Ralf van Lieshout is a digital strategist and co-founder of social content agency We Are Blossom, a GroupM/WPP company. Prior to founding We Are Blossom, Ralf worked at KPN (Royal Dutch Telecom) and on the agency side with DDB and Tribal Amsterdam. Today his agency consists of a team of 18 and works with clients including the National Lottery (Staatsloterij), Microsoft and M&M’s. An active blogger writing about marketing, media, branding and human behaviour, Ralf joins us from Eindhoven to discuss the role of the digital strategist in the Netherlands. You can hear our conversation in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud or below now.
The Dutch have a saying’ “God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland”. While the Dutch might have shaped their geography, it is this very same geography that has shaped the digital industry. While digital strategy is about ‘the marriage of creativity and data’, this is a union that remains largely unconsummated in the Netherlands with the best creative minds clustered in Amsterdam, the creative hub of the country, while digital technology is focused in Eindhoven, recently named the World’s smartest region and built off it’s heritage as the birthplace of Philips. Ralf believes that this split between creativity and performance technology means that Dutch brands have not leveraged the complete potential of digital marketing since ‘we all have too much bias for what we do, from a creative bias or a technological bias or a media bias’. That said, this landscape is changing as agencies consolidate in the Netherlands, with media agencies buying performance agencies, a development that Ralf believes is positive since ‘we have to put more effort into connecting the upper funnel to the lower funnel, and that’s what’s happening in the Netherlands right now’.
This is a function that is Ralf’s specialty, as a digital strategist he works ‘to act as a hub and hover over all of (the other agency activities) and connect all the dots’, as he says, he ‘can move between Cannes, the festival of creativity and Silicon Valley within an hour and still be relevant to my client’.
The combination of these elements means that digital strategy in the Netherlands is about making experiences that are seamless and useful to people in the moment. ‘Digital is a means to an end…(and) should deliver results in the end…doing digital well is about being highly creative, creating great technological production value, but also creating an impact in behavioural change’.
Ralf identifies a number of people and agencies that are fulfilling this type of exceptional work in the Netherlands. He points to the Sweetie case from Lemz, where the agency created a virtual child to track down child molesters, an example of ‘how digital can change the world for the better and really create impact’. He also identifies Joris Merks from Google Amsterdam as a local figure pushing brands to understand that the key to success in the digital era is about connecting the upper and lower funnels. He also identifies Blue Mango Interactive as a first class agency in the performance space and Media Monks as a company with strong digital production capabilities. But in spite of all these strong local talents, he believes that there is not yet an agency in the Netherlands that combines all these elements strategically.
Ralf’s start in the industry came from an early interest ‘in the way communication works’. Following his study in communication sciences in university, Ralf started work for the national telco as a product manager, followed by a move to the agency side as an account director at DDB Amsterdam. It was here that he ‘got to know some of the best advertising strategists in the Netherlands’. The move to strategy was natural for him since he was ‘always more interested in delivering the right solution rather than closing the deal’.
For aspiring digital strategists in the Netherlands, Ralf sees that ‘the challenge is that from a strategic point of view it’s tough to start as a digital strategist from scratch; you have to jump on a train that’s already moving, because it contains so many elements…technology, creativity, branding, research, advertising, performance marketing, product development, client politics…all those elements have a role if you want to create a great digital strategy. You don’t get all that information from reading blogs…You really have to be doing something…start at a big agency or big company in order to learn without that bias’. And in order to find those opportunities, he recommends starting a career in Amsterdam, the home of the most companies with enough size to provide the ‘opportunities to develop yourself’. His advice once there is to ‘grasp the opportunities you can get’.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.