Wunderman Thompson’s joint global chief creative officers Bas Korsten and Daniel Bonner on how they work together, how they’re nurturing talent and why inclusive design is becoming so important to clients
A lot can happen in three years. It was only in November 2018 when WPP merged Wunderman and J. Walter Thompson together – a dramatic industry shake up at the time but it feels like a lifetime ago. When you think about it, for over half of its existence, Wunderman Thompson has been operating in the context of a global pandemic. It’s the sort of thing that forces a fledgling entity to forgo politics and get stuck into the business of working and making things.
For global chief creative officers Daniel Bonner and Bas Korsten, it’s been a crucible of sorts, forging their working relationship. Having a pair of creative leaders in the top global spot is pretty unusual, but for design and detail-orientated Daniel and spontaneous, high speed Bas their collaboration and combination of skills and personalities have allowed them to lead the network in a way that’s balanced and flexible. And in the past 18 months that’s been invaluable.
In order for Wunderman Thompson to achieve everything that WPP wants from it, Bas and Daniel are also focused on helping each office unlock their potential, as well as unlocking the talent across the network. It’s an approach that seems to be working well – they’ve picked up 12 Grands Prix at the big global award shows and were named the most innovative network at Cannes Lions 2021. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with them to find out about the journey together so far.
LBB> Before you started working together as co-global CCOs, how well did you know each other?
Daniel> We had met briefly; working on brand development initiatives for the new Wunderman Thompson organisation, as well as leading some pitches as the two legacy organisations came together.
LBB> Where did you first meet and what were your first impressions of each other?
Daniel> We first met at a WPP pitch for a large automotive manufacturer… but, funny story, some months prior to this, a mutual WPP co-worker quizzed me: “Do you know or have you met Bas Korsten at JWT? You and he are very similar….you would really like one another!” And they were right – we got on with each right away.
LBB> I’ve spoken to a few regional and country-based co-CCOs and they speak of the value of having a sounding board - how do you like to collaborate with each other?
Daniel> Bas and I are not based in the same city or country but we speak every day…at least once or twice as well as 10-15 emails a day and the same amount if not more WhatsApps. It’s a constant, open, dialogue so it never really feels like we need to plan to collaborate or be a sounding board to each other…it’s always on and always happening…and we often are in complete agreement. We don’t always finish each other’s sentences but it happens with alarming regularity.
Bas> As Daniel said, it doesn’t feel like a sounding board situation per se. We are very much aligned on how we look at work, what we think is good, and on what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean we don’t build on each other’s strengths. But it all happens quite organically.
LBB> In the early days of the Wunderman and JWT merger, how did you go about mapping out how you’d work together and divide duties?
Daniel> It was quite a natural process. There were clear roles on our top 30 clients and brands that already existed or played to our respective strengths. Pitches too, these were easy to divide and conquer due to the ask or indeed our respective workloads and bandwidth available. We are a BIG creative company and so there is plenty of opportunity to go around. Around 30-50% of our time we work together in terms of inspiring our teams, our clients, setting the creative standard and working with our senior creative leadership all over the global network
LBB> What would each of you say are the strengths of your opposite number?
Daniel> Bas can really hustle – he shoots from the hip and goes with the flow – most of the time engineering the flow from scratch. I’m more methodical and structured which sounds quite ordinary but the combination and fusion of these two attributes really works.
Bas> DB is indeed much more methodical than me. And he has a great design eye. I’m more of a words guy myself. So quite complementary.
LBB> What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from each other?
Daniel> I’ve always considered myself to work at a reasonably high tempo – but I’m not sure when Bas sleeps. It’s great to have a partner who has a work ethic that is relentless.
Bas> I’m new to this global role. DB had done it before. So, it has been good for me to see how to ‘do global’, and how to deal for instance with the fact that you don’t have an agency to bring ideas to life with. But you do have a network. Which is an entirely different dynamic.
LBB> What have been your proudest achievements over the past few years?
Daniel> I am really proud of our 2021 so far. Reflecting on our first full year and body of work from 2020 Wunderman Thompson teams have been awarded 10 Agency of the Year accolades and 12 Grand Prix wins at the most influential award shows including our first Cannes Lions Grand Prix win for Degree Inclusive – just one of the Lions that led to our agency being the Most Innovative Network at Cannes Lions this year. These have been hard earned recognition for our teams and not easy to reach in a reasonably short period of time. As Global CCO’s we feel most proud when we can help our teams all over the world realise their dreams and ambitions -that’s our job in essence - to identify, foster, nurture and elevate the most inspiring answers and help them to flourish in order to solve our clients’ most challenging questions.
Bas> What he said. Plus, we see our best work being done on our biggest clients. Something that was different in the past.
LBB> In the past year or two we’ve seen some fantastically innovative projects come out of Wunderman Thompson agencies - WaterLight, Degree Inclusive etc. How are you fostering that sort of thinking across the network?
Daniel> We have a system, which sounds boring perhaps, but as the award winning artist Adam Hendrickson once said: “Anyone who had ever made anything of importance was disciplined”.
Our system features a process in place to capture, discuss and measure the work from every market and region so we can see which projects show the most promise and then we can breathe life into those, supporting them however they need supporting. We have a unifying methodology that is the backbone to this process, it’s called FIRE. A methodology that is inclusive in that it opens up the creative process to data scientists, commerce experts, strategists, experience designers, writers, client service leaders via four simple criteria that enable great work and with this, the language and vocabulary so that people feel comfortable and included in the evaluation of ideas.
We have found that this elevates the most interesting and inspiring work to the top and helps teams focus on what to pursue and prioritise.
Bas> The most interesting ideas these days happen on the intersection between creativity, technology and humanity. Using technology and creativity to serve humanity are what these ideas are all good examples of. Something we definitely look for at Wunderman Thomspon.
LBB> Speaking of Degree, I’ve spoken to a few people around Wunderman Thompson who are really building on that idea of inclusive design for other brands. How central is inclusive design to your plans for the network and why?
Daniel> We believe that Inclusive Design is better design. When you consider everyone and don’t leave people behind… everyone benefits. We have an Inclusive Design Practice (we have a brand relaunch of that coming soon!) which has been the engine room of many specific solutions, experiences, products and services and the principles of this practice have influenced and inspired the wider approach to solutions too. For instance, the collaborative creation process that includes the audience for whom the solution is for is not only a fundamental belief for our Inclusive Design process…it’s a benefit and principle we bring to many projects across the entire organisation.
Bas> Working closely with Christina Mallon, our global head of Inclusive Design, has definitely inspired me to think of this motto: ‘not inclusive, is exclusive’. Everyone in our industry has to actively think of how the brands they work for can be more inclusive to all.
LBB> What markets around the world are particularly exciting to you in terms of creativity right now?
Daniel> Some of the most inspiring work can often come from our smaller teams, not just the obvious metros and huge dominant markets – which is exciting. Most recently we have seen incredibly inventive and entrepreneurial work from Thailand, Columbia and Argentina. To reach our ambitious goals we need every team to be on their ‘A’ game and we truly believe that when one Wunderman Thompson team wins, anywhere in the world…the entire global brand and our creative reputation wins – everyone’s contribution matters.
LBB> I don’t want to dwell too much on Covid, but how did having this relationship help you navigate and lead through the crisis?
Daniel> Covid – in a strange, unconventional way – actually appeared to help forge relationships and working benefits all over the Wunderman Thompson network. Partly this was due to the timeline of our business being just over 12 months old when the pandemic took hold meaning that we were forced to actively plan to meet and speak and collaborate regularly (daily) and so in a short amount of time we both met and worked with more people (remotely) than we possibly would have in more ‘conventional’ times.
LBB> Much digital ink has been spilled on the way that the pandemic sped up a lot of latent trends - tech adoption, ecommerce and such. How has Wunderman Thompson been responding to that?
Daniel> Very much so. Necessity truly is the mother of invention and we experienced a lot of this dynamic adoption as a new way to behave by many of our clients – something that takes a lot of courage on their part. The pandemic arguably became a very fertile period of unconventional and inspirational problem solving that our teams harnessed and cherished. One fascinating example of this was for our Thai Airways client. It was a business model dependent on serving its loyal customers’ and their international travel needs. So, when all travel ceased to exist they faced a fundamental decision and so instead of rewarding miles covered, instead their loyalty program became dependent on GPS location data of every customer, tracking their chosen home location and rewarding those that stayed at home with miles that they could accumulate and spend at a later date.
LBB> What’s your approach to nurturing creative talent and building them up within the network?
Daniel> This is a big motivation for us. We try to see the talent pool across the entire network as one creative floor. This doesn’t mean we cherry pick talent and ideas to suit our needs. Much more open and inclusive than that, we offer opportunities to those that want to take part and we offer the broader network to those that might be struggling for bandwidth or capacity. This open ‘marketplace’ for ideas enables a few things:
1. Clients get access to the power of our entire global network of inspiration
2. Teams get the chance to work on brands and projects they may not ordinarily get exposed to and
3. When a team needs help and support due to lack of capability or bandwidth or capacity, they know they can rely on a network there for them in the same way they can be there in the future for others.
It’s our job as global CCO’s to keep this open approach working, for everyone’s benefit.
LBB> Overall, having been in a massively disruptive period, how has that changed your vision for Wunderman Thompson, or accelerated your plans?
Daniel> It hasn’t to be honest. Our goal, our dream and our ambition are rock solid…and there will always be headwinds and disruption along that path…it’s our job to stick to the plan and continue to inspire – we can then be confident we will all get to where we want to be.