Vizner Borel: Advertisers we were

For 18 years, Lajos Vizner and Guillaume Borel shaped the Swiss communications industry with Vizner Borel - then came Corona. An obituary.

Vizner Borel
Where it all began: Guillaume Borel (left) and Lajos Vizner in the "hose," an in-between space that housed their first office in 2004. (Image: Chris Reist)

The story of the ViznerBorel agency ends where it began; with the two men who gave it its name and face for eighteen years. We meet Lajos Vizner and Guillaume Borel in mid-June in a building on Zurich's Klosbachstrasse, near the Römerhof streetcar station. For the two, the appointment is a bittersweet trip down memory lane, as a few days later they will file their company's financial statements with the authorities - and lock the doors of their current office, just a few steps away, for the last time. ViznerBorel have decided to shut down their business. Dedicated rescue attempts notwithstanding, the pandemic and inflation claim one of their most prominent victims yet within the Swiss communications industry.

Why not dare to do something new?

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Lajos Vizner and Guillaume Borel want to speak openly. And they don't want to be deprived of smiling for the photos, although they hardly feel like it these days. They are standing together in the "Schlauch," an intermediate space that was actually designed as a connecting corridor (and has since been used in this way again). They moved into their first improvised office there in 2004. As they recall, the two had neither a master plan nor any capital of their own, but plenty of momentum: At the time, owner-managed advertising firms were in vogue among clients, and the joint employer of strategist Vizner and creative Borel - the Bonaparte agency - had just gone bankrupt. So why not try your hand at being an owner, try something new, together?

"Le feu sacré"

The claim for their project was quickly found, characterized by a pathos that was probably not typical of Switzerland, but charming: "Le feu sacré," the "sacred fire" that should burn for the clients and also in the advertisers themselves. They didn't want to do it any lower than that; completely or not at all. The metaphor became core to their philosophy: "Only communication that sparks ignites a fire." Fittingly, Vizner and Borel gave away altar candles, made for them by the Einsiedeln Monastery supplier, to their rapidly growing customer base. "We became a hotshop," they recall. And where a good reputation precedes, the big budgets often follow swiftly behind. Porsche, Denner, UPC, Navyboot or Heineken; VW, Ikea, Weleda or Migrolino entrusted their brands to the - in terms of size, style and style - unequal duo. Admittedly, they could soon no longer remain a duo; there was simply too much to do. The organization grew to 24 employees, went from a boutique to a veritable SME, and the "hose" was suddenly much too narrow - not only for what they did, but also for what they intended to do.

There are photos from that time showing Vizner and Borel with their management at the time - both wearing dark tailored suits and ties. Is it fair to say that they are not only younger in these pictures, but also look younger? Less exhausted, less tired? "We've had quite a few sleepless nights - one may," winks Creative Guillaume, but that's probably only part of the explanation. Because what has drained so many entrepreneurs, in the endlessly stretching months and years since a tiny virus turned an entire world upside down from its feet - it's not just physical fatigue. "It's," says Strategy Lajos, "this uncertainty, this maneuvering between lockdowns and tentative openings, and in the end no one knows what's going to happen next." The aforementioned portfolio, long a boon for the agency, proved to be a portent; after all, the majority of ViznerBorel's clients were in turn dependent on the consumer climate that prevailed among end users. And this climate has seldom been worse than in times when people are not allowed to leave the house, when they are afraid for their health, their job, and even their existence. Who needs new cars, who buys a kitchen?

The 'sacred fire' that should burn for the clients and also in the advertisers themselves.

Nevertheless, the federal government's hardship regulation was not applied - the position of communications service providers in the chain of economic value creation seems too complex, and the fact that the pandemic alone is to blame for the agency's plight is too difficult to verify. After all, there was no official directive to suspend work, as in the case of restaurants and non-essential businesses. One would have been allowed to advertise, had only someone inquired, but the clientele went into guardedness. The federal government could perhaps do something in such cases, but did not want to. Or wanted to - and could not. Who knows? And when economic historians one day pass judgment on the things that happened and that might never have happened in other scenarios - then so much water will have flowed down the Limmat that unfortunately, somehow, it won't matter. Twice, Vizner and Borel nevertheless resisted a negative vote by the authorities, and twice the only result was a high bill for the administrative effort of those who ultimately issued a negative decision.

And then came the inevitable steps: Accessing the agency's reserves, originally intended as a payout for the founders to cover employees' salaries ("How could we have taken money from the company but laid people off at the same time?" asks Guillaume Borel, indignant that such a thing actually seems to be common practice elsewhere); countless talks with potential cooperation partners, investors. Of course, participation in the few pitches that were even offered up and down the country in the pandemic. "Again and again we had hope, and that's what keeps you going," says Lajos Vizner. But it can also be deceptive, sometimes downright cruel: When it briefly seemed as if everything was going to be okay after all, the next Covid variant came along, the next lockdown. The next lost mandate. And in the end, with the heaviest of hearts: cuts in personnel. These were particularly hard for ViznerBorel because the agency always had a low staff turnover. Layoffs are always unpleasant, I suppose, but laying off people you've known for twelve, fifteen, eighteen years, whose children you've watched grow up, who you've seen build their homes or marry their childhood sweethearts, that's something else entirely. "That's the part of entrepreneurship that hardly anyone talks about," the agency founders believe, not even because of any artificial taboos - but simply because it's so sad.

The captains go last

One last, big pitch was due, a few months ago, they don't like to call the customer by name, the duty of confidentiality is even contractually stipulated. And indeed: ViznerBorel won this pitch. The budget involved would have given the team breathing space, a new chance. But then timing threw a wrench in their plans. "An absolutely terrific client - a fantastic job. But also just wages, rent, expenses we would have had to cover ourselves until the first resources were transferred in the fall." The temptation to go into private debt to somehow make it work was strong. But then reason triumphed over the heart, ratio over "le feu sacré." They did one more empathetic volte face and happily agreed with the "almost client" when he made their employees a permanent job offer: they would soon be able to do "in-house" what the agency had actually wanted to do. Vizner and Borel themselves, of course, will not "go along with it," for a variety of reasons. Two like them need diversity, even if it brings a degree of uncertainty. "We would have been more worried if our daughter had not been accommodated," they say, and it speaks for the two of them that you really believe them.

Vizner Borel
Will now work as consultants: Lajos Vizner (left) and Guillaume Borel. (Image: Chris Reist)

The two captains leave the ship last. They leave for a future peppered with question marks, without a net, without a double bottom. Entrepreneurs are not insured with the ALV - nor are they insurable. Or, to put it in official language: "The entrepreneurial risk remains with the self-employed person." Lajos and Guillaume will now try it as consultants, you can book them individually or together. They will no longer be allowed to use the name ViznerBorel once they have filed their balance sheets, but their new business cards will fit together like two pieces of a puzzle in which the agency is resurrected, at least visually.

The federal hardship provision did not apply. After all, there was no official directive to suspend work.

And if there is something good about the whole story, which is not a particularly happy one in itself? The strategist and the creative think that uncertainty can also mean freedom. Because back in 2004, clients would have appreciated that owner-managed agencies often proclaimed unadjusted and unconventional ideas. "Today, clients, advertisers and consumers are bored with each other," Guillaume Borel says with a grin, "and in this mainstream, in this river of indifference, we are now allowed to swim against the tide again."

Vizner Borel
ViznerBorel campaigns for Denner, Theater Winkelwiese, Navyboot: what remains is the memory.

Can you want to start over?

Following such a statement, there is of course another question that may seem a bit impertinent, but the open discourse about fatigue and exhaustion has made the editor courageous: whether it is more difficult to start anew later in life than, say, in one's mid-thirties? Whether one can still have the desire to give everything again, to start anew, to fight? "I don't want to and won't just stop now," says Lajos Vizner, "not after more than three decades in the business." And adds with a laugh, "Besides, I still have way too much energy and joy in what I do." Guillaume Borel, on the other hand, is thinking about the changing society, has already become increasingly involved with non-profit organizations in recent years. "Maybe now is the time to give back even more with what we can do," he says. Age is merely a biological matter anyway, a physicality, but the spirit remains restless, youthful, creative - in him as in his partner. And there you realize, for a moment, between all the things that still have to be unwound; between the vagueness that comes and the memory that remains: The fire, the passion, "le feu sacré" are not extinguished. They may spill over to other places, times and constellations; but they will continue to blaze, to blaze.


Lajos Vizner and Guillaume Borel say goodbye to the industry with a "Best Of Film" of their work. At the same time, they are available immediately as experienced consultants, either individually or together, for strategic and creative work: They can be reached at lajos@vizner.ch and guillaume@leborel.com.

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