In this interview, we dive into the experience of Kolle Rebbe’s Creative Managing Director, Thomas Knüwer. We talk about leadership, projects, lessons, and the future.
The growth and development of creativity at a marketing agency can be hard to leverage without the right approach. For this conversation, we reached out to industry expert Thomas Knüwer to understand how he contributes to the effective management of creativity at Kolle Rebbe through his leadership role.
Read on as he reflects on the challenges of transitioning roles, inspiring creativity and collaborative work in the agency, the importance of the distinction between Creative Director and Creative Principal, the changes needed in the industry, and more.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you start and how did you get here?
It all started with me loving to draw comics, make up space stories, and build castles out of sticks in the forest behind our house. My parents were never certain that I would ever earn money with silly ideas, and to be honest, I wasn’t either.
It wasn’t until I learned about the different kinds of jobs in the creative and advertising industries at some point in my design studies that I realized it could actually be a career for me. And so I did two internships at agencies in Berlin and New York, and then started working as a graphic designer at Jung von Matt in Hamburg.
After three years, I switched to Kolle Rebbe, where I’ve now been for 13 years.
2. As Creative Managing Director at Kolle Rebbe, what does your day-to-day look like?
The great thing about my job is that there is no such thing as an ‘everyday day’. Each day has a different focus, but generally, it consists of two things: what can I improve for the people at Kolle Rebbe and what can I improve for our clients. And the second is based on the first.
We believe that the best ideas and concepts come from the happiest people. Especially in a challenging time like the one we are currently living in, it is inevitable to constantly question oneself, the organization, and the processes.
Maintaining an appreciative agency culture that works for everyone hybrid or remotely while we all have our heads full in the pandemic with work, care, family, and health is a big challenge that we have to address every day anew.
3. You have been at Kolle Rebbe for 13 years. Having started as an art director and now having a leadership management position, how did you prepare for that change?
This is a big issue in our industry. There was hardly any preparation for the change from a creative to a leader. For far too long, it has been assumed that good creatives are also good at leading creatives. This is a misconception. Not only is not everyone meant for a leadership role but even those who would like to do it are not given the tools they need to lead in an appreciative, empathetic, and effective way. Fortunately, this has increasingly changed in recent years, through new structures in agencies and increased use of coaching, training, and mentoring.
“For far too long, it has been assumed that good creatives are also good at leading creatives. This is a misconception.”Thomas Knüwer
4. What were the main challenges you faced?
The biggest difference is the shift from focusing on developing ideas yourself to focusing on encouraging others to develop ideas. Sounds banal, but it’s the opposite. You have to learn to let go, to trust, and to accept solutions other than the one you would have liked to develop yourself. That’s not always easy, because creative people want to protect and push through their own ideas from the very beginning. This is one of their great qualities. Staying true to and defending ideas that you passionately believe in. As a creative leader, you have to break away from that a bit and stop trying to sink your teeth into your own ideas and instead passionately defend and push the ideas of the team.
5. Following that thought — could you elaborate on how Kolle Rebbe’s distinction between creative director and creative principal has been useful for the creative and leadership development of the agency?
Not every fantastic creative is a fantastic creative leader. However, due to the fact that for far too long there was a one-way career path in (at least the German) agency scene, everyone was forced into a leadership career, i.e. creative director. This often led to management situations that were not healthy for agencies, teams, or even the individuals themselves. Alternative career options make it easy to avoid this. That’s the idea behind the separation of Creative Director and Creative Principal.
We take Principal very seriously in its name: principo, the first. If you don’t aspire to a management career, but instead want to focus on your craft (e.g. art direction, copywriting, coding, or whatever it is you are passionate about), no problem, here’s your career. Creative Principal is not a dumping ground for people who failed at leadership, quite the opposite, it is an appreciative career path for people who want to achieve excellence in their creative craft.
“When it comes to creative growth, I believe in a mix of a bring-it-and-get-it attitude.”Thomas Knüwer
6. How do you inspire creativity and leverage the skills of your team?
Inspiration is highly individual. Everyone draws inspiration and motivation from different things. Some from music and a visit to a museum, others from TikTok, dancing or reading. We need to give our creatives the space to find their own inspiration. Whatever inspires them, it’s part of the job. Inspiration is not a hobby, it’s the business. We need to value any kind of inspiration and encourage curiosity. Even a delayed flight can be inspiring because you might discover something in the waiting time that you never paid attention to before.
In general, when it comes to creative growth, I believe in a mix of a bring-it-and-get-it attitude. Agencies have to bring an environment in which ideas, inspiration, and the craziest things are encouraged and made possible. The employees on the other hand have to say what they would like to do, what they are missing, and how they can be supported. We might support you with a tattoo apprenticeship or a speech writing course. Everything is possible if we know where we can help.
7. Why is Kolle Rebbe still the right place for you after such a ‘long’ time?
Our attitude is “We help each other to be great” – that’s essentially why I’ve been here so long and have no plans to go anywhere else. We believe that the strongest ideas happen collaboratively, internally within the agency, but also with partners, freelancers and clients. We don’t believe in competitive behavior and fighting against each other to win. I have always disliked the notion in the creative industry that brilliance can only come from hustling, from overtime, and (self-)exploitation. Reed Hastings of Netflix once said “We don’t tolerate brilliant jerks.” I would love to spray-paint this sentence on every wall I find.
8. Is it possible to identify a specific style of creativity in the agency?
I don’t think we’ve ever been the loud agency, doing loud creation for the sake of doing loud creation. We try to always be smart, insightful, and empathetic rather than loud, contrary, and flashy. We want to solve problems, move people, and help good things get attention. Agencies are like people: never underestimate the quiet ones.
9. What has been your favorite project so far? Why?
There are many that have been created over the years that I am very proud of. But for me personally, the Hell-P stands out. The first record you can listen to in hell that we realized for metal gods Slayer.
For four reasons: First, because it shows that bold ideas stand out. Second, because it shows that perseverance pays off (it took a good total of almost three years to realize). Third, because great stuff only happens in a team (for the execution, many parties and specialists had to work together, as they had not done before). Fourth, because Metal is the best of all music genres. 🙂
10. What would you like to experiment with in the near future regarding creative direction?
I think we need more honesty. In the representation of realities of life, bodies, and products. TikTok has given us a whole new authenticity in social, counterbalancing an influencer and advertising world that has often been falsely glossy in the last couple of years. We shouldn’t stop there, but keep going. That said, let’s also have more honesty in the creative process. Honestly saying when you are struggling, honestly saying when you don’t like something, and honestly saying when you need help. Yes, honesty can sometimes hurt, if unpleasant things are said or done, but its goal, if it comes from the heart, is never destructive, but always liberating.
11. If there was one thing you could change in the industry tomorrow, what would it be?
Make it easier for everyone to get a start in the industry. No matter whether unskilled, studied, or coming from completely different professions. No matter what identity, gender, or background. No matter if young or old. No matter if extroverted or introverted. There are still too many glass walls and ceilings, all of which should be smashed down.
We would like to thank Thomas Knüwer for his time for this interview. If you liked to hear from Thomas, stay tuned for incoming interviews with more industry experts on our blog.
Are you also part of management in the creative industry? How do you foster the creative growth and development of people at your workplace? Let us know in the comments!
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