Colja Dams has been in the events industry since 1988. He has received more than 100 international awards. He is well known in the market and has partnered with
over 100 major clients including such high-profile names as Bayer, Nespresso, Lamborghini, BASF, Evonik, and Porsche. The largest event organized under his leadership in 2015 was the BASF Creator Space Tour which took place in Mumbai, Shanghai, New York, Sao Paulo, Barcelona and Ludwigshafen.
Name and Title
Colja M. Dams, President and CEO of VOK DAMS Group, Agency for Events & Live-Marketing
What is your most vivid memory?
In terms of my private life:
definitely the birth of each of my 3 children;
In terms of my career:
the day when I “properly” started at VOK DAMS.
What facts of your biography have changed your life?
I suppose what left the biggest and most marked impression was working in a children’s hospice during my civilian service. It made me appreciate what is really important in life and what really matters, and also how valuable time is.
If you had to choose a profession again, what would it be?
I suppose I would choose the same profession all over again and would do anything to get where I am right now.
Do you have any regrets in life?
I find that with each mistake I’ve made I’ve also learned something new, new doors have opened and new options have arisen. So I am also quite grateful for the things I regret, because they have usually been really helpful in teaching me new things.
Where do you see yourself in 15 years? Who is this man?
Although our business is so incredibly fast-paced and innovative, I hope that I remain not too different from who I am today, albeit with some more grey hairs (and hopefully still going strong, yet a little wiser).
What is something you could never give up?
I could never give up the time I spend with my family, this is truly the most valuable element for me in my life.
What do you fear and what do you want the most?
Fear is always a bad adviser so I try not to look into that area too much. As for want: wowing and inspiring an audience, I still thrive on developing great concepts with my teams. However I am sure that no matter what, I will still value the time I spend with my children above anything else.
Which traits would you like your children to inherit from you?
Tolerance — which I believe they can also learn by traveling and being exposed to international experiences and different cultures. And of course I hope they preserve their child-like enthusiasm when they grow up, because I think it is essential and wonderful to be wowed. But at the same time, just like any dad, they don’t have to inherit any trait from me at all — I simply want them to be happy in whatever they do.
The Vok Dams Agency for Events & Live Marketing is one of the top event powerhouses in the world. How did this become possible?
I suppose what characterizes us is that we never rest on whatever laurels we are bestowed upon. Maybe that is because it all comes down to our very own DNA, which is pretty well summed up in our brand core “creating better results”. We always want to be better. And at the end of the day and of an event or an event series we sit down and discuss what went well and what we can do (even) better next time, and what we can learn and what we can improve. To help us in “creating better results” we focus on what we call our performance dimensions:
We think strategically. In fact, strategy is very important to us. We do not see ourselves as mere “event executioners” or project managers, but we like to look beyond our own nose, and take into consideration the bigger picture. Not just in terms of every single project, but also as regards our industry as a whole.
We think creatively. But usually this is the second step, based on our strategic analysis. Because we believe that a big bang that goes up in smoke without leaving any memorable trace is at most nice, but as regards its live-marketing effect, it is useless.
We think internationally. We have 14 offices worldwide with regional specialists speaking numerous different languages and coming from a wide variety of different cultures – a fact that allows us to think globally but act on a local scale. I make a special effort to visit all of our offices every few weeks, and to also serve as a kind of personal connective link. Because we believe that the more integrated our team members feel, the more we all benefit from the immense international know-how at our disposal.
We don’t just “think”, but rather we “live” quality. And we are actually somewhat proud that an independent institute audits our quality management every year.
You joined the company created by your father. Did you always fully agree with your father’s way of thinking or did you change something when you became head of the company?
There is a lot that I learned from my dad. One of the most important things is that in order to remain successful in the event industry, you have to keep being innovative, always be a pioneer at heart, and remain open-minded and curious. At the same time you need to remain on the lookout of where you can leave new marks.
My father is one of the icons of the German events industry, the industry developed with him, and he shaped it considerably.
I had the privilege of international travel and experience when I was still at school and university, so when I took over the agency I focused on international growth and the expansion of our network. I built on what my father had built up, and simply thought bigger and more internationally. Without the foundation my dad had laid, without the special “VOK DAMS” spirit which he coined, this would not be possible. And thus I am grateful that he is still a part of VOK DAMS and still advising me and our team on what we do. Of course, there were times when we had different opinions. But we agreed on the basics: to keep up the good work, to keep up the pioneering curiosity and also the daringness that characterizes us all at VOK DAMS.
Do you think Vok Dams has become a living legend? What is special in his philosophy?
If you talk about Vok Dams as my father, then yes, I absolutely agree (although he wouldn’t like that himself). And if you talk about VOK DAMS as an agency, I think it is this special temperament, paired with a family spirit that makes us truly unique. We believe that it is the people who make the difference. Especially considering that our business is all about emotions and people, we are very proud to have such a good employee retention rate. We make it a point to stay in touch with everyone who has ever worked at VOK DAMS and we regularly invite all current and former members of our large VOK DAMS family from all over the world.
How do you inspire yourself and your employees? How do you manage to stay creative while being head of a huge international company?
We are, after all, a family business so we try to keep up this spirit. We have worked hard on creating a special working atmosphere here at VOK DAMS and it is very important for us to inspire a certain pride in the brand and foster a spirit of community, teamwork, fun, ambition and success. And by making sure we all meet at least once a year, ideally more. By now, the VOK DAMS family has grown, couples have met here, and there is also quite a large VOK DAMS offspring, which, together with my family meet twice a year for our annual barbecue party (where the bosses serve the meat) and at our Christmas party (traditionally a secret event organized only by our trainees). Our alumni organization stays in touch with all former employees and the fact that it is a tradition for most of them to come on these special occasions makes us both proud and honored. They obviously still feel somewhat part of our VOK DAMS family. And every time a former employee decides to come back and work for us again, we realize that we are truly working towards becoming a lovebrand.
Are you more of a creator or manager?
If you want to be a successful agency leader, I assume you need to be a bit of both of these competencies. Since I graduated from university as an economist most people think that I’m more of a manager. However, all of us know how important creativity and the ability to think outside the box really is for our business. And what most people may not know is that I am a keen amateur magician. In magic, as much as in any well-executed event, the wow-effect simply happens. It captivates without any need for explanation. I suppose that bringing those two traits together, with one being the more obvious and the more “exterior me” and the other one the more “interior me”, I really am a mix of both.
Creativity means regarding things from an unusual point of view
Vok Dams Agency offices are located all over the world: in Germany, Dubai, Beijing, France, Shanghai... Was it important for you to grow internationally?
In one word: yes. And in a few more words: we grew internationally together with our clients. When our clients expanded and needed events to be executed wherever they had founded new offices, they also started looking for the quality and expertise they were used to. This is why we believed it to be vital to set up offices in some of the most international hubs of the world.
How much creativity needs to be adapted to the local mentality? For events, what should always be adapted to the local market and what can be international?
That is a question of cross-cultural competence. Creativity means regarding things from an unusual point of view. Therefore you have to understand the mentalities and the region’s typical view first. Every country has its own myths and big cultural pictures. This is the basis for innovative concepts and ideas.
Let me give you one example: We worked out the event guidelines for the international launch of the new Citigo model of Škoda. The whole dramaturgy and content was international but the framework of the program always had to be country-specific to be clearly authentic.
How would you describe the ideal client for Vok Dams and for you personally? Is there any difference?
I don’t think there would be a difference. The ideal client does not pitch and ask several different agencies to go into a price war (in which case it is sometimes the content that suffers the most). Rather they look very specifically into what agency to choose. When they decide to go with us, we instantly start co-creating, and in this joint effort come up with the best possible solutions for their respective communications tasks, with both sides being full of respect for their different fields of expertise and always being on an eye-to-eye level. As well by giving us free rein on creative fusion and trusting our know-how, but also collaboratively working towards achieving our joint goal. The ideal client regards us as peers, striving for the same goal, which leaves a lasting impression on their target group.
What are the top emerging trends in the event industry in your point of view?
The main trend we are currently noticing is not regional, but worldwide. Nowadays, events are no longer one of many communication channels. They rather generate content for all other relevant channels, and thus become the epicenter of whole campaigns. We call this development “Live Campaigns”.
Over the past year, we have concentrated on the research, analysis and implementation of Live Campaigns. That’s the trend right now. Just take a look at international award-winning projects or campaigns and you will notice that about 80 percent of them are Live Campaigns. It is the event that sparks communication around a product, it is the event that generates the content that is then being talked about in social media and in the media in general. This is a huge potential for our industry and a paradigm shift in the communications industry as a whole.
What is the main difference between organizing events 10 years ago and now? What are the most dramatic changes in your opinion?
There are three main elements, which remain vital for every successful event: information, motivation and interaction. What has changed is the technical equipment being used and most importantly the mobile access and social media, which has changed the way we communicate. However, we have found that in order to be truly effective, communication nowadays has to be authentic, emotional, relevant and provide a truly added value. That’s new and it is important to bear this in mind. The old “hierarchy” between consumer and producer, between client and product has been broken down. Instead, it is about communication at an eye-to-eye level, and most importantly, about dialogue, about engagement, about co-creation.
These trends have led to a change in brand communication strategies and to new requirements in customer communication. To name but a few:
- Every brand wants to be a lovebrand.
- Every story has to convince the audience in an appropriate and trustworthy manner.
- Every social media interaction is a potential campaign.
Every single aspect of brand communication has to be consistent with the overall communication concept — for example every little Facebook reply has to feed
into the overall brand story.
You’re a frequent guest at professional conferences and forums and support students and young professionals. You share your experience and knowledge, but what do you get in return?
A lot, actually. I get an extremely valuable insight into young professional minds and needs, into what they think and want, while always bearing in mind that the young professionals of today are the new clients of tomorrow. And of course I am always on the lookout for potential new colleagues.
Would you like your children to follow in your footsteps in the event and live-marketing business?
Since VOK DAMS is a family-owned agency and has a grand history, I wouldn’t mind if the ownership stayed within our family in the future. However, what is more important to me is that my children choose a profession they love and hopefully follow Albert Schweitzer’s dictum on being successful, because they should be happy with whatever they do, not the other way round. I wish for them to be just as happy (and grateful) as I am with what I do. So I will try and support them in whatever dream they want to follow.
The ideal client does not pitch and ask several different agencies to go into a price war