Amsterdam agencies become their own clients…

Advertising Age, 13 June 2011
…by Bringing Products to MarketBikes, Cookies, Champagne and Mobile Phones Get Innovative Twists From Inspired Creatives, but Making Products Was Not as Easy as They Thought

What do bicycles, cookies, champagne, and mobile phones have in common? Not much, except that all these products were introduced in the market by Amsterdam advertising agencies. I’ve always been fascinated by ad agencies creating products, instead of ideas. What drives them? Creativity, obviously. But is there more? Business? Money? PR? And is this kind of entrepreneurship manageable if your core business is advertising? To find out 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 Rütter from New Message saw a gaping opportunity in the Dutch bicycle market. Since most bicycles looked as if 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 has paid off – literally; today thousands of bicycles are sold every year in Europe, South Africa, and the US. The most rewarding thing though, says Rütter, 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”.

Onno Lixenberg and Hajo de Boer from Gummo wanted to introduce their own cookie brand ever since having worked for a Dutch cookie manufacturer. Just like New Message they had the feeling the market could use some spice. And just like New Message it was an American product that inspired them; on a Californian beach they bumped into John Altman, a hippy giving away homemade cookies. It was not just the authentic taste that struck them, but also Altman’s positive and carefree attitude. When they asked him, is it o.k. if we take home your 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. Lixenberg sounds optimistic though; “This year Altman’s organic wine in a carton will enter the market and we have many more brand extensions on the drawing table”.

THEY — Ad Age’s ‘Best small agency in the world’ in 2009 — came up with the idea to launch a Champagne brand when drinking it one Friday afternoon in 2009. You can almost guess what they were thinking: “Why do all Champagne bottles look the same?” It was the traditionalism of the market that triggered the agency to change the rules of the game, THEY’s Roland van der Vort explained to me. The result is Zarb (French slang for bizarre), Champagne with unconventional bottle designs by different artists — e.g. Lady Gaga’s dress designer. But just 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 though, 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.

Seemingly the most difficult innovation was the introduction of yet another mobile phone in an overcrowded market. Last year Hein Mevissen en Diederiekje Bok from John Doe launched John’s Phone, the world’s most basic cell phone that focuses on form, rather than function. Still, manufacturing it was a painstaking process. It took the agency four long years of travelling back and forth to China to manage the production — in the beginning phones came back two times as big or suddenly with a radio inside. But it was worth the airmiles; thanks its unique positioning, clean design, and sharp price, the phone has been an instant hit and is selling itself around the world – for a big part through online word of mouth.

So what do all these agencies have in common? Firstly, all of them are small, independent agencies, which allows them to be truly entrepreneurial. Secondly, all agencies have widened their horizon internationally, met new interesting parties, and picked up a ton of practical knowledge and free PR. Thirdly, a unique selling point is more important than a big advertising budget. And, finally, you need passion, focus, and drive to be innovative. Spotting an opportunity is easy, but ceasing it is very hard work. Like Thomas Edison said: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work”. So creating new products can definitely be a profitable business for advertising agencies. The question is however: are you willing to wear the overall?

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Also by Wouter Boon