VBAT’s Eugene Bay believes in the power of storytelling. It’s what makes great brands in the minds of consumers, according to him. And a compelling brand identity can be the starting point for this narrative. The Amsterdam based branding consultant should know. His agency, bought over by WPP in the beginning of 2001, won a Gold Design Lion in Cannes this year for the Amstel Pulse (lager) bottle, designed for Heineken. In August this year, they also won the prestigious Red Dot award for the Whole Earth can design. In this conversation with Campaign India, Bay, who has admitted that India is a market that they could be looking at in the future, talks about what made him choose Amsterdam as his base 25 years ago and why the time has come for the advertising industry to take risks.
When you set up shop in Amsterdam, what was it about the city that attracted you to the place?
I was headhunted by JWT to come out here and work in their design shop. I liked the city and stayed back. After a while, I joined another Dutch design agency. 25 years ago, I set up my own agency, I learnt the ways of Holland.
There is a lot of multicultural talent that comes to Amsterdam. Does that make the challenge of finding the right talent easier in such a city?
We have been in Amsterdam for the last 25 years. We get talked about in the press from time to time, so people come to us and ask if it’s possible to come out here and work with us. Amsterdam has always been an interesting draw for young people, so they love the city and it’s an opportunity for them to get to know us.
When you set up your own agency, you started out with design. However, today, you have moved beyond that to a larger role, where you act as a strategic branding consultant, among other things. How do you define what it is that you do, today?
I find it very difficult to give it a title, but if you were to ask me for the famous elevator pitch, I would say we create and help you identify your brand story, your brand offer. And give it some sort of visual language to market. We don’t do that for a season, we do that for a period of time, we are in the longevity game.
You mentioned that for one of your clients Grape District (a local wine shop), when you began work on their branding, you toyed with the idea of taking a percentage of profits as your compensation. Agencies are increasingly talking about such a model but do you see clients buying that thought?
The crisis is going to make that happen. What I think is going to happen post-crisis is that, a lot of people are not going to get paid a normal hour rate as a consultant to come up with a solution. I talk to a lot of people at the board and the top management at companies and they are all saying to me, ‘it’s about time your industry took some risks.’ If you take risks, you can get bigger rewards. So I think the climate has changed in the last six months, in fact in the last six weeks. And I think there is now a chance for some companies to make a difference. I think if you carry on selling an hourly rate, you may hit the wall. You may have to find some sort of mix now between taking risks, participating in a project with start-up companies. The feeling I am getting is people are more responsive than ever before.
For Heineken’s large global activation project, you created the famous Heineken wave. Do you see increasingly brands moving towards this kind of second/third layer of communication?
In the alcohol market, where you are not allowed to show your logo, there are restrictions put on brands by governments, whether it is regional or national. This is making a lot of brands find their visual identity which isn’t obvious, but subtle. So it’s not so much that brands want to do it, they have to do it. The creative energy has to find its way out and it’s a great opportunity.
Right. But what about Coca Cola’s recently launched sign off, showing just its iconic bottle signing off as the Coca Cola ‘Side of Life.’ They don’t have regulatory issues.
Yes, Coca Cola doesn’t need to do that. But what you will find is that people are looking for a visual identity/ expression, which is not per se graphics, not per se visual identity, not per se packaging or advertising, but a blend of it all together. If you look at some of the new successful campaigns, they are all graphic. There are a lot of young graphic design people in advertising today and what we are seeing is the Apple-isation of the youth. The language of young creative people is much more boundary less than it used to be.
Most of the relationships that you have had with clients have been in the long term, you’ve had clients who have been with you from the inception of the agency and have stayed. At a time when most agency-client relationships are short lived, what do you think has worked in your favour?
Most people within WPP would say we are abnormal. Most people don’t have such relationships. I have always believed that my personal life and my professional one are the same. So you actually spend time with your clients outside of 6 o’clock, on weekends, too. That’s not because I have to, but because they are good, fun people and we enjoy being with our clients. If that’s the sort of community that you create, there is no reason why you would not spend time socially with your clients besides being there for them 24X7.