In March 2020, BUCK opened an office in Amsterdam. Born in Los Angeles, the move expanded the footprint of the global creative company to Europe for the first time, adding to its capabilities in LA, New York City and Sydney.
With former Ambassadors creative director and partner Vincent Lammers at the helm as executive creative director, he was joined by executive producer Chance Woodward, previously of MediaMonks, Leo Burnett, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and creative director Richard Gray, who was brought back to Europe from the LA office to lead the creative team together with Vincent.
Chance explains the dynamics of the three: “The ECD is the head of our office and then we're each a right-hand man and a left-hand man. Richard's his side partner in terms of leading from a creative standpoint and I'm on his other side helping lead from an operational business side. So he's the fearless leader but we're both there to help push it along.”
When he heard about the idea to open the new European hub, Richard, who is originally from the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England, jumped at the chance to move back to Europe to be closer to family and his past. “Time zones wear on you after a while,” he says.
A part of BUCK since 2017, Richard’s been a fan of the company as long as he’s known about their work. “Since I was studying, I was aware of BUCK and I was always a fan. For me, it was always a goal and the next step to be able to work there.”
His background began in graphic design, but it was when he started getting interested in motion that BUCK captured his imagination. “What I liked about BUCK was that it didn't have a clear single style, it was really a mix of everything, which is what appealed to me. There was lots of cool 3D or cel animation and when I started, I realised that there was even more that BUCK actually do. Looking at the depth that some of the projects get into, that made me hang around and stay working with them. I was extremely happy to join and now this opportunity to bring it back to Europe and work with people here, it's pretty awesome.”
In contrast, Chance hadn’t been such a fanboy. He says he hadn’t heard of BUCK until he heard there was a potential executive producer role in Amsterdam for him. “I looked it up and thought, ‘this website looks pretty cool!’ I had one or two calls, and then I spoke to a friend back in New York who said, 'holy fuck you're talking to BUCK?'. I had no idea of the magnitude of BUCK in the industry.
“Once I started asking around, I was like, ‘I should be way more nervous about this role.’ People either know BUCK and are impressed or they don't, but once they find out about it, they join the other side. They aren't being big, flashy, they're not throwing their name everywhere, they're here doing amazing work and people recognise it.”
Now Richard and Chance are both settled in their new roles alongside Vincent, they appreciate why expanding to Amsterdam made sense (even in the middle of a pandemic).
Chance sees how central talent has always been to BUCK and being in the EU is vital to BUCK’s ability to attract the best people. “Amsterdam is pretty international in terms of different nationalities, and a little bit more convenient than London when it comes to transit,” he says, adding that “the elephant in the room is Brexit.”
“The question was, where can we go and find the great talent and expand the family in a way that is going to bring in even more talented people, without all the hurdles of having just US and Australian offices.”
Brexit, of course, is one reason that made the Netherlands preferable to the UK for the company, but Chance, who’s American but has worked in Europe for the past few years, notes that from an outsider’s perspective there is something more nuanced about the differences between European cities. “London is the big scary market and Amsterdam holds this creative hub mystique of the Red Light District and marijuana and a really cool creative industry,” he says. “That appeals to a lot of different broad audiences, making it a cool spot to set up.”
Even before Richard knew about the new office, he’d considered living in Amsterdam. “It has that creative community that I wanted to be involved in. It feels very international and there's a lot going on which is awesome. Comparatively, London is the hub for 'everything' so it's a bit more overwhelming.”
Besides the draw of Dutch life, there’s one Dutchman that holds the operation together too - Richard and Chance’s ‘fearless leader’ Vincent Lammers. “He's awesome, the perfect match for starting the office here,” says Richard. “He has the background and experience from Ambassadors. He pretty much raised up that animation department and he's from the Netherlands, so he's very well connected within this area. Vincent also has the 'BUCK spirit' which is a really big thing for us, making sure we're building up the right community that we're working with.”
That spirit is, as Chance puts it, “creative driven with talent.” And he agrees that their ECD embodies it. “No company or agency is ever going to tell you they're not human driven,” he concedes, “but once you get in, most companies are just operating on a business emphasis.” He’s come to learn that Vincent has different priorities. When the pair first started talking, it was during a peak of Covid in the Netherlands, so all of their meetings were getting coffee and just walking together. “Vincent's just got this really brilliant mind that's super smart and super creative but also at the end of the day, he really cares about the people and that's what drives it. It's something you can't fake. That genuine connection and feeling for people drives so many of our decisions and the way in which we work. Vincent is a leader in the office and it's great to have someone at the top who really drives that home to everyone, because it all trickles down.”
He’d probably never blow his own trumpet like that though, because Richard adds that another part of the BUCK spirit is humility. One thing that he noticed when first going to the LA office is that “these guys really know their shit but there are no egos and everybody's very grounded.”
That spirit had to become the foundation of the new office. But in March 2021, with the Covid vaccine rollout just beginning, that office was more of an abstract concept than a useful place to build a company in. On the upside, a year into the pandemic people knew how to work remotely. “We were all already living in that world of Google Hangouts for everything but it was scary for me on the operational side of things,” says Chance. “It's all about culture. Starting a company, you really want people to feel invested in and part of something, and doing that over Google Hangouts was a scary thing but at the same time, everyone was in that position. But everyone is really friendly and excited and everyone who joined knew that this was an exciting, big moment, so that drive was behind everybody.”
With many of the artists BUCK works with scattered in different locations around Europe, digital meetings were preferable anyway. With a return to physically sharing a space hopefully more likely in 2022 than 2021, Richard stresses that this year will be about trying to build up a work culture, ‘hang out and do things together’. “Getting to know each other, having lunch together, it's super important. Now is the right time because now we're getting a slightly bigger team and we can start to get to know each other a little bit better.”
Some of the clients BUCK Amsterdam started out working with are global brands with a clear European feel to them. Tony’s Chocolonely
and Oatly stand out as brands many in the creative world would burn their sketchbooks for a chance to work with.
“We didn't want the feeling that it's this US company landing in the middle of Europe, taking over things,” says Richard. “It needed to feel more organic and part of that is working with European clients that we really wanted to work with, which is why with Tony's Chocolonely and Oatly, we wanted to reach out to them because they felt like the type of clients that we felt like suited the work that we could do and we could have fun in the process of working with them.”
Chance echoes that sentiment: “We are an international, EU-based company but we are also based in the Netherlands, so we want to respect that and we also want to help grow and have a presence in the Dutch market as well. We don't want to just be located here, we want to be helping the Netherlands.”
Aware of the divide that exists between Amsterdam’s international creative companies and the more Dutch-focused ones, BUCK are conscious that blending the two is the key to being part of the city’s future. “It's a challenge on its own,” says Chance, “and that's what's great about having Vincent, him being Dutch, having his roots here and being at Ambassadors for so long. He knows the market but he also knows what we can do outside of it. Sometimes international agencies come here and focus on what we do in Europe, not so much what can we do locally, so it's nice to have someone who's grounded and helps us balance it out and has local knowledge. He can speak to a lot of different clients that we can't!”
Now BUCK’s put its roots down, the team is working on projects to refresh the brand of an Amsterdam-based but internationally known tech company. Richard describes that work as “very strategic and had a very long phase of conceptual thinking to figure out what the client really needed and wanted, in a collaborative way.” But there’s a lot of range in the kinds of projects the team are getting stuck into.
Another project with Highland Park whisky, which was “really pushing like the boundaries of CG and experimentation with Houdini and some creative tech stuff,” as Richard says. “That was a really fun project which we took on because we thought like it would be a challenge, technically, and the process of it was pretty tricky because we didn't really know what to expect from the outcome, which is often is often the case with playing with creative tech like that. You never know where it's going to end up, which is super exciting but also really scary, especially if you're trying to convince the client as to where it's going and you have that uncertainty yourself. But, that was part of the process which they understood and the result was amazing. There are different things like that - I think those two projects are pretty far apart in terms of the spectrum!”
“That's the cool thing with BUCK, we can lean into different types of projects, we can play in different areas and might be rewarded with something that's totally new and experimental. Visually it may not be as pleasing in some ways, but then you might do a minute-long, cel animated storytelling piece that's just so beautiful and charming. It's about balancing everything.”
Speaking of charming cel animation, the team’s recent work for Ronald McDonald House
is that, par excellence. They added a new character to the McNificents superhero roster based on a real person who’s part of the Ronald McDonald House family - Liz, a 10-year-old who suffers from a head injury due to a collision with a scooter. After two surgeries to reconstruct her skull, she’s working her way through physical therapy. Working with TBWA\NEBOKO, BUCK wanted to respectfully tell Liz’s story without making it sad. So they transformed her into a superhero in a beautifully-realised short narrative animation.
Chance loves how human-driven this project was: “Imagine being a kid who's dealing with all of this, living your life and then this team of people come and turn you into an animated superhero! As an adult I want that! That one got everyone so excited about the idea of doing something that one, is a great cause and two, it's a really cool creative (I think most animation people would geek out a little bit about superhero stuff). And then three, making this child's week or maybe even year. It's not often you get something that hits all those sweet spots.”
BUCK Amsterdam is using projects like these to bed itself down for the long run in the new city and the continent it’s on. “We're feeling more established and so the next phase is to start building up those client relationships and really grounding ourselves in Amsterdam and in Europe,” says Richard. “As well as being able to reach out to all the talent. We want to build and create an awesome team here.”