Interview David Snellenberg / Dawn
“Be the underdog, even if you’re really not.”
He founded and runs one of the hottest advertising agencies in Amsterdam, has been lauded as the best in the business, gives communications advice to the leader of the Dutch green party [GroenLinks], and is as content as he’s ever been. Hard to imagine that that his agency was almost driven to the wall during the most recent crisis or that his drive and independence were fuelled in part by the pain of an absence while growing up. How did he come through to find the peace he enjoys today? A talk with David Snellenberg.
Interview Dorien Franken Translation Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
The first article about you that came up in my Google search declared you the best in your field. Seriously?
Do accolades like these mean anything to you? I’ve been asked that before, and I honestly don’t know what to make of it. I’ve always felt like an outsider, but such accolades suggest I’m not. I always imagined you have mainstream advertising at the centre and a loose bunch of people just doing their own thing at the periphery, and that’s where I saw myself and my agency. But apparently what we’ve been doing is what society or the creative industry is interested in now. We’ve become part of the zeitgeist by sheer accident, but we’ve been doing what we do for ten years.
Has the recognition been too long in coming? Oh no, not at all. I’m just glad that the industry managed to evolve. The little tricks that we defined as creativity are now history.
Your father, Willem, was an art director. Would you say you were born into advertising? Not many people know that. Did you find anything about him online?
No. How would you describe your childhood? I was an only child. My mum married her brother-in-law after her sister passed away. So though I was an only child, I had lots of cousins to play the role of older siblings. My stepfather is a professor of mass communication and my mother was the communications director of ING Bank.
I grew up in the Bijlmermeer neighbourhood of Amsterdam, and later in Amstelveen. I saw so much in my first 18 years, from local junkies in the Bijlmer (we lived among heroin-addicted Surinamese guys) to snobs in Amsterdam-Zuid, where we moved when my mum began to rise through the ranks. So I learned from an early age to get along with people from all walks of life.
What did you learn from your parents? From my mum, independence. Full stop.
I saw so much in my first 18 years, from local junkies in the Bijlmer to snobs in Amsterdam-Zuid, where we moved when my mum began to rise through the ranks. So I learned from an early age to get along with people from all walks of life.
Why was that important? My biological father left when I was very young, and I saw little of him during my childhood. My mum was unemployed at the time. So there we were, alone in the Bijlmermeer, without support. She went back to college and got herself a job at the Singer factory, then ran a small shop, got another job at NMB Bank and ended up at ING. All within the space of ten years, which is pretty amazing.
I’ve spent a long time trying to get my father to see me, to see what I was worth, what qualities I possessed. But I didn’t feel he had an interest in me. It took me years to come to terms with this existential pain.
How did your father’s absence affect you? I think I owe part of my drive to the pain and fact of him not being around that much, to the believe that you can’t rely on anyone. I think about it often, especially now that I have a son of my own. I’ve spent a long time trying to get my father to see me, to see what I was worth, what qualities I possessed. But I didn’t feel he had an interest in me. It took me years to come to terms with this existential pain. Our parent’s acknowledgement is probably one of our heart’s greatest desires.
In what ways do you take after him? We’re both natural storytellers. My father’s a fun guy to be around, and I think I inherited some of that. He’s also a bit of a dreamer, and so am I. He was born in Brazil and grew up in a fascistic environment, and I can imagine the damage that must have done, and sympathise with the fact that he was probably too young at 21 to know how to be a father. I doubt I’d have known how to handle being a father at that age. He’s just turned 70, but when you’ve never had a proper relationship, you keep searching for common ground. It remains unfinished business for us both.
And have you now had his acknowledgment? I don’t seem to need it anymore, and the realisation’s been quite significant.
Someone once told me that we have three axes in life: the horizontal and the vertical, and one that plots degrees of depth. I understood exactly what they meant once we had Parker. You discover a whole new layer of love.
You became a father in 2014; what did this signify for you? Someone once told me that we have three axes in life: the horizontal and the vertical, and one that plots degrees of depth. I understood exactly what they meant once we had Parker. You discover a whole new layer of love. I’m not saying it’s better than the love you experience in your relationship with your partner or friends, or in your bond with your siblings or parents, but it is a whole new kind of love. I learned that you need to cut yourself some slack, because you will make mistakes. It’s really fascinating, becoming a father. It makes you think about your legacy. If I dropped dead today, I’d want Parker to remember me with pride.
Parker is also growing up in a “broken” family, so to speak. Does it feel a bit like a pattern is repeating? The situation isn’t without regret, obviously — I think about it a lot. It was very sad for the both of us, but unavoidable I think. It would have been worse for him if his mother and I had stayed together. But we worked hard to be the best co-parents we can. I take fatherhood very seriously.
Which values would you like to instil in him? Independence. And the capacity to love himself. Everyone needs this — you’re all you’ve got. There’s been a lot of emphasis lately on making sure kids get a good education, on getting the curriculum right, on giving kids the right skills to prepare them for the future. But the thought behind these concerns appears to neglect the fact that nothing is more important than nurturing a child’s inner world: their happiness, creativity, capacity to enjoy nature.
Are these relevant to your own happiness? Absolutely. Nature’s really important to me. My office is close to the city centre, I live in he city centre … everything you do is determined by an urban environment. But go hiking in the mountains and you’re suddenly free from your usual routines and needs. No need for coffee to get yourself going in the morning, no need for primping, and so on. Which is why our new office will have two computer-free rooms, a boules area in the garden, and ping-pong tables. The specific equipment isn’t that important, so long as whatever we install reminds people to leave their desks from time to time. And I count myself among those that need reminding.
How would you define a “creative” today? A strategist, a tactician, someone who understands business and can use his or her creative skills to boost it and add real value to society. Someone who can identify and articulate the connections between things and is good at writing. Someone who isn’t focused solely on their own small contribution but sees the bigger picture.
My image of copywriters at the time was of sad geeks scribbling away in the shadows while the art directors grabbed the limelight. But as soon as I sat down to write, I felt right at home.
Was being an advertising creative always your dream? No, I initially wanted to be a graphic designer. I was fascinated by house styles, logos, corporate identities, etc.
How come? Because of an uncle who ran a design studio in Amsterdam, where I worked during my summer vacations. I loved it — couldn’t believe you could actually get paid to play, and to do the unexpected, which I think is really important. People creating something from nothing in order to surprise an audience and grab its attention. Once you’ve had a taste of that, you’re hooked.
And yet you ended up in advertising. Yes. Two advertising legends, and mentors of mine, Harry Kramp and later Frank Pels, both said they thought I’d make a good copywriter. My image of copywriters at the time was of sad geeks scribbling away in the shadows while the art directors grabbed the limelight. But as soon as I sat down to write, I felt right at home.
What do you think they saw in you? I’m a good talker, and I can formulate and explain my ideas. But I was terrible at expressing them visually. Obama once said that every good leader is also a writer, and I think he’s right. When you write a love letter or a farewell letter, you’re trying to capture and analyse a feeling. It’s no different in business. You need to understand how the person you’re talking to thinks and know what opening line is likely to grab their attention. And whatever it is must be immediately understood. No one has time to ponder the meaning of your words.
What’s an example of a good opening line? A memorable example is one Donald and I wrote for Triodos Bank: “We live in extraordinary times.” This isn’t something you hear every day, which is why I have to say it once more: We. Live. In. Extraordinary. Times. Grabs your attention like a good pick-up line.
You began as a junior copywriter at FHV BBDO and left the agency nine years later as its creative director. What do you remember most from that period, besides the accolades? How you keep your eye on the big picture.
And how do you do that? By constantly thinking ahead. If you’re a manager or entrepreneur, you’re faced with problems every day, and can easily get sidetracked. Something’s always going wrong. But someone once gave me a bit of good advice: give others the credit, but take the blame.
A decade ago you simply took the client’s brief and translated it into something consumers wanted to hear. The wider context wasn’t much of a factor. If I’d continued to support such a rotten system, I’d have been wasting my life. So I decided that my views on what society could be like if things were done fairly and responsibly needed to be reflected in my work. Hence Dawn.
In other words, don’t bring your ego to work. Yes, and that isn’t easy, as it’s almost impossible to function as an entrepreneur without your ego. Because if you don’t have the need to prove that you can do even better, you probably shouldn’t start a business. You’ll find it draining if you do. You need an ego to provide fuel, but you must also be able to shed it in your day-to-day interactions. And that’s what I learned at FHV: to be the underdog, even if you’re really not. Your ego craves popularity, but that’s a need you must deny yourself, as you’ll often have to make unpopular but necessary decisions. You need to be able to say: here’s my vision, and that’s why I’m making this decision.
Like the one you made in 2008, when you launched Dawn. Why your own agency? I needed to be the one at the wheel. I found I was starting to resent having to go to London to see a BBDO client, or report to the bosses in New York with the latest figures. I was someone else’s property; someone whom you hardly ever saw was pulling the strings.
How did you envisage Dawn? Well, a decade ago you simply took the client’s brief and translated it into something consumers wanted to hear. The wider context wasn’t much of a factor. So you’d advertise hamburgers but ignore the deforestation that happened in Brazil in order to feed the cows that provided the beef. You’d ignore the fact that struggling families were eating nothing but McDonald’s because that’s all they could afford, and their kids were becoming overweight. None of that was supposed to matter, because clients were happy with the system. But if I’d continued to support such a rotten system, I’d have been wasting my life. So I decided that my views on what society could be like if things were done fairly and responsibly needed to be reflected in my work. Hence Dawn.
It was pretty tough going for us in the crisis. We had a lease on a fairly large building. Meanwhile, clients were diverting their advertising budgets to more short-term activities. Things got so bad that I couldn’t even make my mortgage payments. We took whatever was on offer, the sort of assignments that make you think, what the fuck?
Did this entail sacrifices? Yes, one of which was that it took longer than it otherwise might have to grow, because you suddenly find you can no longer work with a great many clients. But that didn’t matter, because we were a breath of fresh air in an industry that was slowly starting to realise it needed to move with the times. People want brands that reflect what they stand for. And they’re seeking this everywhere: from supermarkets, banks; even the fashion world is taking notice: Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood’s philosophy of “buy less, buy better” is starting to capture people’s attention.
Dawn’s campaigns often appeal to the emotions: your tagline for GroenLinks was “Your heart’s on the left”. For Triodos: “Follow your heart –Use your head”. Swinckels: “Always trust your inner voice”. For Toon, Eneco’s home energy monitor: “Everybody falls in love with Toon”. Is advertising always about emotion? Interesting. I hadn’t made that connection before. But yes, it’s a significant element. In fact, it’s precisely what we do: attach emotions to brands. A business is nothing but a transaction, an identification of something that people will value. For instance: you harvest a bunch of coffee beans, roast them, stick them in little packets and ship them halfway across the world, and we end up with coffee in Amsterdam that costs as much as a sack of beans in Lombok. That’s how business works. But if you promote it like that, you’re unlikely to sell much coffee. So we create advertising that appeals to the emotions instead.
What was it like at Dawn in the beginning? A slog! Entrepreneurship is partly about perseverance. It’s like running a marathon — you don’t reach the finish line in an hour. It was pretty tough going for us in the crisis. We had a lease on a fairly large building. Meanwhile, clients were diverting their advertising budgets to more short-term activities. Things got so bad that I couldn’t even make my mortgage payments. We took whatever was on offer, the sort of assignments that make you think, what the fuck? Working overnight on retail ads for a Fiat car dealership, ... We had to lay everyone off. It took landing a few big accounts to finally turn things around.
And which were these? Triodos were one of the first, and they’ve been with us for seven years now. We’re loyal to our clients and our people, and we stick to our principles. It might not be immediately apparent, but it’s important. Brands aren’t built overnight — they demand perseverance and continuous improvement. We’re not smooth-talking cowboys selling off-the-shelf ideas. Originality is key.
What are your strengths? Knowing where to begin. I’m a kickstarter.
Many agencies try to find answers, but I think it’s better to first formulate a “better” question. That’s often our pitch to clients. Formulate the right question and the solution will follow.
And where do the ideas come from? Generally speaking, we first try to click with the client, which happens by spending time with them. So we might organise a workshop with the client, where we spend the day trying to identify the core question. Many agencies try to find answers, but I think it’s better to first formulate a “better” question. That’s often our pitch to clients. Formulate the right question and the solution will follow. And in the process of formulating that question, you’ll notice if you click. That’s phase 1, and it’s where you get the client on board or lose them, because sometimes you don’t click. We just had one such experience: we didn’t find them interesting and they found us arrogant. We kept overruling them, and within an hour we’d had enough of each other, so that was that.
And when you click? Then we kickstart the process of narrowing everything down to the essence of the project. It’s my favourite part, and usually involves copywriting: a single-minded proposition to hang on the wall for everyone to work from. I quite like the end part, too – editing, sound recording, but also critically evaluating what we’ve produced: does this do the job with sufficient clarity or does it need tightening? Or did we miss the mark?
You said in one interview that everyone at Dawn works autonomously. Yes, if you need supervising, you won’t survive here. I occasionally get asked who to direct queries to, but I usually tell people to do whatever they think is right.
You’re also deeply interested spirituality, and have travelled to India a few times for this. What drew you to it? Meditation, which I got into because I needed to still my thoughts. As is often the case, I became curious about the origin of the practice, which I discovered was Vipassanā, a form of meditation that originated in India and involves spending ten days in a monastery in complete isolation: no distractions, phones, books, members of the opposite sex, or sex at all, for that matter.
The universe within is just as endless as the physical universe without. When you do nothing but sit still for a while, your real emotions begin to break the surface of your consciousness: happiness, fear, jealousy, sadness. I’ve split my sides laughing while meditating, but I’ve also experienced deep sadness. It’s like one big grey cloud is passing overhead, and then another, but then suddenly there’s blue sky, and you feel it within.
And what have you learned so far? That the universe within is just as endless as the physical universe without. When you do nothing but sit still for a while, your real emotions begin to break the surface of your consciousness: happiness, fear, jealousy, sadness. I’ve split my sides laughing while meditating, but I’ve also experienced deep sadness. It’s like one big grey cloud is passing overhead, and then another, but then suddenly there’s blue sky, and you feel it within. And when you step outside, it’s as though you’re seeing the world for the first time. I remember journeying through India on a motorbike after one of these ten-day retreats and being aware of how wonderful the wind felt on my skin. Everything felt like a new discovery, just as it had when I was 11 and in love with a girl called Liese. Lying side by side, the hairs on my arm touching hers, which was almost erotic. Boooom! I experienced the same level of intensity as a 37-year-old on emerging from the ashram.
What is your view on the future? A technological revolution is underway, and it’ll probably get rid of half of all jobs before long. When did you last visit a bank? Thus the idea of being a copywriter until you retire is no longer realistic. We have no idea what Dawn or even the entire city will be like three years from now. Maybe the roads will be filled with self-driving cars, or the air with mini-helicopters. In short: adaptation is now the keyword.
My advice: progress by trial and error. That’s it. If you want to become good at anything, you have to put in the flying hours and fail a lot. Fall flat on your face and get up again, as athletes do.
Is that what you’d say to anyone contemplating a career in advertising. Does the word even mean anything these days? Not any more, and we never use it. “Advertising” means to scream in Latin. We prefer to say we create connections or engage in business-related creativity. My advice: progress by trial and error. That’s it. If you want to become good at anything, you have to put in the flying hours and fail a lot. Fall flat on your face and get up again, as athletes do. As Mohammed Ali said: “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.”
Your views on life could be put to good use in politics. Ever considered getting involved in that way? Ahem, yes. We already work with Jesse Klaver (leader of the GroenLinks party), for example, but I think I’d find politics too slow. That’s one of the nice things about business: you want to get something done, you just go ahead and do it. But I can definitely imagine working on my own again at some point, as an adviser or some such.
But well, politics ... have you seen the Netflix documentary The Final Year, chronicling Obama's final year in office? Fuck, what an inspiration that man was. And how depressing to have to endure the asshole that’s now in office. A racist, evil, opportunist, and as toxic as they come. It’s ugly and heartbreaking.
How would you define the essence of what drives you? Love. There’s nothing more important, and it’s the purest thing we have. Everything opens up and flows naturally when it involves love, be that starting a business or going on holiday with friends. You must have noticed it, too. You have an idea for something or you fall in love, and suddenly the whole universe appears to be on your side, placing everything you need in your path. It’s a wonderful phenomenon.
Is this the happiest you’ve ever been? Yes. I’m healthy, lucky in love, I have a son and my parents, and work’s going well. And yet a really difficult period of my life ended just two years ago when my relationship was falling apart. It was like one of those passing storms that leave you thinking, what the fuck was that? But that’s the beauty of getting older: you begin to understand who you are. I used to think that I mustn’t miss anything. But now I know there’ll be something else along in a minute.
Come. I must show you the new office.