A conversation with Mandie Bienek and Luiza Philipp, founders of Berlin based Press Factory, about the changes in PR: ”Over the last years, all these services like consulting, marketing and PR have started blending into each other.“
Berlin, 2001. Hedi Slimane was yet to discover the city with his camera and capture its cool in his black and white photos and the trade show Bread and Butter was still two years away from moving from Cologne to Berlin. In other words: Berlin was far away from being on the fashion map. If anything, people were concerned about whether their clothes would endure the next 48 hour rave.
Nonetheless, Mandie Bienek (left) and Luiza Philipp (right) decided to found their PR agency Press Factory. They weren’t aware of it at the time, however, later it turned out it was the first of its kind in the city.
Bienek was marketing director at luxury watch and jewellery brand Bucherer, Philipp worked „on the other side“, in publishing, and was heading Leonce, Berlin’s first independent fashion magazine. They met through work and it was only after the fifth or sixth time they had met, that they decided to found Press Factory. Among their clients: Armani, Bogner, Chanel – to cover only the first three letters of the alphabet.
The last 15 years have seen a massive change in what it means to do PR. Fashion no longer happens in an ivory tower. Digitalisation makes everything more direct and more accessible. That is good, but can be confusing for more traditional brands. PR went from „sending out the samples“ to „giving direction“. In this conversation with Bienek and Philipp, we’ll try to break down what that means.
(Header image: Whoever has a brilliant idea at Press Factory gets to keep the white rabbit as a trophy for a while)
I’m not sure I would have seen a market for fashion PR in Berlin in 2001. Why did you decide to found a fashion PR agency?
Bienek: It was the business we knew and the contacts that we had. Bucherer turned into our first client. We started out from Luiza’s living room in Prenzlauer Berg, in the enormous flat she lived in back then.
We never thought about it but we were actually the first fashion PR agency in Berlin. Our clients were Fiona Bennett, Sisi Wasabi, Lala Berlin, Esther Perbandt, Mongrels in Common. We grew in sync with the city’s fashion industry, so to say.
Around 2003, the trade show Bread & Butter moved from Cologne to Berlin. In your opinion, was that helpful for your business – that Berlin suddenly appeared on the fashion map?
Bienek: Absolutely. Of course, we asked ourselves if we weren’t better off in Hamburg or Munich, where the rest of the industry was located. But we quickly realised that we wanted to do it our own way and stayed.
We were always happy with the decision to stay in Berlin. Some of our clients specifically approached us because we were in Berlin. The music business started to settle down, more and more film premieres were happening. Eventually, Berlin became this kind of trend lab and at that point we were already established.
Berlin Fashion Week is down-sizing. No more tent, three instead of four days. Is that relevant for you?
Philipp: Today, I think Fashion Week is secondary for us. At a certain point there was a huge hype and it was all about the party. From a business point of view Berlin can still be a bit challenging. When it comes to actually selling the clothes, the money is largely being made somewhere else.
For us it is more important that Berlin is happening in the perception of people. We also think that quality is better than quantity. The Fashion Week might become smaller but its quality is getting better.
Bienek: We did the partying, now it is time to generate proper business and get the buyers to Berlin for them to place their orders. At the end of the day, the numbers need to be right, or we’ll all have problem.
Is that why you founded “anotherproject”, a company in which you combine sales and PR?
Bienek: Yes, that was a strategic decision. We had many requests from our non-German clients who wanted to have an integrated solution.
Also, as a communications agency, we need to have our finger on the pulse and constantly acquire new skills. We started out as a press agency, today we are more of a brand consultancy and communications agency. The traditional press work is only a small part of what we do.
We can only keep up if we acquire the know-how in those new fields. Our clients expect us to have the knowledge in sales just as much as in digital media or product development.
Is that a general trend?
Philipp: I think so. It’s a challenge for all PR firms. If you don’t adapt, you’re likely to disappear. At a certain point, the clients realised that PR firms can help them with storytelling and content and that they might even be less costly than their advertising agencies.
All of a sudden there was a shift in budgets and PR agencies were forced to deliver content. Obviously, a PR person thinks differently than somebody from marketing, with more focus on the product. There was a massive shift in expectations regarding know-how and skills towards PR agencies over the last five years.
What’s the difference in PR and marketing thinking?
Bienek: We know the specific industry. We don’t just make a campaign. We’re operating within a network. To use a buzzword … a 360 degree approach is kind of inherent in our work.
Philipp: And, as mentioned, we have a focus on the product. Over the last two or three years all these services like consulting, marketing and PR have started blending into each other. Today, our clients ask us whether we find their sales strategy to be the appropriate one or whether their production process is still up to date. Oftentimes, we are even being approached before a product is being developed.
Bienek: Wrapping up goodie bags and organising champagne receptions would not have been satisfying forever. It is more thrilling to be included at a point in the process, when it is still about the ideas and develop a product and strategy together with our client.
Philipp: I think it’s got to do with globalisation and digitalisation. On the one hand, everything seems possible – on the other hand, that leaves a lot of brands with a lack of orientation.
I have two kids, one of them is in school. It’s astounding how well informed a 12 year old is. When my generation grew up it was all about the brand. Today, they know everything about a product. Who made it, what’s in it, what’s good about it and what not. I didn’t know all these things when I was that age. There is such a thirst for knowledge. This is what brands are facing. You need to be able to handle that.
The next generations care about different things. The major brands that are relevant to us today must adapt. It’s not enough to be a luxury brand anymore. Brands are to explain where their products come from and what their impact on the world is. Which benefits and values do you create?
Can you think of any other values?
Bienek: Credibility. Sustainability, not just in an ecological sense, but being a reliable leader in innovation. We all know it from our own purchasing behaviour. We want the right trench and the right jumper.
Philipp: The entire story around a product or a brand needs to be right. Can I identify with it? Is this a path I want to follow? This is an observation I have been making in my personal environment: People want less but want to be able to identify with what they have. It’s about a certain awareness.
Bienek: I’m referring to something Li Edelkoort said: It’s not about creating new products, it is rather about making them better.
How do you deal with this kind of dilemma from a business perspective? Less is more, however, running a business is also about growth.
Bienek: Over the last 15 years, we have managed to stand for a certain quality. We ended collaborations with clients if we couldn’t identify with what they stand for anymore. We would rather take a step back and grow slowly. We don’t make a ten year plan. We’d rather question the status quo on a regular basis and act accordingly.
Philipp: Sometimes we tell our clients that it’s not always about novelty. There’s not necessarily a need to come up with the latest and coolest t-shirt. It can be okay to keep doing the good things for more than one season. Sometimes a new perspective on your own product can be helpful.
Bienek: Brands need to interact with their customers. This is what we see happening on social media. Channels and their reach have changed. However, that’s also the big challenge for brands.
Are you yourselves always clear how to work those new channels?
Bienek: I just came out of a meeting where it was all about algorithms. You learn something new every day – and in this case I had to listen very carefully.
However, I think our advantage is that we know the old as well as the new world. We understand how the more traditional brands work, and their value systems. We also understand what’s going on now. An important source of knowledge are our young interns. How do they perceive things? What, where and how do they shop? They are the future target groups. Don’t just look on the executive’s or director’s level.
Are there other fields in which technology might have changed the way you work over the last 15 years?
Bienek: For decades we had believed in a fashion system and had succumbed to a rhythm of which we thought it was a given. That has changed completely. We had to plan six to eight months ahead, with lead times for print. That is a lot shorter now. Hierarchies are being questioned. There used to be print, TV and the radio to send your brand message into the world. Now we have the social communities and online platforms that take over more and more and follow their own rules. Plus, brands have the option of using their own channels to start a dialogue with their customers.
Philipp: It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. On the one hand, many processes have been facilitated through digitalisation. Through email alone. Not that long ago we would send out invitations to 200 guests by fax. One fax per guest … Everything is quicker and more direct. Databases, research, everything is so much more accessible.
On the other hand there is so much information that needs to be filtered and translated to your teams, into the different channels. Some things have become more easy, others have become way more complex.
What has also changed is that there is practically no longer a line between private and work life anymore. In our beginnings, 6pm would be the latest you would call someone. Today, I talk to clients at 9pm. Digitalisation changes the way we live and work. For younger generations this is natural.
Bienek: Alone the quantity and, thus, the amount of people you deal with. There used to be a handful of magazine editors. Today you have bloggers, influencers, all the online editors … with each and everyone you communicate on a different level. You don’t send a press release to a blogger, for example, the approach is a different one, more direct.
We talked a lot about what has changed on your end of the business. What do you think needs to change on the publisher’s side?
Bienek: From my observations, when I take a look at the under 20 years olds, there will be two relevant directions in publishing: On the one hand, print that has a certain quality, that may become a collectible, a magazine as a coffee table book, publications that stand out and are different, are brave, stand for something; on the other hand, there will be all the 24 hour real-time online channels that will feed us news in all kind of fields, obviously also fashion.
Philipp: My advice would be to question whether circulation or reach are still the most important targets. Or, is it relevance? I might have fewer readers, but isn’t it better to reach the ones that I want? More specific content will make everybody happy: the readers and the advertisers.