March 2020 in Dortmund. André Schirmer is 33 years old and founder, partner and managing director of the marketing consultancy Schwarz+Matt. Today he answers questions about his career, his company and his visions. 10 questions and 10 answers from someone who decided to change marketing.
Did you always have a big mouth as a child or were you rather reserved?
(laughs) Good question. In fact, as a child and at school I was rather reserved, probably noticed the least in class. In part, that’s still the case today. Privately I’m rather reserved. I’m generally not good at talking in front of people. I am also not good at small talk. But that changes completely when I talk about topics that inspire and excite me. In that case, I have lots to say, and I will. I really like such conversations.
When did you know that you wanted to really take off professionally? When did you first realize that you were really capable of changing marketing?
At least not from the very beginning. Otherwise, I would not have made my Abitur with the main focus on mechanical engineering. Or actually I did: That’s how the founders’ competition came about, which I won. That’s when I realized that you can achieve a lot with good ideas. The teacher who was my mentor for the competition then asked me to contact him when I had my first million. Which has not been forgotten. Actually even before that: I have always had the urge to live out my interests online. That’s why I set up a website about helicopters early on. It was exciting and suited my early career aspirations. The website was suddenly visible worldwide and generated a huge impact. Maybe that was the point, but I cannot answer that super clearly.
Who or what has helped you to become a successful entrepreneur? What help should young founders take advantage of?
I was recently thinking about who my most important advisors are. There are quite some important people who are with me to this very day. An important inspiration was one of my two grandfathers: a real business type, from old junk and spirit, always dressed up, with tie and from top to bottom a businessman. At least that is how I perceived him. In my family, my career path is a bit out of the ordinary. It was uncharted territory at first and still is to some extent. Of course, parents always see the risk involved for their children first.
“Young founders should always seek advice from experienced entrepreneurs.”
But about the second question: Young founders should always seek contact with and advice from established entrepreneurs. There you get important tips and hear stories of successes and defeats. One can learn from both. Ultimately, however, founders must know that they have to do everything themselves. If you let others do it, you can never successfully build a business.
How do you assess the situation for start-ups in the Ruhr area? Is there enough done to support young founders? Or better: is the right thing being done?
There are an unbelievable number of initiatives, also from the local authorities. In my view, there are duplications, some issues are less relevant. Unfortunately, most of the initiatives’ activities are not interlinked and are therefore not effective. Those responsible and also the consultants have often not founded a company themselves. I don’t know whether everyone can then recognise the problem and is aware of the real obstacles faced by founders. Start-up advice must be more than just exchanging information about the formalities of setting up a company. Providing covers is of little use. It is important to turn founders into real entrepreneurs and enable them to really “speed up”. A real exchange with successful entrepreneurs does not take place over a sandwich and beer but in protected rooms. You have to be able to speak and think freely, to “talk straight”. But sometimes I also think: Don’t talk so much. The important thing is to “do things”. Once, quite young, I set myself the goal of having a company at the age of 30. 7 days before I founded Schwarz+Matt together with Nikolas. Today that is the basis for our entrepreneurial activities.
Why was it necessary to develop Schwarz+Matt as an alternative to existing advertising agencies? What is innovative or different about Schwarz+Matt? Or: What do other agencies do wrong?
After the foundation of Schwarz+Matt, we realized very quickly that it is the wrong way to offer its services. “We can easily design flyers or build a website”. We never wanted that either. We want to help shape companies and realize many ideas. That’s why start-ups are among our customers. Larger companies are facing an important transformation, digitalization, the networking of all areas of life. This has an impact on the consumer, on his buying behaviour, on his decision making. Advertising agencies promote companies or products, in the best case brands. But that is only one part of holistic marketing.
Companies often do not know whether and how the digital transformation affects them and their work. Can you explain why digitalization and transformation are important issues for every company? In your experience, what is the biggest challenge for companies?
All of these changes are happening faster and faster. From the inside out this change cannot be carried out at all. Own think tanks have to be outsourced, enriched with specialists from the most diverse disciplines. As long as people are trapped in their own business model, they cannot think freely, cannot break up existing structures or even throw them overboard.
“But that is exactly what disruptive thinking is. Make room for new things, especially in your mind.”
This must result in new products, new service offerings, scalable added value, new payment rooms and much more. Places are networked spaces that have yet to be thought of. With Urlaubsguru we have taken a step backwards. A digital company has gone analogue. Because that’s where part of the customer journey takes place, but of course closely networked with the company’s digital spaces. Successful modern companies create their own cosmos for their brand. Nike as a sports goods manufacturer intelligently integrates its products and services into the customer journey. Apple is expanding its cosmos with iCloud and iMusic as services and also with new products. So it’s all about creating networked eco-systems that are sustainable.
“Just producing something is no longer enough today.“
At the end and at the beginning the question arises: Does the company want to play along in the future or not. “If you don’t keep up with the times, you have to go after some time.” After the industrial revolution, the world was a different one. It won’t be any different after the digital one.
The region is currently experiencing a tremendous change: Phoenix See, Phoenix-West, now Dortmund’s port reconstruction is starting. Are these the right projects? What role could Schwarz+Matt play in this development?
There is a lot of noise about these projects. Are there so many founders who want to move in? In my opinion, it would be better to bundle initiatives sensibly and then let them grow from those roots. For us, the question is whether to participate in such a project in the long term or to found a campus ourselves. We have been in contact with start-ups and investors for quite some time now, we have a lot to offer ourselves and want to generate thrive from the founders themselves. We do not want to build shells without content and bypass the founders. Of course, some municipal initiatives are also interesting, but they often fail due to a lack of speed.
Besides Schwarz+Matt, are there any projects in which André Schirmer could participate as a person? What should such projects look like?
Yes, of course. But that depends very much on the founders, whether they have the willingness to change. After all, transformation doesn’t always come to an end. And neither is a company ever 100% complete. Private investors often bring these qualities with them. Some of them are entrepreneurs who have realized that they and their business have to change. In the agency landscape, there are only a few companies that think along similar lines, that have the topic of transformation so sharply on their radar and build a sustainable agency model themselves. Ideas that point to the future fascinate me. In the future, I will be strongly committed to them.
How do you see marketing in a few years? Will digitalisation still be an issue? What will determine communication in terms of technology and content?
The new benchmark is consumer behaviour. Networking and individualisation are replacing advertising that targets a latent need. Marketing must not be thought in channels but in solutions. Yesterday’s decisions have to be made anew. For example, car dealers in larger cities have moved to the suburbs because exhibition space was affordable there. Audi City Berlin – the car dealer of the future – is building a giant screen right in the middle of the city where interested parties can configure their cars. This brings them closer to the people again, offers a new service and generates turnover. Advertising is dead, long live marketing.
Where do you see Schwarz+Matt in three and in five years? Where do you see yourself personally? What are your future plans? How do you think about the future? What could be personal challenges for you?
I don’t know, it’s hard to say. In any case, in 10 years I want to be involved in even more relevant ventures that solve problems for their customers. After all, companies are never finished, they are always at 80 %.
“Standing still is not my cup of tea. I also need constant change.”
But of course, there are goals. 100 employees in 5 years, is not too ambitious, but necessary to realize development. It is not about pure size, but about the constant diversification of the company to be good in all areas. We live and work here in a region of change: from coal and steel to education and technology. Even Angela Merkel emphasized this once again in her speech at the opening of the Digital Summit in Dortmund. Schwarz+Matt lives this change, started as an advertising agency, transformed once in three years as a marketing consultant. The next change is already happening in our company. Not because we change for its own sake but because we think into the future. Schwarz+Matt also needs to network with other companies, which is where the campus idea kicks off. What possibilities do new media, including influencers, offer? How can we transfer our knowledge and experience to companies? Schwarz+Matt is already more than just an agency, it’s several agencies under one roof: consulting, design, performance, content, technology – this is holistic marketing as we understand it. We want to expand this and create our own eco-system in which we can grow and prosper. To do this, we need the right partners, employees and of course a bit of luck. I don’t know yet whether all this will still be possible in five years for a company or a group of companies. But we are already thinking about it, talking to investors and specialists. In this respect, we are preparing ourselves well for the future, because the best time is still ahead of us.