5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Michael Vromans

San Jose, United States
DPDK’s chief creative officer tells LBB’s Alex Reeves about how a concrete environment shaped his design sensibilities, how digital slowly became less weird and how he helps brands be their best digital selves
Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the ‘5 Minutes With…’ content channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry. 

In this conversation we talk with Michael Vromans, chief creative officer at Rotterdam-based digital agency DPDK. Having spent 10 years there, as well as many years before that at a variety of Dutch agencies, he’s well placed to discuss the priorities in digital creativity today, particularly when it comes to fostering a strong relationship between a brand, its products and its content.

LBB> Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up and what were you into as a kid? Were there any clues that you were interested in design or anything else that would end up leading to your career?

Michael> I grew up in what might be exactly the centre of the country [The Netherlands], in this kind of suburb city. It was built as part of an initiative to facilitate a lot more people needing houses, they just built this complete city between around 1970 and 1990 - I think we're talking about 100,000 houses. So it wasn't a city that had a lot of background or culture. It felt at least to me like a big environment, but everything was kind of dull. It wasn't inspirational in terms of architecture or anything. But it was very interesting to do a lot of skating. I did a lot of inline skating. And skateboarding started from that. That was definitely my big passion. It also fuelled and in a way ignited my first design feelings. 

The first design I recall was designing my own skateboard deck. After it had worn off, I took these permanent markers - I believe I only had black and red - and I was always doodling my own design or logo. There was a shape I really liked, it had kind of Asian influences. And I drew that really big on my skateboard as if it were my own brand. So definitely big influences there, being made possible by the blandness of that city environment. Everything was concrete, which is terrible until you start skating it and then it's perfect. So those were the first clues that I was interested in design.

LBB> That's really interesting. Like you were sort of growing up in this blank canvas of a city!

Michael> Yeah, but truly, I don't go back, almost on a basic principle. Because a blank canvas sounds better. It's terrible to be so negative about it. It was an environment where a lot of young families started living there. So there was an abundance of kids to play with, a lot of friends to make. All that was great. But it wasn't a very green and natural environment, which I think ignited my desire to move away from that and be in nature. 

The other thing that led up to my career was, my dad was a big influence in terms of his job. He was in hospitality, organising conferences and events and later on he went into tourism hospitality, managing holiday parks. So I was always raised with this eye for how things work, how we can delight people - their customer journey, basically. When we would go to a restaurant, for instance, he would just go ahead, get up from the table with our family (thoroughly embarrassing!), put up this blank face, walk straight into the kitchen. He would act like he was supposed to be there. And then he would just check out how they're doing stuff and what's going on behind the scenes. And come back and just sit down and finish his dinner. He would do that all the time, run off to check the inner workings of a hospitality company. We joined him very frequently on these mini holiday trips to the competition and to the company he was working for and to find out what the accommodation was like, whether it was clean, whether they could have done something better. So I was brought up with that whole idea of customer mindset, I think. That was definitely a big influence. 

I nearly started a career in hospitality as well. But my sister beat me to the punch. And then because I saw her doing that, I got less interested. I got more drawn towards communication and making stuff that interacts with people. 

LBB> And then I suppose you thought back to your design learnings that you'd already expressed with your skateboards. Where did you take that next?

Michael> I started studying creative communications. So that was more marketing and advertising. But while I was doing that, at the University of Applied Sciences here in Rotterdam, the internet emerged and you had Macromedia Dreamweaver in the lab at school. There were two computers that had it and I realised I could make my own interactive presentations. There was an assignment to design your own CD cover. Photoshop 4.0 was the first Photoshop I was using - super old. My parents bought me the Photoshop 4.0 Bible as my first design book. I was getting into so many different art books, understanding what I liked and trying things out. 

I kept fighting the dull, concrete stuff. Rotterdam has a bit of the same because Rotterdam was bombed in the Second World War and the centre was rebuilt really quickly and rigorously. But also in a way that they decided, "never again". So they decided to move out all the housing to the outskirts and in the centre it's business. So there was a lot of concrete. And not a lot of organic shapes in the centre. I started photographing the city structures and buildings from the reflections in car windows because car windows are always bent, so they give you this organic perspective of the buildings.

LBB> From there, how did you get into the design and digital industry? 

Michael> I had my own startup and I realised I needed to understand how to do business. So I went to uni. That was definitely not a success. 

Then I moved to Amsterdam for a postgraduate course called Hello Academy. That was just very much focused on concepting. It's one year and there is no computer in the building. Everybody gets a note block and a pen or pencil. And it's just based on ideas, ideas, ideas, ideas. What's the structure of an idea, what's the difference between idea and concept? All that. There was a graduation exhibition. And that got me more into the advertising industry because I graduated as a junior art director, doing advertising concepts together with a copywriter.

LBB> What was your first advertising job and what were the main debates and priorities in digital marketing back then?

Michael> We got picked up by a quite renowned Dutch agency, but immediately started as a team doing what they called interaction. That was interactive advertising, which was also physical mailings and stuff. You talk about the debates within digital marketing. There wasn't a debate within digital marketing. There was a debate between above the line and below the line. Above the line, that's everything that counts - TV, radio, those are the big ones that reach everybody. And then there's this below the line Pandora's Box, which if you're a real creative you don't want to burn your fingers on because it's not interesting and it's on a micro scale.

What excited me was the fact that you would have interaction. You could send something to somebody, and that somebody would signal that they were interested just by clicking. It seems out of date, but back then that was super interesting. It was way more interesting to me than how many people have potentially seen this on TV and then not responded. I did TV commercials as well, I did radio commercials, but I wasn't super excited about it. It felt for me like a kind of a trick instead of adding value, where I grew up with that whole idea of the customer journey and what's adding value. 

Then it started to integrate, and they were calling it a 360, integrated approach, which meant that now suddenly, you're not the odd team in the office that do their own thing. Now you're the odd team at the office, but you have to be in the mix with everybody. The above the line folks are like "We need to work with you guys. But you guys are strange creatures."

LBB> How did you progress from that towards DPDK’s digital focused way of working?

Michael> Incrementally. I hopped to another agency and that was more digital focused. So that felt more logical to me. And then from there on out, I think the next one was completely digital, but digital campaigns, and then came DPDK. I was adding more meaning every step I took basically, because for me moving to DPDK felt like moving back to my roots as a startup, doing products versus just campaigns. 

LBB> You mean having a tangible impact on these brands? 

Michael> Yeah, and a meaningful interaction between the brand and the target audience. Analytics are usually very far away from creatives. But I love analytics. They tell you so much about how well you have designed a digital product. If you see a lot of people coming in, and there's almost no dropouts, and people spend minutes on whatever you've done and you can see them doing all the steps that you have designed (or not following them and then you can change it), that's pretty cool. We can leverage that. We can help brands target audiences and get what they want. 

And at the same time, target audiences still have a lot of power in this relationship. Because if you screw up, if you doze off for a second as a brand, and you're not delivering the right experience or the right product, then they'll just click away. And you will notice. You won't notice when people zap away in a commercial.

LBB> You first joined DPDK 10 years ago. 10 years is a long time, particularly when you're working in a pretty technological environment. What’s stayed constant throughout that time?

Michael> I have loved DPDK since the day I started because we made a deliberate choice not to choose between one or the other. We are not the Facebook agency, we are not the one-off campaigns agency, we grew into a strategic design and technology agency that helps brands be the best digital versions of themselves. 

We believe that there is a very strong relationship between creating a unique brand, an offer of products and engaging content. And if you do one of those, you win a battle but not the war. But if you work on all three and they are working in harmony, you upgrade the brand. 

A brand identity and strategy can deliver everything a good product needs in terms of strategy and design assets as well. And then you have the right content geared at the right people and you're adding personalisation in the mix and always testing and improving. That's the sweet spot where you want to be in terms of customer experience right now. That's the only differentiating factor that brands have currently. It's not price. It's not place. Of course, if you're a web shop, you can say you always need to be the cheapest. But the best web shops around manage to keep people in not by the fact that they're the cheapest, but by the fact that they have the best customer experience. That will be a mix of price, of design, of how easy it is to order and how good your customer service is. You need to look the part too, you need to talk to talk and walk the walk.

One of the biggest pivots is where we stopped just doing websites and answering a lot of these website related issues, on the side, and really starting to incorporate it in our processes and in our proposition.

LBB> Could you speak about a couple of projects or relationships with clients that have demonstrated that over the years?

Michael> Definitely. The first one is Digital Realty, a US technology company. They build the buildings where the internet lives, we always say. They needed a new website so we started with a new brand. Their brand was not capable of equipping a new website on the level of ambition that they had and we had. They didn't have any motion design in their brand guidelines, the font was outdated, the colour palette was outdated, they didn't have an illustration style, or animation style, photography guidelines were outdated, they had no videography guidelines. So first, we started to add all that to their brand mix to enrich their palette with visual elements and guidelines. And only then did we start to create the website because we needed a lot of visual power to be able to populate the website. You can only do that if you start with the brand first and go "What do we stand for? What are we trying to achieve?". We built the website, did a lot of collateral, physical stuff and presentation templates. The next project was a customer portal redesign. And then we took that brand design and we started to apply it on another project on another product then, and they're very clearly related, they follow the same guidelines, but they follow very different UX and UI patterns, because they have a different proposition and a different use case. 

The second is for a German-based company called Forward You - a life investment company. Their headquarters is in Germany, but they're based all throughout Europe and the Middle East. They needed to go from a B2B2C approach, always selling through agents (so super corporate, dark blue, very corporate heavy text, financial stuff). And they needed to make the leap towards B2C straight away. It needed a complete overhaul of the brand strategy and brand design, a whole new visual language that connects to a younger target audience. There were other agencies involved, but we did almost everything in terms of the brand identity. And then we incorporated that into their current website. Plus production of photography, videography for a promotion video and a TV commercial and all that kind of stuff, up to materials that they needed to have on the walls and again, some physical stuff. That was again translated into a customer portal, an agent portal, a branded sub product. They have a line of products, some have a sub brand, so we created a family of brands with related design. So from one central starting point in a brand strategy, we were able to go all the way to brand identity and two different products that look and behave differently, but they're very clearly one and the same family.

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