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Bridging cultural gaps

May 2015

Mediating between cultures is not only a personal passion of Mathis Brauchbar but also a main feature of his profession. As a co-founder and partner at the communications agency “advocacy AG” he gathers people with diverse interests around the negotiating table. 

You are one of five owners of the communications agency “advocacy”. What are your responsibilities?

“advocacy” is actually more focused on dealing with issues and topics than a communication agency. We have become specialized in various fields such as research, education, health, life sciences, as well as social security and spatial planning. My field of responsibility lies at the interface between issues related to healthcare and research. Among my clients are the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the Swiss Cancer Research Foundation and the Federal Office of Public Health. The day-to-day work consists of advising our clients on issues relating to public affairs, developing communication strategies or providing support in repositioning and in change management. I'm frequently underway. On two to three days of the week I make site visits to our clients in Geneva, Lausanne or wherever they are located. The remainder of the week, I am either in our office in Zurich or Basel and work there together with the teams on current projects.

What was one of the most interesting projects you worked on?

For me, the most interesting projects are those where you bring various stakeholders to the table or when it is required to merge diverse cultures in communication. Certainly, one of the most exciting and challenging projects was the Novartis-EXPO Pavilion "Biopolis" in 2002. Novartis, as sponsor, and the EXPO organization had completely different ideas. Especially between the cultures of the management driven pharmaceutical industry and the cultural industry there was much divergence in their approach and their way of thinking. In such a situation our role is that of a mediator, who does translational work. I often have projects with a potential for conflict. Guiding such projects and jointly creating something meaningful is something I enjoy very much. Currently, for instance, I am involved in the SNSF National Research Programme 67, which deals with the end of life and includes difficult and controversial issues such as euthanasia, palliative care and the living will.

What do you remember most about studying at the Biozentrum? 

What I liked about the Biozentrum in the 1980’s, was its open and international culture. I had previously studied philosophy at a time when everything was still very old-school - the professor was “god”, the structures rigid and students meek. The change to the Biozentrum was almost a culture shock. The culture I found there was much more my style. I clearly remember my first day. I asked someone who was passing, where the introductory lecture was to be held. And his casual reply made me realize: OK, here you can do away with formalities and you speak English. When the professor entered the lecture hall, it was Howard Riezmann, I recognized him immediately as the person I had just stopped in the hallway. Nevertheless, you could also sense that renowned scientists such as Walter Gehring, Gottfried Schatz and Werner Arber were working here and that the Biozentrum was recognized as one of the leading institutes in Europe. This was a great motivator and also made me quite proud to be studying here.

Why did you change from philosophy to biology?

In the 1980’s, biomedical ethics evolved as new genetic possibilities became available. I wanted to pursue bioethics already then. So after two years of philosophy, I studied Biology II, not to become a research scientist but to gain some expert knowledge in this field. While still a student, I started writing about bioethics topics for the student newspapers. Later I became a freelance writer for the “Basler Zeitung” and the “Tages Anzeiger”. And so one thing led to another. It was relatively easy to find work as there were very few science journalists with a background in molecular biology. Finally, in 1989, my editor from the “Tages Anzeiger”, who had just opened a journalist agency, asked me if I would like to join. I started with him on the very day I submitted my diploma thesis.

Have you been involved in any projects for the Biozentrum?

Yes, together with Joachim Seelig I created a portrait of the Biozentrum for a jubilee event. I have also on occasion worked with Werner Arber, for instance when the OECD asked him to prepare a report about the future of biotechnology in the 21st century. But returning to the Biozentrum in a completely different role, back to the institute that reconnects me with all the joys and disappointments of my student days, leaves a weird feeling. 

Speaking of joys, do you have any anecdote that still makes you smile today? 

There was an amusing situation when Walter Gehring told us, right at the start, that he only takes the very best students for their diploma work in his group and that it didn’t look good in our class (he laughs). Oh well, we thought, at least we know where we stand. Consequently, no one applied to him and he then had to sent Markus Affolter, who was then a scientific assistant, to see whether any student would like to do their diploma with Walter Gehring. However, by this time, we had all found a lab.

Back to your job again. What has changed in the communication landscape in the past 25 years?

The changes have not fundamentally affected us as an agency, as our core business is consulting. What has changed massively in the last years is the use of digital media. In this field, it is mandatory to keep up-to-date. So, although we may have large digital projects, which we do not have the competence to implement, we do need to have a clear picture of exactly what the end result will be. As consultants, our goal is to present our customers with a wide range of possibilities, including novel ideas. Thirty years ago, a brochure was the first class product. This now belongs more or less to the past. Today we employ integrated approaches. Another thing that has changed, not only for us in communication, is the pace of work. Project management using digital channels, communication via email and being reachable around the clock makes everything faster and more compact. Today, feedback is required from many people with the result that more adjustments and fine tuning become necessary. This also affects the costs. Earlier, the layout and printing of a brochure was a large expense. Today this only costs about half as much. Yet sometimes nothing is printed at all, everything is published online. This means whole production steps have been simply dropped out. On the other hand, the costs for our services are more likely to rise. 

Does being self employed, still allow you to have a private life?

Oh, I really hope so! (he laughs) Being self-employed in the way I am, it is not easy to draw the line between work and leisure. I think as an employee working in an office, this border is much clearer. I also work from home, particularly because of my family. And when I read books, they often interest me in a professional context. In this sense, work, hobbies and the family are very closely interwoven in my life.


Mathis Brauchbar is one of five partners of the public relations agency “advocacy AG”. In the 1980’s he studied at the University of Basel, initially philosophy and then molecular biology at the Biozentrum. Already as a student he wrote as a freelance scientific journalist for various newspapers such as the “Tages Anzeiger” and the “Basler Zeitung”. After completing his studies he made his hobby his profession. In 1990, he was a co-founder of the initial communications agency, out of which, twelve years later, the present “advocacy AG” with an office in both Zurich and Basel developed. In 2008, he co-founded the science consultancy “evalueSCIENCE AG”. Mathis Brauchbar is particularly active as a communications, strategy and political consultant in the areas of health care, research and education.