Understanding Erik

“It’s not you, it’s me…” No-one ever wants to hear that, do they? Or how about “…you are too much an individual for this agency…”? Erik Kessels suffered both of these let-downs early in his career as he told us at the first in a series of lectures organised by D&AD North. Perhaps he shouldn’t have worn a chicken suit on his first day of work.

“It’s not you, it’s me…” No-one ever wants to hear that, do they? Or how about “…you are too much an individual for this agency…”? Erik Kessels suffered both of these let-downs early in his career as he told us at the first in a series of lectures organised by D&AD North. Perhaps he shouldn’t have worn a chicken suit on his first day of work.

There’s nothing stereotypical about Kessels or the work of his Amsterdam/London-based ad agency KesselsKramer. You have to be strong to be different – which was the theme of Kessels’ talk.

He gave us a brief history of KesselsKramer and its work, focusing on significant projects from Diesel campaigns to the on-going work for the ‘worst hotel in the world’, the infamous Hans Brinker. The range of briefs and clients was eclectic, but if you’ve seen the agency’s website (recent versions of which have by turn cast KesselsKramer as the world’s largest online hatter and a teeth whitening company as well as puporting to be the site of the sherriff of Kessels Kramer County) that shouldn’t be a surprise.

What became apparent was Kessels’ passion for ideas, even when they didn’t work out. “You have to have courage to have an idea sometimes…” he said. Throughout his career Kessels’ ideas have been getting better and better and growing into things that weren’t meant to happen. Amazing things. He enthused about the publications of vernacular photography that he produces (catalogue here) and the obsessive nature in which he collects content for them from flea markets and house clearances. Photograph after photograph charting a lifetime or a complete genre in one – the history of one family’s pet black dog (In Almost Every Picture 9), for example (which proved to be more of a technical challenge than you might think) or prizewinning cow photography (much more technical than you think, there is mood music and only one way, the correct way for a cow to stand, see Kessels’ book Useful Photography #005).

In a similar way in which he works with ideas, Kessels showed that these individual photographs may have little value but together form an intriguing collection. There is a method to the madness, although there is no finishing point as his working process is always ongoing. Due to this there is a sense that ideas are both precious and dispensable. A stream of endless collecting and collections.

The most inspiring points Kessels made were simple. You have to challenge yourself and then in doing so you challenge everyone around you. You challenge them to understand, to try, or maybe to find something they love. Kessels has the ability to make sense of the obscure and give it a context, not just for himself but so that everyone has a way to connect to it.

Other people fascinate him: their ideas, of course, but also how they think, and their emotions. There is a care for people and their community, he is intrigued by how they make sense of what they see and what they need to do in their world. He always tries to find his audience, connect with them and understand what they do. He showed the documentary The Other Final, where KesselsKramer organised a football match between the two lowest-ranked teams in the world. Played on the same day as the 2002 World Cup Final, the match became a considerable event for both countries, something Kessels took obvious pride in, speaking passionately about the teams, as if he had coached them himself.

There was a lot of ground to cover and at times it felt like their were vital parts of stories missing, however, what made this lecture different was that the audience felt part of it: it was about understanding Erik and not his work. Which you came to realise are one and the same. How connections were made, how ideas were formed, how it all worked out, how it never happened, and why the cow finally stood still…the mood music, apparently, makes all the difference.

Amber Smith is one of the organisers of the Leeds Print Festival. For details of future D&AD North events, go here.


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