Bas Korsten, VML: “The ability to make a real world impact through advertising is bigger than it’s ever been”

Advertising and Education: The Meeting Point (Part 2)

кем Mark Tungate , Adforum

In a series of interviews in partnership with the IAA France, we discuss the perception of advertising among young people, and find out what efforts are being made to attract young talent to the industry. In this article we talk to Bas Korsten, Global Chief Creative Officer, Innovation and Co-Chief Creative Officer, EMEA, VML.



As head of innovation at what is now the world’s largest network of creative agencies, Bas Korsten has a natural interest in people with a fresh perspective on the world. But how do young people perceive advertising today?

“This is of course a generation that’s grown up with ads, brands and social media. They’re very savvy digital users who’ve long been aware that advertising is part of life. But one of the challenges of bringing young people into the business is that it’s evolved so much. It has so many facets, it’s so diverse, that it’s not as homogenic as the image young people may have of it.”

To the extent that when young people enter the business, they’re often surprised by “the breadth and depth of what we do”. There’s a wider variety of roles available to them than they ever imagined. This can convince them to stay. “We have a programme called the Catalyst Academy, an 18-month programme for 42 candidates from every walk of life. And there’s an 81 percent retention rate. In short, people come in and like it.”

He believes there’s a job to be done in educating people in advance about the nature of the business in all its complexity. “It could even be a campaign – because, why not? – to explain to young people what the industry is really about.”


First-hand experience


Not that VML isn’t doing its bit: alongside the Catalyst Academy, there’s the Incubator programme, a summer internship for 16-to-18-year-olds. VML also has a partnership with Speakers For Schools, giving it access to young people from diverse backgrounds.

One special initiative has its roots in 1908, when J. Walter Thompson (one of the agencies that form the DNA of VML) hired the first female copywriter in the industry, Helen Lansdowne Resor. The global HLR Scholarship is an eight-week paid internship open to female and non-binary college students.

Bas says: “To be fair, when I first came into the industry, at the age of 26, I’d only just discovered that there were things called ‘advertising agencies’ that worked with brands, rather than the brands doing the advertising themselves. And I did an MBA in business.”

In other words, progress is being made. “Programmes where young people experience the industry first hand are a really good introduction.”

He wonders if AI will have a negative impact on the way young people learn, however. For instance, he remembers adapting global McDonald’s TV ads for the Dutch market. “I was a junior, but I’d go to the studio and work with the voiceover artist. That’s basically how I learned the trade. But today AI takes care of that. So does that mean there will be too large a gap between senior creatives, who’ve learned the way I did, and younger people who’ve missed that step?”

Mentorship would seem to be the answer. “How do we set people up for success? I think we need to get to a situation where young people are taken under the wing of a more seasoned creative to learn the trade.”


The attraction of impact


For people who haven’t yet discovered the industry, Bas fears that advertising may be under-served by academia. “Even though I’m a living example of the fact that creativity is one of the few things you don’t need a degree for, it’s good that there are creative schools. But beyond those, I get the feeling that our creative industry is under-represented.” Business schools, he confirms, tend to focus more on “marketing” as a whole.

This is unfortunate, because advertising as a profession may be more attractive to young people than ever before. Even the idealists among them. “If you see how the role of brands is evolving, and how governments are withdrawing from certain domains, I think the ability to make a real-world impact through advertising is bigger than it’s ever been.”

That reality isn’t communicated enough, he says. “If you combine the higher purpose of many of the companies we work for, you can have considerable reach. You could be helping the world get rid of food waste in the morning, then in the afternoon you could be working on cleaner energy solutions.”

He’s not trying to deny that for Unilever, for example, the ultimate goal is to sell more mayonnaise. “But with a purpose like ‘Make Taste, Not Waste’ from Hellman’s, it’s also about creating a positive impact on consumer behaviour and ultimately the climate.” 

Bas himself sees creativity through the prism of positive change. He was behind the award-winning Mammoth Meatball, which raised awareness of cultured meat as an alternative to slaughtering animals. “You can’t affect change without a sense of urgency, and what we did contributed to that sense of urgency.”


A drive to get things done


Apart from a willingness to change the world, what do young people entering the industry have in common? “I’ve noticed they have a pretty accurate bullshit detector. Because they’ve grown up with social media and advertising all their lives, they can see right through us. And I love that, because it brings realism to an industry that can sometimes be a bit bloated and self-regarding.”

Naturally curious, they’re practical rather than theoretical. “They have a ‘can do’ mentality.” While they often have “side hustles” and personal projects, he’s noticed that they tend to be loyal to their employer as a brand. “They’re often keen to get involved in extra-curricular activities. They’re not afraid to really immerse themselves and engage themselves with the agency, to become part of it. They feel a sense of belonging.”

The life-work balance is something of an issue, although they remain committed. “In this business you’re motivated by the desire to get your ideas out there, and that’s not a nine to five job. Having said that, when I accidentally send an email at the weekend they’re like: ‘Hey, it’s the weekend!’ And they’re right. I think they have a more evolved view on the life-work balance and how to give that meaning.”

They demand humanity and transparency – and they’re not afraid to speak up. “Again perhaps because of social media, they’re used to putting their opinions out there, so they tend to speak their minds, which I think is only good. Because ultimately we need people to lead the way. Over the years, clients have taken a firmer grip on the creative idea – they have various tools to track it and measure it – so it takes a very convincing creative leader to set them on a creative path and tell them where it’s going. Creativity is a leap of faith, and to take a client on that journey, you need to feel confident.”

As a creative leader, what are the attributes Bas is looking for when new people join his team? “I’d say originality and self-motivation. When you’re a creative, there’s the word ‘create’ in your title, which means you have to create something out of nothing. If I see that you haven’t produced anything in a year or 18 months, I start wondering if it’s ever going to happen.”

Every creative, he adds, works in circumstances that aren’t conducive to great creative work. “So you have to be able to break through walls, put things in motion, create momentum, defend your ideas. That’s what I look for in a portfolio: originality – but also a testament to that drive to getting things out in the world.”

If you want to work in advertising, there could be worse places to apply than VML. As the network is now the size of a town, with more than 30,000 people, there’s presumably room for a few more. Just remember to get stuff done.


IAA France
Paris, France
See Profile