WW: The honeymoon is over. How are things going in the everyday married life of /Department and FCB Zurich?
Oliver Brunschwiler: We are very happy. Nevertheless, further changes are on the horizon for me. First I have to digress a bit. With the exception of brand identity, short-livedness is a given in the communications industry. There is always a need for new messages and new products, and yet most of it is repetitive. As a communications service provider, it's a nice challenge to celebrate permanent renewal. I have come to believe in a long or second life for things. I also see signs of fatigue in the classic relationship between agency and client, because the last twenty years have seen a great deal of change. The pressure of work has increased, and not just in the communications industry. The specialist skills that talented employees need to bring to the table in order to remain innovative and motivated are constantly broadening. At the same time, the competencies on the client side have grown, which I personally welcome. People talk at eye level, and the creative services manager no longer comes to a presentation as the untouchable zampano, the bearer of the "big idea". We have become a sparring partner, but we often pay for this with the short-lived nature of the ideas.
And the spouses?
I'll get to that in a moment. In this dynamic, increasingly agile environment, /Department has been able to hold its own very well. Even before we married FCB, we were able to celebrate amazing successes. For years we operated completely outside the agency scene. Only: Johannes Eisenhut and I are two commercially oriented creatives, with emphasis on "oriented". That's why we've been looking for a third partner for years. Someone to ma nage us. In addition, we came to the point where we said: around 40, we want to do something new. We had to force ourselves to do that, especially when things were going well. It's like when you're sleeping well, but you still need to rearrange your bed. Without rearranging, you don't dream a new dream. Luckily we met Cornelia Harder - for us with the only "catch" that she was not self-employed but part of the agency and network. But the agency business is, after all, a people business. And from that point of view, Cornelia Harder as manager and Dennis Lück as CD are absolutely the right partners for us. This led to the "marriage" of /Department and FCB in July 2014. It is also pleasing that most of our customers have also married. We will continue to take care of them with a reduced workload. So Johannes and I are at the point where we have the privilege of doing "something completely new" at 40. Eisenhut is active in real estate development, I will work full time for the Freitag brothers in the future.
A cheating into employment?
Yes, such a relationship is new to me, and I could only imagine it at very few companies. Since 2014, I've been part of the Freitag management team and responsible for communication and creation. With /Department, Johannes Eisenhut and I were one of the few agencies that worked for Freitag again and again. However, far in the background, because Freitag does not do classic advertising and has always created something new in brand communication with playfulness and irritation, even without additions from agencies. We have also been associated as sparring partners for a long time. Johannes had been involved with Skim.com, another start-up with the Freitag brothers, since 1999, when the idea of a mail address printed on clothes and bags, with which people could contact each other via an anonymous mailbox, turned out to be a premature birth. And at the same time it was the first big learning for us involved that one should not confuse New Economy with Economy.
Now Freitag is diversifying with fashion. What is your motivation to "get into the pants" there yourself?
I've traveled the world with my past as a professional snowboarder and then as a creative and entrepreneur. In the process, I've met creatives in a wide variety of disciplines. But no one as good as the Freitag brothers in their comprehensive view of the whole. It is a personal challenge to compete in a company that is committed to thinking and acting in cycles and thus 100 percent "good goods". But if we were only diversifying with fashion, I wouldn't have joined.
One challenge is to launch a new product "without advertising". How is that going to come to play?
Through the right story. With Freitag, everything comes from a need, not just because the market wants it that way. Now you can say needs are exclusively market dominated - the market need, but that's only half the truth. The graphic designer Daniel and the decoration designer Markus had the need for a robust and somewhat individual bag. So in 1993, for their own use, they developed their first messenger bag from recycled truck tarpaulins, used bicycle inner tubes and car seat belts. These bags appealed to others, so they sewed several and started selling them. The brothers realized that their product could self-communicate, and furthermore, out of sheer budgetary necessity, they found their own eye-catching ways to sell their products. For example, they sold bags made from car trunks on a parking deck. This was well received by the scene, it was more of an installation, the buying moment played the supporting role. With these and many other guerrilla-like actions, a kind of Friday myth has emerged. The reassuring thing is that we still judge ideas according to the same patterns. Which more often leads to simply potting the most brilliant idea. An expectation I'm very comfortable with, because even as an entrepreneur I was rarely 100% satisfied with agency output in my role as chief creative and agency manager.
How does Freitag communicate today?
Today, our most important channel is media relations. This is the area in which we invest the most resources, alongside the online channel. We launch products with meaningful mini-stories, most of which are created by our internal creative department, in collaboration with external parties, or even with our innovation department. To support this, we have mandated several PR agencies, which are managed centrally by us. In addition, we believe in cooperations, in Switzerland for example already several times with the Tages-Anzeiger magazine, Pro Helvetia or Reportagen.
The Internet is becoming increasingly important. How do you want to deal with this medium at Freitag?
Media relations, the brothers, innovations, products, our stories and events are merging online. Like everywhere, the longer the more. But Freitag.ch is also an important sales channel. We devote increased attention to this channel accordingly. Together with our colleagues from the innovation department, we also develop formats as an end in themselves, commonly known as content marketing. A buzzword, but for us a high-potential channel, provided it is well orchestrated. In the summer, for example, we sent two journalists on a trip called "Grand Tour". They had a "carte blanche" to report on their experiences on our portal. The whole campaign had no other purpose than to detach our brand from the pure product message and land back with us via the back door. Another key channel is POS, where we are constantly looking for innovative ideas and lasting images to give our stories behind products a vessel.
A cult object advertises itself.
Exactly. You have to launch the right story around it and make the irrelevant relevant at first glance with a sure instinct. For example, by recontextualizing existing things in a completely norm-free way.
How big is the market for the Freitag label?
Our core market is Europe, above all Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Austria is also growing. France has a lot of potential, especially with FAbric. We are entering the UK. Asia is booming. The unique idea has only just arrived in Asia, where we still have umpteen immature markets on which we could focus. In Japan, Freitag has already been around for 15 years. In Tokyo, we operate two F-Stores on the hottest corners of the city.
Where are the bags produced?
We buy the truck sheets from all over Europe. At our headquarters in Oerlikon, the material is disassembled, washed and cut. Then the tarpaulins go to various sewing plants. The furthest are 1500 kilometres away. Then the sewn bags come back to the warehouse, are checked and distributed from Zurich.
Now the bags have been joined by clothes. Will Freitag become a real fashion label?
F-abric is a material story, a closed loop. In the beginning, we wanted to equip our factory workers with work clothes and were looking for a product that would meet our needs. It was not to be a well-traveled cotton, nor was it to be a fabric with polyester added, as it is in almost all other fabrics. So first we had to develop a new material. This started a five-year process. FAbric Workpants, for example, are made from a unique Broken Twill, a fabric made from linen and hemp. An FAbric part is 100 percent recyclable. Only the pant buttons are made of metal. A nice little feature on which you can imprint your own initials, totally timeless - the Patek Philippe of trouser buttons, if you will. As well as trousers, there are also women's tops and work dresses. And a concept bag that combines both circuits with blachen and F-Abric. In spring we will expand the range. But we have no intention of becoming a fashion company and only selling clothes. We will continue to make bags and diversify further, maybe from FAbric, maybe with other materials. And with other products. We are primarily a bag manufacturer and will remain so.
How is the textile sector now being marketed?
The brothers are the explorers, telling the story through a journey in search of the completed cycle. The core of the story: We think and act in cycles. Something is planted, you make something out of it, and then it goes back into the earth. Cradle to cradle.
How did you launch this material story?
The journey of the brothers forms the core. We made a kind of documentary of the trip and created a comprehensive publication including product presentation. For this, parts of the package were mirrored on Freitag. ch. At the POS, we staged both the film and the material with a pinch of irony. In the run-up to the event, we invited over 40 international media representatives. As a result, media from all over the world reported on us. Publications like Le Figaro, Falter, La Repubblica, Enorm, Swiss Magazine or Form. The goal was to tell the story first, so why are we doing this? It was only two months later that we launched the collection as a "harvest festival", because the end of October is flax harvest time in Normandy.
So how successful is this earned media presenting itself?
The story is heavily multiplied in the media, so we wanted the international blogs and print media first. These will then be referenced by others. Of course, we hope that the story with the new material will also fertilize the core business with the bags.
How many people does the company offer a job opportunity to today?
We employ around 160 people globally, most of them in Switzerland.
Why do ideas from Friday's garden go over so well?
The brothers have earned a certain credit with the uncompromising building of the brand, we have to be careful with this credit. Those who know the origin story and look through our lens give us the credit and open their doors. Whether it's new retailers, media, collaborative partners, other innovative companies, museums or even embassies. If we follow up with innovative ideas, we have won.The textile industry is one of the largest industries in the world. When we, as an SME from Oerlikon, come up with revolutionary innovations, or in other words with a recontextualized and zeitgeisty idea like FAbric, people take notice. However, the balance between commercial reality, demands and our principles remains a major challenge for us and is only viable because we are an attractive employer, care about people and attract talent accordingly.
Is sponsorship an issue?
We don't do paid sponsorship, no. But we do give away a bag now and then. Also to journalists.
Interview: Andreas Panzeri
In a nutshell
Brothers Daniel and Markus Freitag sewed their first bags from recycled truck sheets in 1993 "for their own use". This has since become a cult label with fans and sales channels around the globe. Since autumn 2014, Freitag has also been active in the fashion business with the line extension F-abric Workpants. These, for example, are made from a Broken Twill, a fabric made from linen and hemp that Freitag developed especially for her clothes. The fabric is completely compostable