News & Views

Insight & Strategy: The Next Rembrandt

by Contagious I/O

J. Walter Thompson's Bas Korsten and Emmanuel Flores will join us live at Most Contagious 2016 on 7 December to provide more insights behind the acclaimed Next Rembrandt. Book your ticket at mostcontagious.com.

This story originally appeared on Contagious I/O

In April, ING Bank unveiled a ‘new’ masterpiece by famed Dutch artist Rembrandt. The Next Rembrandt, created with J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam and Microsoft, is comprised of 168,263 painting fragments taken from the artist’s body of work.

The team used 3D scans of Rembrandt’s existing paintings, machine learning algorithms and a paint-based 3D printer to create the digitally-engineered painting.

The campaign won Grands Prix in both Creative Data and Cyber at the Cannes Lions festival. Speaking to Contagious at the festival, Cyber jury president, Chloe Gottlieb described how the jury loved it because 'Usually things are taken from the analogue world and put into digital - this was the opposite. It's something you create that creates more creation. It's not finite. For a creative festival, what could be a better story?'

We interviewed J. Walter Thompson executive creative director Bas Korsten about the challenges of doing what’s never been done before.

What is ING Bank’s position in the marketplace?

ING is known as the bank of Holland, it’s for the whole country. If you look at the three big banks in Holland, I think ING is by far the most innovative. They have a startup studio for fintech companies. They come up with things such as easy ways to share money among friends and also fingerprint security. ING is very quick to democratise new technology and make it relevant to a lot of people. Its biggest challenge is staying relevant at a time when everybody feels that banks are maybe, unnecessary institutions. They’re thinking, where is the world going and how can we make sure we have a role in that?

It also has two big sponsorship domains: football and Dutch culture. It does a lot to make both areas accessible and relevant to the largest amount of Dutch people that it can.

What are the business objectives behind the campaign?

The idea was, ‘We’re a bank that comes up with innovative products and services. How can we apply that same innovative spirit to our sponsorship?’ We applied that spirit to football two years ago where we did a big data driven campaign for the World Cup in Rio. Now they asked us, can we do the same for our sponsorship of Dutch art and culture?

How did you come up with the idea?

I saw the face of Jesus. Not in some kind of religious epiphany, but in a magazine. There was an article about archaeologists who found skulls in Jerusalem and reconstructed Jesus’ face out of the historical material. That was the moment I thought, well if that’s possible, you can create something new from the historical material of a painting. You can distil artistic DNA out of existing paintings and create new art.

Then choosing Rembrandt was quite logical, because he’s one of the most innovative Dutch painters that ever lived. He’s one of our cultural heroes.

What was the biggest challenge?

Not knowing the outcome. That was the reason ING was hesitant to embrace this fully in the beginning. They were like, ‘We can do a lot of work, but in the end we do not know what it’s going to bring.’ The biggest challenge was hoping that it was all going to be alright and not give us something that looked like a Mr Potato Head. It was the uncertainty of whether it was going to come close to something the master would have made. ING had doubts and we had them too.

If I’d have known a bit more, I would never have come up with the idea or pushed for it. I think it helped not being an expert.

How did you manage those periods of doubt?

I had people actually crying asking me to stop – developers. The amount of information is so overwhelming. Rembrandt is one of the best documented painters ever. At certain points we thought, ‘where do we stop! Everything has value’. We were really lucky that the Mauritshuis Museum director and Rembrandt expert Emily Gordenker said, ‘OK these are the sources you have to look at that are widely thought of as being the best for doing Rembrandt research.’ So that helped limit our data set. Not knowing too much about things, being naïve and just saying ‘we can do it!’ kept the project going. It was based on nothing other than enthusiasm.

It was a struggle because it could be a perpetual art project. The painting would have been better if we’d had launched it two months, even two years later. When do you say, ‘Now it’s good’? Every day technology develops and the painting would look different as a result. The more information you get from a painting the better the outcome would be.

We worked with scientists for months and months. Rembrandt must be laughing himself silly in his grave thinking about what we’re trying to do to come close [to reproducing his paintings], and we’re not even close. That’s also what’s been interesting in the discussions we’ve had about this. We give lectures about it at universities. The discussions that we have are all about the integrity of the painter and the man vs. machine debate. That’s a good feeling as well, knowing that, as a creative director, there won’t be a computer taking my job any time soon.

Were you expecting it to spark negative reactions as well as positive?

I think we actually played on that. We did expect the art world to be doubtful, to say the least. ‘Prostituting Rembrandt’: we heard some interesting things come out of very respectable people’s mouths. The reason for that, and why we were expecting it, is because along the way we talked to people and they said, ‘I love this project, but if you tried to remake my hero, for instance David Bowie, I would say no way.’ If you spend your life examining Rembrandt, he’s your hero. So we did pre-empt this, and counter balance it with the reactions that were coming out of the tech world which were all highly positive.

We talked to Gary Schwartz, who is a renowned Rembrandt expert, and he said this is a great way of filling the toolbox of Rembrandt experts. They can use this technique and information to actually make a better analysis of who Rembrandt was and what he stood for. Plus I’m talking to you now about Rembrandt, what he meant and what made him Rembrandt. If you like the artist I can’t imagine you don’t like the fact that people are talking about him, discussing what made him great.

We just got a request from a French museum for the painting to be part of a collection, so I think now the dust has settled, slowly, we’re getting the art world back. On the other hand, we had three museums partnering with us on this. So it wasn’t all negative. What ING has learned over the years is that with innovation you try things and that means that you probably don’t make everybody happy, but you do something and you learn and you do it better next time.

What results do you have so far?

It’s still too early for results on how its affected the brand, but Google search for ING grew by 61% worldwide and Microsoft by 20%. So people looked for these brands in the period right after launch. Also, on launch day Fortune Magazine reported increase in stock value for ING (ING ^1.22%) and partner Microsoft (MSFT ^ 0.49%). People from all over the world came to experience the unveiling and exhibition in Amsterdam. More than 1,400 articles have been written and there were 10 million Twitter impressions on launch-day. Overall, the campaign has generated 1.8 billion media impressions and an earned media value of 12.5m euros ($13.95m).

The technology developed for The Next Rembrandt is now used for the restoration of damaged and partially lost Masterpieces. There’s a few Rembrandt paintings that are partially lost, even the Night Watch is missing two panels. This could actually predict these panels. So the team are working on that together with the Mauritshuis Museum, Microsoft and the Technical University of Delft, Holland. Another possible future use of the technique is that, if this computer knows Rembrandt so well, could it detect forgery?

We’ve been approached by TV shows to make a series, we also have been thinking what the next thing will be. Could be Chanel? Can we make a new scent based on the scents that were made in the past? It’s inspired us to look differently at who we are as an agency but also at future things. It feels like creating something new out of historical material is something that is bigger than just this idea. You could look at different creative fields.

It’s like birth (I have four kids), not that I can talk from personal perspective. It’s a very painful process, but when you have the kid you go, ‘Yeah let’s do it again!’ So I’m in that phase right now, totally forgetting how painful it was.


Hear about The Next Rembrandt and more of the most contagious ideas of the year at Most Contagious 2016 on 7 December. Book your ticket at mostcontagious.com.

Most Contagious 2016