The chief creative officer of dentsu Creative US - home of Isobar USA, 360i and dentsuMB USA - speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about leading all three agencies, “drastic, systematic change”, and the joys of art’s lack of logic
Menno Kluin is the chief creative officer of dentsu Creative US, a newly formed group of three agencies under the Dentsu umbrella that houses Isobar USA, 360i and dentsuMB USA. Prior to stepping into the role at the beginning of 2021, he was the CCO of 360i.
A Dutchman who has spent the entirety of his career stateside, Menno is an alumnus of Miami Ad School Europe. His first gig out of ad school was as an intern at Saatchi & Saatchi New York where he plied his trade with a number of today’s creative leaders - his first project of note was launched with Icaro Doria, CCO of Hill Holiday and involved a guiding hand from Johannes Leonardo founders Jan Jacobs and Leo Premutico. He has also spent time at DDB, Y&R and Deutsch, from where he joined 360i.
Almost a year into his new role, LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Menno about the challenges of overseeing three agencies, why “drastic, systematic change” is his remit, and why he revels in art and its lack of logic.
LBB> You were promoted to CCO of dentsu Creative in the US, overseeing all three dentsu Creative US agencies in January 2021. Tell us a bit about that shift. It's a new set up for Dentsu and you're the first person to hold this role. What challenge was at hand for you as the new CCO?
Menno> As CCO of dentsu Creative in the US I’m actively overseeing three agency brands: dentsuMB, 360i and Isobar. The latter was named to Fast Company’s 2021 Best Workplace for Innovators list. We’re ambitiously rewiring, fussing with the very circuitry of creativity to bring pioneers and practitioners together in new ways: category-defining brand strategy, audacious technologies and disruptive craft.
We’re bringing more agency brands closer together. That’s what it takes to offer holistic transformation at varying scales for clients. How we create is equally important to what we create.
You can make a leap or meddle with tiny incremental moves. I prefer big and bold.
The main challenge rests with the brand ethos of these agencies. How an agency is viewed, positioned - and how it attracts talent and clients. In the end, the best agencies are the best agency brands.
LBB> How does being the CCO for a group housing three leadership agencies differ from being CCO of a singular agency?
Menno> Individual projects are not the point for me - drastic, systematic change is my remit. Whether over three agencies or one, the job and goal remain the same for me: create the best possible circumstances to allow for creativity at the highest level, whatever shape it comes in.
I’m an INTJ, an architect-builder personality. Some shy away from the constant flux synonymous with creative agencies. Clients are changing, consumer behaviours are changing - and just when a process may be running smoothly, it might not be the best environment for creativity. I come in hot every Monday, ready to tinker to make space for ideas.
LBB> As the CCO of all three agencies, how do you ensure that each agency is kind of its own thing but that all of them still represent the Dentsu brand in the right way? (Presuming that's what you're aiming for!)
Menno> If I were an Olympic gymnast, I’d be the athlete piling as many complex moves into my routine as possible. No matter the agency, high standards remain: the quality of the idea, the level of execution, the complexity of the initiative itself. I believe hard can be quite fun. There’s overwhelming satisfaction in crafting something so technical that yet, to the eye, appears effortless.
The most important thing is having systems and processes in place for people to stick the landing - whether it’s big TV, social, digital, product innovation. Some executions demand less layers, and more autonomy and experimentation. It’s a partnership in finding the balance that works for the agencies and our clients to unlock those winning formulas and then maintain them.
Ego must never stand in the way of doing what’s right.
LBB> Which project(s) since you took on the new role have you been particularly proud of and why?
Menno> My motto: bigger and better every time. I’m a very forward-looking person, who doesn’t stay content long.
I’d reiterate the Fast Company Best Workplace for Innovators honours for Isobar - bigger than a project, that accolade represents daily efforts to push the boundaries of possibility. In recent years, Isobar has done transformative work for brands like Cadillac and KFC, and it's an environment where you can truly be inventive in solving business challenges.
I love what our dentsuMB team on American Express is doing in the B2B space, globally. Work like ‘Bunny’, a part of a series of ‘Business Card Chronicles’, is taking out the calculus in a category weighted with technicality - injecting clarity, wit and charm.
360i’s OREO x Pokemon packs shook up social and grocery store aisles, adding in a rarefication scheme to the collab model we started with OREO back around 2018 with its ‘Game of Thrones’ partnership. Embodying the difficulty levels in catching some of these wild and mythical creatures was a blast - and seeing all the effort become organic dialogue out in greater culture shows its impact. The OREO work continues to break all previous-set records, which is really exciting.
We have so much in the mix coming out soon. Again, expect bigger and better every time.
LBB> What was your first job in advertising and how did you wind up there?
Menno> I started out in the US at Saatchi NY as an intern by way of Miami Ad School Europe.
The talent bench was incredibly deep at the time. So many people in creative leadership roles today were sitting all next to each other on the 18th floor back then. I carry so many lessons learned from that time and the people I was able to work with. Ultimately, it’s all about talent and ability. If you pepper in ambition and the freedom to explore, great creatives will do great things.
LBB> What kind of kid were you? Was there any inkling that you would end up in your current career?
Menno> Well, I won a graphic design competition in high school. Does that count? Really though, I don’t think I was any creative savant growing up. I see the bios of many who’ve accomplished far more than I, at a young age. What set me apart was follow through and execution. I’m not sure whether my
high school design work was exceptional, but I was one of a few that got something done and made it legible.
As a kid, I was insatiably curious and spirited. I also made spaceships out of old toilet paper rolls. How’s that for craft?
LBB> You attended Miami Ad School. With that in mind, where do you look for new creative talent these days? Where do ad schools fit into that and how important is it to look further afield?
Menno> At dentsu, we’re building agencies where the next generation of talent feels championed. More than welcomed, we want to foster an environment where people feel they belong, wherever they come from. These agencies aren’t about me - or other executive leaders like Jon Dupuis.
It's not. It's about building a company where talent can grow and thrive.
We must be equally invested in supporting individual ambitions and goals as we are making exceptional creative. I’m proud of the relationship we have with Miami Ad School, and I also value going outside of adland to widen the aperture of fresh voices we bring into the fold.
LBB> What was the first creative campaign you worked on that you were really proud of?
Menno> There was a print campaign I did with Icaro Doria, the current CCO of Hill Holiday. Both Jan Jacobs and Leo Premutico joined us in building and playing and talking. We ultimately pushed to make it a 3D versus 2D project.
Adding a dimensionality to it is so representative of how we can always push further, be more ambitious and take the time to craft things the right way.
LBB> What's the most exciting thing about advertising in the US today?
Menno> It's an increasingly complicated business, and that energises me. I talk a lot about creatives being on their front foot - the importance of being ahead and prepared. Why would you ever play a game without a full deck of cards? A well-rounded creative understands the full game, so they aren’t caught off-guard by predictable things.
Creatives need to know more to be successful. They need to understand a client’s business and its complexities. They need an appetite for seeing things through different lenses: legal, strategy, account, production and more.
Consumers not only allow brands to participate in culture, they expect this level of engagement from relevant brands. That’s an incredible task for creativity, the call to move difficult topics and initiatives sparking societal good forward. I admire the high bar.
LBB> And the most frustrating?
Menno> Creativity is confidence and belief, but it needs balance and a tether. We also have to be financially responsible and operationally sound.
I truly believe that the best agencies have both in balance. And keeping that balance is a huge part of my job, which is sometimes frustrating. Thankfully, I have great partners that help keep all the moving pieces.
LBB> I read that you're really into art. Where does that come from and how do you flex that interest?
Menno> In the Netherlands there’s a program called ‘kunstuitleen’ (art lending), where you essentially take art home like you do books in a library. Picking new pieces for my family to borrow was always thrilling for me.
So I come by obsessive collecting naturally. I have party flyers by some of the most iconic designers back in the ‘90s in Rotterdam. Anything new by 75B I would devour. My parents are begging me to shed what’s still at their home, which is not happening.
Early on at Saatchi, I collected all the Bernbach era DDB print ads, like the ones cut from magazines.
In my spare time I love travelling to art fairs around the world. For me, so much of my interest in art stems beyond the frame. I take great interest in getting to know the artists, their inspiration inkwells.
Coming from a very logical-based family, it’s surprising art captivates me so much - art is often the least logical thing. I find beauty in the unknown, fascinated by the boundless possibilities.
LBB> What else keeps you inspired / relaxed / sane outside of work? What do you get up to?
Menno> I take a sponge approach to life. There’s so much to discover and absorb, which is a relaxing exercise for me to unwind in unknowns.
A great fireplace with friends and family with good food and wine is also nice. While I hardly ever win board games, I love playing them. ‘Settlers of Catan’' is a favourite of mine. Another favourite is my nine-year-old Goldendoodle, Spaetzle.