TBWA\NEBOKO’s Managing Partner on the inclusive Dutch vibe, tapping into culture and the importance of being a role model
TBWA\NEBOKO is a Dutch agency that manages to straddle the local-international divide like few can. At Cannes Lions this summer the agency picked up an armful of metal for its work with Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn and national disability charity Fonds Gehandicaptensport, but their recent work on global brands like adidas, Amnesty International and McDonald's is also well worth a look.
Managing Partner Patritia Pahladsingh has been part of this formidable machine for 12 years now, so she knows every corner of the agency’s creative potential. LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with her to find out the essence of the agency she runs.
LBB> What kind of childhood did you have - and was there any inkling then that you might enter the world of advertising?
PP> I was born in The Hague, a city near the beach in the South of Holland. It was really great. My parents are from Suriname, so they’re immigrants from South America. But I was born and raised over here in the Netherlands.
I had a great childhood. My parents were really part of Dutch culture, they were from abroad but they really integrated. The Netherlands is home for me. Yeah, I have my cultural roots, but I never felt like I was a foreigner. We only talked in Dutch at home and all the Dutch customs were integrated into the way we were raised. I think that was really important. If people don’t see me, they don’t know that I’m coloured.
It’s a really tolerant country, so I always thought everything was possible, for everyone. You just have to work really hard, and that’s what my parents told me. Just work really hard, be honest, and have a lot of fun. Then you’ll make it. And that’s what I did. And now I’m one of the board members at TBWA, with Darre van Dijk, Rik Ledder and Simon Neefjes.
When we were little, my sister and I always watched the commercials and we had to guess who was the advertiser. So that’s why I wanted to go into advertising.
LBB> Right, so you were actually interested from a young age!
PP> Yeah, really! I studied at business school in Rotterdam and specialised in marketing management. Afterwards, I wanted to do marketing, but the culture of ad agencies was really down to earth, creative, and that’s what suits me and what I love.
LBB> So how did you find that out? What was your first experience of the industry?
PP> I had an internship with a local toothpaste brand and they talked with an ad agency, and I loved that. My sister was already working for a little ad agency in The Hague. I thought, ‘these are great, talent people that make cool stuff’. What I love about the ad agencies is that you can truly be yourself. They accept who you are, how you look and what you think. That’s why I wanted to work for an ad agency.
I started to work with DDB and I worked on McDonald’s there. Their marketing department only had two people working there and they outsourced everything to the agency. I was lucky because we did a lot of marketing and that was also my background. So, it was the best of both worlds.
LBB> So you started out in marketing, went to an agency, but you were sort of doing marketing still. So that’s like halfway between a brand and account director.
PP> Yeah exactly, so it was really a challenge for me when I stopped working for McDonald’s. I did it for seven years, and then I stopped working for them, and switched to communications on brands like insurance companies. And then we were only allowed to do the campaigns.
For McDonald’s I could do anything. I’d make up burgers, I did the budget for the client, I briefed the media agency. So, it was quite like a marketing department. And then I switched to other clients and it was also interesting.
They said to me “we have our own marketing department.” But I said: “Well, I want to be your business partner. So, let’s talk about everything, not only about campaigns and communications, but also about your whole business. So where can we help you out?”
I think that’s really where we should develop. An agency should be a real business partner for clients and not only talk about communication because I think communications is just a means to realise business objectives.
LBB> What do you think is holding some agencies back from doing that more? I hear a lot of agencies saying that they want to do that, but they feel the clients are not open to the ideas?
PP> It’s about trust and confidence in each other. We have a lot of long term relationships with a clients through the whole company. And then you grow up together and you understand the brand well. They need to feel like we understand them. We can be creative but creative also on a business level. At TBWA here in Amsterdam we already do that.
It’s a little bit like consultants. I think that’s the way we should move, because they are moving to the advertising area. You see companies like Accenture entering pitches for creative campaigns. We should move up and be more of a business consultant to our client. And I think our advantage is that we can make things happen. We give them advice on the business level and show them how it can be done in a campaign. So I think the link is much quicker than [it is in] the large consultancies.
I think that’s the main shift that will happen now. So, they’re all thinking about buying creative agencies, our advantage is we have all the creative in-house. I think we have our most important weapon: our creatives. But now they are buying creative agencies maybe that will become quite different. Let’s see what will happen.
LBB> Speaking of changes in the industry, you must have seen some big shifts in TBWA since you started there 12 years ago. What have those been?
PP> I started when everything was about TV commercials. Nowadays it's more about content, and if you take a look at the Albert Heijn campaign, we really moved from TV commercials to a content platform. So, they're like Netflix - a lot of different kinds of series, different kinds of episodes.
In the past you made one TV commercial for four or five months, and nowadays you have to be in the timeline of a person, you have to be part of culture and a part of what’s happening now. You have to be quite creative, just to stand out of the clutter, on social media. Any advert has to be there more often. So, for the same money you have to make more. That’s the way we’ve transformed.
I think Albert Heijn is a good example of how you can do that. We just made Albert Heijn a broadcast station [Appie Today http://www.tbwa.nl/work/appie-today], created kinds of formats for different objectives and make different kind of episodes for them. And when you take a look at their YouTube channel, it has shows just like Netflix.
I was also one of the founders together with Simon Neefjes, our CEO, we started \VIDIBOKO - a low budget production unit [in 2014]. We also started to make our own online videos. That was quite new, within a large agency like this. We always had production companies making stuff for us and we started to make them ourselves to keep the costs low for our clients.
LBB> What was the key to making that value a reality?
PP> We changed the processes. So, there were no meetings at all. It’s really about trust. Just one meeting with the client, where we talked about how we wanted to do it and then we just went away. When you do larger productions for a TV commercial, for example, you have three pre-production meetings, talking about the costs, the flows, everything. That costs money, those are a lot of hours. And at \VIDIBOKO we just said: ‘This is the script, do you like it?’ and then we just went away and made it for the client.
LBB> I loved the work you did recently on the adidasRun for the Oceans campaign! And more than 900,000 runners joined up to fight marine pollution within a month! What was the key to that?
PP> It was a really lovely campaign. I think that clients want to be more part of culture, and in culture, nowadays. It’s important to be responsible and have a social purpose.
adidas had the purpose and that’s what they put into the campaign. Quite a different way of thinking. We know it’s really difficult to do it for commercial clients like adidas. It’s not in their DNA already, so you have to do it in a creative way.
The Run for the Ocean campaign was really to help the worldwide clean-up of the oceans.
LBB> So how much of that originally came from you as an agency?
PP> We did it together. To make this sort of campaign you have to work closely with your client. Everything we do we always do in collaboration with our client. You make the best stuff like that.
LBB> In a way that ties back to what you were saying about becoming more like a business consultancy. That’s much more than a communications campaign. Run for the Oceans is doing something, changing their business.
PP> Sure. And it’s putting something that’s really important in culture on the agenda. People are interested and worried about what’s happening with the ocean. When you do a campaign like this you tap into a hot issue in culture. That’s also the way we think nowadays: what’s happening in culture, how can we tap into that with our campaign and what’s it saying about a specific client? When you and a brand tap into that, you become more relevant and you can make more impact.
LBB> So that means as an agency you have to be very plugged in to culture, right?
PP> Yeah, we are! We have ‘spotters’ - people who are just looking around at what’s happening in culture on a worldwide level. Being part of a worldwide network, we have spotters around the world telling us what are the new triggers, what is happening, what new trends are out there? It helps us stay on top of culture. When you tap into the culture, you know what the target audience likes. What is relevant.
And you always have to do it through the brand’s lens. Because you can’t do everything. You have to take a look at it with the brand’s lens and ask what is the brand’s role [in this trend]. It’s not just only taking a look what’s happening in culture, but then putting on the gloves of the brand and saying what it means for the client.
LBB> Over your career, what work have you been most proud of?
PP> Just a little bit about myself: I worked for seven years for McDonald's, then I stopped for 10 years and nowadays I work with them again, so I know the brand quite well, and I think I’m most proud of what we’ve don for this brand. [back then] it was really about selling hamburgers, and nowadays we are selling a feeling. When I was starting on the brand, I never thought that 20 years on, I would make this kind of campaign. It’s something I’m really proud of.
And then there’s \VIDIBOKO, which we started and made quite successful, is also something I’m really proud of. To start something from scratch, and build up to a business.
So now I’m looking for my next challenge. What’s the next step, what am I going to do right now? I think it’s going to be about the data. I’m really interested in how can we use data more within our processes, to have more data-driven insights. I think this will be the next step for me and the next thing to be proud of.
LBB> Do you have any obsessions or passions outside of work?
PP> Yeah. I do a lot of boxing, to get rid of my frustrations and just work out.
And I have twins who are four years old. They are also my passion. It’s now getting better, but when they were really babies, it’s quite intense.
The twins also box! I have a personal trainer and my husband and myself do the boxing, but we take the kids with us. And the girls are really good boxers! That’s a way to do a bit of bonding with your family, and also it becomes very important for a good relationship with your husband. I think you can’t have a career like this without the support of your spouse.
I think it’s important to be a role model because I’m a woman. What I see nowadays [is that], women especially are struggling with work-life balance. I think it’s important to be a good example. It’s all about organising. I’m trying to help other women, young girls, to let them know everything is possible, when you just have good organisation.
I see a lot of women struggling on whether to be at home for the kids or working. They’re good people with great capacities but they feel they have to choose. And I think I’m an example that you don’t have to choose. You can do both. But you have to organise in a good way.