The managing director at Ambassadors Lab and Cube reflects on a career trying to implement change in companies through technology, mostly at large corporates but now at an independent Dutch shop where she can drive change quickly
Cansu Babacan leads business and commercial operations for Ambassadors Lab and Cube. While Ambassadors is probably best known as one of Amsterdam’s leading creative production studios, these divisions are led by other kinds of technological innovation. Cube is a dynamic digital asset management and templating tool for brands and agencies that began in 2011.
Cansu has over 10 years of experience in innovation and digital transformation with big corporate beasts: PVH, Heineken, Deloitte and IBM, and has worked across Turkey, Hungary and the Netherlands. She’s spoken on technology innovation at Soho House Amsterdam, written about creative automation for Shots, and loves to travel and teach yoga in her spare time.
Having recently worked on a pitch in which Ambassadors was appointed as Booking.com’s global video performance marketing partner, LBB’s Alex Reeves got to know Cansu a bit more.
LBB> You grew up in Turkey. Where exactly? What was your upbringing like there and how do you think it shaped you?
Cansu> Adana, Mediterranean coast, known for its sunny weather and hot summers. I feel lucky to have very visionary and liberal parents who guided me in my younger age and later gave me all the freedom to make my life choices. I know this is not a given, so I feel grateful.
LBB> You initially began your career in IT. Did you have a particular interest in that or was it just something you fell into? How did you find it?
Cansu> I loved computers and the internet when I was a kid, but mainly it was because everything around them was new and exciting. It was changing the way we entertained ourselves, communicated with each other, work – practically everything. To be frank, my interest was mainly about the newness and change, not the technical side. With my parents' direction I signed up for IT studies. When I met my fellow students, I was very confused – where were all the other girls!?
LBB> How did you end up finding your way to the Netherlands?
Cansu> I read and heard all of the great stories about Amsterdam. Liberalism, gender equality, innovation, work-life balance, people cycling to get anywhere... I grew up in a big city and lived in Istanbul for many years, but I felt a bit restricted by certain things. Traffic jams, steep income differences, economic instabilities, gender inequality. I started working at IBM when I was 20 and one morning I was sitting in the traffic for two hours to get to work. I said to myself, “I am not doing this when I am 30”.
LBB> What was that move like for you personally? What were your main impressions at the time?
Cansu> The move was not very straightforward. Although I had technical studies, spoke English well, and had a nice CV, getting a job in Europe for non-Europeans is never that easy. I had some friends in Budapest, so I went there for a few months, found a job, relocated there, then realised studying at a university would be the easiest way to move to Amsterdam. I applied for a master’s degree in Change Management at VU Amsterdam.
When I moved to the Netherlands, I was very happy and also overwhelmed. I thought I would be studying and enjoying all the perks of the city. But no, my classmates were studying, working, exercising, partying, having hobbies… I thought I was a productive person but living in Amsterdam got me to the next level of planning and being organised.
LBB> Early in your career, what were the most important lessons you learned?
Cansu> You need to work hard! Connections, a university diploma from a fancy university and nice words get you the job. But early on in your career what’s really important is that you try to soak up everything from the people you work with.
My first job in the Netherlands was the change management internship at Heineken. I was the youngest person in the room. I’d try to be in the office the earliest and leave the latest so I could observe my colleagues, learn from their experience, build relationships and do my work in the best way possible.
I also learnt that if you see a system or process that could be improved, you can improve it! Early on in my career I was very frustrated with the digital asset management system (DAM) we were using, so I decided to make a case to replace it with another platform that was faster and would bring cost efficiencies. My business case proved that we could save millions by replacing the old system. My passion for technology and improvements brought me to DAM platforms before I joined the Cube team.
LBB> How did you end up at Ambassadors Lab and what attracted you to it?
Cansu> Before joining Ambassadors I only worked for big corporations, so I didn’t know what it would be like to work for an independent, Dutch-founded company. When I heard about Ambassadors and all the different creative projects they do there, I got excited.
Ambassadors Lab is Ambassadors’ hub for innovation and creative technology, and it's the Lab that developed Cube as a software platform designed specifically for the needs of the marketing and production industry. I joined the Lab team to help Cube become a company on its own and grow out of being a side project.
Although I was hesitant to leave the corporate world, shortly after I noticed my ideas could quickly turn into action, we were able to make decisions quickly, and try out new ways of working or processes that we could also validate in a very short time. I was doing change management in large companies before, so can you imagine trying to change things in companies with ancient processes and systems? It was possible, but it took time. Working for Ambassadors felt like I could actually do what I always wanted to do.
LBB>Ambassadors is responsible for Booking.com’s video performance marketing, using Cube for creative automation of the assets. What do you find most interesting about that kind of creative automation?
Cansu> I am passionate about bringing efficiencies to the way we work or live our lives. That's the most exciting part of being in the technology field. Seeing how you can automate things to make people’s life easier and work more enjoyable. The great thing about working with Booking.com is that the Ambassadors creative team can craft that original concept, and then Cube as a platform will help adapt and creatively scale that content. It’s good to know that such a big brief doesn’t mean tying up your entire creative or design team anymore - we can use their time wisely.
LBB> And how do your tools do that particularly well?
Cansu> Cube Compose is our product for creative automation, and through Cube Compose we can create image and video templates custom-built for brands. It makes it easy for teams to produce content tailored to various audiences, channels, markets and campaigns. It’s like there’s guard-rails so content will always be on-brand, and markets can adapt it as required for certain needs. We’re on a mission to make content production fast, cost-effective and always consistent.
LBB> It was integral to winning a pitch to become global video performance marketing partners for Booking.com recently. What sort of work are you excited to get to do with them as a client?
Cansu> Ambassadors and Cube is helping Booking.com run weekly campaigns to push out last-minute travel deals, and every week there’s new creative, message, sound, VO and terms. That would swallow up a great deal of our team’s time if we were doing everything with a manual production pipeline; but with creative automation, we’re able to keep up, reflect on data insights, further develop scalable creative ideas, and continue to develop our Cube platform. To me, it’s those efficiencies that are really exciting. We will also continue to automate more parts of the workflow like speech synthesis technology to automate voice-over production. That’s where ethics of course comes in - we source the VOs with consent from the artist and commission them appropriately when synthesizing their voice. It’s a whole new landscape to figure out.
LBB> What else are you proud of recently and why?
Cansu> We are competing with industry giants! Or start-ups like us but with very big investors behind them. What I am most proud of is that with a small and dedicated team, a focus on team culture and flexibility, and using smart tools, we are able to do great work with industry leading clients from all over the world, like Booking.com, VodafoneZiggo, and Unilever’s plant-based food company Upfield. My team is so talented, it is amazing! After years, I am still impressed by how creative they are and how enthusiastic they can be for their work.
LBB> Do you have any other hobbies or interests that feed into your work (or even just refuel you so you can do it better)?
Cansu> Oh yes, I like attending self-development programs and spending my free time doing yoga. I go to retreats whenever I can and every time it helps me come up with a bunch of ideas that we can practice together as a team. It can be a virtual breathing session after a busy period at work or self-reflection moments as part of team events. I had some meetings where we started with short breathing sessions, and back before the pandemic I would regularly host morning yoga sessions at Ambassadors.