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Almost 30 years of Syndicate: In conversation with MEEDIA

On the occasion of our almost 30th birthday, MEEDIA, the business magazine for brands, media and the makers, went on a journey through time with us. The result is a great article that makes us almost nostalgic and can be read below:

‘A syndicate is understood to be a highly developed economic cartel with a joint sales organization. Due to the general ban on cartels in the economy, there have been hardly any such associations in the world since about the 1970s. But one is based in a commercial backyard in Hamburg-Eimsbüttel: Syndicate Design, which has been responsible for the look of numerous international brands for almost 30 years.

A complex of buildings in a backyard in Hamburg Eimsbüttel is the home of Syndicate Design. And thus somehow also the home of many national and international brands. The almost 100-year-old freight elevator takes you up towards the roof terrace, from where you can enjoy a dreamlike view in the direction of the TV tower.

Here, in the agency rooms of Syndicate, the designs for Hipp and “Capri Sun” packaging, corporate identities and world-famous logos are created, among other things. This is where the branch concepts of the future are developed for banks such as UBS and Hamburger Sparkasse, and where the Skoda brand was dusted off and made sexy. The start-up “Wasserhelden” saw the light of day here and for “Gloryfeel” Syndicate acts as brand developer and brand guardian. In addition, the corporate design of the Sennheiser brand was further developed here and for many years the point of sale and retail designs for the duty free and concept store operator Gebr. Heinemann. Meanwhile, ideas are also being worked on for how the world will work tomorrow – once Corona is over.

The “Syndicates” are brand developers and passionate designers. And for the Hamburgers, design is not just about what you see. For them, design begins earlier and ends later.

In Syndicate’s case, earlier is not just before design. It really is earlier. It is almost 30 years ago. At the time of the fall of the wall and the Wessi gold rush. There they sat, Sven Carsten Alt, Lukas Eichenberg and Marcus Greinke now at the, as so often in such situations, quoted kitchen table and wanted to change the world with their design. To do everything differently – in design, in advertising. There was one fictional customer at the time: it was called “Biermarke”. That’s what the three of them wanted, that was the strategic goal – after all, you had to have a goal.

It should come differently

But something else happened first, namely the turnaround and with it Hanseatica. A Hamburg project development company that wanted to turn the big wheel in the new federal states. Shopping malls were to be built and millions earned. This required branding, communication and advertising. All this was to come from Syndicate. It did – in high frequency and elaborately designed. “Everything we proposed was also implemented,” recalls Sven Alt of the times. Money didn’t play a role; there was plenty of it at Hanseatica and later at Hanseatische Wohnungsbaugesellschaft. After all, the financially had the Jahr publishing family behind it.

Nevertheless, the contractual relationship was not to last forever. On the one hand, because the Hanseatica has not existed for a long time. But above all because Syndicate had in the meantime changed its focus in the direction of the brand. The first major customers had been acquired. However, there was still no beer brand. But a global player was.

Beiersdorf had taken notice of the still young agency. And with that, the Syndicate path changed for the first time. “We said goodbye to graphics, that is, to the design task. Beiersdorf was actually the starting signal for what we are today. Everything we did up to that point was a lot of fun. But it didn’t have much to do with the actual attitude, with what we wanted to do,” Alt says.

For Syndicate, the Beiersdorf account was an accolade. After all, it involved the worldwide relaunch of the Nivea Body brand. The young agency, which at the time was – as Alt puts it – a nobody, suddenly had the chance to handle an international assignment. “We managed that, too,” recalls Alt, still proud of it. That he is not wrong in his pride is evident from the fact that Syndicate still works for the Hamburg company and has traveled all over the BDF brand world over the years.

Be that as it may, Beiersdorf had paved the way for the agency into the brand world at the time. More and more companies approached the Hamburg-based company – be it Arla with its Buko fish cheese, Gliss Kur hair care or Tetra with its fish food. “From then on, all consumer goods sectors were actually our topic,” says Alt.

Expansion and retreat

Of course, Syndicate was not left entirely unscathed by the departure into the world of brands. The broadest track in the agency’s history was probably at the turn of the millennium. “There was a change of partners. Heiko Hinrichs joined, but one of the founders, Marcus Greinke, left,” recalls Alt. In addition, a location was opened in Frankfurt – which was closed again after one and a half years. “That was a very concise milestone for us in that we had to learn agency management in that way,” Alt says. He admits that running a second location was difficult. In Frankfurt, however, the 30 employees at the time won important clients who have remained loyal to Syndicate to this day.

This includes Hipp, for whom Syndicate has been active as a lead agency for branding and design for more than 20 years and is still one of the Hamburg-based company’s biggest clients, as are dm and Nestlé.

But let’s get back to the change of ownership, which actually happened more by chance than by design. Coincidentally, because Heiko Hinrichs did not actually come from the industry. He originally trained as a draftsman at a shipyard and, because he was more interested in design than in mundane technical drawings, studied industrial design in Switzerland. This was followed by a year as chief designer at a lamp manufacturer and freelancing. At some point, he met Lukas Eichenberg, whom he knew from Switzerland. And he asked him if he could help Syndicate with a project they weren’t really getting anywhere with. At the time, it was about redesigning Jet fueling stations. “So I started out as a freelancer at Syndicate, and over the years I got further and further away from being self-employed – until I took over the shares in 2000,” says Hinrichs, who had discovered for himself the potential of the agency, which he describes as three-dimensionality and brand. By which he means the corporate design of a brand from strategic development to spatial and holistic perception.

Everything from one source

He knew how to exploit the potential. Whereas at the time Syndicate merely supplied Jet with the brand and design concept for the new service stations, which was then implemented by others via a call for tenders with a budget of just under DM 60 million (i.e. around EUR 30 million today), the agency now also offers this. Has, so to speak, profitably expanded its value chain. The currently most visible examples are the Skoda car dealerships, the HEM gas stations or the new Hamburg Sparkassen branches, for which Syndicate has developed and implemented the current design and retail system.

For this area Syndicate has founded the “Double Q” (double quality in quantity). This is, so to speak, the extended “workbench” of the Shop & Retail Design and Brand Space division. “This way we can guarantee that both design and implementation are realized at a high level, if we are commissioned to do so,” says Hinrichs. But not only that. By implementing the concepts developed by Syndicate, one automatically slips into the field of construction and thus into a new dimension of warranty. Moreover, the job required people other than strategists and designers.

In the meantime, Syndicate has also used its expertise in designing spaces for its own benefit. For example, five years ago, when Alt, Eichenberg and Hinrichs thought it was time to give Rentzelstrasse a comprehensive relaunch. The result was the “Cookery” (see Meedia 27/2020), which has since become the creative heart of the agency. The idea was to have an area for workshops that offered different uses.

And because every “party” ends in the kitchen, one was built. This then became the theme because it combines two things. On the one hand, of course, to loosen up the workshops. On the other hand, it is also a synonym for how the collaboration in the sessions works – namely in teams that develop building blocks of a topic for themselves, which in the end become a whole – in kitchen language, a menu.

Corona as the driver of a new business idea

Since Corona, however, everything has been different here on the 4th floor with a roof terrace. Sven Alt even claims that the agency actually sits here in the Cookery. There is hardly any need for more space; the offices are currently deserted. The employees, as well as an armada of freelancers, work mainly in home offices. In the machine rooms, the copiers are switched off. Only the server is running at full steam, and many of the current 50 employees seem to be uploading and downloading data. Hinrichs even talks about the fact that the approximately 1,300 square meters that Syndicate currently maintains for its employees will not be needed in the future. “If you do the math, with vacation, home office, etc., it’s completely oversized,” he says. It’s just the time of the New Work. Of course, Syndicate has been thinking about this since before Corona. “Project spaces is more the term you would have to live with,” says Hinrichs. Individual permanent workplaces will no longer be necessary in the future – at least for Syndicate.

The keyword here is “B.O.X.” – brand, operation, experience. A tool that Syndicate has developed and implemented for itself and is now offering to other companies. The first customer is hello.de, a company specializing in customer service management, for which the premises in Berlin are currently being redesigned to meet the new requirements. For Alt, Hinrichs and their colleagues, it is clear that hybrid working models will not only be part of everyday life for their own agency, i.e. also after Corona.

One trend is already foreseeable: The space freed up by hybrid working can either be given up or sublet. At least that’s what Syndicate has already done, with the start-up Wasserhelden.

With which Syndicate – without having really planned it – has occupied another link in the value chain. Because the start-up, which promises to deliver water to retailers in the region from a maximum distance of 200 km, received its appearance from Rentzelstraße beforehand, including the entire brand strategy.Maybe that will work out in the future with a beer start-up. A beer brand is namely still waiting.’

Author: Claudia Bayer, MEEDIA

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