Erik Kessels on getting fired, doing the firing, and never making compromises
The co-founder of KesselsKramer is as well known for his personal work as he is his international advertising agency. Here, he tells It’s Nice That about some defining moments in his career to date.
The KesselsKramer studio in Amsterdam is quite unlike any studio I have ever been to before. Nestled alongside a canal, I walked past the door several times before noticing the small plaque with the studio’s signature horse and horseshoe logo. It’s an unassuming facade for what lies behind the wooden door: a transformed church, in which desks are situated among a wooden fort, a fragment of a shed and a lifeguards’ watchtower (diving board and all). Workspaces and chill out areas sit at different levels so as I’m taken on a tour, there are ladders and stairs to climb and views of the studio from different angles.
As well as the actual structure of the workspace, the studio, which was designed by FAT Architecture, features part of a football pitch, picnic tables, hedges and fences, and is littered with peculiarities; furniture, ornaments, gadgets and works of art collected from flea markets. The room in which I’m taken to interview Erik Kessels, the man who co-founded the renowned advertising agency alongside Johan Kramer in 1996, is covered in wallpaper with leaves and tree trunks all over it. There’s astroturf on the floor and the meeting room screen is mounted on an actual tree…
It’s in this room that we chat about the agency’s beginnings, Erik’s dislikes about the advertising world (and how he tries to do things differently), how losing his sister at a young age impacted his creative career, why KK doesn’t employ arseholes, and chicken suits.
24 years in business, now with studios in London and LA, and KK remains one of those agencies that young creatives aspire to work at and other industries aspire to work with. Its iconic campaigns and identities for CitizenM, the Stedelijk, Ben, I amsterdam, and Diesel (among many others) speak for themselves. KK is playful, witty, smart and unapologetic. Whatever the client, you can expect to be surprised by what the KK team produces and this prestige of unpredictability, our discussion revealed, is something Erik has been carefully cultivating for years now.
GalleryKesselsKramer Amsterdam, interior by FAT Architecture
GalleryKesselsKramer Amsterdam, interior by FAT Architecture
It’s Nice That: This place is amazing. That must be how every conversation here starts...
Erik Kessels: Yeah, or how they end!
INT: What was it like when you first moved in? How much have you done to the place?
EK: So we started in 1996 after Johan and I had spent two years working in London. Our girlfriends were here so we came back and spent two years working somewhere else and looking for a more open space, and this was perfect! It was available to rent or possibly for sale in the newspaper so we came to see it immediately – some Hare Krishna people wanted it as well, so we made a decision very quickly to take it. And we don't regret it.
INT: You and Johan left London because you both got fired, right?
EK: Yeah... We were working at Chiat Day. Johan and I met each other in Amsterdam initially but were working in different companies and we decided we wanted to work abroad – that was in 1994. At that time, Holland was quite well known for its creativity; a lot was going on, there was a big boom. We were headhunted into this company in London – Naresh Ramchandani and Dave Buonaguidi were the creative directors.
This was only 94 and they already had a paperless office! There wasn’t even internet yet but they had an internal network called Quick Mail and when you needed a document, you had to scan it and send it – there was hardly any paper and it was very hip, I think the average age was 23. But there was not a very nice atmosphere, so one day, we arrived at work wearing chicken suits which we got from this costume rental place around the corner on Shaftesbury Avenue, and we had a ghetto blaster playing The Birdie Song. We thought we’d try and cheer things up a bit! Some people had a laugh and others were not amused... Two weeks later, we got fired.
“For us, it’s really important that we can have fun with what we do. Many of us have worked in other places and the thing I’m most proud of is that we have never made any compromises.”Erik Kessels
INT: Was it directly because of that?!
EK: No! There was a lot of confusion because of the language barrier. For example, whenever they reviewed our work they would say “oh, it’s interesting” always “interesting” and in Holland, interesting it very good, it’s better than average because you’re on the way so we thought great. But we didn’t know that interesting in England means throw it away, it’s rubbish!
INT: Did KesselsKramer begin right after you left Chiat Day?
EK: No, then we went to GGT where Robert Saville was the creative director at the time. We were there for a year before returning to Amsterdam, but we were still working for GGT in Amsterdam several days a month. Then Robert got approached by Channel 5 and he passed it onto us saying that if we won it, he would start his own company. And we did win, so he started Mother, I even made a logo for the new company. He got cold feet at one point and we had to push him to start it because we knew we couldn’t take on this client on our own! For a year, we worked closely together before it faded slightly.
INT: What do you think made you and Johan such a good pair? What did you see in each other that made you want to start an agency together?
EK: We were both very fanatic. Almost equally fanatic, and very quick also. We both had interests far beyond advertising – I was often more involved in design but also photography, he was doing a lot of things with film, so we had broader interests than only the industry we were working in. We realised that working for someone else didn’t work, because we would finish those projects so quickly and then spend our time working on our own projects. It was too slow for us.
GalleryKesselsKramer: Frans Hals Museum
INT: Where did you both learn that way of working, or do you think it’s part of your personalities?
EK: I don’t know actually! I met Johan because he was the new boyfriend of my ex-girlfriend. We also fell in love with each other a little bit, which wasn’t very nice for my ex-girlfriend. I think there was just a meeting of minds.
INT: Would you say the chicken suit story is indicative of what you were like growing up? Were you a bit of a class clown?
EK: No, I think we were both quite shy when we were young! I lost my sister when I was very young – I was 11 and she was nine – so my youth was quite impacted by that event. In a way, I skipped puberty a bit because I was alone at home with my parents. And Johan lost his mother quite quickly, she was chronically ill, and that also changed him. In my case, when I look back, I was always drawing – maybe it was a way to get out of it and do something else.
INT: In 2003, Johan left to direct full time?
EK: Yeah, I had three of four employees at that time that had been there since the very beginning with us so they all became partners. And now, in total, we have 40-50 people and seven partners – which is quite a lot but it’s nice because you can spread; Max is in London, for example. He joined as an intern and has stayed since. For us, it’s really important that we can have fun with what we do. Many of us have worked in other places and the thing I’m most proud of is that we have never made any compromises. Of course, sometimes we’ll change small things but nothing has ever gone out of the door here that we don’t like. There are a lot of design and advertising agencies that create work under the table, and it’s never shown to anyone, just to pay the rent but we are totally transparent. Our website has everything we’ve ever done on it and in our 2 Kilo book is every flier, every invite, every stupid sticker we’ve ever made – it’s all in there.
INT: Is that because you feel every single project is as good as the next or because you understand it’s OK to mess up sometimes?
EK: I think there is a big misunderstanding in the whole design industry. It’s a very opportunistic industry, there’s money to be made which is fine. But a lot of companies think that to make money, they have to do shit work so there’s a lot of rubbish being made. You don’t want to know how many people I’ve met who are totally frustrated about the work they’re making – and I’m not talking about independent designers who have a very small unit and are very autonomous in what they do, of course, but when there’s a bigger company it’s like you have to make shit work, that’s part of the job, which I completely disagree with.
Actually, twice we’ve fired a client who was 60-80 per cent of our income – seriously!
INT: That’s so brave!
EK: I know... The first time we did it, it was the best decision we ever made. We were scared but it worked out.
“When there’s a bigger company it’s like you have to make shit work, that’s part of the job, which I completely disagree with.”Erik Kessels
INT: What was the situation?
EK: Well, one of the biggest clients we ever got was a mobile phone company in 1999. The company had a name, that we liked – “Call Me” (in Dutch). We liked that we could use that in the visual language for communication and, to cut a long story short, someone in the company didn’t register the name properly. We had worked for two months on the project when they found out they couldn’t use that name any more. And quite close to the date they were launching, they changed the name very suddenly and drastically to a really stupid name! So we had a decision to make – they were such a big client and we were planning on working with them for years, we had to decide whether to do it or cut our losses. We were very honest, we said you’re not going to win this battle with this name, so we have to give it back to you! The accountant who was working freelance for us at the time then quit because he said if you let this go, I’ll never work for you again. But we were dead set on this decision because if you have to work for a name you don’t believe in, that sounds stupid, you’re going to lose a lot of sleep!
And then, after a few months, they came back. They tried other agencies and names until they rang the doorbell here – literally – apologised for their behaviour, said they didn’t even have a name now and asked if we would like to give it another go because they wanted to work with us. We were flabbergasted, it was a gift from god almost.
They allowed us to create the name at that point, which was Ben – it's the name of a person, of course, but it’s also a verb in Holland. When you say “I am” it’s “Ik ben”. It ended up being a very famous campaign in Holland and we went on to work together for a total of five years. It was one of our biggest, most physical campaigns ever, and it shows that if you dare to take that risk you are sometimes rewarded for it.
INT: KK has a strong identity in terms of the work you make and some of that seems to come from the fact that you have a very strong set of beliefs. Can you tell us a bit more about what, to you, aspiring to do things differently means?
EK: I think that the work in itself is no different to what other agencies or designers are making, it’s more that, at least from my perspective, I work with a group of great people, there are no assholes in the company. Which is important because life is too short to work with arseholes! We are all friends, even with our collaborators. We like each other, we like each other’s work. I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that the company was started from a creative point of view, one of the things outlined in the business plan was about how people should work on their hobbies because a lot of creative people have other passions in the creative field – photography, film, somebody makes a magazine or somebody does strange knitting, whatever – and I believe in that.
The team is so important and there’s never a formula for that, it’s purely a gut feeling – and it’s never comfortable, that’s also important, creativity should be uncomfortable, you should never lean back. Even with how much work we’ve done, for every client, it’s like we start all over again from the beginning. If you saved your money all your life to build a house and asked an architect to design it, you’d want something very specific to you – let them forget all the work they’ve done before and build your house. And that’s how our clients also think. Your reputation and everything you’ve done before no longer counts.
We are also honest – lying is a big part of advertising but we don’t do that.
“Lying is a big part of advertising but we don’t do that.”Erik Kessels
INT: You’ve been vocal in the past about how not liking things about advertising is a big motivation for you, what kind of things don’t you like about the industry?
EK: Sometimes I am more like a psychologist, sitting on the couch, and people from other agencies come and see me and they complain about how hurt they are, how frustrated they are about their work. I don’t like it that some agencies don’t see or know who works with them because there are so many of them. I can give you a list of at least 25 people whose work and personality I love but we can’t take them all on. Some agencies, they just don’t see who they have in-house, what other capabilities they have, how much freedom and how much responsibility you could give them and how they would catapult things. That’s a shame!
But as I said, it’s a very opportunistic world. To give you an example, it’s not our finest moment, but we once stopped a relationship with a company we worked for because we didn’t like the person working there – we didn’t see a future there and thought it better to stop it before things got nasty and rotten. So we stopped the relationship with that client which is not very normal of course. And we sent a press release to a magazine in Holland explaining that we had fired the client, which of course they didn’t like, but what would be the other way to do it? They would put out a statement saying they’d left us!
Anyway, it’s bizarre that on the day it was in the press there were maybe three or four creative directors from different agencies who called me like “Hey, how are your children doing?” and I thought what the hell... But they were asking if they could call our previous client to work with them! It just goes on and on – there’s no ethic in that. And I’m not saying that we are above anything, it was just a gut feeling, we have also made a lot of the wrong decisions of course. But at least we have a clean slate – it’s always about the work. And of course, it’s not always easy; it’s much more difficult to say no than to say yes to everything.
INT: Would you say being selective about projects and clients has been key to the success of KK?
EK: Yeah, but successful is always a state of mind. Successful is not always the number of people you have working for you, or the biggest clients, it’s more about the fascination you have, being constantly new and alert which is a nice game.
INT: Another strong belief at KK is that every piece of work you create is “social”, can you tell us more about that?
EK: I just think there has to be a certain truth in the work – you can be more truthful than you think you can be when creating work. For instance, when we worked for that mobile phone company, they said that they wanted to be accessible to everyone. So we said, OK if that’s true, let’s make a campaign which has everyone in it – people of different backgrounds. And at the time it was a shock for people to see that in the street but it worked. This wasn’t our intention but it’s been said that that campaign did more for integration in Holland at that time than all of the governmental campaigns, because there were a lot of conflicts and trouble after 9/11.
Social can also be a metaphor. It can mean making work with a certain amount of humanity in it – not that everything is soft or whatever but there’s a certain truth in it.
GalleryErik Kessels: In Almost Every Picture
INT: Back to what we talked about before with giving people the space to do personal projects, that’s important here, how do you go about encouraging people to do this? Why do you think it’s so important?
EK: The process of creativity is not that you sit at a desk and say, it needs to happen now so now it’s going to happen. When you have to come up with something, there’s no formula for that. So what I always did was kept myself busy with eight to ten projects on the side. When I got stuck on a project I would divert to another one, work on that, then come back to the main problem and that helped. No one is born with the talent to be a graphic designer or an art director or a writer, it’s something that you learn – and it helps to have outside influences.
Another thing I have to admit is that some days are not fruitful, you can’t be brilliant every day. It’s not possible. And that’s frustrating but when you have lots of things on the side, you just take a little thing and make that thing good. So then at the end of the day, you’re happy because you have accomplished something. I see that creatives work like that, they need to have little sweets, a little carrot to run after.
INT: How do you manage it as a team though?
EK: Creative people need to be extremely busy. You need to do as much stuff as possible, that is very important! Some companies might worry that an employee can’t do “this” while also working on “this” but people are responsible, they know that the job is to come up with an idea. But the game is to divert and do something different, I like people that do this, when they come for an internship or an interview with personal projects. It happened once that this girl who we have now worked with for a long time, a designer, she talked about her work and some other passions she has and we talked for a long time, we clicked. And in the end, I said we should work together and asked when she could start and she said: “you haven't even seen my work!” She had a whole portfolio with her that we hadn't even looked at.
“I’ve always been opposed to the idea that everything needs to be polished as is often the way in advertising and design.”Erik Kessels
INT: Your personal work is largely photographic, where does your interest in photography come from?
EK: I was always drawing and when I was 14-16 I was illustrating a lot. It was bizarre, when I was 16 I earned more than my father because I did loads of commercial illustrations, but then I stopped it because I thought it was too lonely.
I later worked as an art director and I worked a lot with photographers. Over time, I understand what kind of photographic work I liked. For example, I loved the Pixies’ album covers and I once heard an interview with the designer of these covers, Vaughan Oliver, who was talking about the photographer who shot them all, Simon Larbalestier. At a certain point, when I was working at an agency in London, Simon’s portfolio passed by so I thought hey I can work with him! We worked on a job together which was a nice job, we made nice, weird pictures and I was super happy that these two things came together.
From that time on, I stopped working with photographers who were specifically working in a commercial field, I only worked with more reportage, Magnum, fine art photographers. When we started here in Holland, I just continued to do more and more of that, I picked photographers and artists, a lot of well-known artists, who had never done a commercial job and experimented with them. We did a campaign for Diesel with Magnum photographers, for example. And that’s how I got into photography.
EK: I’ve always been opposed to the idea that everything needs to be polished as is often the way in advertising and design. I always wanted to go against that a bit, even when I selected images for a fashion shoot, I would sometimes pick the image where the model had their eyes closed because it was a more intense moment. Later people said it was a brilliant photograph, but it was just a mistake. I also started to collect photographs, from markets at the weekend and I started to enjoy the naive quality they have, the storytelling in these “real” images. When I was in Barcelona, I found 400 slides of just one woman and I started to think about what would happen, how it would work, if I appropriated them, took them out of their original context and into a new one.
So it was that but I also remember vividly that when my sister died, my parents were looking for her last image from a holiday park. It was taken by an anonymous photographer and my whole family was in it but my parents cropped out my sister, enlarged it and made it black and white. It wasn’t a good photograph really but I never forgot the power of that image – it was a very random image, no one in their life would think it was a beautiful image but the three of us thought it was such an important image, of course.
INT: It’s interesting that people find that side of your practice odd because there are obvious links between your interest in found photography and your ideas around advertising.
EK: Yeah, people don’t often see that link but it’s there. For instance, in some campaigns that we’ve done over the years, there is some “human” thing in there, in the storytelling. And that’s in the books I make, there will be something very ironic, or tragic, or funny.
INT: Earlier, you mentioned that image you chose of a model with her eyes closed. That’s something you work with a lot – mistakes within creativity – how does that come into your everyday practice?
EK: Sometimes it’s within my method, you try to constantly divert in your head. For instance, this has nothing to do with creativity but I remember when I was 16, I went to school by train every day and it took 1.5 hours. The first week I took my bike to the train station, waited at the platform and then I realised, hey I do the same thing every day at the same time, I see the same people – this guy is always standing there, I always follow the same path with my bike and I turned it into a game over the next four years, to take a different route every day. But that’s also about creativity, you need to find new ways to surprise people or surprise yourself.
INT: You’ve used the metaphor of a Sat Nav before I believe, that sometimes it’s better to ignore the directions you’re being given when trying to be creative.
EK: To come back to the Sat Nav idea, the metaphor of it telling you to turn around when possible is a nice one. You should go in the direction that no one wants you to go in with creativity, because there is so much around on the highway now that if you take a small side street, it can be much more interesting.
INT: Can you think of an example of a project where a mistake or a diversion directly led to the outcome?
EK: We did this very small job for a school [Koning Willem I] and their problem was garbage on canvas. There were 13,000 students there and they littered, even though there were bins everywhere. In many cases, people think fuck it’s a problem, we need to solve it, how can I do that, how can I make it better, how can I tell the students not to do this? Everybody likes to improve the problem but we thought maybe it would be nice to make the problem even worse. On the bins it said, “Throw garbage in the garbage bins, how difficult can it be?” There were huge trees on the campus and we built a giant ladder into the tree and at the top was one of the bins. Or we had a metal cage around the bin. We played with the target audience to challenge them and to fool them, to laugh at them. And in the case that was exactly the way to do it, it worked. It’s a way of looking in another direction. It’s a more interesting way of thinking.
INT: Interesting in the Dutch way, not the English way...
EK: Yes, haha! And with a project like that, you feel it because it catapults a reaction immediately. On the same night, it was on the national news. That’s what you can do with creativity. If you think about artists that are totally autonomous, in their genesis is that they have to make themselves and their work uncomfortable – push themselves, it’s in their DNA. But to be creative for a certain job, a brief from a client, that is almost like applied creativity, there are certain boundaries, you can’t do everything. For me, that’s always been better, I need those limitations.
INT: Going back to a mistake you made which led to a success, maybe wearing the chicken costume to work that day was your best mistake yet?
EK: Yeah! That’s a good one. The circle is round.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.