How Amsterdam Shaped the Modern Advertising Industry
In the spring of 2000, Amsterdam was the centre of the global advertising industry. That year feature articles broke in Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and a piece written by Noreen O’Leary in Communications Arts about the draw and influence of Amsterdam. And, looking back on that moment in time and that city dubbed by O’Leary as “Europe’s New Creative Centre”—it’s clear that this was something very special that cleared the way for something greater to come after. What went on there and then, its impact on creative communications people in the US and around the world, may only be visible in hindsight. The creative mind is ever evolving and perhaps looking back on that moment might help us in seeing the next big one. It was a special time, which gave birth to many talented people and a select group of talented advertising agencies.
Before 2000, the advertising, marketing and creative centre was New York and London, but in that year, something happened that changed it all. “Amsterdam, in all its flawed perfection, may be the ideal backdrop for an industry straddling high and low culture. In this city of Rembrandt and gilded architecture, red-light brothels and junkies, visitors these days can see plenty of evidence of a flourishing ad agency business that is becoming on one the world most creative communities,” wrote O’Leary.
The great agencies that emerged from this evolution of the industry according to Communications Arts included KesslesKramer founded by Erik Kessels and Johan Kramer; Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, 180 a part of Omicom Group founded by former W+K principals Alex Melvin, Larry Frey, Guy Hayward and Chris Mendola; Ubachs Wisbrun the Dutch agency founded by Wim Ubachs and Ralph Wisbrun; and StrawberryFrog founded by Karin Drakenberg, a Swede and Scott Goodson, a Canadian.
Famous Dutch late night restaurant Febo
This moment in time, gave birth to an optimism and intelligence: The inventiveness and visual style of the advertising and communications these agencies created did much to shape the evolution of the contemporary advertising industry.
Communications Arts described it as this: “These agencies were an eclectic mix…they were created by an idiosyncratic group of locals and foreigners who liked the freethinking atmosphere of the place and shared the international ambitions of the Dutch as well with multicultural staffs.”
Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, the Portland, Oregon, agency offshoot set up operations to service Nike in Amsterdam, led by Buz Sawyer, and thereafter attracted European clients, through “powerful and image-driven work,” according to O’Leary. But the surge in new European agencies at that time dated back before Wieden. Rather it started with the opening of KesselsKramer, an agency that gained attention for its uncompromising creative penchant for beautiful and surreal work. Chad Rea, a Lecturer at the University of Texas in Austin and an American creative director who worked in Amsterdam at the time told me, “KesselsKramer remains my favourite "agency" to have ever been a part of. You could call it advertising, but it felt more like we were creating art with a clear message and purpose. The insanely creative people I worked with - both on the agency and client side - were brutally honest, trusting (not heavy handed), highly efficient, believed in work/life balance, and had impeccable taste in art and design.”
The scene benefited from the Dutch ability to make small budgets go far and use a heavy dose of inventiveness unlike US or London ad agencies that were beholden to larger budgets and developed more mediocre ideas that looked great because of expensive productions, according to Communications Arts.
Michael Folino, former Executive Creative of StrawberryFrog recently spoke about his time in Amsterdam: “What I loved about Amsterdam at the time was it was a little like Paris in the '20s. There were all these ex-pats living there who were smart, fun, witty and from all over the world. It was this great time in European history as the East and West had just come together, you had the EU and the Euro uniting the way people travelled and worked, and Amsterdam specifically had passed laws to make it easy for talented people to work there. Our creative department at StrawberryFrog alone was like a mini United Nations, with almost every member literally from a different country - the UK, Netherlands, France, China, Australia, Ireland and Sweden. I was the only American, which is completely different than working in the States. But what this meant is that you were exposed to the best the world had to offer. You had people drawing from different influences than you. They had new ways of doing things than you were used to. It was like a best practices thing. And because you saw what the world was doing, you could do what no one else in the world was doing. I remember how exciting it was to work with the Tiger team as they pioneered 3D printing. We were trying to do an ad with temperature sensitive paper for a beer. People were ahead of the curve with how they used mobile phones, social media with Facebook and Skype. The other thing I loved that was how much talent there was OUTSIDE the creative department. Our studio person has become a famous artist. Our planner was a DJ. Our receptionist was a writer. And our account team included a musician, a chef, and a clothes designer. For me, all of it was just a big adventure. I got to work in Amsterdam, London, Milan, Barcelona, Germany and Kiev. I had my first drink of Absinthe. Tried to figure out which package was chicken in a Dutch grocery market. Met Miss Italy in a village known for their ham. Watched my son scheme with my niece to steal the crown jewels at the tower of London. And worked. And laughed. A lot.”
Peter Neijenhoff former designer at W&K Amsterdam
At the time, Marian Salzman, the worldwide director Y&R Brand Futures said, “Amsterdam is really becoming the city of the future in communications. The Dutch are the most international of all people in Europe.”
When we started StrawberryFrog in 1999, we looked at Paris, London, Dublin and Amsterdam. We liked the business climate, creative environment, level of support in Amsterdam. People are and have always been open to new ideas; they’re willing to listen. Amsterdam back then was and still is a very international city with few nationalistic pressures. For a bunch of creative people from Holland and all corners of the globe this coming together brought energy and a joy in life that was unmatched. It opened doors, broke down barriers and in this chaos and freedom came a new kind of energy and fragrant ideas.