POV: Interview with Peter Colee, Agency Owner & Strategist
My name is Peter Colee. I’m the founder of X-ingredient. I specialize in strategy and concepting. I live in the Netherlands near ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which is the home of X-ingredient. I founded the company a year and a half after completing my masters at the Radboud University in Nymegen, where I studied communication science. My major was in audio-visual communications, marketing and research, and I completed internships at several international agencies. After graduation, I worked a year and a half for a communication agency specializing in pharmaceuticals and healthcare. In 1993, I founded X-ingredient with my business partner Guus Tesser.
X-Ingredient describes itself as a “tradigital” agency focused on “brand activation” and “below-the-line communications.” What do those terms mean to you and your clients? How do you believe that differentiates you from other agencies?
We have both horizontal and vertical specializations. We work for food companies like Mars (pet and snack food), Kraft (biscuits and dairy), Danone (dairy), Hero (fruit drinks), Bavaria (Beer), etc. We know their processes and retail markets so well that we have a huge advantage over other competitors. In our country, there are just three or four agencies that are in this game. The below-the-line and activation part is our product differentiation. Our clients’ above-the-line and strategic partners are the worldwide networks. We as a local agency can roll out the ATL campaigns much better and quicker then the head offices of the DDB’s and TBWA’s in Amsterdam, which are not specialized at all. This makes us very competitive as a tactical and creative partner.
Many agency owners and principals find it challenging to create strong relationships between their brand strategists and designers. How does X-ingredient work to create an integrated team that understands the connection in order to create a meaningful brand identities?
We don’t have the 20th century idea of the copy and art team. Everybody in our office must have a talent or skill nobody else has. So, we have art directors, copy writers, content creators, app specialists, interface designers, motion designers, scripting specialists, tactical strategists (both traditional and online), 3D artists and so on. For each campaign the best possible team will be formed from our various different artists.
With a team of approximately 30, how do you effectively lead your creative talent through uncharted waters as X-Ingredient conquers the challenges of new media?
We never hire “arrived” people. Every year we pick the best graduates. With new media, you must have the 20 to 21-year-old boys in your company. We can do that because we have a strong relationship through the years with many universities and media arts schools. From there, it’s up or out (in the human way). After two years as an apprentice of sorts, the person will either join the team full-time, or we will help them to find the best possible next step outside the office. People come to work every day with a smile and many leave with a tear. Last week, somebody left us after 17!!! years.
We invest a lot of time and effort to keep up with all the changes in the industry and every couple of months we decide which new direction to take. This, for example, meant we closed our Sofia (Bulgaria) office last month where we did back-end programming.
Based on your resume, you only worked at an agency for 1.5 years before deciding to start your own firm with Guus Tesser. What caused you to take such a leap? Any words of advice for those thinking of starting their own firm?
Not being hindered by anything that could stop us. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, we just knew we had to be great to survive. We didn’t have anything to lose. We were just eager idiots that thought they could do it better then their bosses did. We knew, though, that we had a lot to learn, and we knew we had to be different from all the others.
Advice? If you want to start, be ready to give up everything during the first few years. You can do it if you really are sure that you’re the only one to blame if you don’t succeed. Keep learning, never fall asleep and be honest to yourself, your partners, your social environment, your clients and the people you work with. And, did I mention, KEEP LEARNING?
Oh, and there is one more thing…if you have a business partner, accept each others’ qualities, but even more, accept each others’ weaknesses. Respect this and find someone who is complementary in skills, knowledge and personal views. Two hard hitters don’t make a team that can last.
X-Ingredient has great relationships with many food and beverage brands. What types of trends do you see happening in this specific industry? Are there specific strategies and platforms that seem to resonate well with this industry’s consumers?
Brands are in heavy weather. People are less loyal to brands and gross rating points (GRP’s) are not bringing the numbers they used to (and that is hard to understand for many managers). Soft selling must replace hard selling and more and more you see brand activation programs that don’t have the immediate sales targets. It’s hard for them to be relevant, so communication is more and more important. Be meaningful, relevant or extremely funny (Skittles is my benchmark as far as these new ways of interaction go).
You seem to have passions for film and music. Do you really see two movies per week, as the website says?
Oh yes, at least! Although, I must say that now that my kids stay up later, it is getting more difficult, but my minimum is two.
How do those interests influence your work?
I am passionate about making and listening to music. Music, films, art, history — you can’t do without these when you work in a creative profession. It inspires me everyday. I’m not a solitary artist; I mix up all my experiences and impressions and use it for our client results. It won’t last like Picasso, but we have a lot of fun. All our creatives must have these passions and be widely educated and interested in the world.
Describe the marketing industry in The Netherlands. How many independent agencies are there? How competitive is the market?
I’d say there are 100 to 150 with substantial continuity. The market though is not clear anymore. Nowadays, I also compete with broadcast networks, musical producers, PR companies and SEO specialists who have also decided to do web design, etc.
How much work do you all execute in Dutch verses other languages?
Most is Dutch, though we do do some international work in English and French.
What tactics resonate best with the Dutch? Experiential? Mobile? What campaigns seem to best succeed?
Holland is a strange country (as all countries probably are), but we are very skeptical about anyone who wants to sell you something. On the other hand, we are innovators when it comes to adapting to new technologies (i.e. most tweets per person). Come with something new and original, but never be to pushy. Then, you will succeed. Be honest; the medium is not as important.
As an agency with a strong emphasis on social media, how do you believe it will evolve over the next two to three years?
Not too long ago, large companies stood at our door because we were clever enough to buy some Second Live Islands. Now we don’t even know what it was and what the hell we wanted to do out there. I think technology will go faster every year. But I also see signs of clutter as we saw in the traditional media space 10 years ago. Brands must find their way in this new world order. Many customers are also lost. Where advertising was a marketing tool, the media nowadays require innovations from all business perspectives — from research and production to after-sales and human resources.
One reason that you love what you do: You never know what the day will bring.
Mentor: Eric Bremer (my first internship mentor; a great visionary and entrepreneur)
Must read book: “How Luxury Lost Its Luster” - Dana Thomas: a great book about more than brands.
Music that gets you in your zone: I always come back to The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or The Stones, but I also love today’s artists like Jack White, The Black Keys and Them Crooked Vultures.
Anything else you’d like to add: You can only succeed if you really love what you do. When I hate the job, I remember that in every relationship you have to fight for better times.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr user alangrlane.