Creative Talk with Bram Stevens, Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu
Our latest Creative Talk is with Bram Stevens, Head of Digital & Customer Experience at Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu who had quite a journey from his home country, and hasn’t looked back since. We talk to Bram about the challenges and highlights of his journey so far.
Your journey here was quite unusual, exactly how long did it take you?
Just as the GFC was about to hit Europe in the Summer of 2008, my wife and I left the Netherlands on a 33ft classic sailboat. We sailed via Western Africa, Brazil, around the bottom of South America (where our daughter was born) via Easter Island through Polynesia.
How did you find working remotely while travelling?
With just enough savings to survive one year of travelling, I was initially afraid that we would not be able to find enough work to keep going. But after we embraced our new lifestyle and started thinking outside the box, all sorts of new opportunities appeared. In addition to doing freelance digital & design work, we started vlogging and writing for magazines which generated the remainder of our budget. I loved the flexibility and freedom, although I have to admit that finding a decent internet connection in remote places to upload a video or have a decent video call was challenging at times!
Why the South Pacific?
Originally it was just a planned stop to avoid the Pacific hurricane season. But by the time we made landfall in our Daughter just turned two and our outlook on life had somewhat changed. It was only after exploring and meeting recruiters along the way, I realised settling here was a real option. Having worked for one of Europe’s leading independent digital agencies (Emakina) proved to be a real advantage and I feel fortunate to be able to live and work in this beautiful country.
You have worked hard with Barnes Catmur Dentsu to grow their Digital offering, how has this been going?
It has always bothered me when I hear people in the industry casually drop the word ‘Digital’ into a conversation to impress or confuse (often both) clients. It seems to be a collective noun for everything that is smart and intelligent and therefore is superior. On the other hand, when a client says: “We should invest more in Digital’ it really depends who is on the other side of the table, what the perceived deliverables are. A media person is probably thinking of a display ad, where a developer most likely thinks you want a website or an app.
To avoid this confusion and help to understand how different digital disciplines influence or reinforce each other, we developed a Digital Framework that is modelled around our core agency disciplines. I find it surprising that in our industry we often lack having this overview and quickly descend in deep specialism before understanding how the puzzle pieces fit together.
These days most CMO’s understand that a well-crafted website alone will only get you so far. As a result of this we’ve seen a rapid adaptation of anything with the words digital, data or programmatic in it. This sounds like good news for agencies, but at the same time clients are rapidly building in-house capabilities to deal with the rising costs of digital marketing while their budgets largely remain stagnant.
This in-sourcing trend is something to keep an eye on in my opinion. Traditionally, agencies have always been the guardians of their client’s brands and therefore played an important role in maintaining a consistent brand experience. Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad is a reminder that it is harder for in-house creatives to think horizontal when you live in a vertical world.
Agencies can prevent you from becoming ‘tone deaf’, but this is just a fraction of the added value needed to help clients be successful. That’s why the last 2 years at BC&F Dentsu we’ve been working hard to create innovative products and services that were aimed to increase Effectiveness and/or focused on improving Customer Experience.
Can you give any examples of how this manifested itself in your work for clients?
Yeah sure, take traditional display advertising for example. It is no secret that this is heavily under siege. I often hear stories of clients saying that their agencies can’t meet their demands for a more flexible, faster and more cost-effective way of producing banner assets. That’s why we developed of product called BannerBuilder, an application where clients (without coding knowledge or extensive training) can manage content of dynamic creatives themselves, allowing them to create as many different versions as needed.
This is just one example of how we try to help our clients to be more effective. But to be effective in the Age of Fragmentation you not only need a strong creative idea, but also to be relevant and deliver a consistent Customer Experience regardless when and where the interaction takes place.
That why I’ve been busy setting up BC&F Dentsu’s Experience Lab. This might sound like an empty PR phrase or a room with an expensive VR-headset in it (only meant to impress clients), but it covers a wide range of actual products and services from real-time Dashboards & Insights to Rapid Prototyping, Usability Testing, Conversion Optimisation and more, where we closely cooperate with our clients to help improve Customer Experience and ultimately their business’ results.
Did the merge from indie to international make much of a difference to the agency and its operations?
The biggest advantage of working in a full-service agency is that there is no disconnect between agency disciplines like Creative, Media and Digital and that we genuinely work together to get best results for our clients. But the digital marketing landscape has expanded at such a rapid rate that it is impossible to be a specialist in everything. Being part of the Dentsu Aegis Network meant we can continue to operate our highly effective agency model, while at the same time having access to virtually every specialist within the network. This has already proven to work great for us here and now we’re moving into the same building were also literally going to be one step away.
You work closely with your clients, advising on digital trends – any insights for us?
I get asked this a lot. My advice, stop chasing rainbows. Don’t become blinded by buzzwords. Focus on the bigger picture. Figure out IF and HOW new technology can help drive business, experiment, learn and depending on the outcome, either use it or move on.
How do you see ‘digital’ continuing within the advertising agency environment?
I believe the label ‘Digital’ as such is going to be less relevant and it is more about understanding our clients’ businesses and knowing how to orchestrate the vast array of ‘digital’ solutions that could potentially help them accelerate and grow. Digital, however, will have a strong impact on the staffing requirements for agencies (and clients) in the near future. I think the biggest thing that is holding the industry back, is the lack of thorough understanding of abstract digital concepts (like attribution, DMP’s etc.) and their underlying technology.
As Social Media and Content prevalence continues to grow, how do you advise clients on best spend in this cluttered market?
Let me start by saying that I believe Social Media and Content is not for every brand. I don’t question it is a vital tool in today’s (digital) marketing toolkit, but we’re already seeing the first signs that consumers developing a certain skepticism towards influencers and the authenticity of their ‘sponsored’ messages. Mainly as a result of brands demanding hard KPI’s and measurable results, influencer marketing is quickly becoming less subtle and often ends up in unnaturally forced product placements. In my opinion there is nothing new in having an influential person promoting your brand and the most recent fail in influencer marketing ‘Fyre Festival’ learns us that if you ultimately can’t deliver the Customer Experience you’re better off not doing at all.
Do you every say no to your clients?
You know what they say about the Dutch 😀
What’s the most a client has spent on a digital campaign?
That’s not really relevant, some of our most effective ‘digital’ work had very limited budget. It just means you have to think harder about how to move people to take the user journey, rather than open the media firehose and hope for the best.
Plenty, but I will spare the readers for now, because I have the tendency to elaborate when I am passionate about something! I am happy to meet anyone who wants to hear more over coffee and pick up the conversation from there.Back to Digital Talk