A Closet Interview with German Marketeers

Oliver and his brother started Kemweb in 1998, providing coding for other agencies and then livestreaming the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Three years ago, frustrated with being a tech-supply company, they took their technical expertise and redefined their business as a full-service digital agency, . offering results-driven web design, online marketing, social media marketing, PR, consulting, podcasting, video production and hosting services.

Today, Kemweb’s 35 developers, art directors, social media experts, and performance team workshop with clients to discover their needs. Kemweb customers range from B2B small and medium sized companies to fast moving consumer goods suppliers. Oliver credits his agency’s success to curiosity and agility, and a change in its approach to potential customers.

A lot of companies will pitch what they can do for customers, without first finding out what the customers need, saying, “We can do this . . . and this . . . and this. What do you want?” Companies may think about “What are we offering? What kind of service?” – but fail to ask, “Why are we doing it? Why should our customers believe the things we’re doing?” 

Finding the answer to those last questions was pivotal in driving the Kemweb’s approach to its own customers. Business consulting is rare in Germany . . . and it’s one of the things that is an intrinsic part of today’s Kemweb process. Oliver suggests that you have to drive a lot deeper than the “easy questions” to discover what actions will best serve a client’s needs.

Kemweb now begins a client business relationship with a workshop/consultation utilizing Strategyzer’s Business Model Canvas and Value Proposition Canvas to map out a business’s knowledge, unsnarl its inherent complexity, and structure a customer-centric solution, with a focus on communicate the messages their clients want to communicate. 

Sean notes that there are cultural differences between businesses in Germany and those in the U.S. For instance: German business owners have greater fear of change and new ways of doing things. Legalities differ as well: Data protection laws are more stringent in the U.S. Sean explains that the linear career process in Germany also affects the way people think. After finishing a German citizens finish their education, they take an apprenticeship, then go to a company and move up the ladder within that company. 

Oliver was supposed to serve as a mentor at South by Southwest 2020 in Austin, TX, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. He believes that, “This is a special period in time (that) forces people to be more courageous and to try out new things.” He feels that it is important for businesses to work together – to help the customers with their businesses and to help them survive. “We have to take care of each other . . . worldwide,” he says

Sean recommends looking at today’s challenges as an opportunity to spend more time with family or to online to learn new skills – just use your time. He is using his time in quarantine to set up an English-language Kemweb landing page.

Oliver and Sean can be reached on the social media channels or on the company’s website at: www.kemweb.de. They have a German-American podcast, Robot Spaceship, at www.robotspaceship.com,. described as an industry-leading, European podcast network with a focus on technology, culture, innovation and living the digital lifestyle. (You may need to understand a little German.)

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Oliver Kemmann, Owner and Founder at Kemweb in Mainz, Germany, and also Sean Earley, the New Business Development Manager for the firm. Why don’t you gentlemen start off by telling us about Kemweb and where Kemweb excels?

SEAN: You go.

OLIVER: Maybe I start. [laughs] I founded Kemweb together with my brother about 20 years ago, so 1998, in a time without smartphones, in a time without Facebook and YouTube. We were pretty much doing some coding for other agencies. We started also with livestreaming in the year 2000 for the Olympic Games in Sydney, so we were quite tech-related.

As time passed by, we started to ask questions. How can we get away from being this tech supply company and how can we find our own customers? So we started to talk about digital communication and how we could help people out there to succeed in their special business by using modern digital technology.

This is what we’re doing today. We have about 35 people in the agency and we have developers and we have art directors and we have a social media team and a performance team. We do workshops and stuff to find out what the business is all about and how we can help, and then we set up the channels where we can communicate to the target groups of our customers.

We think in stories and experience, talking about the stories our customer wants to get communicated, and we develop the experience on different channels and different devices. This is what we’re doing.

ROB: A lot of firms I think start off in that mode where they are taking downstream work from other agencies, other firms, but now it sounds like you have a better idea of who your direct customer is. What sort of company and perhaps focus or stage of company is that now?

OLIVER: There’s not one special kind of customer we are serving. We have a lot of B2B business. In Germany, we have a lot of small and medium sized companies. They’re doing a lot of engineering stuff, or small producing companies. Usually they are not very familiar with classic marketing topics and how they could use digital communication to sell their products and services.

But we also have, for example, fast moving consumer good customers and help them, for example, with social media campaigns. So it is very widespread, actually, the customers we are serving. It’s quite exciting. What do you say, Sean? [laughs]

SEAN: Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head there. I think from my point of view, I come from a background – it’s a little bit different in Germany than it is in America. In Germany people have a linear process; they go to school, they do an apprenticeship, they go to a company, and they stay there in that skill range, and they just move up the ladder.

In the States, as you all probably know, we work all kinds of jobs before we actually start our career. I’ve done all kinds of different things. I’ve worked in all kinds of different jobs. Lots of different agencies, consulted, tech, gaming. One of the things that I have seen is that there’s always differences in everybody’s needs as a business, but when it comes to marketing specifically, there’s a lot of things that everybody needs. It really gets down to that value point, that use case that everybody needs, what is the problem that they have and how we can provide a solution.

I think a lot of agencies particularly get a pitch and they go to a client and they say, “We can do all this stuff. What do you want?” When I started working with Kemweb, Ollie and I had a talk and it was like, that’s exhausting. It’s counterintuitive to what we want to do, and it’s kind of counterintuitive to what the client needs because there are specific things that clients need.

So we tried to refocus our strategy a little bit to work with clients to figure out exactly what they need first before we say “We’ll take your 200,000 euro budget and we’ll give you one or two or three things. What do you want?” We really try to focus in on the needs of the client and give them exactly what they need, and at the same time try to explore other areas to try to explore new places ourselves internally and externally so we can provide lots of services to clients.

But at the same time, we really like to consult first and then give them what they need, and not just “here’s your website, have fun with it.” Sometimes they say they want a website and they don’t really need a website, so it’s important to talk to people first. That’s where the workshop and consulting come in.

ROB: Got it. I think there’s subtlety in the details there. You’re not just talking about doing a bunch of discovery, if I’m hearing you correctly. You’re actually talking about entering into a business relationship sooner with the client, where you have a process around a workshop, where you have a consulting arrangement rather than doing a bunch of unpaid discovery on an RFP. Is that what you’re getting at?

SEAN: Exactly.

ROB: Very cool. What does a workshop look like for you?

OLIVER: I’m a fan of a company called Strategyzer. It originated in Switzerland. These guys developed some canvas thing called the Business Model Canvas and the Value Proposition Canvas. I guess you’re familiar with this.

Our approach in the workshops is something Sean said. As a consultant, my job is to get the complexity out of the things. I’m taking all the knowledge the customer has and I’m structuring it in these canvases. This leads us to a very structured way, and at this point we start to look at our customer’s customer, so it’s very customer-centric.

This leads us to exactly the customer pain we’re addressing and what the customers are really looking for. Most of the time, it’s the first time our customers have thought about their own purpose or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Most of them are coming from the “what?” – “What are we offering? What kind of service?” But not “Why are we doing it? Why should our customers believe the things we’re doing?”

This is what we do in the workshops. We try to get all the information from the customer and structure it down in canvases, and then we find the channels and we find the customer groups we should address first.

ROB: That’s probably been a part of your own journey as well. Business Model Canvas, anybody can google it. You’ll find it, you’ll pull it up. I feel like that tool flows from left to right, where it does flow into how everything leads in to the customer so you know what you’re doing, but let’s all tie that through to the customer.

You probably had a little bit of your own journey on that as you transitioned from being a subcontractor coding shop to pursuing your own customers. What did that journey look like where you started to realize what the direct customers needed and you started to be able to pull away from taking parts of projects from other people?

OLIVER: Good question, actually. Or the right question. When we started 2 or 3 years ago to find this way for ourselves, we always were communicating the “whats,” what we were doing. Websites, apps, firms. This is what every other agency is doing, too. They say what the output is.

Then we started to dig deeper and find out, what are we good for? What has brought my brother and me to the point of founding a company or agency? Curiosity and agility are what’s driving us. What we are doing now is we’re very much curious about our customer’s business. If we fully understand what the customer is doing and what the customer needs, then we can help. This was the turning point in our own company history, when we found out that.

ROB: That seems like a neat intersection because you’ve not only found this curiosity for what they’re doing, you’re aligning this tool. You have a tool that actually facilitates your own curiosity that aligns the customer to where they’re actually getting value out of the discovery process, unless they can pay you for it. You’ve aligned the customer and value for them with who you are in your own curiosity, it sounds like.

OLIVER: Yeah. In Germany, at least, it’s not very common that you do some kind of business consulting thing in a web project, for example. Most people, after the workshop, say, “This was a business consulting, what you’re doing.” They start to look differently at their own business, at the company. In Germany, we’re far behind you guys in the States where digital transformation is concerned. Most of the companies are very slow in changing things.

The owner-driven companies really are shy to start changes, so they want someone who says, “Everything is okay. We have this web project, for example,” and you give them the money and it’s ready by the 1st of June or so, and then you don’t have to think about it.

SEAN: I would just interject and say culturally, working in the States and in Germany, there’s a lot of hyper-focusing on details here. There’s also a lot of different rules when it comes to things like data protection, so there’s a lot of hesitancy in a lot that goes on here as well. Especially with some sort of new and innovative tech project, a lot of people are like, “We can’t even legally do that.”

When it comes to things like sales funnels and where you store your customers’ data, it’s a whole other story over here, so it’s not just – they’re behind in their desire, but I think also they’re behind because there’s a hesitancy to want to try because sometimes it’s difficult to make those steps. So I think it’s a 50/50. There’s innovation and there’s also limitation. For us, we try to find a happy medium in there. Sometimes you have to talk a lot about that as well.

ROB: In terms of adjustments, we were originally scheduled to have this conversation in person, in Austin, Texas at South by Southwest, and as we are in the midst of this global coronavirus pandemic, we’re all doing this interview from home. I’m in a closet, to be candid. It’s a different thing.

But just for a moment, Oliver, you were invited to be there as a mentor. Is that something you’ve done before at South by Southwest?

OLIVER: No, actually not. [laughs] I’ve been in Austin for the last 3 years, and last year I met some guy from Denmark and he was a mentor last year. He explained what he was doing there, and I thought it was interesting, so maybe I could help young people with my different perspective I bring as a German. Maybe I do look differently on things. On the other hand, I’ve been self-employed or an entrepreneur for more than 20 years. So maybe I can help some people. I just filled out the form and they picked me. [laughs] But I can’t tell you what it’s like because I didn’t do this before. Maybe I will do it next year.

SEAN: Ollie and I are both big music fans, and I actually played in a band at South by Southwest before. He was like, “Have you been to South by Southwest?” I was like, “Yeah, musically,” but the whole tech thing – and he was so excited. I was like, oh man. I felt so bad when they cancelled that.

He was like, “What am I going to talk about now?” I was like, “You’re a German guy there. You’ve got to talk about German topics.” I think that’s stuff people want to know about. There’s a whole different perspective there. It’s not just tech in general. A lot of people talk general tech, but there’s a lot of cultural differences in the tech industry here that I think he could really have provided. But I guess we have the internet now to communicate.

ROB: Yes. People can reach out when they hear this and we can all talk in our closets. Or maybe we’ll be out of our closets by the time we get this out there. Did they give you visibility into people signing up to talk to you and what they wanted to talk about? Or is it more so that you show up and people show up and go from there? How is that structured?

OLIVER: I can’t tell you. [laughs] We had a slot somewhere in a hotel for an hour I guess, or an hour and 50 minutes. I had 17 fans on the app, so 17 people were bookmarking me. Actually, I can tell. I guess you have to reserve a slot, but actually, I can’t tell you if anybody already had the slot reserved.

ROB: We’re right here in the middle of March. At this juncture, as you are talking to your customers and potential customers and that sort of thing, how is the current state of things affecting both their mindset and maybe even how they do workshops? Are your workshops normally in person and you’re planning for how to do them online? How is that changing your own business and your customer mindset?

OLIVER: Wasn’t it Macron, the French president, who said we are at war? [laughs] It’s changing everything right now. We were well-prepared, actually. Sean, 2 weeks ago, said, “This is getting really bad, so we’d better be prepared.” We tried to get all our people home office ready 2 weeks ago when it just started to get really bad.

But I have tons of customers who were not prepared for that. They’re not even prepared to get their people in the home office, and they didn’t think what they could do in this time. To be honest, I think this will not be a thing for 2 weeks or 3 weeks. I guess we’re talking about months or years if this is getting better.

We should for sure find very fast things we can change to have a workshop by Zoom or Teams and so on, but I can work with my customers even if they are not in the room. It’s a little bit different, so I need my customers to be courageous enough to take such a step. I have a lot of customers who say, “Let’s postpone the workshop and meet in 2 or 3 weeks. This can wait.” [laughs] I say, “Okay, go for it.”

But on the other hand, there are a couple of people from the consulting business who were already setting up their remote setup. I can film the canvas and I can put the post-its there by myself. The important thing for me is to get all the information from my customers. They are driving this process, so I need all the information, and I can structure it at home in my closet. [laughs]

My impression – maybe, Sean, you have your own opinion about this – I think people are getting aware. This is a special period in time, and not many people have experienced what we are experiencing right now. This forces people to be more courageous and to try out new things. This is my impression.

SEAN: Yeah, I would just say that we were lucky to have enough time to try to be proactive and plan for it. Kemweb has a lot of experience in livestreaming and webinars as a core business, so it wasn’t anything new to go remote. Since we do a lot of consulting for how to become more digital, it was not a scary concept for us. It was more about organization.

We’ve noticed a lot of people who weren’t ready, who are reaching out and trying to get an idea of what they can do to get ready, and I think it’s also important for any business who does have any sort of strategic advantage – at this point, it’s not about competition anymore. This is a global problem that nobody’s ever dealt with, so I think we’re just trying to take the opinion of let’s try to be as helpful as we can. Let’s be a resource for people. Let’s do some consulting for people just so they can figure out what to do, much less take action on it.

Everybody has different problems, but we have CEOs and managers, and everybody is quarantined in their house, worrying about their business. Some people are losing their business as we speak, and some people are like, “I need to figure out how to conduct business when we’re here. How do we do this?”

Luckily, we’ve just been in a position to be able to help people. For me, that’s the most important thing. Just making sure businesses are running, people are being as successful as they can with the limitations, and hopefully when we get through this, everybody’s going to be in a better place and not a much worse place.

ROB: Right. That’s an advantage I think you have in being strategic. I was talking to a client yesterday, an agency, and they have one client who’s in travel, and they’re very large, so that client is rightly putting a lot of initiatives on hold. But I think everybody has an inclination towards timidity in this moment. One of their clients was a beer company, and they said, “Should we cut back?” They said, “No, you can be bold right now.”

SEAN: If you’re not Corona. [laughter]

ROB: Yes, for sure. I see it in my own feeds. People are talking about going out and buying beer right now. I think they look forward to it. So there are opportunities.

OLIVER: That’s what’s different between Germans and Americans. Germans are buying toilet paper and noodles. [laughs] The French are hamstering red wine, and you guys go for beer.

SEAN: The German term for prepping is hamstering, so there’s a lot of hamster memes going on in Germany. [laughs]

ROB: I had no idea. I’ve learned something there as well. Oliver, some people’s agencies that we talk to are brand new, and some folks have been running them for a while. If you were in the U.S., we would probably talk about the 9/11 situation here. But you did navigate through the global financial crisis 13 years ago. What are some lessons that you may have encountered from that time that have helped you as you’re looking at this new set of circumstances that is resetting global markets and making people worry a little bit?

OLIVER: What we learned – our luck in this crisis 13 years ago was we had customers from all kinds of business areas. We were not only doing business with banks. So we survived it quite well, actually, but only because we had a widespread portfolio of customers. This is what we kept all the way from then to now.

I guess this is also what maybe, or hopefully, will help us through this crisis too. We have also customers from the tourist business, so we’re doing a lot of event stuff. Like Sean said, maybe now some livestreaming things. These companies are dying while we’re talking. They’re losing all the events, like South by, for example. All the catering people, our customers from catering. We have other customers from the public sector, for example, and we have customers from the hygienic field selling soaps. I think this is what we learned. Don’t focus too much on one specific branch.

13 years ago, we were a much younger company. There were just a couple of people there. Actually, we were not flying high enough to be hit very strongly by the crisis 13 years ago, so it’s hard for me to compare it this way. Sean, do you have a point here?

SEAN: I wasn’t with the company at the time, but I think just from experience and being in Germany at the time, it’s similar in that there are companies that get financially hit and they’re going to go down. There’s nothing they can do. There’s other companies that get hit hard, but they try to climb up. I think at this point, everybody is struggling and everybody is needing to be loud. Everybody is needing to communicate and reach out.

Kemweb did video production, they did web production, so they had a rounded base of services that they could offer. If you have a diversified portfolio, then you can be agile with your approach to lots of clients. I think that’s one of the reasons Kemweb has been able to be successful for so long through these ups and downs, at least in my opinion. Unless you know a secret I don’t know. [laughs] That’s just my outside opinion.

OLIVER: Yeah, that’s right. Maybe you know the new book by Simon Sinek, The Infinite Game. When I read this book, I didn’t know up to the point I read the book we are in this infinite game. Since we are helping our customers, or trying to help our customers to succeed in a digital world – we did this for 20 years, actually, and every disruption or every crisis forces us to be inventive and to question our own work all the time.

We did this for the last 20 years, and we came out stronger. So I guess he’s right in his book. If you don’t reach finite goals, to be the best in town or whatever, then you will find new approaches even for your customers, and you learn from every punch you get. You’re learning.

I think this is what we learned over the years. For example, when all the streaming was Flash – maybe your younger listeners remember, there was a software called Flash. Steven Jobs decided – all the streaming things we did were running on Flash from one day to the other. Nobody actually was using Flash, so our streaming business was down within a couple of months, for example.

But you start finding workarounds and finding new solutions and stuff like this. If you get used to this, if you are not scared by disruptive changes – I guess such a crisis is a very, very disruptive change to everything. It’s even a threat to your health, so this is a different problem. People are now really scared about their health, not only business-wise, but family and personal health-wise. So this is a different situation we have right now.

ROB: That’s a great point. With The Infinite Game, the objective, the point that Sinek makes is that this is not a chess game that you can win or lose. The goal is to keep playing the game. I think it could even be possible in this moment to take more encouragement. You mentioned Flash – Flash, for people who don’t remember, was made by Adobe. It was Adobe’s attempt to control the browser.

SEAN: It was Macromedia and then it was Adobe, I think.

ROB: Yeah. When Apple came out against Adobe, that was a specific headwind against Adobe, and a big part of their strategy and a big part of their business. They moved out of trying to control the browser into a bunch of other things. There’s a lot of big companies that just take up space and are hard to admire, but Adobe, with having the primary paid enterprise for analytics up against Google Analytics, with the way they’ve managed to turn their creative suite into a subscription business, they really have figured out how to keep playing the game.

I think anybody who’s listening probably has even more of an advantage now because Adobe had a specific headwind; this is a headwind that we all have. Everyone’s fighting this at the same time. So it’s not just you. People are going to win here, and I think it can be Kemweb and it can be anyone else who’s listening, if they figure out how to keep playing the game well.

SEAN: Yeah. I’d look at this as an opportunity. You can look at it as negative as you want, you can get depressed about it and you can sit there and pout, or you can really try to think of the positive ends. For me, just being able to take time to spend more time with the kids when they’re home, or to be able to teach them from home how I want to, or to be able to go online and spend my time with a course, learning something new – you’ve got to take this as positive as you can.

You have to utilize your time. Everybody in the world is confined to their homes at this point, or almost, so do what you can do to benefit from that situation. I think that’s really what you’ve got to do here. I think you will benefit in some way as long as you see it as a positive thing.

OLIVER: I would like to bring up another point. It’s actually about solidarity. We all have to take care of each other and the other companies. If our customers die, for example, we won’t be able to do business after the crisis with them. So we also have to put up plans where we can help our customers not just on the business, but on the survival side of things.

So maybe this will make people think about things they’ve done before or ways they saw things before. Right now we have to take care of each other worldwide, actually.

ROB: Yeah, it has definitely taken that longer approach of, for people who are young, to say, “You may be young and you may not be likely to get sick, but what about someone else’s parent, grandparent?”

SEAN: We’re getting up there.

ROB: What about us on this call? Take care of us too. But really, how to think beyond yourself I hope is a lesson we can carry forward a little bit longer than just the memories of this unusual season.

Oliver, Sean, when people want to track you guys down, when they want to find Kemweb, where should they go to find you?

OLIVER: They should go to the internet, this new thing, you know? [laughs]

ROB: That’s all we got. That’s all we got right now.

OLIVER: You’ll find us on the social media channels. We have our own podcast, actually, which is a German-American podcast form, and it’s called Robot Spaceship. You need to understand a little German. I’m speaking German and Sean is speaking American English. But you’ll find us on the web, www.kemweb.de.

SEAN: Kemweb.de, and that’s www.robotspaceship.com for the podcast.

OLIVER: Sean is using his quarantine to set up an English landing page. [laughter] Isn’t it, Sean?

SEAN: It is. There’s so much translation that happens. There’s so much work. [laughs] I need to take a vacation from working because I’ve got so much work to do. [laughter]

ROB: I think we’ll all be looking to help the travel industry rebound in a little bit when we can all come out of our holes. Oliver, Sean, thank you for coming on. Thank you for sharing at this time. It’s good to be able to connect over audio, at least, and share some of your learnings, lessons, and growth with the world.

SEAN: Thank you.

OLIVER: Thank you for the invitation. Great experience for us.

ROB: Thank you so much. Maybe in Austin next year.

SEAN: Definitely.

OLIVER: For sure.

ROB: Let’s work that out.

SEAN: Fingers crossed.

OLIVER: On 6th Street. [laughs]

ROB: All right, thanks, guys. Bye bye.

Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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