“In a way I hate advertising, maybe as much as you do,” says Erik Kessels, repeating a line that’s almost become his catchphrase. “But that fuels me to try to go into it from a different direction. Everything is so stereotyped - the ideas, the categories, they all use the same metaphors. So it’s very easy to take a different direction. And people say it’s creative but it’s quite a simple trick.”
It’s been over 20 years since he founded Amsterdam agency KesselsKramer together with Johan Kramer. These days Erik is admired for his ability to not give a fuck – and to not do so with an enviable ease. In 2016 Erik published ‘Failed it!: How to turn mistakes into ideas and other advice for successfully screwing up’ and that’s the main topic of his presentation at Dept Festival
that has the circus tent at Amsterdam’s Thuishaven packed to capacity.
“I’m trying to push people to make more mistakes,” he says, prefacing his talk for me, as we sit at a picnic bench in the morning sun. It’s a message that he feels is more relevant than ever thanks to the precision that technology has afforded us. “With all the creative tools we have there is so much perfection - 3D printers, apps, computers. And perfection is not really a starting point for creativity.”
GPS is one technology that innately favours perfection at the expense of interesting and nuanced experiences. “A navigation system tells you exactly where to go, but if you go another way the thing goes totally crazy and tells you to turn around,” he says. “But maybe that field is quite good to go through. You have to keep ignoring it and then you find something. For creativity, that’s often a good thing.” Maybe not if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere though.
Erik thinks a key role of advertising agencies is to find clients’ imperfections and convince them to embrace them. “It’s in the imperfection where new feelings are,” he says. With companies following their sat nav more and more, taking the same route as their competitors, it’s creatives’ responsibility to change the route. “It makes advertising important, but also more challenging,” he says. “It’s more about how you tell a certain story for a company, what are their ethics or beliefs, instead of a purely factual approach.”
Brands are made by humans and people like humans more than corporations, he reminds me. “It’s nice that a company admits they are not perfect. To be vulnerable as a company is very desirable.”
One extreme example of this approach can be seen in KesselsKramer’s work with the agency’s oldest client, Hans Brinker Budget Hotel, which has repeatedly claimed to be the worst hotel in the world - and made this into an asset. “The strategy we followed is probably totally not OK for every company,” Erik laughs. “But in this case everything else you could do to advertise that place would be a lie. So we came up with the idea that honesty is the only luxury they have.”
Over the years, Erik and his team have found hilarious ways to execute the strategy, from the clever repositioning of a bed as a luxury bonus to the invention of the eco-towel (otherwise known as a curtain), KesselsKramer have charmed people into visiting a hotel that takes ‘no frills’ to new depths.
“It was an irony that the target group of students and backpackers were into,” says Erik. “From the outside, people always ask how we convinced them [the client], but on the other hand it was a very good strategy and it was soon proven that it worked.” It wasn’t long before the Brinker reached maximum capacity every week and it continues to be be a destination for adventurous travellers in Amsterdam.
Imperfection is something Erik seeks out in his life outside of advertising too. KesselsKramer also runs a publishing house, through which he’s published a weighty body of books of photography, both found and original, including the ‘Useful Photography’ and ‘In Almost Every Picture’ series, both of which are now on their 14th volume.
“A lot of images have already been made,” he ventures, aware this is a whopper of an understatement. “These days, online, people take a lot of the same images. People take pictures of their food for their Instagram. Everybody does the same, but maybe not all of the stories behind the photographs are told. That is an interesting thing, I think.”
This interest is evidenced in Erik’s vast collection of family albums. “I have 15,000 family albums that I bought over the years, but I’m not really collecting them,” he says. “I don’t see myself as a collector. A collector is a little bit sad. It’s accumulating a lot of the same. For me it’s more like the working material. I try to tell stories from them. It’s almost like a visual archeology. I try to bring these things to the surface and tell a new story with it.”
‘Useful Photography 13’ is further evidence of just how many images are out there in the online age. Far too many, most would agree after a flick through this volume. In the publishers’ words, the hundreds of photos curated by Erik and his collaborators therein tell the story of “a day in the life of Dick”. Each page features a selection of dick pics, organised according to the objects they are ‘posing’ alongside, from remote controls to eggs to cigarette packets and toilet roll tubes. In fact, there was such an abundance of penises being measured against cigarette packets that the book is able to subcategorise them by brand.
Another story Erik unearthed through his ‘visual archaeology’ is the focus of ‘In Almost Every Picture 11’, which is entirely dedicated to photographs from Fred and Valerie - a Florida couple who share a passion for “wet fun adventure”. As the blurb reads: “One is the photographer, the other is the model and the water is the medium. No matter what they are wearing or what they are doing; they take every opportunity to get wet, the more spontaneous the better. Public or private, silk or leather, winter or summer none of these elements matter. The adventure is all of these elements combined.” They’re strangely lovable in their eccentric hobby.
The story continued after the book’s publication though. After it became a popular addition to any taste-maker's coffee table, Erik believes it ended up inspiring a fashion campaign for Stella McCartney.
“They totally copied the image from the cover of the book,” he tells the Dept Festival audience to conclude his presentation. “So I sent it to Fred and Valerie, thinking maybe they’d be pissed off. Professionals can learn a lot from amateurs because Fred and Valerie are really into this thing they love. Fred sent me this email:
“‘We see the Stella photos. She does look a bit starched. Not enjoying the adventure. Sort of makes one wonder why she would be doing it to start with. I would hope she would get satisfaction, eventually taking the whole outfit under.’”
Erik believes this accumulation of oddities is the ideal fuel for creativity. “A lot of creatives collect things outside of their feed,” he says. “The best graphic designers or photographers are people that are influenced by things that are not per se in their working field. If you bring in things from outside you can create something new or more interesting.”
Working within the art world as well as the more commercial creative field of advertising, Erik is often surprised about the way the two intersect and view one another. “The art world and museums or festivals totally understand what I do when I show them the work I do as a designer or art director. But vice-versa, it’s much more difficult. People that work in advertising don’t have a clue. They are so fixed in it. They always ask if I still work [at KesselsKramer] and what I do. For me, for many years these two things have lived next to each other. It’s a bit of a luxury position because I don’t have to live off the artworks or exhibitions I make, but that is something you should never forget.”
He’s grateful that the advertising work KesselsKramer does has allowed him to pursue his artistic aims more freely. “As an artist it’s very difficult to maintain your own identity because sometimes you need money. So a gallery will ask you to make more of the same work because it sells well. You don’t want to do it but you do,” he says. “In my case I’m totally free.”
But in a way that freedom also exhibits itself in the attitude that KesselsKramer takes in its approach to advertising. “We never really made any major compromises on the clients we work for. That is almost the biggest accomplishment when I look back,” he says. “Sometimes we’d work for, for instance, a fashion retailer. We already thought it was a strange match but they liked our work. We worked for them but after a year they started to bite at our ideas and push them over, then we were pushed in a certain direction but because they brought a lot of money with them. You’re often hooked on it. But in those cases we’re very strict. We just stop. Which is a dangerous thing of course because sometimes a client like that is half of your income.
“It’s very important for an artist and an agency to say no to things. You’re as good as your last work and the work you do mirrors who you are. So when you make five bad pieces of work in a year people will recognise you for that and the next job will also be shitty.
“As a company we could have made much more profit over the years,” he considers, “but there would be much more frustration and sleepless nights. That’s important, to keep a clean slate.”