Ralf Heuel

creative director


"One of the four best creative directors in the world". That is Ralf Heuel according to ‚The Big Won‘ (rebranded as ‚World Creative Rankings‘ in 2020). The international creative ranking is not alone in its assessment. The "LeadAcademy for Media Design and and Marketing" voted the German "Creative Leader of the Year 2015", and the trade magazine HORIZONT named him, together with his partners, "Men and Women of the Year 2015". Ralf Heuel is 'Managing Director Creation' and partner/co-owner at ‚Grabarz & Partner‘ in Hamburg. According to the British business publication ‚Campaign‘, the agency with a staff of around 300 is one of the "World Leading Agencies“.

Ralf Heuel

creative director


Ralf Heuel in his office
Ralf Heuel in his office | © Thies Ratzke Photography

"w&v", the weekly magazine for the communications and media industry in Germany, named the company its "Agency of the Year 2015". The Hamburg-based advertising agency was the most-awarded German agency at the 2015 ‚Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity‘ and received seven Gold Awards, a Silver Award and a Grand LIA at the London International Awards ('LIA') in the same year. Another highlight: Most awarded agency at the competition of the German "Art Directors Club" ('ADC'). The decisive factor for this triumph was the worldwide success of their subversive campaign "Right against Right" for EXIT Germany, a neo-Nazi drop-out programme, which was created in cooperation with "GGH Mullen Lowe". The "most involuntary fundraising run in Germany" (www.rechts-gegen-rechts.de) is the most awarded advertising work made in Germany so far! In 2020 „Grabarz & Partner“ was awarded as one of „Cannes Lions Independet Agencies of the Decade“!

Ralf Heuel was born in Lüdenscheid on 23 April 1967. After completing commercial school, the son of a graduate engineer/inventor trained as an advertising salesman and attended the "Academy for Marketing Communication" in Düsseldorf. He then worked as a junior copywriter at "Brindfors", where he met Andreas Grabarz. When the agency, which was in charge of the IKEA account in Germany, among other things, was sold, the Swedish furniture store looked for a new, exclusive advertising representative. Grabarz was the Swedes' first choice. That's why Grabarz and Heuel founded the company "Grabarz und Partner" in 1993 together with six other creative people. Heuel was initially a junior copywriter, quickly became co-owner and in 2002, at the age of 35, 'Managing Director Creation'. In the meantime, around 250 employees of the member of thenetworkone.com, a worldwide network of independent agencies, look after clients such as Porsche, Volkswagen, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, Burger King, IKEA, Thalia bookshops, DEVK insurance companies or Melitta.

Ralf Heuel, whose advertising creations have won awards such as the US media prize "Clio", the "Cresta International Advertising Awards" and the "Eurobest - Festival of European Creativity", regularly passes on his experience to young creatives in workshops and seminars. The member of ‚The One Club‘ (New York), the British ‚D&AD‘ and the German ‚Art Directors Club‘ has a daughter, lives in Hamburg and lists his hobbies as classic cars, music, films, cooking and travelling.


Interview August 2016

A constant struggle: always in search of the most original, innovative, surprising idea or story to tell


The Romanian-French sculptor Constantin Brancusi said about his creation process: “Things are not difficult to make. What is difficult is, putting yourself in the state of mind to make them.“ Before the creativity, there is intuition. Where does this intuition come from, what sparks it? How does it manifest itself – is it only a vague idea or tangible (for example, in pictures)?

It is remarkable that Romanian sculptors have the same understanding as British advertising legends. The great John Hegarty (global creative director and founder of the London creative agency 'Bartle Bogle Hegarty'/BBH - author's remark), once said: 'You don't come up with a good idea. It comes to you. All you can do is make her like coming to you.' If I knew where my intuition comes from, I could probably halve my working hours. But I don't know for sure. The brain (at least mine) does not work according to the input-output principle, linearly or in causal relationships. Accordingly, a promising idea can appear in the most diverse aggregate states - and stupidly at the most inopportune occasions. Sometimes it is an image, sometimes a sentence or a word, sometimes a film scene or a quote, sometimes just a feeling. Sometimes you have the whole campaign in front of your eyes after a few minutes (unfortunately, this happens far too seldom), sometimes you only see a very small piece of the mosaic, comparable to the corner of a bedspread that you have to pull very long and which then painstakingly gets bigger and bigger (unfortunately, this happens all the time).

Intuition comes suddenly - as a vague 'gut feeling' or as a concrete 'flash of inspiration'. What experiences have you had with this?

Two of the most important tasks of creative people are: Firstly, to understand that writing down the idea is not the real work, but searching for and finding this idea, i.e. the process itself. And secondly, to find out what makes you tick and under what conditions you can best be creative. In almost thirty years of advertising, I have learned that this is different for everyone. For me, conversations with good people help in the beginning. I see creation as a team sport. If you talk openly and honestly with talented people about the task and possible solutions and pass the balls and thoughts to each other, I often come up with interesting ideas. Then I realised that the brain is like a muscle that also needs to relax sometimes. For example, I often think of things during a thirty-minute car ride that I wouldn't have thought of during hours of intensive thinking at the agency. I once spoke to a neurologist about this. He explained to me that one half of the brain concentrates on the traffic, which means that the other half is practically free and dares to do more. Disco. Since then I drive more...!

Does rest/relaxation create the best or is deadline pressure a stimulant?

I need both. I need rest, time and relaxation to approach and build chemistry with care task. There really needs to be closeness and familiarity. I need to feel that this is now going to be MY thing, MY task, MY problem. On the other hand, I definitely need a fixed deadline, if only to avoid going completely crazy. Because the perfidious thing about creation is that it could always be even better. There is no end, no optimum. With more time, practically everything could be improved. By the way, this is not only true in advertising. Michael Mann shot the film 'LA Takedown' with relatively little time and a small budget. The result was okay and hardly anyone knows it. Years later, he made virtually the same film again. But with much more time and budget, starring Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. The result was called 'Heat' and is one of the best films of all time. The importance of a deadline is also shown by a film: 'Apocalypse now', on which Francis Ford Coppola could work as long as he wanted. It turned out to be years. There is a documentary about the filming that is well worth seeing. It is called 'Hearts of Darkness'. At the very beginning of the documentary Coppola says in an interview: 'We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane. It's hard to put it more beautifully.

What to do when a "deadline" is given but there is no intuition/inspiration?

Don't tense up, but take a deep breath and smile away the uncertainty as confidently as possible. And always remember: most people on earth have much harder jobs and bigger problems than we do in creation!

Does inspiration often precede intuition as a trigger? If so, what inspires you?

I am not someone who is specifically inspired. I don't function along the lines of 'I'm going to go to the natural history museum for two hours or to a trash metal concert because I have to do a campaign tomorrow'. I honestly don't know what inspires me. Probably everything I see, experience, learn. I'm very lucky that I'm very easily inspired by any crap. So I'm interested in everything and draw my inspiration from this melange.

How is the wheat separated from the chaff, i.e. which idea is worth pursuing and which is not or perhaps ahead of its time, i.e. visionary?

The main task as a 'creative director' or 'managing director creation' is to recognise, evaluate and improve ideas that other people have come up with. So simple. And so difficult. Because that's a lot of responsibility. In this respect, you should have done your homework. Two aspects are important: Experience and timeliness. Over time, you get a certain feeling when you see a fantastic idea: You can put it in context, give it a score between 1 and 10 on your own hit list, you can tell if an idea has breath, if it is big enough to be told over a long time in as many media and formats as possible. That is experience. By topicality, I mean that you have to constantly renew your knowledge, because 'experience' is sometimes the enemy of 'freshness'! So you have to know what's happening in the world, what technologies are new at the moment, what ideas are out there, and whether the idea at hand has perhaps already existed somewhere like this or similar. And an idea is ahead of its time if the customer hasn't bought it. At least that's what I always tell myself when I leave a meeting.

Do you keep ideas in writing so that you don't forget them?

I'm a big fan of really writing everything down all the time. Nothing, really nothing, is more frustrating than the feeling of having had a flash of inspiration that you can't remember. No matter what comes to mind afterwards, it always subjectively feels like 'second best'. On top of that, I just can't turn my head off when I leave the agency. If I get stuck into some task, it keeps me busy around the clock. I can't do anything about it - and I probably don't want to. Just one thing: I always have a notebook with me. And to be on the safe side, I keep one next to my bed, one next to the bathtub and one in the car.

How long do you conceive of an idea before the creativity starts?

If by 'idea' I mean the big thought and by 'creativity' I mean the working out and realisation of that thought, then it simply depends on when I have the big thought and think it's good enough. Which, by the way, is a pretty good litmus test for ideas: when you have an idea and you spontaneously think of so many implementations of it that you can't write it down fast enough, when you think of so many things you could do with it as if in a frenzy, what films, headlines, stunts could look like - then the idea is usually good. On the other hand, if you have an idea that sounds good in theory but after the first implementation you can't think of anything else, you should throw it away immediately. You can tell from campaigns whether they were created with fun and looseness or whether you struggled through the implementation.

How does the path of a concrete implementation go from theory to practice?

That depends on the idea and the medium. Usually you have an idea that you think is promising and then you look at how you can shape it in different media. How could it be made more tangible in an advertisement, in a film, in an action? Usually, the idea is formulated in one sentence and briefed to various teams, who then develop measures. Then you collect them, discuss them with the people and evaluate them. First and foremost, of course, according to whether they fulfil the task. But also according to criteria like: Is the result fun? Is it entertaining? Is it emotional? Would I show the film or the motif to my friend or share it on Facebook? When you run different teams on a thought like this, a lot of rubbish is inevitably produced, of course. But also a few gems that you would never have come up with otherwise.


Can creativity be forced and are ambition and efficiency counterproductive?

Creativity cannot be forced. It takes a certain talent and disposition to be able to solve relatively abstract problems through communication. Ambition is important. I've seen a lot of really talented people who failed because they lacked ambition or determination and only produced mediocre work, even though they would have had the talent for much more. You do have to have a drive to struggle and not give up right at the first problem or be satisfied too quickly. The ambition just has to be properly motivated. Money is the wrong motivator. Money comes by itself if you are good at what you do. Einstein said, 'Creativity is the ability to surprise oneself'. Wanting to surprise yourself is a very good motivator!

Are there certain 'rituals' or a 'muse' to stimulate creativity?

There is only one ritual: I need silence to be able to concentrate while writing. Okay, and coffee and cigarettes.

Does age/life experience play a role in creativity or is youth better because it is fresh as well as unspent and what about social/cultural background?

It depends on what position you are in. As a junior, copywriter or art director, a portion of youthful madness and positive naivety are great advantages. I explicitly demand this from my employees. Only when you are young you do dare to think new things, question things and do everything differently - also because you might not know how it is normally done. In order to make a wise decision, life experience helps. Rock 'n' roll was not invented by fifty-year-olds. But they were the ones who marketed it and made it successful.

How important is talent for creativity, in other words, does art come from skill?

Talent is unfortunately a prerequisite for being creative. Talent and a desire to engage in the sometimes arduous and agonising process. You have to have fun in dealing with yourself. You can learn a few craft things, but to be really good, to perhaps be among the best in Germany or the world, you need talent. Wherever that comes from or whoever you should thank for it. I have met many creative people who really tried everything, who were enormously hard-working and ambitious, who sweated and bled - but who never got beyond a certain point. Simply because they lacked the talent.

Do old ideas that were rejected at first sometimes only turn out to be good in retrospect?

I think there is a scepticism when you just come up with an idea too quickly. Which does happen. If after ten minutes you have something where you think, 'That's it. That's cool,' then it's easy for the Catholic in you to come through a bit, wanting you to suffer a bit before you've earned your hallelujah.

Which is better: being creative alone (relying only on your own gut feeling) or in a team; but who decides in the end and what remains of your own idea?

As a decision-maker, you definitely have to trust your own feeling. Not every decision can always be explained plausibly. It is sometimes the gut that makes the best decisions. The best process is when ideas emerge in a team, you inspire and improve each other - but in the end one person decides, sorts things out, puts them on track and also takes responsibility for them. On the client side, it's similar: the best campaigns come about when you have a decision-maker. There is the phrase 'a camel is a racehorse made by a committee'. A good decision-maker listens to the opinions of his team, perhaps discusses them at length, but in the end HE makes the decision. With all the risks and rewards. You can't crowdsource something like that.

What is better during the development process: speed, i.e. capturing the 'magic of the moment', or maturity/slowness in implementation and elaboration?

It's a mixture. You need speed and obsession and something intoxicating at the beginning, where you don't evaluate much at all but bang out ideas. Like a rapid-fire rifle. After that, you should let time pass to evaluate the whole thing with fresh eyes and weed out the wrong things. And then you start all over again. It gets difficult when you mix these two aspects. If you evaluate while you create, you kill the most tender plants. And you also lose self-confidence and fun.

Which role does perfection play in creativity? Does a work that is too perfect run the risk of being soulless?

Too much perfection is the natural enemy of emotionality. With us Germans and our perfectionism, there is of course a particularly great danger. We also tend to 'overengineer' when it comes to creation. Ideas are optimised and improved until they have lost all freshness and spontaneity. Then they are respected. But you don't love them. So it's practically exactly the relationship that many people abroad have with us Germans.

To what extent does routine influence creativity?

Routine is good at first. Because you have learned through repeated repetition how you function and how to put yourself in a condition to develop or elaborate ideas. And it gives you security and self-confidence. The routine says: 'Relax, you can do it, you've done it before'. On the other hand, of course, it is dangerous. Because the routine likes to be comfortable. Because the routine is a lazy piece. And because the routine is at home in the comfort zone. So personally, I always get a little nervous when things go the way they always have.

Can experience and professionalism hide a lack of creativity?

To a certain extent, yes. But not at a high level over a longer period of time. Then you can't hide any more.

How is it possible to remain artistically true to oneself, but to be innovative, i.e. not to deny one's style and still reinvent oneself?

I am convinced that every creative person somehow has his or her own style. Like a painter. Or a musician. Creatives are people. And people have certain personality traits, a certain humour, a certain way of speaking, have certain preferences. And you can see that in creation. All great creatives in advertising, whether Lee Clow, Tim Delaney or Tom McElligott, had and have a certain view of the world. This is reflected in their work. If the view is interesting and original, if this view interests or even fascinates many people, then they are successful. They don't have to reinvent themselves. They only have to adapt this gaze to new tasks and use these new tasks to constantly reinvent themselves.

Is it worthwhile to be ahead of one's time, even if it entails the danger of not being understood?

Not being understood' is probably the most serious accusation that can be levelled at communication experts! In this respect: it is good to be ahead of one's time and to run ahead. But preferably in such a way that everyone else can still see you.

At which point is the creative process/artistic work complete, when can it be released or is there not a need for improvement for all eternity?

In advertising, we don't work for ourselves, but for brands and products. When we start working, there are forms with the word 'timing' on them. That usually takes care of the issue of 'for ever' all by itself.


If something has proven successful, how much of a temptation is it to recycle, to repeat, to get stuck in a pattern of success and not evolve?

For me, the danger is zero. I hate nothing more than repeating myself. To the extent that I have never given a lecture twice in my life - no matter how successful it was the first time. I get bored with repetition. I want to surprise myself with what I do. And stupidly, that only works the first time.

What role does chance play in the broad appeal, or put another way, why does one succeed and the other not, even though the latter is similarly gifted?

I do believe in coincidences. And also that people benefit from coincidences. But I also believe in the phrase 'luck is when preparation meets opportunity'. In our industry, you have to constantly produce unprecedented ideas at a very high level. Someone can sometimes land a 'lucky punch'. But in nine out of ten fights, the talented, well-trained, persistent and ambitious boxer comes out on top.

Should one know/expect characteristics, desires and aspirations of one's potential audience in order to be successful?

Of course you have to know what people are interested in, what touches them, what they dream about, how they live. We do communication - and therefore what we say must be relevant to people. People who are bombarded by thousands of advertising messages every day only let those through that promise them a personal benefit or are entertaining. This is another reason why modern communication is not 'brand-centric' but 'consumer-centric'. So it's not so much about what I say as a brand, but what the consumer wants to hear and what interests him. Everything else is 1950‘s communication.

How do you stay open to critique despite success?

It's a question of the environment you create for yourself. If you have a little success and then surround yourself only with yes-men and submissive disciples, you will stop! But if you surround yourself with intelligent people who are not afraid to speak their mind, to express criticism or even to say the beautiful sentence "I really think that's totally shit", you will get a little better every day!

Have you already delivered something mediocre that you yourself are dissatisfied with - and been successful?

Yes. After consulting my psychoanalyst, I don't want to say any more.

How should one deal with failure and is it important to persevere because success may come later?

The decisive factor is what one personally defines as 'success' or 'failure'. Is it a campaign that the client bought, but which may not really be the benchmark? Or is it the campaign that you yourself are incredibly proud of because it meets or even exceeds your own standards, but which never saw the light of day because no client ever wanted it? I think you have to distinguish between the two. The campaign you are so proud of is the achievement of the creative departments or even your own. Selling a campaign is the achievement of the entire agency. When you see it that way, it relaxes you a bit, especially during lean periods.

Is it worthwhile striving to create the ultimate work?

The ultimate work is an illusion. It doesn't exist. The term was made up by someone who wants us to live a lazy, boring, uneventful life and not evolve. 'Ultimate' is a moment. Champagne. Waking up. Hangover. And while you're still popping Aspirin, you already know: it always gets better!"


"At the German food-enterprise-chain EDEKA we had the chance to completely redevelop a brand. Content-wise, visually, text-wise. From scratch. With the campaign 'We love food' we wanted to give food back its dignity in a time of 'cheaper, cheaper, cheaper‘! we wanted to give food back its dignity. And at the same time turn a food retailer into a brand that stands for something. Once we had the basic idea, I wrote over 50 ads in two days. The campaign ran for seven years and was incredibly successful. The industry press says the campaign 'revolutionised trade advertising'. I wrote the last motif when we lost the budget. It was not for EDEKA, but for us. The ad appeared full-page in the advertising trade press. I felt the need to close the chapter appropriately and also provide closure internally for the teams. It had to come out somehow."

Advertising campaign for EDEKA
My favorite work: Advertising campaign for EDEKA

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