Interview Melanie Bosveld / Kult & Ace
“Focus on where you want to be, and it will happen”
Growing up bi-racial in a Dutch village gave Melanie Bosveld an early awareness of “difference” and the value of non-conformity, and awakened her interest in sub-cultures, particularly that of hip-hop. This interest in poorly understood but potentially lucrative sub-cultures would eventually lead — by way of stints in advertising, PR and public service — to the foundation of Kult&Ace, the Netherland’s first and only brand consultancy specializing in millennial culture. "The world is changing, says Melanie, “and I have a very strong desire to create something that outlasts me.”
Interview Daphne van Langen Translation Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
Which brands made the biggest impression on you as a kid? MTV! Before we had things like Instagram, it was one of the few windows I had into lifestyles and trends beyond the Netherlands. The Grind, MTV Unplugged, The Real World, Yo! MTV Raps, MTV Cribs... As a teenager, I used to dream of attending high school in America, and of lavish pool parties and indoor basketball courts.
So you wanted adventure. Yes, as a kid I wanted to become a detective, an idea planted by shows like Inspector Gadget. I thought it must be fun to solve problems for a living. Fashion design also sounded interesting, as did becoming an inventor.
Tell us about your childhood. I was born in Arnhem. My parents split up shortly afterwards, so my mum and I went to live with my grandmother in Dieren, a nearby village. When I was five, my mum met her new partner, Wim, and he’s the one I’ve always considered my dad.
I was an inquisitive and adventurous kid and enjoyed my childhood. I discovered hip-hop in my teens; it was still a niche in the Netherlands back then. I used to fill my backpack with cans of spray paint and sneak out to draw graffiti, more out of interest and excitement from the possibility of getting caught than as an act of rebellion. I was just really curious about things, and by the age of fourteen I was already going clubbing and partying. My parents gave me lots of freedom to do my own thing; once, on holiday, they even acted as a lookout while I tagged a wall.
Were you much influenced by hip-hop? Massively. Hip-hop was originally the sound of the underdogs making themselves heard. So it united all the non-indigenous Dutch kids in my village. I am of mixed origin — my biological father is Surinamese. My skin colour never bothered me, but I was always aware of being “different”, and took an interest in different cultures and subcultures from an early age. My reluctance to conform to any one group allowed me to develop my own personality quite purposefully.
“My skin colour never bothered me, but I was always aware of being different.”
Your parents encouraged you to do your own thing. What else did you learn from them? My mother did financial administration for a bookbinding company, and she painted. She’s creative, calm and wise, and taught me to see things in perspective. I inherited some of her capacity to blend concrete knowledge with creativity. And Wim imparted some of his action-not-words attitude to me. He was a postman, and very outgoing — on familiar terms with everyone in the village. They made me aware from an early age that freedom carries responsibility.
You enrolled on a creative communication course in Rotterdam in 1996. Why that, and why Rotterdam? I felt the tug of the big city; village life was starting to feel very boring and provincial. And I’d always known that I needed to go out into the world. Creative communication was fairly new at the time and was only offered for study in Brabant and Rotterdam. I wanted to do something that would involve creativity as well as concrete application, so I went the more practically oriented HBO route rather than choose university. Rotterdam has a reputation for inaccessibility, but I found my feet pretty quickly. Soon after arriving, I’d acquired a circle of friends and a boyfriend, and ended up having a good time.
“I felt the tug of the big city; village life was starting to feel very boring and provincial. And I’d always known that I needed to go out into the world.”
You also did an arts, copy and design management course at the University of Arts in London. Did that open any doors? That was on an exchange programme during my studies. I was among lots of different nationalities, all living together on one campus — it facilitated some strong bonds. We used to cook pots of pasta for hallway dinner parties, often went out as a group, and discovered London together. It was a fun time, and I’m still in touch with some of the friends I made, but I never really treated the group like a networking opportunity. It might have yielded something if I did, but I wasn’t even thinking about it then.
You wrote your dissertation on subcultures, ethno-marketing and youth communication. Why did you choose this as a topic, and what was your thesis? Because of my interest in subcultures. It goes deep, this interest; it’s always been there. Student subcultures, street, corporate … How do they connect, how do they differ, etc. Anyway, I wanted to compare the media consumption habits of the four major immigrant groups in the Netherlands —Turks, Moroccans, Antilleans and Surinamese — with that of the indigenous Dutch. I found no difference; all were influenced by the same media: TMF, MTV, that sort of thing.
You decided to gain some experience before launching your own company. Why was that? I knew I’d eventually set up my own practice, but I didn’t feel ready yet. Communication is a pretty broad field, and you get a bit of everything when you study. So I went for things that would give me some real-world experience, first at an advertising agency, then in a PR role at a governmental institution, and later on the customer side. After which, for my final regular job, I was hired as the first employee at a PR start-up. I had lots of autonomy in my role there, and I learnt a lot. I managed eight accounts at one point, including Heineken, Unilever and ASICS.
Why twelve years? I don’t regret staying that long, because I had a great time and learnt a lot, but yes, I’d like to have started my own practice a bit sooner. I have a very strong desire to build something, create something that outlasts me. I want to write a work of surrealist fiction, for instance, but I don’t have the necessary focus at the moment — I’m in a relationship, have a stepson who recently moved in with us, and I have a company to run and build.
“HEMA introduced its own roti but without the original Surinamese-Indian flatbread. We could have told them immediately why this wouldn’t work, and saved them the PR embarrassment.”
That would be Kult&Ace, the PR and consultancy agency you launched in 2012 to help companies reach urban twenty- and thirty-somethings; millennials, in particular. How did you get the idea? I noticed that companies trying to reach these audiences were wasting small fortunes on flawed campaigns conceived by out-of-touch marketing managers. I also noticed that brands weren’t involving their audiences in the development of the products they were trying to sell them — just ask people what they need instead of haphazardly launching products in the hope that they catch on. And last but not least, I realised that most brands had no idea of what was happening within the various subcultures, nor that audiences now identified themselves by their values.
For example? Last year, HEMA introduced its own roti [curried rice stew wrapped in flatbread], but without the original Surinamese-Indian flatbread. We could have told them immediately why this wouldn’t work, and saved them the PR embarrassment.
The official definition of a millennial is “someone born between 1980 and 2000”, but how do you define millennials? There’s no such thing as a typical millennial. There are common points of connection within the generation that have to do with technological and socio-economic developments and the spirit of the times, but millennial subcultures have distinct values of their own. There’s been a lot of millennial stereotyping of late. You can’t simply assume that everyone born between 1980 and 2000 is lazy or flighty, or takes soya milk in their coffee.
You seem to know your clients blind spot. What is yours? I often have lots of ideas that I can’t realize on my own, and I sometimes wait too long to find the right partners, losing the momentum that came with the idea. For example, six years ago I had the idea of creating a database of influencers, which would have been the first of its kind in the Netherlands. I don’t lie awake cursing myself for not doing it, but it did alert me to this blind spot, and I now use that non-event to remind myself of what not to do whenever I have an idea; in other words, don’t mull things over for too long – act!
Who was your first major client? That would be The Student Hotel and PUMA! I’d quit my job and was anticipating months of peanut butter sandwiches, so I was surprised to find that I didn’t have to wait long for assignments to arrive. Freelance jobs from my old employer got me off to a flying start, and after completing assignments for JC Rags and the Amsterdam Dance Event, I rented office space and hired a trainee and a freelancer, and shortly thereafter came PUMA. They wanted to reach young urbanites and asked us to pitch against large, established agencies. And we won! Their reach and PR value is now 1000% higher than it was, the combined effect of our work, their great campaigns and having ambassadors like Rihanna. I am really proud of that — we successfully embedded the brand in its target audience, which we’re continuing to build.
“There’s been a lot of millennial stereotyping of late. You can’t simply assume that everyone born between 1980 and 2000 is lazy or flighty, or takes soya milk in their coffee.”
Are these the jobs that you are most proud of? One of them, certainly, but I’m also immensely proud of our collaboration with Nancy Poleon, who uses the concept of personal branding to increase the visibility of women in business. It was through her that we were tasked with raising the profile of Amsterdam’s Zuidoost district, combat the widespread assumptions about the neighbourhood, and support the cultural development of its inhabitants. We ended up spending a lot more time executing our proposal than we’d anticipated, but it was enormously fulfilling to be part of other people’s development.
You now manage a team of eight. Which management skills or qualities do you struggle with? Creating a team is an art form in itself. I look for people who can think strategically and creatively, execute ideas effectively, understand youth culture and are likely to work well with the rest of the team; the last of these is important because a single individual can alter the entire dynamics of a team. It’s not my greatest strength, which is why I brought in someone to help me with it, the great Patricia Douma; it’s freed me to focus on the things I do well: strategy, innovation, business development and managing the business itself.
We all need someone to whom we can turn for advice, help or inspiration. Who serves this purpose for you? There are lots of upsides to setting up a company on your own: no need to compromise on anything, you get to set your own course, and so on, but it’s also quite taxing and somewhat lonely. Luckily, I have friends who run businesses of their own, although most are at a similar stage in their professional development. Which is why I think I could benefit from having a mentor, someone with enough experience to offer useful insights and inspiration and help me avoid potential pitfalls. A seasoned entrepreneur, director or CEO, ideally. Someone with a history of setting up and selling companies. Someone that understands the challenges of running start-ups, post-start-ups and multinationals. It’d be really useful to have a sounding board for the major decisions: what’s the ideal structure for a company at any particular stage, which ideas have the greatest chance of success, how do you develop a team, get the most out of partnerships, add value to the company, minimize your tax burden, etc.
When you set up Kult&Ace, your plan was to work exclusively with clients you liked. Has this worked in practice, and, if so, how have you managed it? It’s worked, absolutely. We’ve been fortunate in that most of our clients have approached us, rather than the other way around. I strongly believe in having a clear vision of where you want to be and focusing on it, and that if you do so, it will happen. It’s why we’ve sometimes rejected clients, such as the tobacco company that approached us. I don’t smoke and it’s not something I’d ever encourage anyone else to do. We also rejected a dating site for people who want to have affairs, as well as some fashion brands that we would never wear ourselves. It’s a luxury to be in such a position, but it’s also a strategically necessary part of maintaining focus.
"No shortcuts to greatness" is one of your guiding principles, and it sounds like a wise one, because I get the impression there are lots of millennials who would like to be famous vloggers or influencers but don’t want to have to put themselves out. Am I wrong? Vlogging and blogging look really easy, but doing it professionally demands considerable amounts of time and energy. A lot of millennials and Gen Z’ers definitely hold misconceptions about what it takes to be good at it. Young people today have not known a world without the internet, so they’re used to having everything at their fingertips, which leads many to believe that everything happens instantaneously and effortlessly. They’re the “slash” generation — it’s commonplace for people to describe themselves as a DJ/photographer/model, for instance. Millennials and Gen Z’ers have more freedom than any generation before to customise life as they want it, but that creates a lot of pressure. It’s a different world now.
You claimed in an interview with De Volkskrant that in the future, the mechanism often described as “survival of the fittest” won’t have anything to do with who’s biggest or has the most resources; it’ll come down instead to who’s the most adaptable. Can you elaborate? The world is changing. Not only because of the internet, but also because everything is becoming increasingly interrelated and scrambled. At the same time, new habits are forming and old conventions are being consigned to history. Everything is in a state of flux, and any brand hoping to survive must be able to adapt continuously. V&D, the now defunct department store chain, is a perfect example of a brand that couldn’t manage it. It used to be a great concept, but they simply didn’t know how to adapt in this new world. They didn’t know how to answer the necessary questions, such as how do you segment and engage your audience today, how to you position yourself online, etc. So they did a bit of everything and failed to take a position on anything.
“Millennials and Gen Z’ers have more freedom than any generation before to customise life as they want it, but that creates a lot of pressure.”
What do you think is the most commonly held misconception about working in PR? I think, particularly among young girls, that it’s that PR is primarily a glamorous whirlwind of parties, drinking and schmoozing with influencers. But it takes a lot more than people realise. Understanding clients and providing worthwhile recommendations, conceiving campaigns, being proactive and offering good service … all of this and more is hard work.
What are your ambitions for Kult&Ace, and what are your plans once these are realized? I’d like us to become a medium-sized outfit of, say, 15 people — still small enough to retain our informality and direct lines of communication. We’ve made the specialization switch from implementation to strategy, and I’d like us to move even further in that direction. In fact, we’re more of a consultancy now, than a PR agency. And I’d like to get my hands on brands like the HEMA, NS and FBTO, the insurance company. At which point I think we’d be ready to merge with a bigger agency, which would give me the freedom to do some of the other things on my list. Kult&Ace is my baby, but children eventually have to grow up and leave home so that mummy can build something new.
In an interview with Platform F in 2015, you said: “Go out and party! The people I meet for business are the same people I used to meet when I went clubbing.” Do you have any other unorthodox advice to aspiring entrepreneurs? Nothing similarly unorthodox; just stay focused, immerse yourself in what you want to do, find out everything you can about your target audience, and don’t hesitate to ask for advice.
Finally, I read somewhere that you would like to have NASA as a client. Why, and what would the campaign consist of? I’d like to set up a crowd-sourced project for a new concept city on Mars. We are screwing up the planet big time, so how would we do things differently if we could start again from scratch? Whatever insights we derive from the exercise could be used to accelerate desired changes on Earth. Or I could create an awareness campaign for the World Wide Fund for Nature, in which we explain the urgency of understanding space and the other galaxies by linking it to our depletion of the planet’s resources.