Is Amsterdam’s Adland Still a Tale of Two Cities?
While Amsterdam’s inky black canals divide the city up into distinct chunks of charming townhouses, there’s an invisible line that’s proven more impassable than the deep, dark waterways. Any outsider visiting Amsterdam’s advertising industry on business will soon be struck by the deep chasm between superstar global agencies and the local shops for local people. Never the twain shall meet. Well, until now.
In recent years, a new breed of Dutch agencies with an international agenda has been making itself known: INDIE, Achtung!, Kingsday, Superheroes, We Are Pi, Lemz, Selmore… the list is longer than you’d think. And, with agencies of all stripes getting a taste for emerging Dutch talent, there’s a greater cross-pollination between the two camps.
Traditionally, the divide between global and local agencies was rooted in geography as much as it was in culture. “Some of the big network agencies, traditionally situated outside the city centre and with a predominantly Dutch staff, are moving into the centre and employing more internationals,” observes Andrew Watson at creative production company Minivegas. “Relatively new Dutch agencies that have deliberately taken an international approach, use English as the working language and employ a cosmopolitan mix of staff – the likes of Superheroes and Achtung! for instance, are really reaping the rewards and leading the way for the next generation of start-ups.”
So where has this new breed of ‘Dutch Internationals’ come from? Well, for one thing the way has been paved by production companies like MediaMonks, the creative digital hotshop that has long worked with international clients and has established offices in New York, Singapore, Los Angeles and London. The sustained presence of creatively-renowned international shops like Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam (opened in 1992), 180 Amsterdam (opened in 1998), 72andSunny Amsterdam (opened in 2004) has certainly provided ambitious young advertisers something to aspire to – the influx of world-class creatives from around the globe raised the bar (nothing like a bit of friendly competition to motivate you) and has provided plenty of inspiration for fertile young Dutch minds.
According to Kingsday’s creative director Sicco Beerda, the success of international heavy-hitters over the past couple of decades has been a real (if slow-burning) catalyst. “If Wieden+Kennedy can make great global work coming out of Amsterdam, why can’t young Dutch agencies? And why can’t we? Apart from that, modern campaigns really have the opportunity to come from anywhere, made with any budget. That’s the real digital revolution. In terms of economics the big brands are developing less and less local work. Their agencies make work for the whole world,” he argues.
“And this story has been told many times, of course, but there is something wholly unique about the amount of international talent walking around in Amsterdam. It’s refreshing to see that something special has rubbed off on the native Dutch advertising scene and now there is a second (or third) wave of new agencies starting up with a Dutch and international DNA. We’re pretty happy to be part of this trend.”
For Selmore founder Poppe van Pelt, the roots of this new wave of ‘Dutch International’ agencies goes even deeper. The city has long been a global trade hub thanks to its strategic location in Europe and thus has always been home to people from all over the world. This open-mindedness has allowed the local creatives to better navigate the international landscape whereas other European nationalities might be too hung up on their own local culture.
“We Dutch people have had to be open-minded, we’ve had to be open to all influences,” he notes. “If you are trying to do it [be global-facing] from the UK or France, the sensibility might be too British or too French. We can be more neutral.”
That's something that INDIE creative director Joris Kang'eri has also observed. "I think that what makes us a “Dutch International” agency is that we’re consciously trying to find a balance between “Dutchness” and a global outlook in every aspect of our agency. For us it means assimilating other influences into our culture and way of working as opposed to trying to be either outright Dutch, or American, British or French," he says. "I don't think being international has anything to do with where people are from. It's more about a view of the world and the mentality to go with it. And that can be found in the most Dutch of us."
But despite this rapprochement between the global and native industries, brokered by the ‘Dutch Internationals’, the gulf between the two has not been entirely closed. Frenkel Schonfeld is a senior writer at 72andSunny Amsterdam – and a Dutch local to boot – and he suspects that the local industry has been a victim of its own success. “The traditional divide between international and local agencies still exists, and I think it's caused by a couple of things. First of all, Dutch creatives are 'spoiled' by the fact that there are so many agencies in Amsterdam. I think over 200 in total. So there's no urgent need to work at an international agency because there are enough cool Dutch ones,” he says. “Holland is a weird place because it's both too big and too small at the same time, if you compare it to let's say Sweden. I think the reason why you see a lot of Swedish talent at London or US agencies is because if you're ambitious, and most creatives are, Sweden is just a bit too small, so you're more likely to look for a challenge abroad.”
Others have suggested to me that another possible reason for the continuing divide might be that a glut of global CVs have arrived, tempted by the increasing success of Dutch agencies. New blood is welcomed by the majority but others have been less keen to embrace outsiders. “Many Dutch agencies are now getting a lot more recognition internationally for the quality of their work – especially in the digital and experiential area where you don’t have to understand the language or recognise the local celebrity to engage with the idea,” says Minivegas’ Andrew Watson. “This is a double-edged sword as, while most have used success to attract new talent (from wherever), a few agencies have taken the decision to baton down the hatches and enforce a Dutch-only policy. They have plenty of talent to pick from but it does draw a line in the sand.”
Nonetheless, cross-fertilisation is happening and, thanks to marketing initiatives like iamsterdam and proactive advocates like Kerrie Finch (founder of PR firm Finch Factor) who have made it their personal mission to make sure the city’s creative industries are celebrated on a global stage, the flow of talent into the city and between agencies is unlikely to dry up any time soon. What’s more, the calibre of Dutch graduates, particularly (but not exclusively) in the digital creative arena, means that these days everyone is keen to work with local talent.
“A lot is happening in Holland to minimize the divide,” muses 72andSunny Amsterdam’s Frenkel Schonfeld. “There is a lot of great talent coming up from the Willem de Kooning academy in Rotterdam, those who want to broaden their horizons outside of Dutch focused agencies. At the same time, the Hogeschool van Amsterdam is starting its own 'Hyper Island'-type school, in collaboration with MediaMonks and some other agencies. Now more than ever, there is great talent right here, across the board.”
Clients too are becoming less hung up on whether an agency is ‘local’ or ‘international’ – in the past global jobs would go to one set of agencies and work for the Dutch market would go to another. Dutch agencies like Superheroes have been going after – and winning – global accounts, like Asus, and international agencies have been more actively courting the clients on their doorsteps. Joris Kang'eri at INDIE, for example, has found that they've been influenced just as much by their clients as by internal forces."Part of it is from a desire to create a certain kind of work, but it is also definitely brought about by the clients that we work with. They tend to embrace the gaps in cultural overlap as a chance to discuss, explore and experiment - which then leads to work that isn’t necessarily classifiable as one culture or the other."
Indeed, for 72andSunny Amsterdam's’s Managing Director Nic Owen, if international agencies are to continue to thrive they must do their bit to work with Dutch talent and local clients. “I think there is a big desire from 72andSunny Amsterdam, and I hope from other International agencies, to play a big part in this city and this country. We want to give something back to the Netherlands – we are proud to live here, hence why we got involved in the Andere Spelen (‘Other Sports’) project for Dutch insurer a.s.r.,” he says. “72andSunny Amsterdam are also super keen that Dutch people play a part in every discipline in the company. We have writers, designers, strategists, brand people, producers – and the standard of the work and our agency culture benefits from it. Massively.”
Inevitably, one of the key barriers between the expat and local communities is language. The stellar English skills among the local population can reduce the pressure on incomers to learn Dutch – which, in turn, locked many out of the locally-focused agencies. But those foreigners who have stuck around since the early days have put down roots and embraced the culture.
PostPanic’s Ania Markham moved from London to Amsterdam in 2002 and when she arrived the divide seemed stark. “This defined everything from advertising agencies to corporate clients to where you bought your lunch (Visboer or Small World?). The world seemed simpler. I couldn’t speak Dutch, the Dutch spoke English and somehow business was conducted,” she explains. However the move to the Netherlands was part of a long term search for a better work/life balance and her lack of language skills was preventing her from truly understanding – and getting involved in – the culture of her new hometown. There was only one thing for it – to go Dutch.
“As I finally started addressing this by learning the language, I started to make my own sense of the subtleties at play within the city's creative communities and also discovered there were a hell of a lot more expats hiding on the Dutch side than I had ever realised,” she reveals. “On one hand, I could argue these expats were (and still are) a different breed compared to the more-transient international agency creatives (as many seemed to have different backgrounds, motivations/plans as well as speaking Dutch) but either way, they are there to be found in the traditional Dutch agency and corporate domain. And what’s more, this alternate expat community seems to be growing.”
Andrew Watson at Minivegas concurs. “It’s not as segregated as it used to be,” he notes. “The first generation of international advertising immigrants and the old guard of Dutch advertising has been replaced by the new wave who seem to be more open to integration.”
Ania points to a freelance culture that fosters greater movement between agencies as well as an influx of open-minded young creatives, particularly from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe who seem less hung up on categorising agencies as one thing or the other. “They don’t make any distinction between a Dutch company or an international company. Actually they seem to be equally comfortable in both – they are just chasing the creative promise. I actually think it’s a really interesting time to be working in this city as things feel like they are actually changing. And with it comes the cross-pollination of work cultures and creative attitudes. The changing composition of Dutch creative talent versus expat creative talent, means that not only are the newcomers exposed to Dutch methods of working (and the language!) within Dutch companies but so are international agencies when these newcomers move on to freelancing or working for them.”
Indeed, discarding traditional or well-worn categories completely might be the key to the future of Amsterdam’s creative community. If barriers between ‘local’ and ‘global’ agencies are starting to disintegrate, then 72andSunny Amsterdam’s Nic Owen would urge us to go one step further and bridge the divide between ‘agencies’ and the wider creative scene. “We're also up for dialogue with any creative company, as long as it doesn't build a cliquey scene. We're not excited by the concept of an 'adland' whether that be for international or local agencies. Advertising on its own can be smug and self-serving. Let's open the aperture – that's when Amsterdam becomes even more exciting. There is so much growth here creatively – from the excellent base this city already has in design and architecture, to tech, to food and drink. We want to be part of that and when it comes to culture, a bigger mix is always better.”