CEO Dimi Albers tells Alex Reeves how the 130-person Dutch agency grew to 1,150 people in 11 countries in less than four years
The world hipster population may be in terminal decline, but a new species is on the rise - the Depster. Never heard of one? Don’t worry, you’re not completely out of touch, but if you work in marketing or branding you should know what one is. Depsters are what the digital agency Dept calls its staff. At the agency’s founding in 2016 there were around 150 of them, all in the Netherlands. Now there are 1,150 Depsters, spread across 11 countries. And counting.
Dimi Albers became Dept’s CEO at the start of this year, but his history with Dept goes back to its prehistory. In 2006 he started as a project manager in the canal-ringed Dutch city of Delft, working for an agency called TamTam, which had been founded 10 years earlier by brothers Bart and Paul Manuel. By that time it was established in the country. Around the time Dimi joined TamTam set a goal to become the biggest digital agency in the Netherlands.
Dimi’s path took him through account and strategy work until he headed to Amsterdam to establish a foothold in the capital for the agency. In three-and-a-half years that office had grown to 50 staff and he became TamTam’s managing director in 2015.
By that time it was comfortably one of the top Dutch digital agencies. Dimi remembers the top brass there had set their sights on international expansion. “We’d dabbled in that for about a year,” he says, finding projects in the UK, Portugal and France. “We did get some work, but it didn’t really accelerate until 2015.”
That was the year when the Depster would be born. Conveniently enough, the agency “ran into a private equity investor” called Waterland, that was scanning the Dutch market looking for a full service agency. “They believed it was a market that was growing fast but was still very immature.”
Dimi and his workmates didn’t expect much to come of the encounter. “We’re a very informal, flat organisation,” he says. “So you can imagine that the first time we started talking to them, we thought we were never going to do this. But then we got in a room and it turned out they are quite like us. We sat down, they were straight to the point, a lot of humour and laughing together and a clear idea on how they wanted to grow the business.” A deal was done and the seed for TamTam’s growth was fertilised.
Waterland doesn’t step into companies to run them, Dimi is keen to clarify. The firm manages over €6 billion of investor commitments and their staff only number in the double figures. They don’t have the capacity or the ambition to micromanage. They’d help with the mergers and acquisitions part of the business, he explains, finding new agencies that want to join and helping with the deals. “When it comes to managing the company, they have no role.” Over three years on, Waterland’s only involvement in running the business is a monthly shareholder meeting, he says. “We can run the agency as you should run an agency. A bunch of weird people who all know that they want to make the coolest work for clients, have a lot of impact. If you want to be really dynamic you have to have room to be entrepreneurial. Waterland really facilitated that. They gave us the backing to grow really fast but they didn’t tell us how they wanted our business to run.”
Dept was soon founded, merging TamTam with Building Blocks and adding offices in Manchester, Boston and Zaragoza. “The strategy for Dept is super simple,” says Dimi. At the time, the agency built websites, apps and other digital experiences for clients in the Netherlands. Firstly, Dept would take these projects across borders to work with international clients and secondly, it would connect the core of TamTam with new kinds of agencies so they could assemble more integrated teams.
Of course the big advertising networks can do that, but he highlights that there are roadblocks there. “The way they are set up is not to cater to their clients in integrated teams. There’s a lot of politics involved, like not having the same P&L [profit and loss statement].” Dept is one agency with one P&L and no sub-brands, which Dimi says allows it to bundle various creative, tech and data specialisms together into teams for clients.
With this strategy in place, the rampage of expansion began. Dept and Waterland began the search for like-minded digital shops to incorporate. Chemistry was vital. “It’s nicer to keep the way you’ve always done things and do that with like-minded people than having to assimilate into something huge which is going to tell you what to do,” says Dimi. This was helped by the fact that Dept clearly isn’t part of a hulking network or holding company. It attracted agencies who didn’t want to join one of those.
Once agencies are assimilated into Dept they rebrand to become fully integrated into the border-spanning agency. To foster a sense of family, founders of existing agencies all become partners on the same level as all the other partners, which means that there are now almost 90 shareholders who each own a piece of Dept, Dimi says.
Now at roughly 1,150 employees, Dept is a force to be reckoned with. It regularly works with global brands like electronics manufacturer JBL, who Dept created a clever guerilla World Cup campaign for last year. “We like to say that we’re big enough to cope and small enough to care,” says Dimi. “When a client works with us it feels like working with a 40- or 50-people agency.”
Creating teams like this that straddle several nations is not the most natural way of working, admits Dimi: “Of course that’s challenging. If people are in the same room together they will be close. Working internationally works a bit differently.” The agency has worked a lot on this, ensuring smooth communication between teams and facilitating face-to-face meetings at key moments in a project.
“To be honest, it’s not without its sparks,” says Dimi. “If you want to combine all the cultures and disciplines we have, that means there are quite some sparks flying around. I don’t think we shy away from it. I also think we’re quite transparent to our clients on it. We believe it’s OK to hit some bumps here and there as long as we’re honest about it and all know where we’re going.”
Dept may be acquiring digital agencies around the world at a startling pace - 2019 has already seen e3creative in the UK join them, as well as five German agencies rebranding to become Dept - but Dimi stresses that organic growth of existing offices remains a focus for them too. “We combine agencies joining with all the existing agencies growing quite rapidly,” he says.
“We’re growing quite fast. If we’re talking specifically about this subject, it can give the feeling that we’re working on that the whole day. In practice, even I spend at least half of my week working with clients. The whole idea we started this on was our clients saying they like working with us and want to work more with us so they can be successful. 95% of people here are [doing] the same as in other agencies. They’re working for clients every day. They just work with more disciplines together and across borders.”