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2023 | 13. August

Interview: «We like to break with conventions»

Starting an agency during your studies? It works, as shown by the example of Linus Eidenbenz. He is a co-founder of the creative agency JEFF and a graduate of the Bachelor of Business Communications. In the interview, he talks about the recently celebrated agency anniversary, his indomitable will to perform, which he also owes to his bachelor's degree, and his dreams in his new role at JEFF.

Interview: Laura Oderbolz

Laura Oderbolz: Linus, congratulations on JEFF's 10th anniversary. The celebrations at Hotel JEFF are a while ago now. Has the agency returned to everyday life?

Linus Eidenbenz: Yes and no, only partially. Although we have returned to the daily agency routine, the celebrations have actually just begun. The anniversary week at the hotel was the first big bang. As part of the anniversary, we have various projects coming up, including launching our new CI/CD and the new website will go online very soon – and at the end of the year, or maybe a bit later, there will be a big surprise, which I unfortunately can't reveal yet. So, the anniversary year is not over yet.

For your agency anniversary, you moved into your own «Hotel JEFF» on Limmatquai in Zurich for a week and invited (new) clients to various activities. How did you come up with the hotel idea?

The idea of taking over a hotel actually came from an interview with the NZZ in 2017. At that time, I said that we at JEFF would be ready to take over a vineyard or even a hotel – the latter we could realize this year with a wink. The hotel is prototypical for what JEFF stands for: We are a colorful bunch of career changers and all-rounders. And at the center of our actions is project management. I think we're really good at that, and so we're capable of running a hotel in no time. And much more. This is and will remain in our DNA for the future, and I'm very excited about what else we will tackle.

Is that why the anniversary motto is «Träum wiiter» (Dream On)?

Yes, exactly. #träumwiiter was implicitly our motto from the beginning: Nobody was waiting for us, and we couldn't have dreamed of shaking up the agency landscape one day and becoming one of the larger independent players with our 70 employees. We will continue to «träum wiiter» for a long time, and I think we were also able to prove very well that we're really good at this during the anniversary week.

Hotel JEFF - Limmatquai 88, 8001 Zürich

How do you convey this #träumwiiter?

Let's say: In our vision of perfect storytelling, a lot happens implicitly. That is, we don't want to say exactly what we mean. So, it's in the eye of the beholder how to interpret the anniversary week and the individual activities. We certainly didn't want to put on a sales show. Rather, we felt reflected as an agency in this project and clearly sensed that it bore JEFF's signature.

That we don't always know from the beginning in which direction our projects will develop is shown by the example of our invitation to the anniversary week: We had a relatively complicated invitation management with a very long invitation text, which we wrote in the form of a news article and sent as an email. Not exactly the classic form of an invitation and against all the rules of the art because it didn't loudly say «you are invited» at the top, but we almost imposed on the guests that they had to inhale the story first before they understand what it's about and that they are indeed invited. There were people who didn't read the email, others didn't understand that you had to register here. But for those who read it, it sparked total enthusiasm, and those who skimmed it seriously thought we were opening our own hotel.

«I was approached by dozens of people asking if we were out of our minds to open a hotel.»

«I was approached by dozens of people asking if we were out of our minds to open a hotel.»

An ostensibly nonsensical invitation text, thanks to our style, did much more than just invite guests; it gave wings to the story of our hotel, and the rumors spread wonderfully on their own. And those who were there really got their money's worth: For example, a customer who literally lay in bed with us at the hotel watched a projection and afterward was sure he wanted to work with us. And that without us having to pitch.

This invitation episode is emblematic of our understanding of storytelling. If someone tells us that people have an average attention span of nine seconds on YouTube, then for us, the focus is not on meeting those nine seconds, but on how we can trigger people emotionally with our storytelling, to make them watch a video that might even last three minutes.

«We like to break with conventions. Not so they are broken per se, but because they don't matter to us, and because we see great potential in doing things differently than everyone else. That usually generates attention just by doing so.»

«We like to break with conventions. Not so they are broken per se, but because they don't matter to us, and because we see great potential in doing things differently than everyone else. That usually generates attention just by doing so.»

What makes me particularly proud: The anniversary was led by a team of employees who have been part of JEFF for only two to four years. I was not involved in the concept and organization except for the invitation management and a few minor tasks, and yet, or precisely because of that, this week bore the 100% signature of our company. That impressed and really moved me.

That sounds like a great week! Looking back at the beginnings of JEFF: As I learned from your former program director Cyril Meier, you founded JEFF during your bachelor's at HWZ. How did that come about?

That's correct, but I need to elaborate a bit. Even during my «Gymi» time and afterward, I organized events like the PolyParty at ETH with friends. At some point, it took on such dimensions that a lawyer advised us to start a company. That's how the first company came about. Parallel to this, I started my full-time communications studies in Winterthur and thought I could continue working for my company on the side to finance my studies. That didn't work. So, I had to drop out after a semester. In hindsight, I had to admit that the ZHAW's study model didn't suit me.

And that's how you found your way to HWZ?

Exactly. The university was a red flag for me because I couldn't imagine sitting in a large lecture hall. That's how I came across HWZ. A decision that turned out to be just right. I particularly remember the first conversation with Cyril Meier. The fact that he took extra time to learn more about my motivations and tell me more about the program impressed me greatly – and immediately convinced me. Looking back, I owe a lot to Cyril, but also to HWZ in general, for enabling a part-time study program.

Combining work and study was just right for you...

Absolutely. During my studies at HWZ, I founded the agency JEFF out of my first company – now to get back to your question.

Thanks to the bachelor's program, I could directly incorporate what I learned into the founding and gradually shape my own agency. We would never be where we are today with JEFF if I hadn't studied at HWZ.

And my example shows very well that the program is not only aimed at «normal» employees but also at people like me who want to build their own company. Even though you spend much fewer hours at the university compared to a full-time program, I found this short time to be an incredibly intensive learning experience.

Starting an agency during your studies seems quite intense. Hand on heart: Did your studies suffer during this time?

Definitely (laughs). I've always had a great capacity for performance, even suffering, so it was no problem for me to work late into the night. Whether it was tasks related to setting up the agency or tasks for my studies. And yet, my studies did suffer during this time. I must admit that I exploited the attendance requirements to the max. However, I once received a grade of 1 because I just couldn't manage to attend the classes and realized too late that attendance was mandatory in that subject. Fortunately, I was able to compensate for this with two other subjects. I also couldn't submit my bachelor's thesis on time like everyone else. It followed a year after graduation.

Linus Eidenbenz, Founder & Partner

The topic of entrepreneurship now plays a significant role in the Bachelor of Business Communications. Was it similar during your time at HWZ? And were you inspired to found JEFF?

The decision to become self-employed was made long before my studies at HWZ. Honestly, I can't remember having a specific subject on entrepreneurship. But of course, during my studies, I benefited from many different personalities – lecturers – who spoke very economically from their everyday life and encouraged us students to go our own way. That was very inspiring. HWZ is like a blank sheet of paper for me. It leaves students somewhat free to decide what they want to take away from the lessons and what not. And you can feel that strongly among the lecturers, who, in my opinion, were allowed to design their classes very freely for the most part.

You mentioned that you particularly benefited from applying what you learned directly in your workday. What else did you benefit from during your studies at HWZ?

Correct, but also the many group works, project works, and presentations were very valuable. By the way, I was also impressed by how much effort you put into selecting lecturers. Sure, even in my time, there were subjects that were a bit weaker than others. In my opinion, the lecturers were significantly better compared to ZHAW, where you were often only taught by assistants. Finding the perfect mix of lecturers is not easy, but you did incredibly well.

«You were and are like a speedboat for me, very agile with many cool people who aim to really convey something practical to the students.»

«You were and are like a speedboat for me, very agile with many cool people who aim to really convey something practical to the students.»

I'm no expert in the Swiss education landscape, but I'm sure there are few institutions where I could have managed my self-employment and studies simultaneously.

Nice to hear! Until the beginning of this year, you were a member of the management team. Now you have handed over the management but are still a partner. Why?

I was part of the management team from the beginning, without ever asking myself if I really wanted that. It was time to question my strengths and desires. A feedback from employees saying I wore too many hats led to me sitting down one evening with a glass of wine, writing down my bigger tasks, and then prioritizing them. The topic of management was far down the list. It became clear once more: I love the front line. The project business, the customer contacts, working with service providers, and above all, working on projects with our employees. I'm not working any less because of this change; that wasn't to be expected. But I have a bit more headspace for the topics where I can really add value. And this change was only possible thanks to our partnership model: The new management team is equipped with top people with long-term JEFF experience. That made the step possible in the first place.

In the spirit of the anniversary week's motto «Träum wiiter»: What do you dream of? And is JEFF still part of those dreams?

«Träum wiiter» was an appeal to ourselves. This motto reflects our enthusiasm. What connects us as a team. It's like a state that describes us.

Of course, I also have personal dreams. I want to be part of many great live communication projects in the future. For example, I would very much like to organize the next Expo, even if it seems illusory for now. But that's exactly the point: I never want to stop daring to do things that seem impossible at first glance. As long as JEFF and I fulfill this common promise, I will always be a part of JEFF – and JEFF a part of me and my dreams.

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