Feature

Is it boom or gloom for Amsterdam's ad industry?

There is a huge surge of talent knocking on the doors of Amsterdam agencies. But why? And is it likely to continue? As part of The Drum's recent Amsterdam focus, we headed along to Dutch capital to find out.

Protectionism and nationalism are in the air again and the Euro crisis continues to rumble on, but how is outward-looking Amsterdam faring among all this? And where does the ad industry fit in?

Judging by house prices (up 20% per annum) and the proliferation of startups and new eateries on every straat corner, it all feels very 2005 or London in the late 90s – less cautious optimism and more full-on gold rush.

“What’s happening in Amsterdam now is unlike anything we’ve seen before,” says Hans Brouwer, founder of MassiveMusic and one of the city’s best-known creative entrepreneurs.

Brouwer is well positioned to analyze the current state of business in the city. And encouragingly, he’s unwaveringly positive and quick to call ‘boom’.

“Times are better than ever, and I’m not just talking about the creative output of the city, which I also have a good feeling about. Across all sectors I feel a lot of good spirit in Amsterdam at the moment, with international offices of all kinds opening up.”

The reverse is also true and Amsterdam agencies are expanding beyond the city. Brouwer’s music agency now has offices in London, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Tokyo.

“You see the boom in the crowds on the street. You see it in the shared office spaces that are all booked out. You see it in the increasing numbers of people from all over the world working here. You can taste it. And it can boom even more. Our arms are wide open.”

It’s no secret that, as well as a strong native talent pool to draw from, Amsterdam is a hotspot that attracts international talent of all shades and nationalities. Someone aware of this more than most is Sophie Worth, who is in charge of creative recruitment at Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, the first international ad agency to hit the city some 25 years ago.

“I can definitely see a boom. I am noticing a surge of talent knocking on our door. Perhaps this is partly due to the political climate in other countries, but I also think it is because our work resonates with so many people.”

Indeed, the trend of the best brains flocking to Amsterdam is up and the population of the city is set to increase by more than 2% a year until 2050. So how does it go about continually pulling in the good and the great?

“Compared with larger advertising hubs around the world, Amsterdam feels like a cosmopolitan village,” says Worth. “The quality of life is pretty unbeatable: relatively affordable housing, stress-free commuting – bicycle is the preferred mode of transport and some of us even take our boats – a vibrant creative scene and a very dynamic food-and-bar scene. It also offers plenty of brain food in the form of festivals, museums, concerts and more.”

In addition, she says, Dutch society is big on work/life balance as well as work flexibility to accommodate family life. “On the whole, life in Amsterdam is ‘gezellig’. Google it, it’s my favorite Dutch word and it sits firmly at the heart of Dutch culture. Once you move here, it is hard to leave. In fact, I know quite a few people who have left and ended up coming back.”

Globalization the right way

But it’s not only advertising and marketing that can’t resist the city’s allure. 72andSunny Amsterdam’s managing director Nic Owen notes that there are all sorts of interesting creative and technological industries, such as an “incredible biotech and sustainability industry”, in the city.

“And then we have advertising and communications riding on their coattails. It gives us an amazing springboard. And with Europe evolving the way it is I think the role of Amsterdam will become much more powerful as a creative powerhouse that can house all of Europe. Globalization isn’t going away and Amsterdam does it in the right, human way. That’s a very powerful position for us to be in as a city.”

Amsterdam goes out of its way to attract more business by supporting creative industries that want to set up or expand in and around the city. Ron Boyle from business development organization Amsterdam Inbusiness has been helping pump fresh blood into the beating heart of advertising for almost two decades. He explains that the number of new international businesses putting down stakes in Amsterdam has risen to 57% above the long-term trend in 2016. “I am cautiously optimistic,” he tells us.

Developments in the US are the reason for his caution, but so far in Amsterdam he is seeing US companies continue to invest.

“Netflix recently announced a major expansion, with plans to grow to more than 400 employees by the end of 2018. Uber will expand its international headquarters here to accommodate over 1,000 employees, and Oracle and Booking.com also keep expanding.

“Some of the companies here generate more revenue out of their European base than out of North America or Asia. Also, really hot corporations with great new innovative products will always want their creative suppliers close to them geographically.”

Dutch advertising and market-research industries are worth €8bn, he says. “Amsterdam alone employs 196,000 people in creative and cultural industries, making it the fourth-largest creative employer in Europe by number of staff.”

Post-production powerhouse Smoke & Mirrors added to the sense of an economic boom when it opened its Amsterdam outpost earlier this year to support the Amsterdam-based global brands it works with, such as Heineken. Its Amsterdam space is already bigger than its New York branch and is growing fast to become an increasingly global hub, with the potential to rival the scale of its original London office.

It’s part of an “ongoing commitment to better mirror the international footprint of clients”, says global managing director Gary Szabo, due to an “increasing breadth of amazing creative work that is originating in the Amsterdam market”.

The elephant in the room during any discussion, though, is definitely Brexit. To what extent is Amsterdam’s current success down to a withdrawal from the UK, or to unsettled times in the US?

Digital heavyweight and ex-Wunderman chief executive Antoinette Hoes is forthcoming with her opinion. “First and foremost,” she says, “we should profit as much as we can from Brexit.” (She does acknowledge that her view perhaps isn’t overly sympathetic.)

Financial institutions may not be picking Amsterdam to move to, she tells us, “but creative companies just might”.

W+K’s Worth explains that she had quite a few people reach out to her the day after Brexit, and likewise the day after Trump’s election. “I think the stability and open-mindedness of Amsterdam is appealing in these times of political turmoil,” she says.

And if our news feeds continue to go the way they have been, this boom is unlikely to turn to gloom any time soon.

This feature is from the Amsterdam installment of The Drum's Creative Cities series, which is sponsored by Amsterdam Inbusiness and published alongside our August issue of the magazine. To find out how you can become a subscriber go to thedrum.com/subscribe

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Jessica Hartley

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