Marcel van Zwieten (36) is creative director and co-owner of the agency, DotControl, which positions itself - with success - as data-driven, and has on its website in huge letters: "We prefer science" and "Gut feeling. No thanks.” What future is there, then, for creatives, and thus for himself?
You’re the creative boss at a data-driven creative agency (an oxymoron) that boldly declares "Gut feeling. No thanks.” A funny line, but what exactly do you mean by it?
"Put very simply, we devise and validate all our ideas based on data (research and testing). And not just as a one-off for a pitch, but continuously. An idea is an idea, and that's no different with us. But we don’t present anything to clients without having validated it first. With us, there’s always that extra step.
"For us, creativity is there purely to support the solution. It’s our job to remove the ‘pain’ for our clients’ customers. That’s how we help our clients grow. You can’t base that on gut feelings: a surgeon isn’t going to operate without first having carried out a thorough examination.
“Actually, we also make an analysis of our clients – that’s step 1. When we get a briefing, we first use data science and psychological research to analyze exactly what the functional and emotional pain is that that brand, product or service ‘alleviates’ for the target group. That’s the problem with many start-ups: they develop a solution to a problem (pain) that simply doesn’t exist. But anyway, most clients come to us with a broader question, and an eye to the future: who do we need to be in order to survive? Then you’re talking about ideas, solutions for a pain that clients don’t feel themselves yet. And that’s something we enjoy doing at DotControl."
Can you give an example of that?
“Sure. For example, we help HAVI, a logistics service provider, optimize the supply chain of the world’s largest fast food brand, so that franchisees can focus 100% on the restaurant experience. We do this by automating as much as possible, for which we use new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). That sounds simple, but if the salad has been placed on the burger in the same way since the company was founded in 1955, any change will have a considerable impact on business operations. And if there’s one thing people have difficulty with, it's change. Especially if there doesn’t seem to be a problem in the first place: everything’s fine, isn’t it? And it’s their store, right?
"We start as small as possible and scale-up based on the data. Every two weeks we reduce the ‘pain’ through continuous optimizations, as we call them, and of course always based on data. This process creates room for continuous new ideas, and these cycles help convince the clients and franchisees step by step - we evolve together. We've been doing this for 3½ years now - and they're loving it!”
"Another example, is credit provider, Yeaz!, part of the Scandinavian bank, Svea Ekonomi. They asked us to help develop a new financial brand in the Netherlands, where the financial landscape is already pretty full. We therefore investigated where there were opportunities: which pains are not yet, or not yet properly, being treated in the Netherlands? That’s how we arrived at the self-employed as a target group, people who often get a ‘no’ from banks. So we introduced the Yeaz! brand. Within just a few clicks – all on the basis of AI - Yeaz! provides credit. We thought up the brand, built the digital bank and developed the marketing around it, always based on learnings from the data.
"While doing so, we obviously also looked at how to communicate with the target group, which includes self-employed creatives, but also window cleaners and people with a beauty parlour. More than anything, we wanted it to feel familiar and personal – in the past, as a freelancer you loaned money from your family, and now you loan it from Yeaz! And if you communicate with Yeaz!, you do so using a unicorn icon, which makes it accessible and not overly-serious. And this, too, we’ve obviously also evolved and continuously tested."
Going back to the balance between the use of data and creativity: if more and more is based on AI, what’s left for the creatives? In America, Chase Bank has already replaced copywriters with computers, because they get better results.
“In itself, data is worthless. What matters is what connections and insights you get out of it as a strategist or creative: computers can make connections, but they can’t yet spot really special nuances. For the time being, at least. Take, for example, the tone of voice as part of a bigger story: if you address each target group in a different, specific way, your brand will become blurred. I’m happy about an example like Chase, as it proves that in many cases a computer can estimate better than an irrational/unrealistic person what will work – and that, of course, fits with our story. But what I'm afraid of is that it ultimately leads to creative blandness. In fact, you can see that already: there’s an increasing reliance on the safety of the process, on the use of data per se, and less and less on creativity.”
“With us, creativity is there purely to support the solution. It’s our job to remove the ‘pain’ for our clients’ customers."
"The campaigns that win at Cannes Lions, a computer – at least, up till now – can’t think up. Take the impressive ‘Go Back to Africa’ tourism campaign. Every three minutes online somewhere someone is demanding that people with dark skin go back to Africa. Travel agency, Black & Abroad, has cleverly managed to turn this negative association into a positive experience. Thanks to AI you can discover that ‘Go back to Africa’ is something that people often write; but, more importantly, exactly how often. That, for me, is the beauty of data.
“I think that over the next 10-25 years AI will come a long way in the area of creation: it will provide so much more insight and help with the execution. What works and what doesn't? AI gives you much better weapons and ammunition with which to hit the target, to be more relevant (and produce less waste) and remove as much pain as possible for customers. But only a human could have an insight like that, and do something so brilliant with it, turning hatred into love — a human being is still the director.”
Based on the data available about you, it would seem you have a love of analogue creativity. You take photos and, according to LinkedIn, spent no less than 8 years at the Grafisch Lyceum Rotterdam (Rotterdam Design School).
Marcel laughs, "That's true, I did two degree courses: first graphic design/art direction and then I specialized in digital. Where does my love of creativity come from? I've been drawing since I was five, my grandfather had a stock photo agency, my cousin works in the art sector - so it's in the family, so to speak.
“Even when I'm not working, I'm busy being creative. People and nature inspire me, as do street and popular culture. People, fashion and music reveal what’s happening — what touches and drives people. On the other hand, I also love the tranquility of nature. More specifically, the seasons in different places in the world. At weekends or on holiday, it’s where I like to be. I need that peace to be able to think freely again. In my photography (see instagram.com/zwiet), I try to capture that longing."
Why didn’t you become a photographer?
"Because I came to digital early and was mesmerized by the possibilities it offers. In my early twenties, I was already working as a digital creative for various agencies. After that, I worked for about seven years for Wubbe in Delft, where we built up a strong digital agency. And then about four years ago, DotControl approached me. They’d just been to Silicon Valley, to meet Sean Ellis, renowned from Dropbox, where he was the first marketeer and a growth hacking evangelist. We wanted to be one of the first to bring that methodology, and new marketing methods, to Europe – and, alongside DotControl, we launched the growth hacking agency, RockBoost. DotControl delivers the creativity, from the idea to its execution (creatively and technically). RockBoost provides the data and growth mindset, both internally and with our clients. Put in more practical terms, it’s RockBoost's job to challenge everything that is being created within DotControl.
"So anyway, at DotControl, they were looking for a creative who could, starting from a data-driven vision, help brands and organisations to optimally transform digitally. The combination of data and creativity really appealed to me. The vision also made total sense. But the reality was that with potential clients we often found ourselves soon being shown the door again — if we hadn’t already had it slammed in our faces. They just didn’t get it. Until three years ago, when things suddenly took off. Since then, we’ve grown from 18 to 89 employees."
What have you changed about your story?
"For clients, we started founding everything on just one objective (One Metric That Matters). Different departments within companies have different objectives, which can often lead to silos. But if there’s no overarching consensus, the brand has no direction. With growth hacking you also develop a system that you can draw from and build upon — often there’s no system at all and people are just busy working away tackling day-to-day issues. Growth hacking is in practice nothing more than studying the existing system and continuously searching for improvements and weaknesses. The way we see it, growth hacking is a combination of data-driven creativity, marketing and development. Or to put it another way, a process of continuous development with a tight focus on growth. So identifying that single objective of a brand provides direction, clarity and guidance.
"Which doubtless all sounds very logical. But that one objective then overrules each of the departments’ own objectives and, as I said earlier, if there’s one thing that provokes resistance, it’s change. So we learnt — and this was a pivotal moment in our thinking — to implement transformation step by step. We begin almost undercover with a small growth team and a small experiment, and carry out as many tests as possible. During this process, we try to gradually turn around the ingrained mindset of employees.
Marcel falls silent for a moment. "Know what’s so great about this positioning? That we’re now meeting with the C-level — let’s face it, they’re the ones responsible for growth, not the marketing manager. And it’s this that sets us apart from other agencies. Even before we get started, we run a training session that we make virtually compulsory, including for C-level. To test whether the mindset’s right to want to evolve together. Because data is very honest, and you have to be able to handle that. Moreover, this approach leads to a different kind of relationship. After all, growth doesn’t stop; it just carries on. And we’re not a project-based supplier of change, we genuinely do it together with the client: ultimately it’s them who have to change."
Shouldn’t design/creativity always lead to growth?
"Essentially, you’re right. The difference is that, with us, everything is focused on growth. You can walk up now and ask any of our staff and they’ll know exactly what that single growth objective is for each of our clients. What’s more, we work with a very clear process, and creation is geared to stimulating growth in every possible way. That can be anything from a badge to a campaign. At an advertising agency, everything is focused on making a campaign as good as possible, which will then hopefully work well and from which hopefully new orders will come — most communications agencies live by hope.”
"How do we determine the growth objectives with customers? It usually requires no more than one two-hour session. At which point, we also determine a number of sub-objectives, a number of which we can often quickly resolve based on current data. We also analyze the product (is there Product Market Fit: would more than 40% of the target group be disappointed if you were to remove it from the market?) and the customer journey — ultimately you want to turn consumers into fans of your brand. The moment the growth objective is clear, we very quickly scribble down 100 ideas that bring us closer to that objective. These are often lots of practical things that customers can do themselves, but haven’t thought of before. Again, we’re not a supplier of growth.
“To give an example: the growth objective of our customer Brand New Day, an online pension bank, was to have 65% more customers with high customer satisfaction (8.5). That's how specific it is. Retirement is often about creating peace of mind for later. Brand New Day would rather offer peace of mind now. That’s why the language we use is modern ("Calvinistic costs, hedonistic service", ed.) and the visual language focuses on the emotion that’s released when you’re not worrying about tomorrow. Such as, for example, being able to enjoy romping in the mud with your child without a care in the world. The photography is simple, sometimes a touch alienating in order to tap into deeper emotions and thus be distinctive, but recognizable.
“Brand New Day is now established as a brand. We’ve played a part in the positioning, the development of a distinctive (visual) identity and the translation of the brand story into a new platform for consumers and companies. And it works. There’s been 41% more visitors to the site so far. There is a better conversion (+ 32%) and the number of opened accounts has increased by 15.2%."
And finally, following Rotterdam, Heerlen and Willemstad (Curaçao), you’re now opening a fourth office in Amsterdam. Emmen or Gdansk might have been a more obvious choice. Why, only now, Amsterdam?
"Ha-ha! Our locations may sound strange to you, but they’ve actually been chosen strategically. We’re always on the lookout for talent, creative and technical. But to find a highly talented developer or data engineer in the Randstad, we have to compete with companies with whom it’s almost impossible for us to compete in terms of conditions of service, such as banks and insurers. Which is why we’ve looked for places where we can find talent and achieve a good competitive position. Heerlen, for example, is a city where a lot’s happening in the field of technology. There’s Brightlands Smart Services Campus and a number of very good technical trainers, such as Zuyd University of Applied Sciences and Aachen University.
"We’re now opening an office in Amsterdam because the city attracts lots of creative people, because we’ve got a large number of colleagues who currently commute daily from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, and because most of our Dutch clients are based there. It's that simple. And no, we won’t be stopping at this. In five years, we want to be seen to be amongst the best by companies who want to transform. And we’re considering opening further offices in Germany, the US and Asia. Plus, of course, we must continue to evolve and transform ourselves."
This interview was previously published in FONK magazine, August 2019