From the age of five, Erik Kessels knew he wanted to dress store windows.
Growing up in a small town in Holland, it was the most creative job he could imagine. So when he was old enough, he enrolled in a window-dressing program at a polytechnic school.
Immediately he realized that working in a delicate glass box wasn’t for him. “There are all these lightbulbs in there, you have nails digging into your fingers, you have to use fish wire and little clips to put everything together,” he says. “It was kind of stupid of me to have this dream for 11 years without trying it beforehand.”
It was one of many valuable mistakes he would make in his life. Kessels ended up studying painting and applied art, and ultimately became the founder and creative director of KesselsKramer, an internationally renowned advertising agency based in Amsterdam, with offices in London and Los Angeles.
At 52, Kessels doesn’t just accept his mistakes, he embraces them. And he wants others to do the same. He has even published the book Failed It!, which explores the necessary role failure plays in the creative process. It’s a message he feels is especially important now that technology has made perfection so accessible.
In the interview, Kessels explains the risks of striving to avoid errors and offers advice to creatives on how to keep their juices flowing.
Q. Failure is a pretty broad concept. Are you talking about deliberately going in the wrong direction, or going in the direction you think you should but being open to changing your route?
A. Both. It’s all about finding methods to come to new solutions. Our brains are very much directed to certain solutions, very much colored in certain ways. You need disruptive things to shake those standardized solutions up.
To get to an idea, sometimes you deliberately have to make a mistake in your own head. It’s not like when you’re driving and you know for sure that, without making any mistakes, the navigation system is going to bring you to your destination. For creativity, it doesn’t work like that. You have to go down a wrong street. You have to ignore the voices of people saying, “Don’t go here; please turn around.” That is exactly what you have to do when you look for new ideas.
Nobody is born with the talent to come up with brilliant ideas. You have to work for that. You have to make mistakes and be vulnerable. The moment you find something, that’s great, but the way to get there is not always same road.
Q. You say technology has made it easy to perfect things earlier in the creative process. Why is that a problem?
A. I often compare it to the front and back garden of your house. Computers, 3-D printers, and other tools are there to help you finish creative works, and that’s all in the front yard of your house, metaphorically speaking. The backyard is where all of your ideas are hidden; it’s where you have your unfinished messes.
Ideally you have an idea in your backyard, then you go into the house and use tools and technology to bring it to the front garden to show it to the rest of the world. But nowadays people don’t even go to their backyard because it’s so easy to finish something without that. Computer programs are better than ever. People have access to everything. Technology is going toward perfection, which is good, but a lot of creatives use this in the wrong way. They think this is their starting point.
The starting point should be with yourself. What do I bring to this creative discipline? What do I like to make? When you do that and you have an idea, you can use the best tools to create it.
When I do student workshops, often the students immediately start looking at Pinterest or googling some words that were in a project briefing, and that’s how they start to make an idea. Sitting by the computer doesn’t mean you are getting a good idea. It can happen, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to walk around the block and listen to some conversation or look at something that’s not within your discipline.
Q. What’s the risk of only existing in the “front yard”?
A. The risk is that, at first glance, the work looks very finished, beautiful, perfect. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when you go a little bit deeper, you see that there’s actually no substance to it or that it doesn’t really belong to the person.
I once met a person who graduated cum laude in graphic design school and had a fantastic portfolio. I mean, I’d never seen anything like it. He was like 20 years old and wanted to work with us. But it was too good to be true. It was almost painful, because as I spent more time with him and was learning more about his ideas, suddenly the work and his personality didn’t fit at all with each other anymore. All of his work had been made in the front yard.
Q. Tell me about a time in your own career when going against your typical thinking led to something wonderful.
A. When we started KesselsKramer in 1996, Hans Brinker Amsterdam Hotel was our first client. It’s a 500-bed budget hotel in the center of Amsterdam. The owner called us and said, “Listen, I’m getting really sick of complaints from people who visit the hotel. You really have to help me. Anything you can do to get rid of the complaints?”
So I went to the hotel a day later and it was a huge shithole. I expected something bad, but this was something quite worse. My partner and I really didn’t have an idea of what to do for this hotel, because anything good would be a total lie.
Then we thought, Maybe we’ll turn it around. We felt like maybe honesty was the only luxury they had.
We promoted the hotel very negatively. People said, “You’re crazy.” We did posters that said, “Now a bed in every room.” We made a hotel brochure where we put the word “Not” in front of everything. For example, “Not with a swimming pool.”
Our “anti-advertising” campaign turned out to be very successful. The hotel had 60,000 overnights when we started. Now they have 160,000 overnights. Backpackers and students really loved the total irony. It was a very risky proposition to call it the worst hotel in the world. And that’s what they got famous for in the end.
Q. That’s hilarious. What’d the hotel say when you first told them the idea?
A. We still work with them. The manager of the hotel, I saw a twinkle in his eyes and felt that he understood. He had to sell the idea to the owners, who told him he was crazy. But they went with it.
Q. A lot of people might love your approach, but they’re in a position where they can’t take such risks. They might work for a big agency where things are standardized, or where there’s no time or budget for failure. How do you respond to that concern?
A. It’s in people’s own hands. Now more than ever, people can start their own companies. How much investment would you need to start your own company nowadays? Almost nothing. I think that when the frustration is too much and you work in a place where you can’t be happy, then you should leave. You should make a drastic change in your life.
It’s very important as a creative that you take a risk. That is hard work. When I’m at work, it’s not that I can lean back. Nothing comes automatically. When I start with a new brief, it’s as difficult as it was 20 years ago. There is no direct solution on the table.
Q. You started your own advertising firm more than 20 years ago. What were you doing before then?
A. My business partner, Johan, and I were working at an agency in London. Before that, we were working at another agency, where we were eventually fired. At the time, the company was going through a tense period and people were nervous, so they took us on a weekend trip. On that weekend away, we appeared at a meeting in chicken suits. One half of the agency loved it; the other was quite pissed off that we disturbed a meeting like that. Two weeks later we got fired. It’s funny; when we were recruited there, they picked us up in a limousine from the airport. A year later we were standing with boxes on the street.
Q. Why has your firm been successful?
A. From when we started in 1996, we’ve tried to keep certain standards in the work. Advertising is a very optimistic industry. If there’s a client who brings a bag of money, everyone opens their doors. Certain ethics are very far away then. But we’re quite strict about that. We’ve stopped working with clients. We’ve fired clients that are not going in the right direction. I think sometimes more agencies should do that. Sometimes creatives end up working for clients they don’t want to work for because they think they can’t do creative work for them, which is often true. So I think this is an agency where creative work should deliver that and have principles.
We’re not afraid to do things differently. In Amsterdam, our office is in a church. We acquired it in 1998 and built an office in it. At that time, people fell over when they came in. We came from a time when design agencies had a big reception with everything in white. Everything had to be luxurious. For us, it was very reactionary. We had built up quite a lot of frustration over the years. We wanted to be different.
Q. What are your views on the future of your industry?
A. In the year we are in now, it’s fantastic that people can make many crossovers with different disciplines. This was something like 10 to 15 years ago, when it was much more difficult for people to do that. Now you see that when students are in art school, before they even graduate, they’ve done two or three different disciplines, like photography, graphic design, and illustration, for instance. I think that in the future there will always be specialists who are very good at something, whether it’s typography, architecture, design, or photography, and they are almost subliminal in that. But there will be more people who can work across different disciplines and do very interesting work. When an architect can do product design or a graphic designer can make a building, that’s very exciting. You’ll see that more and more now.
It’s easy to be frustrated about how things happened in the past, but the future is a clean slate.