is there room for improvement?

Heumann: Advertising is an extremely work-intensive industry sector. For this reason, we sought to provide “time prosperity” for our staff. Yet the balancing act of delivering high performance as a service provider while allowing for “time” is a very difficult exercise that had us reach the limits of our capacities. Ideally, we would like to have much more freedom for our team.

thjnk is a full-service agency. What discipline is currently taking up most of the space in your daily work?

Jochum: Above and beyond disciplines, thinking takes up most of the space. Then comes the task of organising the solution, for which there is far less time today than before. Speed is a big challenge. That’s why, when planning big projects, we set ourselves up so that everyone can start at maximum speed and in parallel.

Heumann: About “thinking”: in our business, as in so many areas in life, the formulation of the question is at least as important as the answer. Therefore, understanding the central point of the task comprises the overall conceptual challenge. This includes discussing with the client and ensuring that we’re on the same page – a process that can only take place when the communication is truly open, and by asserting our shared commitment to make a difference.

Red Dot: Agency of the Year 2018

On 26 October 2018, the Red Dot: Agency of the Year 2018 will be officially honoured at the Red Dot Gala. The new title holder will be presented with the “Stylus” challenge cup in front of 1,400 international guests.

Look back to the Red Dot Gala 2017: