Amsterdam has a rich history as a centre of trade, from beer to herring to spices. These days, it’s innovative tech companies who come to ply their wares. But why?
At less than 220 square kilometres, Amsterdam is by no means a large city. A day’s walk could lead you to the Van Gogh Museum, the Bloemenmarkt and Dam Square, but most visitors won’t realise their relatively undemanding tour will take them past the European headquarters of Tommy Hilfiger, Cisco and Tesla, as well as those of well-known Dutch companies such as Heineken, ING and Shell.
Walk down one single street on the historic Herengracht canal and you’ll pass the offices of countless agencies and their clients, all of whom still gather in an entrepreneurial locale favoured by 17th century shipping merchants. Google is here. Netflix is here. It’s not bad for a non-capital city in a country with just 17 million citizens.
Amsterdam’s trade-heavy history may have bred a number of world-famous brands, yet in the last decade it has proved its worth with an influx of multinationals setting up shop amidst the coffee houses and bike racks.
“The Amsterdam Metropolitan Area is presently home to more than 2,700 international companies, and we attract more than 100 new foreign companies every year: 140 arrived in 2015,” says Jane van Kampen-Zoutendijk, senior manager for foreign investments US/EMEA and creative industries at the city’s foreign investment agency, Amsterdam Inbusiness.
Her group believes there is no specific reason as to why the city has been so successful in attracting brands as of late, although its sense of connectivity is certainly at the heart of the business boom.
“Amsterdam is connected to the rest of Europe and the world, not only by an extensive transport network and the world’s largest internet hub, but also by the city’s collaborative approach to doing business,” explains van Kampen-Zoutendijk. “Amsterdam’s spirit of commerce, excellent quality of life and fiscal advantages make it a magnet for talent, startups and international headquarters for companies from across the globe. We see that agencies establish where the clients are, like Wieden+Kennedy following Nike when the brand opened its European headquarters in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area.”
Lately the group has noticed a rush of IT companies and startups, with the latter offered specialist assistance from the StartupAmsterdam initiative since 2015. But with the city literally precariously balanced on water and heavy under the weight of 800,000 bicycles (a number greater than its population), will it sustain this level of investment?
“It is very hard to predict whether it will, as this is dependent on a lot of different factors,” says van Kampen-Zoutendijk. “One of our strengths is our business ecosystem: Amsterdam’s business community is connected and cooperative at all levels. We think an influx of big businesses only adds to that.
“Amsterdam’s compact size makes it easy to get around, but it is also very well connected to the surrounding area through good infrastructure and excellent railway connections. That means that there is room for businesses to grow, without compromising the global village charm,” she continues.
Booking.com is one of Amsterdam’s biggest success stories, operating out of 70 countries and employing more than 13,500 people. It also claims one of the city’s biggest offices, although in typical unassuming Dutch style, you wouldn’t know it from the headquarters’ modest signage.
This exterior represents what the Netherlands’ public culture is about, according to chief marketing officer, Pepijn Rijvers. “The Dutch are a Calvinistic nation – anything you do to show off your material possessions is seen as a mental weakness,” he says.
A buyout in 2005 by the US-based Priceline Group could have moved HQ out of Amsterdam, but the acquisition, which was hailed by some as one of the most important sales of the dotcom era, was in Rijvers’ terms as “relatively hands off,” which is quite fortuitous as “hierarchy and the Dutch don’t have a loving relationship” – a trait mirrored entirely in Booking.com’s working practices.
“We’ve doubled down on a culture that really allows for rapid experimentation,” says Rijvers. “It’s totally okay for people to not be successful.
“If I go to my team and say: ‘I want this feature to be developed,’ chances are they’ll say: ‘Where’s the data that shows this is a good idea? Why should we invest in your idea over others?’ It stops the hierarchy from taking over; it stops loud people from dominating decision making.”
This horizontal, fact-based approach is also reflected in Booking.com’s marketing strategy. It’s all about digital performance with 85 per cent of Rijvers’ budget piped into SEO, optimisation, affiliate marketing and A/B testing, because “we don’t want to follow opinion, we want to follow data”. There are more than 1,000 different versions of the website live at any one time, so the brand “learns more than 1,000 things a day,” he adds.
This experimental way of operating means that life for Booking.com’s agencies isn’t exactly a walk in a park. Rijvers believes, however, that they are up for the job. The bulk of work goes to shops in Amsterdam or London because of their reputation as “international melting pots” – not just because of their handy geographical locations.
“The creative scene in Amsterdam is very healthy,” says Rijevers. “We have no issue relocating talent here.”
Shutterstock, the media library that began life as founder Jon Oringer’s personal photography portfolio, opened a base in Amsterdam in 2014. While it currently employs just eight people in the city full-time, this number has more than doubled since its launch.
The Dutch office is dedicated to marketing, complementing its work in other cities (namely Berlin, London and Paris) which focus more on likes of sales and business operations. For Eric Sams, the brand’s marketing art director, the set-up means better partnerships and easier creative.
“In Amsterdam there’s a thriving creative community and it’s quickly becoming a very popular tech hub,” he says. “We want to be a part of that.”
The company takes advantage of incoming international conferences such as the Next Web to forge new relationships, yet the city’s compact nature also means developing established connections is an easy job – it’s a 40-minute walk to old pals WeTransfer, for instance, or a 15-minute cycle in Amsterdam speak.
The office is responsible for both international and local creative. The latter is one that shouldn’t be overlooked, explains Charles-Henri Becquet de Megille, Shutterstock’s vice-president of marketing EMEA and APAC: “Being a global company is one thing but serving the customer locally is just as important. That’s why we’re trying to infuse more international flavour into our campaigns and messaging on the creative side – for instance using localised imagery and really working on translation.”
Sams, who lived in the US for most of his working life, agrees having a physical base in a country such as the Netherlands is vital to marketing in that market. “You really get increased exposure to different customer needs,” he explains. “For instance outdoor advertising here is really different to outdoor advertising in New York. And for years I was telling designers to arrange vertical type in a certain direction, because that’s how book spines are published and our eyes are trained to read that way. But then you go to Berlin, and they run the other way.”
For campaigns that reach beyond the Benelux region, the plethora of international talent that lands in Amsterdam makes it easy to find the right person for the job. “We are a team of eight with six nationalities – you can pretty much guarantee that you will find a common language in which to speak,” says Becquet de Megille.
“There are so many cross-disciplinarians and specialists all in the same city,” he adds. “We can find someone who specialises in Asia-Pacific marketing for instance, but also find someone with coding skills who’s a really awesome designer.”
TomTom is still “a household name – the Kleenex or Coca-Cola of navigation devices”, according to its sports division’s vice-president of marketing Patrick Stal. The GPS-driven brand was founded in Amsterdam in 1991 and continues to employ just under 1,000 staff at its headquarters near Centraal station. The company has gone from developing software for palmtops to collaborating with bluechip brands such as Nike, Apple and even governmental departments. Stal, the former managing director of Interbrand, heads up its relatively new wearables division.
“I don’t think many businesses in Amsterdam could be the businesses they are if they were outside of Amsterdam,” Stal muses. “The Dutch are very direct. They live to challenge convention. I think that spirit comes through in companies that are based here: they tend not to take no for an answer.”
He continues: “I’ve never experienced a city that is as international as ours. It is truly a melting pot of languages and cultures. It attracts a lot of creative and technical talent, specifically around mobile. So for us it’s become a fantastic place to be, also because there’s a lot of programming and engineering talent here that we wouldn’t necessarily find in other places.”
Unlike most devotees to the city, Stal is surprisingly skeptical of its perceived position as a creative mecca. Although it’s a city “ripe with art and culture”, he believes Berlin has surpassed Amsterdam in terms of the quality of the creative talent living there, with a “flight” of marketers migrating east to the German capital over the past few years.
“I think the financial crisis and the coming up of other creative capitals in Europe has forced a reassessment of the creative scene in Amsterdam,” he says. “We’ve seen some talent leave, we’ve seen some agencies crash and others reassess their positioning.”
However, he also believes the overarching agency scene is still world class, if a little crowded.
“We’ve seen digital agencies doing ATL work, digital agencies becoming PR agencies, PR agencies doing ATL… I think the digital space is maturing quickly and I hope we’re going to see real experts come back out of the mix.
“So it’s a completely befuddling space. But If you know how to navigate the market, I think you have a competitive advantage being in Amsterdam.”