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Creatives Doing it for Themselves in Amsterdam

By Published on .

Wouter Boon
Wouter Boon

What do bicycles, cookies, Champagne and mobile phones have in common? Not much, except that all these products were introduced to the market by Amsterdam-based advertising agencies.

I've always been fascinated by ad agencies creating products, instead of ideas. And is this kind of entrepreneurship manageable if your core business is advertising? I had a chat with the founders of Johnny Loco bicycles, John Altman cookies, Zarb champagne and John's phone.

In 2005 Arnaud van der Vecht and Hugo Rutter from New Message saw a gaping opportunity in the Dutch bicycle market. Since most bicycles looked as if they were solely manufactured to bring the consumer from A to B, there was clearly room for a lifestyle brand. So New Message decided to build an American cruiser -- a bicycle with expressive styling. Advertising the product was the easy part; the agency tactically placed its bicycles at beach bars, gyms, and trendy shops. When they heard Paris Hilton was in Amsterdam, half an hour later, a pink cruiser was dropped off at her hotel. Making a durable product proved more difficult though; it took a dedicated team several years to be able to compete with the established brands on quality.

Eventually the effort paid off. Today thousands of bicycles are sold every year in Europe, South Africa and the U.S. The most rewarding thing though, said Mr. Rutter, is not the money it makes, but the fact that the agency shook up the Dutch bicycle market: "We changed an old-fashioned market into a hip, colorful industry with several new brands and bicycle models."

Cookies from Gummo: Inspired by a California hippie's free-love message.
Cookies from Gummo: Inspired by a California hippie's free-love message.

Onno Lixenberg and Hajo de Boer from Gummo wanted to introduce their own cookie brand ever since working for a Dutch cookie manufacturer. Like New Message, they felt the market could use some spice. And like New Message, an American product inspired them: On a California beach, they bumped into John Altman, a hippie giving away homemade cookies. It was not just the authentic taste that struck them, but also Mr. Altman's positive and carefree attitude.

When they asked him if it was OK if they took home the recipe, he spoke the legendary words "Sure, dude, spread the love." These words, together with an Altman-like character, now decorate the freshly designed packaging. While the product is attractive enough to sell itself, finding shelf space at the big supermarkets was a struggle -- with a small product margin, you need to fight hard for a decent market penetration. But Mr. Lixenberg is optimistic: "This year Altman's organic wine in a carton will enter the market and we have many more brand extensions on the drawing table."

'Bizarre': Agency changed the way Champagne bottles look with artist-designed bottles
'Bizarre': Agency changed the way Champagne bottles look with artist-designed bottles

Amsterdam agency They, winner in the international category of Ad Age's Best Small Agency awards in 2009, came up with the idea to launch a Champagne brand while drinking it one Friday afternoon in 2009. You can almost guess what they were thinking: "Why do all Champagne bottles look the same?" The traditionalism of the market triggered the agency to change the rules of the game, explained They's Roland van der Vort. The result was Zarb Champagne (French slang for "bizarre"), with unconventional bottle designs by different artists, including Lady Gaga's dress designer. But like New Message, They didn't know much about the category. And getting permission from the Champagne authorities to bottle the luxurious drink wasn't a walk in the park. Once the product was there, PR and some unorthodox advertising -- the latest designs were introduced in a pop-up store -- did the rest. It took the brand only one year to be distributed in six countries, with five more in the pipeline.

John's Phone: John Doe simplified the mobile phone with this basic-function model.
John's Phone: John Doe simplified the mobile phone with this basic-function model.
Seemingly the most difficult innovation was the introduction of yet another mobile phone in an overcrowded market. Last year Hein Mevissen and Diederiekje Bok from John Doe launched John's Phone, a very basic cellphone that focuses on form rather than function. Still, manufacturing it was a painstaking process. It took the agency four long years of traveling back and forth to China to manage the production; in the beginning phones came back two times too big or suddenly with a radio inside. But the effort was worth the air miles. Thanks to its positioning, clean design, and sharp pricing, the product is selling itself around the world, mostly through online word-of-mouth.

So what do all these agencies have in common? First, all of them are small, independent agencies, which allows them to be truly entrepreneurial. Second, they have all widened their horizons internationally, met interesting new parties, and picked up a ton of practical knowledge and free PR. Third, for them, a unique selling point is more important than a big advertising budget. Finally, they have proved one needs passion, focus and drive to be innovative.

Spotting an opportunity is easy, but seizing it is very hard work.

WOUTER BOON is the founder of Boon Strategy writes for the Amsterdam Ad Blog.
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