As the head of branding agency KMS Blackspace, Michael Keller often visits boardrooms at companies like Adidas, Audi, Credit Suisse, O2 and Sky. The companies hope that the designer will present them with ideas to secure their future success on a silver platter – but first, they get a cheesecake in a cardboard box.
By Gerhard Matzig
There are people who do things with media, and others who work with communication – or advertising. These are so-called creatives. Designer Michael Keller is the head of one of Germany’s most important branding and design agencies, Munich-based KMS Blackspace, which is why he’s involved with advertising, communication and media, and is also a creative. Hopefully, he won’t be offended with our classification of his position within the realm of professional creativity: Basically, he works with cheesecake.
And he’s pretty successful at it.
This isn’t meant to be disrespectful. It’s more of an expression of amazement about an action that does seem relatively rare in an industry that, generally speaking, cannot be dynamic enough: Michael Keller and his old-fashioned cheesecake ritual: It’s the moment where unrelenting digital acceleration slows down. Michael Keller always brings a big cheesecake in a cardboard box to his important meetings.
Imagine Michael Keller, walking in to his meetings with the bosses or department heads of major global corporations, in the midst of the bustling atmosphere in the executive levels at Adidas, Audi, Credit Suisse, O2 or Sky – all of whom hope to see ideas to secure their future success presented on a silver platter – but instead are greeted by a cheesecake in a cardboard box. It’s not unreasonable to assume: This is exactly why Michael Keller is so successful. He doesn’t do what people expect of him. Instead, he surprises them – with a friendly smile the entire time.
This is definitely creative, and representative of his story: Born in Glendale, Los Angeles County in the United States, Michael Keller studied in Munich and at the Parsons School of Design in New York, where he received a stipend from Cooper Union. That’s at least what Wikipedia says. “What’s missing,” says Keller, laughing, “is a list of all of the schools that I attended and left.” Apparently, Keller was a difficult student. His teachers had no idea that he would go on to design the Audi Museum in Ingolstadt, define the look of the Munich Pinakotheken museums, or support major companies like Vodafone or Mercedes.
He also closes his letters and e-mails with: “bis gleich” – or “see you later”. Michael Keller is someone who likes to keep his foot on the gas and get things done as quickly as possible – right away, at best – but also knows how to use that wonderful antidote against the all-encompassing momentum of the branding world: the cheesecake ritual. His e-mail signature says: This needs to be done yesterday. But the cheesecake whispers: Just wait a minute.
In the design ranking conducted by industry magazine Horizont, KMS was ranked second among the 25 largest German corporate design agencies. KMS is a regular winner in all competitions and of various awards, such as the “German Design Award”.
What’s the difference between KMS and number 25? Part of the answer is: the cheesecake. It conveys the emotions and slows down the dynamic, creative workings of a think tank that writes “Mindshiften ist gelebtes Employer Branding” (“Mindshifting is employer branding in practice”) on its correspondingly branded website without batting an eyelash. People are always a little scared of the noise made by the advertising world – and rightly so.
On the other hand, the cheesecake is a story, an identity-building moment, and a Trojan horse all in one. The 52-year old creative head always brings it along when he wants to present a new brand strategy to a company. If need be, Keller will even take the cheesecake on the plane with him – “in New York, I was only able to smuggle it in through customs by telling them it was an important architectural model”.
This ritual has been around for 30 years. KMS was founded in Munich back then, in the mid-eighties – in vacant former industrial buildings. The landlord, a family-owned bakery, offered both the office space as well as the cheesecake. This is how it all began – a signature, a communication strategy – and a friendly gesture that also doubles as a clever trick.
Michael Keller is someone who can create brands by making the brand aware of its true essence. Its opportunities – and impossibilities. The most difficult job today: VW after Dieselgate. Michael Keller wants to make it clear to the company that it has more than just the car (“Wagen”) in its name. It also has the people (“Volk”) – people who don’t like to be cheated.
The automotive industry thinks very highly of the amazing work KMS has done for companies like Porsche, Bentley and Lamborghini. This strategic support doesn’t always translate into a lot of money, though. Sometimes it does, and sometimes – there’s almost nothing in return, unless one considers contacts and ideas to be worth everything, which is also true in a sense. “Once, I got a Kreidler Florett”, Michael Keller explained. Basically a bonus payment. It’s parked at KMS headquarters at Tölzer Strasse 2c.
When you enter the former factory, you walk through long, black curtains that seem to hide an adventure, a dark secret, or some lurking danger. Then, you’re in the middle of an agency – a gigantic hall, free of columns, in which dozens of employees have created a unique spatial continuum of tables, monitors, knick-knacks, books and ideas. Organized like a factory – but as free as one’s own imagination. Only Keller’s desk – which is modern in the sense that he ostentatiously refuses to work in his own separate office, but is ostentatiously situated on a gallery to keep a clear overview – is a place of total madness.
The table looks more like a crater than a workplace. Below it is a helmet – in black, of course, like practically everything else Michael Keller seems to wear. After all, he named his company KMS Blackspace in honor of the color, which is also its signature. He actually wanted to be an architect, a member of a brotherhood traditionally clad in black. Anyway, the helmet belongs to the legendary Florett. It’s a mokick with a two-stroke single-cylinder air-cooled engine. The model at Tölzer Strasse was assembled on May 2, 1963 – Michael Keller’s birthday.
Several years ago, the mokick was the payment he received for a project he couldn’t refuse. At the time, two film industry people came to Michael Keller. They founded a “film production” company in Berlin, and were supposed to receive important financial support for their work. The problem: They didn’t have anything to show for their organization. No name, no stationery, no clear concept, no logo. They had an idea, but no plan, no identity. KMS was supposed to fix this. “When does it have to be done?”, Keller asked the young filmmakers. “In a week?” That was the problem. Keller and his team managed to do it in just a few days. A brand that is still successful today was born. The Florett tells this story, as the helmet under the desk does about the Florett, and the desk itself also has its own story to tell.
For example: Michael Keller’s crater-like desk. British psychologist Mark Lansdale, the patron saint of all people with messy desks, referred to this chaotic desk as a “volcano model”: The middle is clear, like a crater, while things pile up all around. Countless pieces of paper create the analogue walls surrounding the “crater” on Michael Keller’s desk. There’s a box with glass cleaner below as well as a medal on a red ribbon, seemingly awarded for good performance. The feat: having the only truly messy desk at KMS.
The volcano theory also claims that messy desks work more efficiently than the clinically clean realms of the highly organized. People come up with valuable ideas while searching for documents. The chaos is inspiring, and the office crater is far superior to the neat bureaucratic types in the office. A desk full of so much litter also says: Someone’s working really hard here. Only malicious types would come to the equally conceivable conclusion that the opposite could also be the case.
The massive kitchen at KMS is another place where people work like the crater model – but not like bureaucrats. It’s specifically designed to be a place where employees can go to think, chat, doze off. There are long tables for people to eat, drink, and spend time together – instead of working. Also carpets, candles, candles and more candles. It’s like a party you always wanted to go to. You want to take a seat and become one of the creatives.
It’s lovely here. Sitting here, looking wide-eyed at a company that looks more like a shared community than a think tank, but actually is a little bit of both, you even get to hear the branded story: “This kitchen”, Keller explains, between two cheesecakes, “is a lot like KMS: on the outside, it’s just wood, edgy, solid, honest, comfortable, analogue; but inside: it’s modern, functional, sophisticated and digital.” It’s true: The man can tell stories and cultivate brands – even his own.
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