In his mid-20s, Tobias Zehnder helped build a digital agency that today - eleven years later - is one of the largest and most successful in Switzerland. The "representative digital wizard," as the "Werber des Jahres" jury calls the 38-year-old, understands the technical details behind marketing trends while maintaining an eye for the big picture. Zehnder shares his knowledge of all things communication with marketing decision-makers through his involvement in associations and universities.
"It was never just about handling small Google Ads as cheaply as possible for clients," says Tobias Zehnder, looking back on the founding of Webrepublic, "but helping clients make profitable use of the many technological innovations." The Zurich native manages the agency strategically and is concerned with how the market is developing. He characterizes his company as a new type of agency in a rapidly changing advertising landscape. The company language is English, the team is internationally diverse, and the offices in Zurich-Enge exude Google flair with foosball, a bar, and armchairs. With 190 permanent employees, award wins, and many new clients in addition to loyal regular customers, Webrepublic is on the road to success.
"The digital transformation is hitting home. Now what we do is no longer just a trend, but a reality," says Zehnder. The days when digital experts were ridiculed within a company are over, he says. Today, marketing departments spend a large part of their budgets on digital measures. The time is ripe, thinks the father of two, to break out of old patterns with "classic" and "digital" advertising. "We have to work together - creative, digital and media, strategy and implementation - and clients have to allow that," Zehnder says. "This is enormously close to my heart. I'm convinced that in the future, marketing success won't come from briefings, but from collaboration around a table." Many successes in Webrepublic's history, he adds, were not the goal at the beginning, but came about in the course of working with clients. "This openness to work together constructively is what I wish for us as an industry."
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Werbewoche: What was your first thought when you heard about the nomination for "Advertiser of the Year"?
Tobias Zehnder: Surprised and very pleased at the same time. Surprised because I'm not the classic advertiser with a portfolio of creative campaigns, but a representative of data-based digital marketing. So I'm all the more pleased that this area is also attracting more and more attention within the advertising industry today and is represented at an established award like the "Advertiser of the Year". It shows that we as an agency are at the forefront of the market and no longer merely serve a niche. From the very beginning, we have supported our clients in using innovations profitably for their business. It's great to see how the industry has developed over the last eleven years and is becoming more and more open to the overall view of marketing.
What would you want to achieve as "Advertiser of the Year"?
I'm in favor of holistically conceived marketing that thinks creation, technology and media planning together right from the start. For me, it's about generating enthusiasm for digital marketing and also demystifying it at the same time. In our dynamic industry, you have to set priorities. The question is: Which developments and trends do we invest in, and where is there no potential for companies? In doing so, we as a company have been open with our knowledge since our founding - in consulting with our customers and as an advisory board or speaker at universities and organizations.
What does advertising mean to you?
As an eight-year-old, I was already captivated by advertising: I took pictures of all the advertising posters in the area with my first camera and created my first photo series. I was fascinated by the eye-catching posters. Of course, I was influenced by my father, who also worked in advertising.
For me, advertising means bringing demand and supply together in the best possible case: Only those who are constantly learning, who deal with society, new technologies and trends can achieve this. For me, advertising is the interface of culture, society and business.
Where do you see the biggest current challenges in the advertising and communications industry?
The greatest challenge is to maintain a sober and at the same time productive view of the possibilities and limits of the digital. In such a dynamic environment, it is crucial for companies to assess which developments and technologies are relevant and which are not. In doing so, the view must always be directed at the whole: a separation of classic and digital communication no longer works. Technology, creation and media planning must be thought of together. This interlocking collaboration still hardly takes place. At the moment, the creative department designs a concept that is usually based on only a few really tangible data. After the creative concept has been created, media planning looks at how the message can best be disseminated to the target group. The technical know-how to spread the messages on the channels is often missing. In the best case, the disciplines run in parallel and are interlinked.
Another big challenge is finding and developing new talent. We need people with an overall view. However, due to the increasing complexity in the industry, this requirement is becoming more and more difficult to fulfill. Since our founding in 2009, we have focused on a unique culture and a bottom-up learning approach. Each and every new employee goes through a multi-stage training program, learning not only the craft, but also the company and all disciplines. In this way, we create an environment in which innovation and pioneering spirit are lived and encouraged. Nevertheless, in this dynamic working environment, we in management also have to constantly develop new models in order to create the best workplace for our employees.
What are you particularly good at - and what do you let your team take the lead in?
In the early recognition of new trends and the identification of topics that we want to deal with in the future - or deliberately not. In the digital marketing environment, hardly a month goes by without a new tool or feature. It is therefore all the more important to recognize which ones have potential and which ones are just short-term hype. Besides designing the company strategy, market intelligence is an important part of my job. I am involved with various universities and associations such as UZH, ZHW or LSA.
In our company, I act as an interface between the agency, the client and the industry. This requires foresight and, above all, knowledge and understanding of all parties. Even though I still look after individual clients as a management partner, my team now takes over the operational part completely. While I still love working very closely with clients, delivering the best quality requires project managers and professionals who are fully focused on individual projects and disciplines.
What have been your career highlights since spring 2019?
Last year saw a number of milestones in our agency. We made our biggest organizational upgrade since our founding in 2009, with the goal of speeding up decision-making paths and aligning them with individual departments. Also in 2019, we submitted a campaign to Cannes Lions for the very first time: conceptualizing, supporting and implementing the strategy for the commercial digital campaigns of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and its sponsors, worldwide. We were very pleased to see a shift in thinking at Cannes as well: New categories and companies on the ground showed that digitalization has arrived. Although we weren't able to take home a "Lion" - we were able to win a "Buoy" at Best of Swiss Web and our first "Effie" this year. On a personal level, I am pleased to be involved in the topics of education and industry development as an advisory board member of the University of Zurich, school board member of the Ad School and board member of the LSA.
Who or what has had a particular impact on you professionally?
My parents, as well as Gabriele Siegert as a lecturer at the University of Zurich and also Webrepublic CEO Tom Hanan as a boss during my time at Google. They all taught me to think outside the box, to always keep the pioneering spirit and also encouraged me to follow my interests and talents. Early on, I created websites for companies and associations and also experimented with website marketing. As a result, I got involved with this long before the first Google banner ads. Finally, much of what I investigated in my licentiate thesis on "Online advertising - the stepchild of media agencies?" was the basis for Webrepublic's business model. Even then, the focus was on a scientific, data-driven approach and the courage to discover new things as pioneers. These are still two of Webrepublic's core values today.
Born and raised in Zurich, studied Tobias Zehnder at the University of Zurich, during which time he also completed an internship at Google. After graduating, he founded the Webrepublic agency with Tom Hanan, which today has 190 employees and 120 clients. Zehnder manages the company strategically, lectures at universities and is on the board of the LSA. Outside of work, the 38-year-old spends time with his wife and two children, with whom he lives in Zurich-Albisrieden. He was recently kicked out of the company band for lack of presence at practice sessions.
Information on all nominees and the "Advertiser of the Year" election can be found at here. The online election will start on Wednesday, September 16, 2020 via newsletter. All subscribers to the Werbewoche and m&k newsletters are eligible to vote. Register here for free. The final winner of the "Egon" trophy will be determined 50/50 by the newsletter readership and the "Advertiser of the Year" jury.