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Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture Recruitment

Can Amsterdam take advantage as restrictions compound global agency hiring woes?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

October 11, 2022 | 12 min read

A trend towards tighter immigration rules in the US, UK and Singapore has exacerbated agency recruitment efforts. For our Globalization Deep Dive, we look at how this could push rival cities such as Amsterdam to the fore.

A passport with many stmaps

Obtaining permission to work in the UK, US and Singapore has become more difficult in recent years / Unsplash

New York, London and Singapore have strong claims to be the capitals of advertising in the Americas, Europe and Asia. That status attracts talented workers to agencies based in those cities, but increasing restrictions on the freedom of movement in each market have compounded recent agency recruitment woes.

Following Brexit, European freedom of movement rules no longer apply to Britain, meaning skilled workers can’t come to the country without a job offer already in place.

And rules around pay thresholds make it hard for foreign graduates to stay in Britain long enough to find a position, reducing the pool of potential candidates that agencies might recruit from. Despite new prime minister Liz Truss’s pledge to review those rules, change is unlikely to come soon.

In Singapore, pandemic-era legislation sharply reduced the influx of workers and provoked a reduction in its overall population, leaving only a small pool of recruits for agencies. The government has unveiled new measures to welcome skilled workers back, including a new kind of working visa.

And although Trump-era restrictions on legal immigration have been lifted in the US, there have been significant delays reported among those waiting for working visas due in part to an administrative backlog that grew during the pandemic.

Marla Kaplowitz, president and chief executive of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), says that digital and data roles have been particularly hard to fill. ”That’s one area where we’ve seen interest [from members]. Though it’s not been as significant as it has been for tech companies, it has affected agencies.”

The organization often writes letters of recommendation for international agency hires, she adds. Hurdling the visa process takes a lot of time: ”It’s a lengthy process, and expensive too, for the agency.”

Recruiter Michele Daly concurs. She tells The Drum that the visa backlog is holding back international hiring for US companies. ”Even if the visa ultimately gets approved, there could a long delay in the person physically being able to relocate and start work.”

As a consequence, even firms expanding into the US market from elsewhere are planning on hiring internally rather than transferring staff over. Callum Perrie, people and culture director at British indie Tug (which just launched its American business), says the agency would wait out the visa delay for ”the right person,” but plans initially on building an entirely American team to gouge out a foothold.

”I have found that, in most cases, the visas have ultimately come through and the international talent is indeed absolutely worth it for the unique perspectives,” says Daly. ”For a company to undergo the process of sponsoring a visa, they have to really want that talent and feel that talent is uniquely worth the uncertainties, the wait, the extra expense and the extra effort.”

Going Dutch

Agency businesses based in locations outside the UK, US and Singapore haven’t had as much trouble recruiting internationally. One of the big beneficiaries could be Amsterdam. The Dutch capital is home to spiky challenger networks such as Dept and Media.Monks, as well as established international indies and holding company agencies. WPP’s Amsteldok site is home to just under 1,500 employees at Opco, TSH and Design Bridge, while Wieden+Kennedy’s offices there have long served as that company’s gateway to Europe.

The high proportion of English speakers, fine transport links and high quality of living make the city an attractive prospect for any international business looking to set up a new base. And sitting at the center of the Eurozone and the visa-free Schengen Area, Amsterdam businesses can recruit from across the continent. Earlier this year, buzzy British indie agency Creature opened its first international office there following its acquisition by Dutch group Candid.

Dept’s Tobias Cummins, who moved to the city from New York in February, says it enjoys ”all the trappings of a major city without the humbug of it all.” The size of the city itself, plus the ability to cycle just about anywhere, means he ”can actually achieve a lifestyle by which everything is within a 15 min bike ride from home”.

”The quality of life shoots through the roof, but the knock-on effect is that, in a post-Covid world, communal spaces are actually buzzing given the low commuter barrier.”

For Simon Usifo, president of 72andSunny Amsterdam, the city offers workers the chance to advance their careers without compromising on the quality of living. ”When I came to Amsterdam, for the first time I was embracing an opportunity for my professional development where I didn’t have to make excuses to my family.”

Speaking from the canal-side offices of 180Amsterdam (the agency is sited in a historic ’gracht’ building on the Herengracht canal that once belonged to the Dutch East India Company), chief operating officer Steven Corlett says: ”The scene is much more fraternal; there’s a real sense of pulling together.”

A case in point would be the annual Adnight celebration, a city-wide open evening that sees around 70 creative agencies host colleagues and rivals in their premises. ”There’s a sense of camaraderie at Adnight,” says Corlett. ”It represents the opening of doors to everyone, to spend some time together, have a wander around – and, especially for younger talent, to ask questions, go to talks and show their books. It’s a really important part of the year for the industry to celebrate the individuality of each agency and our collective spirit.”

After the event took a hiatus during Covid-19, Corlett expects ”a raucous return” this week.

At both 180 and 72andSunny, Dutch workers are themselves the minority; both agencies host an international staff working on a bevy of region-wide and global accounts. At the former, the team includes 25 nationalities.

The Dutch government’s highly skilled migrant visa, introduced in the 90s, helped incubate the city’s creative industries, says Eva Rausch, joint managing director at 180. ”Everyone under the age of 31 you can hire pretty much immediately, no strings attached. And then for everyone that’s older than 31, you have to have a minimum salary attached to that. So it’s relatively easy to be able to hire people, particularly young people.”

That doesn’t mean competition within the city for top talent isn’t fierce. Sanne Tolsma, managing director at Creature Amsterdam, is shopping for ”good account people,” who she says are incredibly hard to find. ”Amsterdam is top of mind within the industry on a European level, or even beyond, as an interesting place to work. It’s not a big city, but it’s a very diverse bunch of people in this little village.

”But if I scroll through my LinkedIn feeds, it’s depressing to see that every agency is recruiting. We’re all fishing in the same pond.”

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Can Amsterdam become a European capital?

In the wake of Brexit (and a tumbling pound), Amsterdam has emerged as a serious challenger to London’s status as the pre-eminent business capital of Europe. This year, it became the top share trading venue in Europe, while more and more firms are choosing to stage their IPOs in Amsterdam’s stock exchange rather than London. One Bloomberg columnist even recently suggested the city was heading for a second golden age – albeit one with fewer oil paintings and tulips.

Could it rival Paris and London as the advertising capital of Europe, or of the of entire EMEA region? Cummins argues: ”It could easily do so. English is incredibly prevalent versus Paris ... the proximity to London and Paris is there ... and Brexit has contributed toward a more continental focus for business compounded by some major moves in recent months and years meaning that opportunities and European headquarters are here.”

72andSunny’s Usifo is less certain. With a population smaller than most major European cities plus its high rents, there may be a ceiling on Amsterdam’s growth as a business hub. ”It will definitely grow, maybe significantly. But if you look at the infrastructure, scalability is the thing and, from a property point of view, it’s not maxed-out but it’s nearly there.”

Everything is virtual anyway

Does a city matter to a business as much as it used to? Competition between Amsterdam, London and other urban centers for economic leadership obscures the fact that, over the past two years, the advertising industry has become unmoored from its traditional anchors.

Remote hiring that takes greater notice of timezones than of borders and tax laws could lead eventually to a truly global talent market, notes Reema Bhullar, head of talent acquisition at Singapore’s Maker Lab. The agency, which specializes in offshoring in-house teams for brands, has expanded significantly by hiring remotely. ”It doesn’t matter where teams are,” says Bhullar. And with clients embracing the idea through the pandemic, she says ”the applicant pool has opened up.”

Usifo agrees. While Amsterdam is ”an amazing place ... in terms of a home base,” he suggests it doesn’t matter where you are when everything is virtual. ”You can be based anywhere as long as your timezones match up. As long as the output is not compromised, nobody’s fussed.”

For more on what marketers and their partners need to do to succeed on a global level, check out The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.

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