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Mark Tungate 2023-08-10

As part of our series of Epica Awards Tributes - featuring the most award-winning entrants of the past decade - we talk to Bas Korsten, Global Chief Creative Officer at Wunderman Thompson, about his creative ethos and the philosophy that underpins the network.


Bas Korsten’s history with the Epica Awards goes back some time. In 2015, when he was Executive Creative Director at JWT Amsterdam, he and his team won the Digital Grand Prix for “Taste the Translation”. Recipes were translated by JWT’s client, the sophisticated but little-known translation engine ElaN, and Google Translate. Volunteers then tasted the two different results. We probably don’t need to tell you the rest. The combination of tech and wit is a Korsten trademark.

It seems barely a click of the fingers since Bas was made Global CCO at Wunderman Thompson at the beginning of 2020. At the end of that same year, probably not coincidentally, WT was our Network of the Year.

Bas has now had plenty of time to settle in to the global role. So has his approach to creativity evolved in the interim?

“I can tell you one thing that hasn’t changed: when I feel that an idea needs to see the light of dayI will not stop until it sees the light of day. There’s an inherent drive to ensure that the best ideas make it past the finish line. What has changed is that at Wunderman Thompson, I’m in an even better position to ensure that. With all the offices, great creative minds and deep expertise we have, the playing field is so much bigger that the desire to bring more ideas to life for our clients is happily met.”

And what about the network’s approach? Bas reminds us that it was born out of the fusion in 2018 of two separate entities (Wunderman and J. Walter Thompson). “The two brands that were at the heart of the merger came from different sides of the industry. So the challenge has been to bring those two cultures together and build a new creative culture out of them. We’ve been pushing very hard for that by ensuring that everything we do starts from a creative perspective and has a creative lens on it.”

“Creativity” covers a broad spectrum of activities, but Wunderman Thompson has another even more crucial watchword: “inspiration”.

“I think that’s what makes us unique. Instead of just talking about ‘creativity’, we talk about ‘inspiration’, which is the moment right before and right after creativity. Inspiration is a much more flexible term for the capabilities we offer. A data specialist and an e-commerce expert can be inspiring in their own right, but you wouldn’t refer to them as ‘creative’ in the traditional sense of the word. Inspiration as a guiding principle has helped us to galvanise a company that’s quite diverse behind a single notion.”

He points out that inspiration is a very active force – it’s hard to do nothing after being inspired.

To own the idea more fully, he says, “Wunderman Thompson is now the world’s biggest researcher when it comes to inspiration. We know what inspires a 16-year-old Chinese girl or a 72-year-old Ecuadorian farmer. We know what inspires people, what brands inspire them, and what the components of inspiration are. We’ve doubled down on the concept of inspiration, and that makes us different from our competitors.”

Bas himself is not one to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike via a client brief. He’s always in search of ideas that shock and awe: famous examples being “The Next Rembrandt” for ING Bank, which made use of AI well before the technology invaded the headlines; and the recent “Mammoth Meatball” for Australian cultured meat company Vow, which captured the world’s attention and imagination.

“Of course most of our work comes from client briefs – but a brief pre-supposes a capability that you have as an agency. A client is not going to ask of you something that they don’t know of you. So the danger is that you’ll stay in the same track if you don’t open up and go to places you haven’t gone before. The other important thing is: we should lead our clients. We should be saying, ‘This is where it’s happening, this is where it’s going to happen.’ In order for us to be experts in emerging fields, we need to go there, we need to use them, we need to master them.”

He adds that the network’s main job is to create difference for brands – and using emerging technologies can be a useful path to that difference.

There’s also a natural inclination to learn and progress. “Personally speaking, I don’t want to do the same thing every time. After The Next Rembrandt, people asked ‘Are you going to The Next Dali?’ But I didn’t want to be ‘the AI guy’. I always want to know where the world’s going next – and try to get there first. I think it makes me a more effective creative leader, and it certainly makes us more interesting as a network.”

The danger is that you’ll stay in the same track if you don’t open up and go to places you haven’t gone before.

He shares the global creative role with Daniel Bonner, who’s based in London. How do they split their responsibilities and collaborate together? “It’s really quite natural. We both have our own clients that we’re responsible for, which makes for a clear distinction, and then it’s a case of coming together on the vision and on day-to-day leadership. There’s quite an easy back and forth between us.”

It’s notable that Bas has built his career so far entirely in the Netherlands, instead of being whisked off to an outpost in New York or Singapore. This wasn’t deliberate, he says, although as a father of four it’s handy to have a stable home life. “Amsterdam is a multicultural city, and therefore a vibrant one. It’s also a central location to travel from – and I do travel regularly because I think it’s important to experience other cultures.”

Amsterdam’s galleries and museums must provide plenty of inspiration too, but Bas has a preferred source of creative stimulus.

“I always have a great desire to be in nature. I live outside Amsterdam, quite close to sea, which I appreciate a lot. Just walking on the beach, across the dunes, or going to the woods, to me that’s more inspiring than going to the city. I’m glued to the screen a lot during the day – and to be creative you need to be disconnected from technology; you need to let your mind wander, to make those unexpected connections. That’s extremely important to me.”

Immerse yourself in future technologies – then escape to the natural world to help your brain fabricate the next big idea. That’s a handy tip from a creative leader at a business built to inspire.

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