How Johan Kramer creates space by hiking in the woods
Happyplaces Stories (video)
In April 2014 I interviewed Johan in Bergen, a small village near the sea where he currently resides, not too far away from Amsterdam. It became a wonderful day full of meaningful coincidences, moustaches and stories. Johan established KesselsKramer, together with Erik Kessels, in 1996. KesselsKramer is an independent, communications agency in Amsterdam, and has now offices also in London and Los Angeles. Johan left KesselsKramer over ten years ago to pursue his passion for filmmaking and photography.
Looking at my work, I think you can look back to when I was a child. I was crazy about soccer and every week I would write a short piece for a soccer magazine. This would be a mixture of a documentary, a description of the match I played but also fiction, because I made up a lot of things. In my description, I always made the match more spectacular than it had actually been. I did this for a very long time and from this moment, writing became an important part of my life. And it eventually became my job: copywriting.
I have worked for several agencies and at one point I even founded my own agency where I also created stories for brands and companies. Ten years ago, branding became my full-time job. At one point, I discovered that what I was doing, the stories I created, were often a mixture of fact and fiction, kind of like the stories I wrote as a child. So in reality nothing really changed, except maybe that I have a larger audience right now. When I wrote for the soccer magazine, only a few teammates and club members read my stories. These days, I often make commercials that are shared or viewed by 100,000 people. But in reality, it is all the same.
Throughout the years, I have learned that, to me, this work functions best when something is close to my heart. So when I create things that come from my own interest but which are also created by means of a work tactic I feel comfortable with. This way of working is very informal and based on trust. I am used to giving people a lot of space, especially when working in a crew. Also because I believe that people are much more motivated when they are given a lot of space. I also discovered this while working for KesselsKramer. When working with people, you have to give them enough space so that they can explore their talents. You should not constantly correct them because, eventually, this will cause black outs. You want to give them a lot of freedom. I am searching for direction projects in which the same technique is used. I am lucky that a lot of advertising agencies come to me for projects in which freedom is important. These agencies often think: ‘If we leave this up to Johan, things will all work out’. “He will take this freedom and space and make something new out of it”.
Projects become very personal when they match your interests. This could be something basic like soccer, which is a big hobby of mine. So I almost always enjoy doing projects that have something to do with this. But it could also be about something deeper, something that feels right to you. About the vision of a brand or why people are attracted to a specific company. This is all really similar to how I am trying to live my life. A commercial for McDonalds would never really make me enthusiastic, because this company does not interest me. I am a vegetarian. So I am not really interested in making a commercial for this brand. It could be a lot of fun, though. But it just does not appeal to me. For me, it all started with directing. This was a long time ago, around the end of the Eighties. This was when I started working at FHV. At the time, this was a great advertising agency and there was not a better study than at FHV. Back then, I was writing my first script and I started working with directors. I noticed that made this film exactly according to the script I had written. Even though I was still very young back then, I thought it was odd that they did exactly what I had written in my script. I thought it would be a lot more interesting if they made their own interpretation of my ideas. However, in the Netherlands, at the time, directors did not yet do this. So after a short while, I thought that it would be better to do it myself. This, of course, also had something to do with bravura and stubbornness. It was a fun way to discover this. From that moment, I started filming a lot and I made videoclips and commercials which, looking back now, were absolutely horrible. But by simply doing things, you discover a lot. I have always been very much attracted to the sensation of being an autodidact. So not knowing how exactly something works and trying to discover this during a process of creation.
At one point I ran into Erik Kessels, and it turned out that he felt the same way about this. He was always working on his own projects as well. He too wanted to try things he had not done before, like making a documentary or writing a book. When we started working together, this thought became like an explosion being autonomous and autodidact in what we were doing. We had some customers as well, but they were more of a sidetrack. The collaboration with Erik was truly unique. I do not think that this could happen again, because back then, we were on the exact same level. Also because I had a background in writing and Erik was an art director. Back then, most creative teams consisted of two people. But this has changed. There is much more overlap from different branches. This is something that we were specifically looking for at KesselsKramer. Even though, right now, this is very common, it was very difficult to find back then.
I do not see a difference between commercial work and personal work. And I have to confess, that in all these years of doing this, I have not once thought about the audience. I just want to create things that I find cool or interesting. This sounds a bit selfish, but I think that, I have the feeling that if a story is narrated in an interesting way, I always assume that other people will feel the same way. I do not constantly worry about target audiences. This happened a bit more at KesselsKramer because well, you come across these things, so you have to immerse yourself a bit in it to learn what type of people use a specific product or brand. When making a film, I always go with my gut feeling. I do not really wonder what others might think of it. Because the moment you start doing this, you are working with averages. Naturally, you receive feedback from your clients. It immediately shows if something makes people happy. And if you start presenting it to your clients, you will also immediately see this. But for example, when several researches are conducted, it is not the case that I am very much interested in this. I often think: ‘whatever’. I am not really interested in all this.
I do have, this may almost be like a handicap, I grew up in the world of advertising, where you constantly learn how to create things from limitations. So it is always nice to have rules or instructions, and limitations to what you can do. And within these limitations, you are free to do whatever you want. But there always has to be something like a beginning. This makes me feel most comfortable. This also applies to the making of films. You start looking for this one idea, this one seed out of which you can create an entire forest. But it always starts with, or at least for me, it always starts with something like a boundary. When everything is possible, nothing is possible. People often think: “If I give you 20 million, you can just go ahead and make me that film”. But it is not about the money. You could also make a great film with ‘just’ 2,000 euros. Money and quality are not connected. There are many dream projects I keep in mind. I can see these projects happen in combination with commercial projects. I still very much enjoy making commercials. But specifically the alternation between a commercial, film, documentary or photography which I also started doing in the last couple of years, like an autodidact. I enjoy working on all these different disciplines.
I do not necessarily want to lose myself in a project which I will then have to work on for the next ten years. It is about change. And at the same time the realisation that it is a luxury to be able to sit here and talk like this and that I am able to do these projects. Because the majority of the people have normal jobs and just do what they are told to do. And we have the luxury to just make something up or to receive something, out of which we can create something beautiful. I am very much aware of this luxury. It is very special to be able to do this. This also applies to the decision I made ten years ago, when I left KesselsKramer. I wanted to do a lot of direction work and I wanted to learn a lot, because it was something I knew nothing about. But at the same time, I wanted to break the daily grind of sitting behind a desk and trying to come with new ideas. Hence the decision to go live in a completely different place, in Bergen, where I can go hiking in the woods. Where life is completely different from life in a city. Specifically this new environment appeals to me. It is also a great place to start new projects.
Place, safety and creativity
I first became aware of what influence a place can have on your work when I started working with Erik Kessels in London. We worked for Chait/Day, which, in the mid-nineties, was a very progressive agency. They had the idea that a company should be positioned in an open space. So no more separate offices. Everyone worked in the same room. There was a mix of around twelve different nationalities. At the time, e-mail was already very popular.
We came from Amsterdam, and until a year before this we still received faxes. We worked with computers, but we did not yet use e-mail on a regular basis. I remember every time Erik received an e-mail, he would walk up to the sender and answer him in person. What I realised there is that a place really determines how you work together. And that a happy place can be really inspiring. This could mean that you want to stay in this place for a longer period of time. This place could cause you to come up with completely different ideas. Instead of, like the creative teams in the Netherlands, always working between four white walls. Later on, when we started with KesselsKramer in a church, we stuck to this idea.
Naturally, a church is an open place. We built a wooden fort inside of this church. It actually was like a playground. We felt that, because we all work very hard, our work environment should be entertaining and inspiring. The funny thing is, over the years, maybe also because you keep getting older you will discover more and more that the place you work in and the way it is decorated are not of great importance. What is much more important is to create a work environment where people feel safe and free to be creative.
And this place should also evoke creativity in people. So safety and creativity are most important. This may take place in a hypermodern office, like the one Google has. With ping-pong tables and cafeterias where you can eat dishes from all over the world. But it could also be a nice office in Zaandam. I do not think this really matters. It is much more about how you treat people. It is about guiding them, making them feel safe, and allowing them to create new things. This is more important than having a fancy office. In the end, an office is nothing more than something cosmetically.
This is the greatest lesson I learned when I started working as a director.
The process of creation is very important. This is something I had forgotten when working at KesselsKramer. Because as an advertising agency, you always focus on what comes next. What will happen next when you finish a campaign? But nothing ever happens, because once a campaign is finished you start working on the next one. You do not learn to enjoy what you are doing. You are always in a rush. These days, I see this in a lot of people, who, also encouraged by social media always feel rushed and are constantly looking for the next step. In stead of enjoying what they are doing. This is unfortunate, because in the end this is what it is all about. When making a film, you always focus on this, because you have a lot of conversations with an art director with the costume designer, with the hair artist, with a set constructor with the cameraman who wants to know what type of lens to use. This feeling of creating something tangible together is very nice.
These days, there are a few places of importance to me. The first place being the woods in Bergen in which I like to go hiking. Sometimes, when walking to the beach —which takes about thirty minutes—, I notice that this makes me more productive than when I am sitting behind my desk all day. When you go out for a walk, something in the brain is triggered. This creates a ping pong effect in your mind, out of which new and unexpected ideas will arise. At least, this is how it works for me. I am bummed out every time I forget to bring a notebook when going for a walk. I then have to write down ideas on a coaster. When going for a walk, I often already finished the majority of my work for that day. So this is an important place.
Apart from this, I am where my work is. In the start-up phase of a production, I will be attending meetings at the production office for most of the time. But only for an hour tops. After this I am already happy to leave. The actual filming could happen anywhere, and this is also where I will be. The same applies to the process of finishing the production. One moment I will be with a specific editor, and the other I will be at the studio. So this is always different. Personally, I like not having to work at the same place every day. Working in the same place every day creates routine, which is something that easily bores me. You will start working in a specific pattern.
This is what is nice about working at different locations.
The last thing I can say about a place is that three years ago, I had to think about a name for my company a one-man business. I named it The Very Small Office of Johan Kramer. This office actually is a small cardboard box, a shoe box. This box has a virtual life on the internet. If you look at it, you will see that one of my assistants is a giraffe. And an old man. I created this office with the idea to to remind myself to keep it small. Do not start new projects that will place you in an agency formation where you will have to work with different people in an office. At the same place, every day. Because this was something I wanted to avoid. So this name is a constant reminder to keep things small and to stay true to myself. But also to only start up small and personal projects.
Everything is possible
These days, it is much more difficult than when I started. I think. When I started, you were not thinking about the opinions of others. You just did what you wanted to do. But in today’s world, people are very much aware of other people’s accomplishments. If you are a 22-year-old fashion designer, you will not only know who your Dutch competitors are but you can also see if there is someone in Caracas who is very good at designing or if there is a 17-year-old fashion designer in Australia who designed something magnific. For some people it can be discouraging to know that there are so many people who have done something amazing. This often hinders people in their creativity. I also often see the urge, especially among young people, to do what has already been done. Working at KesselsKramer, I also noticed this when going through portfolios. People who came from universities or academies, who had these very creative thoughts who were stubborn and liked to do things differently. These were often things that meant something to them.
But when I would see them two years later, when they had some experience of working for an agency they would be doing exactly what other adults, fashion designers, and other creatives were doing. They had lost their own voice and they were accustomed to the norm. This is such a waste of talent. So looking at it like this, it is a good thing to give young people space to do what they love. Let them make mistakes. Just try and experiment. This is something which, odd enough, seems to happen less and less. Even though everything is possible, people limit themselves to the norm.
This is also very well visible in commercial creativity. There is almost always a demand for things that have already been done. People are not asked to do something they have never done before. They are often asked to do something they are very good at. To me, this is a challenge when it comes to selecting projects. I try to keep myself focussed by choosing for projects that seem different and exciting. Projects that make you step outside of your comfort zone. Because before you realise it, you will be a well-paid copy machine. Which is also possible, but it is also good to discover something new every once in a while.
In my opinion, when doing creative work, authenticity is of great importance. Not only for the creator, but also for your audience or customers. Campaigns and short films often become interesting when everything about the story is right. So when you do something for a brand or a company that is truly authentic. This used to be easier, because you would be working with the founder of an agency or with someone who had been working there for a very long time. You would experience and learn about the DNA of a company. But these days, you often see people that people work at one place for a few years and then switch to a different place where they will also be working for just a few years. Because of this, everything is more short-termed right now. So people get the urge to hastily create something that suits the company they are working for right now but which, in the end, does not suit the true values of the company or a brand at all. Interchangeable creative work. This is something I see a lot. But every now and then, I witness the evolution of something truly wonderful. It is true that content is more important than form. When a form is successful, you will see people using it everywhere. Despite my being a director and always telling my stories via images. I am much more interested in content than in form. Form always comes from an idea or a story you are trying to tell.