Looking for utopia with agencies in Amsterdam

Collaboration, content and effectiveness were three of the big issues on the agenda as our agency partners met around the table for Campaign's third Adland in Amsterdam debate.

Around the table (Clockwise from left) Suzanne Bidlake managing editor, content solutions, Campaign, Ben Armistead head of planning, 180 Amsterdam, Kerrie Finch founder and chief executive, FinchFactor, Philip Smith (chair) head of content solutions and studio, Haymarket Business Media, Simon Neate-Stidson senior strategy director, Blast Radius (Amsterdam), Emily Creek global business director, Sid Lee Amsterdam, Ron Boyle senior manager, foreign investments, creative industry, Amsterdam in Business, Martin Weigel head of planning, Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, Antonin Jamond strategist, BSUR

Gathered around a table in "Amsterdam’s living room" – in the prestigious Conservatorium hotel – the participants in Campaign’s roundtable conversation had the perfect setting to chew over the latest trends in advertising and tackle some enduring issues too.

In previous years, discussion themes centred on connectivity (of ideas and people) and control (clients wanting to control the message versus consumers controlling the input). This time, other c-words – from collaboration to content – seemed to be driving the agenda.


What are clients asking from your business?

Simon Neate-Stidson: Over the past year or two, clients that I speak to – or we pitch for – are saying that everything needs to be working together more fluidly. They have the right intentions or have been told to get everyone to work together. Their departments are talking to each other – which is a start – but, in many ways, it has raised a lot of deeper-rooted issues. But the intent is definitely there now with almost every brief and every client, and that wasn’t there two or three years ago.

Emily Creek: I think you are right about being connected. One of the things I have noticed, maybe previous to the past 12 months, is that clients are looking for fame – and not just fame in terms of the awards but fame in terms of the press story around their campaigns.

Kerrie Finch: A lot of it comes down to what we have noticed – there are a lot of requests for collaboration, which is really important, and working across the silos, which we would all openly agree is the way forward. For me, it’s because budgets are so tight these days. In the past 12 months, I’ve noticed budgets change. Before that, I wasn’t hit by any recession at all. People come to us in a crisis, they come to us when they are feeling healthy – but, in the past 12 months, it seems to me that the continent is experiencing recession in a particular way. It has now hit our industry. I think that is because of the budgets and fees and a need to work harder. So there is a call for collaboration, almost like: "You guys get along and work it out together, share the money and play nice."

Neate-Stidson: The irony is, while the overall budgets are being cut, we are having more meetings with more agencies to update or get on board – and these meetings are huge. So there are far too many people, and then you rationalise: "Oh, let’s cut the numbers down, the client’s concerned there are too many people at these meetings." Well, you wanted us to collaborate and you have cut the budget as well. We actually need more time with less money.

Ben Armistead: I think that, prior to collaboration, what they are asking for is ideas that play out over different communication channels. That’s an excellent thing and I think it is a necessity. How you get to that depends on the various client relationships. Sometimes that can be an individual agency, sometimes that can be partner agencies, and it can be a good or bad thing depending on the relationships between those agencies. If they are good relationships, it’s great!


What needs to change? If you ruled the world, what would you do?

Armistead: First, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, as is the case with any complex system or question. I think it is about looking for a system rather than a smorgasbord. You then need some guiding principles, and those probably come from an idea but are also about how you are measuring that. So, what is the organising thought that will carry all these channels of ideas together and what is the direction – the North Star – and where are we headed? That should almost be a hypothesis of growth, a hypothesis of how we get from A to B and how those things are interrelated. I think, when you have those things, it’s very easy to make them trickle them down and look to see which channels, which moments, are correct.

Creek: What utopia!

Armistead: It doesn’t always go well. Of course, there are vested interests, there are fee challenges and there are people vying for the content bit or the production bit. That happens.

Creek: I don’t think anyone wants "a bit" any more, and that’s the point. No-one wants to be in a box, no-one wants to be a digital agency, no-one wants to be the comms agency. Everyone wants to be hand-holding with the client to the point where they can affect the product and where they are business partners.

Finch: I disagree. I think some people just know what their strengths are and they play to them. This is the territory that I play in, and some agencies and companies are superb and brilliant and truly successful by not having a relationship with the client at all. They want to have a relationship with the agency, they don’t want to have a relationship with the client. They know what they do best and they succeed in doing that – so it’s not a case of one shape fits all, of course.

Armistead: When you said "everyone wants everything", I’m not sure I agree with that. But I did agree with "everybody wants to be partners". The problem is very few people behave like partners because their vested interests and their "chase of the carrot" is all too transparent. The one thing I would say to them – and this is advice for how agencies behave and the clients you seek – is to look for business partners.

Neate-Stidson: I have been in situations where you are working with some really good partner agencies on behalf of the client. If you all know you are there at the top table at the start of the process and genuinely collaborate – and this is not utopia, this actually happens sometimes – and all put in an idea at the start, we would get the next opportunity because there is a commitment to a long-term relationship from the client to these agencies working together.

Martin Weigel: I think the lesson I would draw from that is: if you want to foster an environment of collaboration, it really helps to have ambition. If you all believe that what you are going to make is absolutely going to be awesome, you will always feel big enough. Who cares if you are just doing  community management and somebody else is doing something else? Who cares? If a client wants to foster an environment of collaboration, be ambitious. Not just ambitious – but have a sense of what  quality is going to look like.

Finch: Ambition needs foresight and vision, and that doesn’t come from projects – and I think there is a trend towards projects, for whatever reason.

Armistead: It also means that they should invest more in developing the idea at the start, with more people contributing to what that idea might be. It’s actually a shift of budget, because it says "We believe in you guys together doing it, so we will put a bit more money up front to make sure that happens properly", rather than just saying one set of people will do it and then everybody else will just follow suit.

Creek: Maybe it would help to get out of a brief or the specific "here is the project" approach. Maybe if a client retained a crack team across the year with the smartest people from each of their agencies and said: "OK, this budget is split – each person is paid for, there is no cluster for a project at the end of it. We are just going to retain you as consultants from which briefs will come, and then we will decide who does those briefs." Operating that kind of model, where you are actually using your agencies as consultants, and hand-picking them for different disciplines, could be a way of doing it, but it is not one that clients currently know.

Ron Boyle: I think it involves the changes you have probably already seen but it is being emphasised more and more – that the consumer has got way more power, especially through the use of social media, and they want instant gratification more and more. It’s how companies are adjusting to that. This is a bit off-topic – but we are seeing very large companies in the fashion industry getting more and more involved with e-commerce. They are changing, centralising their operations here in Amsterdam to take advantage of the fact that Amsterdam has international access to customers and talent. But the biggest change I’m seeing and hearing is that consumers really have much more power. Brand experience, user experience are still valuable but some companies are worried that store fronts are going to disappear.


Is content a new way of storytelling or is it what you have always done? Emily, do you see your work with Absolut as content or do you see it as something different?

Creek: I think storytelling is something we have always done. I don’t think we just beat people over the head with a hammer prior to the past 12 months – at least, I hope we didn’t. I think brands have to be aware that the story has to be interesting. There is a massive push from all the clients I work with to increase the amount of content – "We need as many pieces of content as we can get. We just need content, content, content" – but without considering what problem we are solving by producing the content or who the audience is for this. And, also, what is the media buy behind it? This is because content basically doesn’t work without media and, most of the time, clients develop content and put it somewhere and then get annoyed when it doesn’t get any traction. Realistically, unless you are going to spend the same amount of money on your online content as you would on your TV or press advertising, no-one is going to see it and no-one is going to care. It has to be damn well-targeted to speak to what a person was in the mood for at that exact moment or appeal to what they are interested in.

Armistead: Sir John Hegarty was reminding us in an interview he did at Cannes Lions that if you think you are doing entertainment content, then your competition is Game Of Thrones. It has to be better or at least as good. You have to question if people will willingly engage with you, whether it is for utilitarian purposes or just entertainment. That can only be a good thing because sometimes advertising seems to play by different rules, where we don’t have to be interesting or we just shout at people.


What do you aim for when asked about effectiveness?

Antonin Jamond: To be blunt, I doubt how we can actually measure effectiveness from a scientific point of view. All the research that is being done at the moment is not comparable with something that was done in the past; and it’s not likely to be tested again after it has been done once. So, basically, we have a snapshot statistical overview of what is happening that gives us an indication – or an assumption – of how things went at that place and that moment.

Creek: There are lots of different ways to measure effectiveness. If consumers are willingly appropriating your story and telling it on your behalf, that’s a pretty big win. That doesn’t always happen in the way that clients want – in the fame/grandiose way – but, to use the utility content example, someone could say: "Oh, you’ve got a problem with your camera? You should use the Nikon ‘how-to’ videos on YouTube – they’re amazing." If consumers are willingly sharing and promoting your brand, that is a good place to start. It’s as good an indicator as any of the effectiveness testing we have.

Jamond: That would mean that the brand acted as a good springboard for conversation and, if you look in terms of content, brands are producing content most of the time. Then, if you look at the democratisation of digital tools, people are switching from being consumers to producers and, in the end, from producers to deciders. Now, for instance, Sony has made the bold move of including consumer reviews as content messaging and just signs it off with "ta-da". The switch could also be happening where the brands will not necessarily be providing the content and where we see the consumers producing content on behalf of the brand, or in brand partnerships or brand collaborations. Then again, coming back to the utility or entertainment purposes of content, from a utilitarian perspective, it is literally showing what your product is able to solve at that moment. On the other hand, when you see the amount of data that is being produced – video and everything else – there is just too much. It’s not about information overload, it’s about filter failure. This should be about how we can refocus on what matters. I do believe that, from a brand perspective and seeing all the different platforms and pieces of content available, it should be focused or refocused purely on making product demonstrations in the shape of brand experiences. This is what Go-Pro and Nikon are doing, rather than just producing cool pieces that are entertaining.


Simon, you work with Nikon. What is your take on this?

Neate-Stidson: The key thing to understand is the role of your brand in whatever space it occupies and how products can help that role. But, actually, your brand should have a bigger role than that, and that is what you should be measuring against. Whether that is creating conversation or enabling people to do whatever, that’s the thing you should be measuring. I would add that the platforms that we are looking at to judge whether we are successful or not change halfway through a campaign. A story will take a turn – for better or worse – and, suddenly, we are going: "Oh, actually, we thought this was going to be the key metric but the fundamental thing we’re trying to achieve as a brand, as a role, is actually this and it’s happening over here." So to remain open-minded about actual platforms and data is important.

Armistead: I think the first thing to consider when it comes to effectiveness is the need to find a balance between short-term and long-term effects. Making sense of that – and various other associated bits and pieces – and balancing the two and understanding the relationship between them is essential. There are a lot of conversations now about big data and I wonder if there is a distinction between data as output versus data as input. We have all this big data that is being churned out and, actually, it is more useful to us as an input. Whereas real-time marketing is sometimes but not always useful, real-time data, if used correctly, is useful. Whether or not, or how we choose to act on it, is up to us. Maybe we act on it there and then. Maybe we just learn about the buying process and we can come back to it in six months’ time. But big data is not enough. You need smart data, you need analysis, you need humanity and you need creativity.


How do you measure success in Amsterdam? Is adland important?

Boyle: In terms of success, it is literally down to facts and figures. We look at the number of companies we have established as well as the number of employees that have arrived. Also, what is very important to us is to be in contact and to be bringing in companies that introduce new innovations, new technology and new ideas. This is all very important  for the city to remain innovative and build on its cluster strategy of seven pillars that include creative life sciences, IT and logistics, as these are the lifeblood and the economic motors of the city of Amsterdam.

Thoughts from the table

"In Amsterdam, we’re in a unique position to look around the world – largely because our clients are dealing with global problems – to assimilate complexity into simple systems, but also to understand which levers to use and at which point." Ben Armistead

"Airbnb has only just launched its brand. It didn’t have a brand per se. Prior to that, it just delivered a service based on truth, and people want a different kind of experience. There’s a lot that we can learn from that." Emily Creek

"We have always been storytellers. We are sharing units, or even genes – and that’s what we were born for. Now we have new tools to play with and that’s a richness that we are delighted with." Antonin Jamond

"We can analyse until we have gazed at our navels and turned ourselves inside out but, actually, the audience, the man on the street, doesn’t give a shit about any of that."
Kerrie Finch

"There is a belief that we can, with every idea we’re working on, help the brand situation and also the long-term business future of the brand." Simon Neate-Stidson

"I would rather be in an industry that’s fascinated with shiny new toys than playing with dusty old Meccano sets from the 50s." Martin Weigel

"I’ve always been amazed when I meet companies and find out about the campaigns that they’ve been operating, the brands that they’ve been working on – some of the biggest names in the world – and the work that has been created and pitched from the Amsterdam office instead of the global headquarters back in the States or in London." Ron Boyle

Photography: Sigel Eschkol

For exclusive video and more from Adland in Amsterdam, visit campaignlive.co.uk/adlandinamsterdam

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