`Stop the Bullshit'
Visit the Amsterdam headquarters of KesselsKramer, and one of the first things to catch your eye is the fishbowl on the counter in the lobby. This could cause mild alarm to set in. A friggin' fishbowl? With goldfish? Has the wildest agency in Holland turned bourgeois? Not to worry. As soon as you're shown into the meeting room to await the arrival of Johan Kramer and Erik Kessels, the two Dutchmen who minted their creative reputations at GGT and Chiat/Day in London before starting their own Amsterdam shop, things are reassuringly strange. The room's wallpaper features a lifelike forest. There's wall-to-wall Astroturf on the floor. The furniture looks like it was lifted from a highway reststop: rough wooden benches without backs and a cheap picnic table. No creature comforts here. The idea is that all meetings shall to be kept to a minimum.
Beyond the austere meeting room is the actual space where the KesselsKramer team, now 17 strong, plans its takeover of advertising. It's an old church, its white-and-gold pillars and its stained glass windows gloriously intact. Smack in the middle of this huge space towers a fort, an honest-to-God, cowboys-and-Indians-like fort, at the top level of which are the owners' desks, hidden like eagles' nests. Corners at different floors of the fort are reserved for strategy, PR, production and creativity; KesselsKramer has no need for an account department. Down below, the former altar contains two turntables, for when the inhabitants of the space find themselves in a party mood. If you're not bothered by the seeming blasphemy of it all, the whole place is enchanting -- as much a little boys' playroom as a monument to joyous, unfettered creativity.
The whole setup is unusual enough that you might ask yourself what these two Dutch guys and their international gang of creatives and brand strategists have been smoking. Is this any way to run a serious business? Turns out that, yes, it is. The agency is a runaway success, creatively and financially.
KesselsKramer put itself on the map with its low-budget campaign for a spartan youth hostel called the Hans Brinker Hotel, singing the praises of the place by pointing out just how primitive it is. (A drunken guest bumping into doors after an all-night party is "Our wakeup call." A battered bike rack next to the entrance is "Our private parking.") Says Kramer: "The more honest we were about the place, the happier customers were once they got there."
The Brinker Hotel campaign garnered all manner of domestic and international creative awards, leading envious Dutch colleagues to scoff that it was just an itty-bitty, meaningless account. The scoffing (if not the envy) stopped when KesselsKramer started pulling in one new client after another. Big ones, too: Heineken, a national mobile phone network called Ben (the agency even came up with the friendly, anti-corporate name), the Parool newspaper, Levi's, Audi, Nike. On the other hand, KesselsKramer has become somewhat notorious for turning prospective clients away: Picky, picky.
Kramer explains: "Last year we were crowned Dutch agency of the year [by Holland's leading advertising trade magazine, Adformatie, and by the local advertisers association, BVA]. Guess what? Suddenly banking giants and big insurance companies started calling, proposing lunch." Kessels: " `Lunch?' we asked. `Sorry, we don't do lunch.' " Kramer: "Those companies usually come to us with the wrong motives. They just want us to spray a thin layer of cosmetic creativity on their brands." Kessels: "See, to us, the people behind the brand are initially more important than the brand itself. We prefer to see the client as an equal, a partner, a friend even. Life is short, why spend it with assholes? So we try to make sure things can work out. Are we thinking on the same level? Do we have the same blood type, as it were?" Kramer: "With Audi, for instance, we did have that match. Most car ads are horribly boring, just highlighting techno wizardry. We wanted a strategy that would focus on that human being behind the wheel. In all our ads, the driver was king."
That strategy resulted in a spot about an Audi driver seeing his exact likeness next to him on the passenger seat -- an alter ego who helps him maneuver the car under perilous circumstances, and who even adjusts the rearview mirror for him. The commercial exemplified the benefits of the Audi ESP system, a computer that acts almost like, well, a second driver. Kramer and Kessels, fans of integrated branding, also devised a promotion that had unsuspecting Audi drivers return to their parked vehicle to find that it had been washed and polished. The stunt generated enormous free publicity.
Alas, the relationship didn't last. Says Kessels: "A year after the campaign started, Audi got a new manager." Kramer: "A guy with a short-term focus. Only interested in meeting his sales targets. Couldn't care less about the long-term strategy." Kessels: "Just another job-hopping career shark. It wasn't the first time we realized that we, the agency, were more consistent about the brand than the client." In other words, they resigned the account.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the value the duo places on good client relationships is evident in the absence of an account department. "For seven years we worked for traditional agencies," says Kessels, clearly not relishing the memory. "The account managers made sure they kept us creative types away from the client. For two or three months you worked like crazy on a project; on D-Day you were allowed a couple of minutes in the meeting room to hold up a few boards; and a few days later the account exec would announce whether the client liked your work or not. The whole idea behind our agency was to end this divisive bullshit. The direct dialogue we now enjoy with our clients leads to a more honest, adult relationship." Kessels, grinning: "Adult means that we have really satisfying sex with the client." Kramer: "During which both partners reach a climax." Kessels: "Sometimes even at the same time."
Screwing aside, clients pay by the project. Those sums buy a certain number of hours of the agency people's time, but according to Kessels, "it frequently happens that we give money back because we've finished the project sooner than expected." Kramer: "We don't believe in contracts. It's just like in a love relationship. You spend time working together because you want to."
Constant self-renewal is what keeps these guys alive creatively. Kessels happily reveals that he has just designed his first stamp for the Dutch national mail. A few months earlier, the duo delivered its first rock video, a grainy, eerie visual to a Tom Waits song, "What's He Building in There" -- now showing on MTV. Kramer: "Our door will always be open for small clients who foster revolutionary plans, regardless of our growth. That's just where we happen to come from."
He notes that while he and Kessels try "not to embark on flights of fancy anymore," they both consider it important "to keep the child in us alive." Following their intuition in everything they do -- from decorating to making ads -- is the surest means to that end. Kramer: "If you start rationalizing everything, you become a second McCann-Erickson." It's no coincidence that the duo's self-penned motto is "Youth isn't an age, it's a willingness to care less."
Talk about a truth well told.