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Opinion and Insight

Amsterdam: A City That’s Set to Receive

LBB’s Alex Reeves speaks to a cross-section of creative professionals about the European hub that's set to become a whole lot hubbier

Amsterdam: A City That’s Set to Receive

Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Stockholm… which city can truly claim the crown of Europe’s capital of Advertising? London’s stake on the title is looking a little shaky in the wake of Brexit and the looming possibility of a no deal, but the continent’s great historic cities are bustling with creative talent. And then there’s Amsterdam. Bang in the middle of them all, home to world class international and local agencies, homegrown megabrands, Amsterdam’s status as a focal point for the region’s creative industries is nothing new. Its roots as a trading hub go back centuries. According to the people who live and work in Amsterdam’s adland, it’s primed and ready to take the top spot.

Thanks to its geography and diversity, the city is attracting jittery brands hoping to relocate their European HQs (the Royal Bank of Scotland revealed its plans to move to the ‘Dam in case of a hard Brexit) and the likes of Uber, Netflix, Calvin Klein have their EMEA headquarters there too.

Nike is perhaps the most established and famous of the global brands to set up a hub in Amsterdam. All these names are have rich advertising histories - due in no small part to Dutch agencies that have worked with them for years. Then there are the native brands. Heineken, of course, is synonymous with the city, there’s Shell and Philips, and all the Dutch financial institutions. Ultimately, Amsterdam’s advertising industry is fed by the global brands that use the city as their European headquarters, and in the current climate, the city is just becoming more attractive.

“Amsterdam offers opportunities for startups, scale-ups and global corporations,” says Ron Boyle, Senior Manager USA / EMEA & Creative Industries at Amsterdam Business. “For creative companies especially, this business ecosystem is invaluable as it means they have a client base ranging from fledgling startups to multinational corporates.”

That said, the creative industry in the Netherlands has never relied solely on these local connections to support itself. Only two of 72andSunny Amsterdam’s clients, for example, are based in the city - Bugaboo, their founding client, and Adidas, whose second European office is on the south-east edge of the metropolis. They’re a global agency who happen to base themselves in Amsterdam, and that’s reflected in the accounts they work on. “The majority of our clients are all around the world," says Managing Director Nic Owen. “In London, Copenhagen, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Portland, Seoul and more.”

Logistically, this is possible because of the city’s easy connections to the rest of the world. “We are regarded as the gateway to Europe,” says Ron. “Amsterdam Airport Schiphol flies to more than 300 destinations worldwide.” 

“You can jump on your bike and be at your next destination in 10 minutes,” says Sander Volten, CEO at creative agency 180 Kingsday. “You can hop on a flight for fun or business and be anywhere in Europe within a couple of hours.”

One of the inevitable discussions that has raised its head, post-Brexit, is the question of whether another European city will take over as the continent’s creative hub. The Advertising Association’s report last week demonstrated the talent pool that immigration from the EU provides the UK creative industry with. And it seems London’s loss is Amsterdam’s gain. “We are definitely seeing a positive effect from it,” says Nic. “As a proud Brit and also a proud European, it’s a very sad state of affairs for me personally. I think it’s obvious to anyone who looks at anything economical that it’s not going to be an awesome thing for the UK. It will also affect us here. I think we’re already finding businesses moving over here. There seems to be more focus on Amsterdam at the moment. And it’s not just us as an agency.”

Ania Markham, Partner and Producer at the hybrid production company PostPanic Pictures, has worked in Amsterdam since they moved from London in 2002. She’s worried as a British passport holder who has lived there for 15 years with her husband and kids. “We do not have Dutch nationality. We still don’t know how Brexit will affect us,” she says. “I’m a partner in a company but if you are freelance, then having to present fluctuating accounts (which is a reality in our industry) to a critical immigration department so you can stay will breed insecurity here and mean choosing to stay in the Netherlands perhaps means you have to give up your British passport and get Dutch nationality. And that is a big ask.”

It’s not only a personal concern for her, though. “Our freelance British directors would also have to apply for work visas to take on commercial projects here,” she adds. “That also probably means we would favour local EU talent as short turnarounds play a big factor in director choice.“

“Post Brexit, cities across Europe have been very savvy in establishing themselves as perfect alternatives to London,” recognises Sander. “They know there is an opportunity, despite not knowing exactly the results of the negotiations – it’s competitive. Perhaps it is more about businesses being cautious, assessing their options, seeing how the land lies as opposed to being deterred. But, Amsterdam is a city with a great business infrastructure and a thriving expat community. It is as small city, home to a lot of people, and as you look around town you can see the city working hard to develop schools and housing to accommodate all of this.”

Sander is certain that Brexit’s impact will be felt in the city: “We hear of clients looking around for creative agencies to potentially move their business out of London and talent is leaving with them. It feels like it's a hot moment to be in the Amsterdam creative industry and it's about to get a lot hotter.”

But the city’s creative growth is about much more than Brexit. “I think that’s one factor,” says Nic. “Creative, progressive people’s mindset is that they should look elsewhere if they’re not in the best place to be. And then they find Amsterdam. It’s not a total equational thing, but that’s definitely an important part of our focus.”

The demands of advertising clients don’t make for cushy jobs in this industry, but Amsterdam’s spirit  is ideally suited to offset the stresses it brings. “As the world gets more international, it’s not getting any easier,” says Nic. “Everything’s got to be faster, bigger, cheaper and as advertising gets more crazy, having the backdrop of a beautiful, very chilled out city is a big pull. It’s a 12-minute bike ride commute through the most beautiful city for most people who work here. That backdrop against the cut-and-thrust of international advertising is really good. So work may be frenetic but the city keeps you in check. Stepping out into the city is a calming influence on a frenetic industry.”

Everyone seems to agree the pace of life is less relentless than in New York or London. “It is an appealing place for any company’s top talent,” says Sander. “The work-life balance is brilliant for all walks of life, from millennials to parents and children, which benefits not only employees but their family as well.”

Sander believes Amsterdam has become not only a European, but a global hub for creativity over the past ten years. “It is a city that punches well above its weight,” he says. “And therefore attracts some of the world’s finest talent. You see that across all disciplines and industries. Extremely skilled expats want to come and work here, alongside top Dutch talent, who also benefit by working across borders. 180 Kingsday is made up of a number of different nationalities, which has a real, positive impact on the work we produce.”

Ania’s always recognised the international nature of the city’s creative industry, but notices changes. “I think the creative workforce has changed most noticeably in the countries people are travelling here from,” she says. “We have a permanent in-house team of 20 producers, directors and creatives and the proportion had been primarily Dutch, English, French, Belgian, German and American. But the last five years has seen us attract some amazing creative talent from countries in central, eastern and southern Europe. We’re currently enjoying the influence of our Bulgarian, Latvian, Hungarian, Portugese, Cypriat, Lithuanian and Italian colleagues.”

As a historic trading hub, that internationality is enmeshed in the Dutch capital’s being. And in 2017, that makes its creative industries well-suited to create for global brands. 72andSunny have 29 nationalities in their office and 19 languages are spoken. “We try to have an inextricable link with the city as well as having this international projection,” says Nic. “It’s been important for us to have a good balance of Dutch people here, who have that international mindset built in. Amsterdam in itself is such an open, listening city. It’s a city that’s on receive. It’s interested in what’s happening in London, Berlin, Paris and further afield. We need to be as open as the city and listening to culture as much as our creativity demands.”

This openness has real business benefits, says Nic: “We’ve tried to bring that openness into our work in a way that I would say stands out. The first work we did out of this office was the Benetton Unhate campaign [featuring world leaders sharing an unlikely snog]. The idea of tolerance that that work promoted and projected is key. Tolerance and diversity are key values of this city and of this office.”

“As advertising has become more purposeful, having this very respectful, listening culture, has enabled us to give Benetton tolerance, to give Smirnoff inclusivity, to give Axe the idea of individuality. It’s enabled us to make work that feels more progressive and insightful and try to take brands to a higher level in terms of what they stand for and what their role is in the world. I think that would be more difficult to develop that sort of work in another city.”

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Genre: Strategy/Insight