Creative design director Mario Kerkstra had a good 2022. He won three Cannes Lions at London creative agency AMV BBDO, including two Grands Prix for Sheba’s ‘Hope Reef’ – a campaign that literally grew a coral reef in the middle of the Indonesian ocean which spells out the word HOPE.
This year, he’ll be judging Industry Craft at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.
Though many aspire to use creativity to change the world for the better, Mario’s impressive track record speaks volumes. His creative and effective work with ground-breaking campaigns ‘Trash Isles’, ‘addresspollution.org’, Libresse/Bodyform’s ‘Viva La Vulva’ and ‘Wombstories’, and now ‘Hope Reef’, display his passion for ideas that deliver a positive impact on the world and in culture.
Originally from the Netherlands, Mario moved to London in 2004 to study graphics at Central Saint Martins and fell in love with the big-idea thinking of advertising combined with the craft of design. He’s had stints at Wieden+Kennedy and Fallon, but has been at AMV BBDO since 2012.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Mario.
LBB> How did you grow up? And did design emerge early as a key interest?
Mario> I’m from a small city called Alkmaar which is around 30 minutes north of Amsterdam. Like so many creative people I used to draw a lot as a kid. That was probably my earliest creative outlet. I was particularly interested in animation art for some reason.
I went to a design school in Amsterdam when I was 18 where I first became familiar with the work of Wim Crouwel who is seen as the Godfather of Dutch graphic design. I think after having seen his work something clicked in my mind and that’s when I realised that I wanted to be a designer.
I ended up moving to London by accident when I was a few years older. After I finished design school in Amsterdam, I said to my mom that I wanted to go abroad to work. She said, “Why don’t you have a look at London? Maybe you can go and study there instead. Go to art college”, seeing as I’d never gone to a proper art college.
The reason she suggested London was because my mom was in London on the day of Lady Diana’s funeral. Everything was closed that day, so she was strolling through the city and happened to walk past the old Saint Martins’ building in Holborn, which said ‘Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design’ on the outside next to the entrance.
For reasons still unclear to me to this day she wrote down that name in a notebook completely unaware of its reputation as an art college. Now mind you, I would’ve been around 14 years old then. I was still in secondary school. So, who knows why she wrote it down. It must’ve been a mother’s intuition or something.
Then around seven years later, when I said I wanted to go abroad, she pulled out this notebook and went “Why don’t you try this place?”. If it wasn’t for that note she made all those years earlier, who knows, I might’ve never moved to London.
LBB> What a convenient way of finding a school! What was the experience like there?
Mario> Saint Martins was great. The way they teach there is very free flowing which suited me. I got introduced to the work of people like Paul Rand and Alan Fletcher among others. Those two in particular really opened my eyes. Their ideas-led design style really spoke to me. This approach that combines creative thinking and design thinking to come up with creative solutions to solve problems. It’s not just about making things look pretty, there’s an idea, which was then executed beautifully. That was the kind of work I wanted to do.
LBB> And then how did you end up going towards advertising?
Mario> A lot of the famous designers whose work I had gotten introduced to at Saint Martins had worked in advertising at some point in their careers and in some cases their whole careers. So, I wanted to see what it was like. At the time a friend of mine was working at Wieden+Kennedy London and she got me an interview with their head of design who got me in for a few weeks. That’s where I first got a taste of working in an ad agency. It was a fun, fast-paced and ideas-driven environment which appealed to me. I moved to AMV BBDO in 2012. Initially, I was only supposed to come in and freelance for three months and now nearly 11 years have gone by here.
LBB> Let’s talk about the relationship between creative and design. When does that collaboration work best?
Mario> You obviously need to get on. A lot of the people that I’ve done good work with are friends outside of the office as well. On most of the projects I’ve done that have been successful, I would have gotten briefed at the same time as the creative team. So you work together, rather than the classic image of a creative director telling you what to do. It’s a collaborative process. I think that’s essential. Everyone brings their own ideas to the table and you build something together. If a designer is confident enough to voice their own opinions and ideas and you have a good relationship with whoever you’re working with then I think that’s how you get to successful work.
LBB> You can see that in a lot of the recent projects you’ve done that have been successful. How does your role as a creative design director work in teams behind those kinds of projects?
Mario> Take ‘Trash Isles’ for example. I didn’t come up with the idea to turn that area of trash in the ocean into a ‘country’. The creative team came up with that. I got briefed to come up with a visual identity for this ‘country’ made out of trash. To design a flag, currency, passport and postage stamps for it. Naturally, when I was working on the design of the visual identity, I would also come up with art directional ideas for it. They go hand in hand on a project like this because the identity design was the art direction for the project. And then I’d work closely with the creative team to develop everything. So this is an example of a project where my role crosses over between design and creative.
‘Hope Reef’ was a project where me and two other creatives formed the main creative team. What worked well in this case was that they were both copywriters and I was the art director. They looked after their part of the project, I looked after my part, and together we looked after the whole project from a creative point of view. In this instance, I came up with the idea for a digital coral growing font that formed the basis for the campaign identity for the project. It was basically a digital extension of the actual reef which was used to amplify the campaign. I designed a 2D version of the font myself and then worked with a CGI studio to build and animate the font in 3D which I art directed. And then we used the font in OOH, social and print. This is another example where my role between design and creative crosses over. From coming up with the idea for the font, designing and art directing it and then overseeing other bits and bobs.
Both these projects perfectly illustrate creative thinking and design thinking being combined effectively to come up with creative solutions. The visuals were then executed with the level of design craft and detail you see coming out of boutique design agencies.
What’s interesting is that both these projects have won some of the top industry awards. That shows you that this ‘formula’ of combining creative thinking and design thinking, when you get it right, can be very effective indeed.
LBB> How do you feel about design’s place in advertising these days?
Mario> I remember when I was in art college and people were like, “Oh no, you don’t want to go into advertising as a designer”. Advertising was almost seen as the enemy of design. But that never made any sense to me. I saw it as an opportunity. I figured I just needed to find an agency that suited me and work with the right people.
I think it’s a great time for design in advertising. In the last few years there have been countless design-led projects that have come out of ad agencies from all over the world that have been way more influential and effective than a lot of projects you see coming out of small boutique design agencies. That is partly down to the fact that advertising tends to have bigger budgets, bigger ideas, bigger reach, so has the potential to be more interesting and eye-catching. But I think it’s also because the role of design in ad agencies has changed a lot in recent times and has become a lot more important. That’s also thanks to brands like Apple and Nike to name a few because of their design-led aesthetics.
LBB> What sort of briefs do you love working on the most?
Mario> My favourite kind of projects are probably visual identities. Because there are usually a lot of components involved. To me, they’re like big puzzles that need to be solved, which I enjoy.
LBB> What inspires you out in the world?
Mario> Luckily for me I live in London which in my mind is one massive living gallery with endless streams of inspiration coming at you from all different directions 24/7. I tend to look for inspiration outside of advertising most of the time. I go to a lot of exhibitions. Instagram is great because it’s instant. Music. Art. I like reading biographies. I find it interesting to read about what makes people tick and how they think. There are so many different things I take inspiration from.
LBB> How do you feel about advertising today and how it compares to the industry of the past?
Mario> You often hear people say that the advertising golden era was in the ‘90s or ‘60s, depending on who you ask. I think it’s as good as it’s been right now. After all, you can’t change when you were born. You create your own luck and it’s up to you what you make of the opportunities you are presented with. I’m convinced it’s only going to get better with new avenues to do interesting creative work constantly opening up. If you look around at new creative work that comes out every year from all over the world it’s clear to see that it’s being pushed further and further into new and unexpected areas. I think the future is looking as bright as it’s ever been for our industry.