5 Minutes with… Bas Korsten
Since 2016 J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam has been famous for one project that blew adland away. ‘The Next Rembrandt’, an AI-powered art project sponsored by financial services company ING won 16 Cannes Lions that year, including two Grands Prix.
Bas Korsten, creative partner at the agency, admits that the project was transformative, opening clients’ minds and serving as a powerful piece of evidence for JWT Amsterdam’s business-changing creativity.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Bas to find out more about the man and the creative department he leads.
LBB> How did you end up as an advertising creative? Was copywriting your first love, career-wise?
BK> Thinking back it’s quite easy. At high school I had a very good Dutch teacher who said ‘you should write. You should start studying Dutch at university.’ My dad, who was a professor in 18th-century English literature, said ‘don’t do that because you can’t make any money. He said ‘you should do logistics’. So I studied logistics as an engineer - a slightly different way of getting into the business - and then after that I did a business masters degree and after that I came into contact with marketing and advertising, where I found the crossroads between business, ideas and writing, which never left me as something I liked.
I thought about becoming a writer on the Seinfeld team. I went to Los Angeles and thought about being a sitcom writer. But in the end it was always writing that was the basis of all the different things that I imagined myself doing. In the end it all came together in advertising.
LBB> Do you still identify as a copywriter? Are you better with words than images? And do you feel there's still a place for the concepts of copywriters and art directors?
BK> Yeah. Although I love stories so I love editing, for instance. I love everything involved in telling a story. That involved writing most of the time but I do love the visual aspect very much as well. It all started with writing.
LBB> Presumably that was in Dutch earlier in your career and slowly more writing in English as you progressed into a more international role?
BK> I’ve always imagined myself working in London. I don’t know why. So I’ve always kept myself evolving in my English wherever I could, also with my dad. It’s not that I had a clear ambition in that direction but I always thought that I loved expressing myself in English. I don’t feel that it’s so much worse than how I do it in Dutch. So if you have bigger ambitions than Holland that will come in handy at some point.
LBB> You've talked about learning more from the pitches you lost than those you won. Care to share any of those lessons?
BK> In the past, quite a few times I’ve tried to do the best work possible and convince the client that’s the best work possible. But I think more than anything a pitch situation is something that allows you to form a relationship with a client, and of course the work needs to be good but it’s not about trying to convince the client that that’s the right way to do it, but just trying to convince the client that you’re a good agency to work with, so it’s much more nuanced than just the best work.
Also, are they prepared to listen? Are they prepared to take our comments on board? I think in quite a few instances I just said: ‘but this is good. You need to do this.’ And they went: ‘Eh, no. I don’t think so.’ Because they don’t want to be lectured every time they go to the agency. They want to work together on things. And over the years that’s definitely a big lesson, especially in the current day and age where it’s all about collaboration. The creative agency isn’t the be all and end all of the whole process. It’s very much getting to a solution together. It’s not about getting to the best idea in the pitch. You can only do good work if you have the client, so you have to make sure you portray yourself as an agency that’s fun to partner with.
LBB> Only a couple of years ago you studied at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. Can you tell me about what you did there in 2015 and how it helped you and the agency?
BK> It was actually a JWT initiative. Matt Eastwood, our global CCO invited a few people. The reason for that specific course on ‘change management’ was to make sure the creative premiers within the JWT network were ready for all the changes that were going to come in the business.
What I liked about it was that it was not about creative companies per se - it was change within organisations that aren’t necessarily communication companies, but the importance of communication within change management is crucial, so if you as a creative leader take an agency to a certain direction then you need to make sure that everybody in the agency gets on board with that new direction. And how to do that was the main subject of the course there.
Normally I assumed quite a few things and you shouldn’t assume as much as I do. People get it and will follow what you think is the right way to go, so you need to bring people on board, talk to them and talk to the different barriers that different people have for coming on board. So you really need to be very individual and specific with people on getting them on the course that you think the agency should be on. I definitely took some practical lessons from that course.
LBB> How has the success of ‘The Next Rembrandt’ for ING affected your agency? It was so widely celebrated and talked about.
BK> I think the main change it brought to the agency was the idea that anything is possible. If you’re a creative agency that’s quite an important thing to have in your head. No matter what we come up with we can bring it to life and execute it because we have a group of people within the agency that can really move mountains.
Other than the actual success, it was more the state of mind that the agency gained. I also think that if you look at what we did last year, there’s a much wider, broader scope of things that we brought to the table and I think that’s all got to do with the momentum that we’ve created in the agency. And also the self-confidence to propose certain things to clients and fight for them more than we would if ‘The Next Rembrandt’ had failed or died along the way.
LBB> Also, it used innovative technologies brilliantly - did you learn or develop anything that you're planning on using in future campaigns?
BK> In general it is looking for technology as a way to create a difference. That’s definitely something we do more because of ‘The Next Rembrandt’. Creatives have such a rich toolbox in this day and age when it comes to the new technologies that emerge and that can bring a difference to brands. We do tend to reach out for those possibilities sooner than we would have.
Also, we’ve learned first hand that it can bring a lot if you can make it work. I think a big part of that is the happy marriage between clients and storytelling. Like with every marriage it was quite a struggle in the beginning because the scientists were scientists. Where I was willing to cut some scientific corners, they weren’t. So you have to find a way that allows for both parties to be happy in that relationship, but if it works, it can be magical.
LBB> ‘School for Justice’ was an incredible project, actually changing lives. Can you explain how you took that brief further than an awareness campaign? How has it moved on since then?
BK> Something that also came out of ‘The Next Rembrandt’ was a way of looking at briefs and beyond briefs. When you get asked to do an awareness campaign for India, then dive deep into the problem, you feel the problem is much more fundamental than the solution could ever resolve. So you need to come up with a more fundamental solution than just an awareness campaign. I think in general that’s what we tend to do more now - to say: ‘don’t just give us your brief. Tell us what your problem is.’
That refers to fundamental projects that are more business creativity than communication creativity. We don’t want to just tell the story that the client feeds us. We want to create the story. Which means you have to go back to the heart of the problem.
There was some talk about opening other schools in different countries, which was of course a very big complement to the campaign. That kind of project that can truly make a difference in people’s lives and go beyond communication to change things. I can promise you there will be more of those kind of campaigns coming in the next year.
Also there’s so much fun to be had with these things that go beyond telling the client’s story. It’s rewarding when you can do stuff that actually makes a difference.
LBB> You're an advocate for people in agencies staying informed on the latest trends in tech, business and culture. How do you make time for that?
BK> We do get people in from different businesses outside of advertising for inspirational lunches on Fridays. The other thing that’s needed for creative people is to go out there and be a part of everything that’s happening, whether that’s going to the cinema, or the theatre. Whether it’s technology or business you need to be aware of a lot of things that the consumer is also busy with to be a good advocate for consumers.
It’s also about inspiring each other, letting each other know what you’ve discovered. That’s a big part of what we do. To make sure we have the latest in every category.
LBB> A lot of the best projects you've worked on as an agency rely on 'business creativity' as opposed to just 'communication creativity'. What are the key requirements for those kinds of projects?
BK> The key requirement is persistence. Generally people on a client’s side don’t expect their advertising agency to come with business solutions. Often business creativity is not expected or wanted. To convince a client to be open to that kind of solution from an advertising agency is quite a lot. But we see more room opening up for us to go across the boundaries of communication projects and spill over into other categories and departments, to add our creativity to those processes as well.
LBB> I'm interested in what you've said about hobbies. Why is it so important for people to have passions outside of work? And do you have any favourites among the agency staff?
BK> You have to have passion for something. When it’s not you’re work, I’m always interested to know what it is that you do outside. As a human being there has to be love and a drive for something. That’s why I always try to go deeper and hobbies is such a strange word because it feels flimsy and not very special. But at the same time it shows a drive.
One of the successful projects we had this year was one of the side projects of our chef. We have a chef that cooks us lunch every day. He and a guy from our Make department, which is our studio - he’s a designer with a love for photography and they did a photography project called MENU.
It was two guys that had an idea and a passion for something and were willing to spend a lot of time on it. I think that is the kind of thing that helps us rise above anything else. Passion always brings more interesting stuff than people just going through the motions doing their work. That’s why I always ask what people really love to do.
Maybe I’m trying to be my own psychologist here but maybe it goes back to my dad pointing me in the wrong direction, basically, and not steering me towards where my real passion was, just because of the projected money I was going to earn. I believe you’ve got to go with your passion and if you’re good at it you’ll make money. I has to start with something that motivates you.
LBB> So you never wonder what would have happened if you went into logistics? That glamorous lifestyle.
BK> [Laughs] It’s funny because I drive past these industrial areas. These big warehouses. I could have worked there. Luckily I didn’t.
LBB> How about yourself? What gets you excited outside of your job?
BK> This goes back to what I was saying earlier. I’m a big sitcom fan. I’m on my fifth round of Seinfeld. I’ve seen all the episodes five times now. They’re so well made and I love the attitude in that. I love Frasier - the spin-off of Cheers - and Cheers itself was great as well. There was a show called Ned and Stacey. I think a lot of people missed that but it’s one of my favourites. I love the format and the quirky humour in there.
LBB> Have you tried to write any recently? You said you did earlier in the year.
BK> I actually wrote a few Seinfeld episodes. I didn’t send them. At some point you get into a career. I found that the reward I got from advertising was also the reward I was looking for in Seinfeld. I think it comes back to writing and storytelling. I’ve found that now in advertising so the need is less but I’m very entertained by the hundreds of episodes of sitcoms that I’ve watched.
LBB> Well, maybe the right brief will come in one day and you’ll be able to make a sitcom for a brand client.
BK> Well, there you go. It’s a good point. I think at some point I’d definitely like to do either a feature film or a sitcom for a brand. And why not? Where the business is going I could definitely see that happening.