Stuck to the Munich underworld

Nobody knows the underground stations in Munich as well as Klaus Merkel. And this knowledge will also stay in the family for a while because his son Alexander has taken over the advertising company.


Klaus Merkel and his son Alexander take the escalator to the project location. Munich, Westfriedhof. It is night. Both men wear high-visibility clothing and carry tools. They will affix an advertising poster behind the tracks. Once or twice a week the two men step out at night to mount new advertising posters. For safety reasons there is only one time slot between half one and four o'clock - there are no trains during this time. 

Sometimes a work train travels on another track. "It can look as if it is coming towards you. This may cause you to be scared silly", says Klaus Merkel. But you quickly get used to it. Especially when you are doing the job for as long as the 78-year-old. None of his old colleagues are active today. Klaus Merkel is the longest serving employee in the business. "Nobody knows the train stations as well as I do. This also gives me a sense of pride", says Merkel.



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From craftsmanship to digital print

Klaus Merkel has been out and about in the Munich underworld for over 45 years now. As a skilled signwriter, in the 1970s he started to paint ads on large wooden panels – real craftsmanship with brush and mahlstick. "This is no longer the case today", he adds. "Digital print is unbeatable in terms of cleanliness. Almost all materials are printable." Wooden panels have not been used in the underground stations for some time now – for fire protection reasons.

A lot has changed over the decades, mainly the materials. Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s classic paper and paste were used, today predominantly printed films are used. Klaus Merkel does not miss the old handicraft. "The other work is also great. And of course everything is faster today." You have to move with the times and the developments, otherwise you lose out. Klaus Merkel still likes the feeling of being needed. "Having to think proactively. Not simply sitting around or playing sport, but reflecting upon every job: How will we do that? It keeps you young."

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"The decision was not a difficult one"

As long as he is healthy, Klaus Merkel wants to continue to work. "And why not?" he adds. "That way I can also give my son some free time to himself." Alexander Merkel took over his father's company, the South-German advertising company, in 2010. "The decision was not a difficult one", he says. He completed his training as an audiovisual media designer. Having said this, he spent many years working part-time in his father's business. He already knew his way around. The fact that the company has now become a family-run business means a lot to Alexander Merkel. "I think it is great that it isn't a large company. This makes the work atmosphere very harmonious."

Alexander Merkel benefits from his father's knowledge. There are between 500 and 600 advertising spaces in the Munich underground stations. "There are some from the different decades, various building materials, tolerances, formats. Lots of small details which we have adopted over the decades." A knowledge that no longer exists itself among the municipal utilities and the Münchner Verkehrsgesellschaft (Munich Transport Company). "There is also apparently no longer documents for everything", says Alexander Merkel. Especially for customised productions the know-how and expertise of his father is important. "We couldn't have accepted one or two jobs without it."          

Screens and displays are not always the optimal solution

Merkel's work seems to have fallen out of time. Digitalisation in the industry is still far from destroying the classic large advertising spaces. "You hear again and again that advertising on screens and displays is the future. Our experience tells us otherwise. Many of our customers don't want to appear as an annoying ad between the weather report and news", says Alexander Merkel.

In addition, smaller customers such as hairdressers or stationery shops cannot afford the high prices of the modern advertising formats. "Even so-called runners, where several advertising posters are displayed one after the other, are not the optimum solution", says Klaus Merkel. "They change too quick. Everyone likes to read when they have time - when waiting on a train or in a doctor's surgery. They also read ads."

Alexander Merkel can imagine doing his job for a long time yet. "I like the mix of paperwork and craft. You plan and organise, but are also involved in the assembly. And that you have a visible result at the end", he says. It is already possible that he will eventually hand over the company to the next generation. "But it is difficult to assess how this market is developing. Whether digitalisation will push aside everything or even classic advertising types will endure a few more decades." Alexander Merkel was able to pass on the knowledge of the Munich underworld to his children – and ensure that it is not lost.

Illustration Englisch

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