How Amsterdam's 180 nationalities give the city’s ad scene a very global outlook

The advertising market in Amsterdam is flourishing. Or more specifically, the international advertising market in Amsterdam is flourishing: the canals overflowing with global talent ever since Wieden + Kennedy first rocked up on the city’s shores some 20 years ago.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t an Amsterdam ad scene before the arrival of Portland’s finest, but according to Lode Schaeffer, a veteran of the city’s creative sector, the typical Dutch ad scene has for a long time been “small and getting smaller, whether people like to admit it or not”.

Schaeffer, whose agency Indie counts Microsoft, Heineken, Domino’s and Nike Golf among its clients, compares the traditional industry to a scene in Disney’s The Jungle Book: “It’s like King Louie’s temple, falling down around him as he tries to hold it up, but it gets smaller and smaller until all he is left with is a little rock.”

“There are basically two ad scenes in Amsterdam,” he explains. “There is the small ad scene which is Dutch agencies focusing purely on the Dutch market, and then there is the international scene, with Amsterdam Worldwide, Wieden + Kennedy, KesselsKramer and Indie, who are always stimulating each other and learning from each other. This is by far the most interesting.”

On the set of Indie's shoot for Amstel.We meet Schaeffer at Café Hoppe on the city’s Spuistraat, where he’s on the set of a Russian TV shoot for Amstel. Sat at a table in one of the city’s oldest cafes while a Russian crew hurries around us working on an international brand, the setting for our encounter is almost a metaphor for the industry itself – a multinational microcosm set against a quaint backdrop.Schaeffer calls the city a “global village”, and he’s not the only person we’ll hear utter this phrase during our stay. “We have Italians, Australians, a Belgian managing director, and we have some French,” he says. “I couldn’t be without other nationalities in the agency. It gives a different vibe, a different atmosphere, and it helps us to stay away from the temptation to only focus on the market that is surrounding you.”Despite being relatively small with some 760,000 inhabitants, there are said to be 180 nationalities in Amsterdam. And befitting a place that’s home to 180 nationalities, the city’s ad scene has a very international outlook.From the home-grown agencies aspiring to grow beyond their national borders such as Schaeffer’s Indie, to the international shops such as Wieden + Kennedy who have identified the city as the ideal central European hub, and everyone in between, the city’s blend of nationalities is complemented by a unique blend of agencies – lending it a cultural mix like no other and informing the work it produces.Wieden + Kennedy established its Amsterdam office in 1992 when founding client Nike opened its European headquarters near the city. Managing director Clay Mills explains that Amsterdam agencies are well positioned to build global brands, which presents “a lot of challenges, but significant opportunities”.And when compared to similarly sized agencies in London and New York, Amsterdam agencies offer “fresher thinking and an independent perspective,” he says.“Amsterdam agencies seem less inclined towards obsession at what the industry competition is up to, which can lead to work unencumbered by category conventions or the latest fashionable rhetoric. I think Amsterdam agencies enjoy a sort of benevolent naïveté in this respect,” he adds. Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam's ad for Booking.comStrawberryFrog’s Patrick Garvey takes up the cosmopolitan thread to explain how Amsterdam, especially within the creative community, is “blessed with a relatively international and transient workforce,” and that it is this “sheer concentration of nationalities living and working within a small city, and within a tight creative community,” that make it so unique.In 1999 StrawberryFrog became one of the first international agencies to set up in Amsterdam, and now boasts offices in New York, Mumbai and Singapore and a client base just as diverse, from South Korean electronics firm LG to Indian automobile brand Mahindra and Kentucky-based bourbon Jim Beam.New business director Garvey is now on his second stint in the city, and says that during his time in Amsterdam he has “been inspired by people from more countries with a wider range of backgrounds” than any other city he has lived or worked in before.“This cross-pollination of ideas and international influences certainly comes across in a lot of the work produced by Amsterdam’s creative agencies – it has to,” he says. It is something that sets Amsterdam apart from other cities, and it certainly plays to the city’s strength as a global creative hub.Garvey adds: “I feel that nowadays with the advent of social media, and the requirements for brands to be more truthful and transparent than ever, brands need to be working as hard as they can to tell authentic stories their consumers want to hear. So if Amsterdam’s speciality is brand storytelling, then if I were a client I would definitely give huge consideration to an agency that may on paper be a little further away than the agency down the road, but could offer a fresher perspective and a newer approach.”Amsterdam Worldwide was also founded in the city in 1999, and likewise with the objective of building brands around the world. And likewise again, it is another great example of what Amsterdam does so well – neither traditional network nor a one-country shop, but a multinational multidisciplined agency creating highly effective, integrated pan-European and global campaigns. Client services director Megan Wooding explains that the city is “such an international hub for so much business,” and advertising in particular. “But it is so much more than just advertising,” she says. “It’s much more about creativity and design.”She also tells us how the city attracts a certain kind of person, “someone who’s really into culture, someone who’s really into travelling,” adding that most people will have global experience before settling in Amsterdam.“It’s a very attractive city, and certainly there’s a lot of people who just arrive, like I did, and think ‘right, this is the place I want to be, I want to work in advertising here’.”Appropriately for a company called Amsterdam Worldwide, the agency has just the one Dutch client (superyacht builder Feadship) and only a couple of Dutch staff. Wooding hails from Australia while the rest of the team is made up of people from the US, Austria, Germany, England and Canada. “That mixture brings something really nice,” says Wooding, “especially in the creative work; how we approach problems and the different attributes we bring”. 72andSunny's campaign for BenettonThis medley of transient nationalities creates an almost bohemian environment in the city. And appropriately for such a collection, there is no shortage of attitude in the work produced, such as 72andSunny’s much lauded 2012 ‘Unhate’ campaign for Benetton, which featured unlikely images of world leaders – like Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez or Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas – kissing each other.Carsten Prujis, a strategist at the MDC-owned agency, describes Amsterdam as a “world famous place with a reputation for being creative, full of imagination and a penchant to bend the rules”.“It’s a small village populated by many cultures, and the work becomes especially inspiring when they collide,” he says.This creative freedom and expression of attitude is something echoed by Antonin Jamond of BSUR, who says that the best thing about the ad industry in the city is that it mixes cultures and facilitates freedom. From the agency’s offices in a leafy suburb 2km south east of the rings of the Amsterdam’s famous canals, Jamond tells us how the Dutch were the first to go global, “sailing bravely off to trade with exotic countries,” bringing back not just gold and spices, but “the ability to deal with a broad mix of international cultures” – a quality inherent in the city’s ad industry today.“Freedom is bigger than Jesus in Amsterdam,” he claims, “and sometimes it may look like mild anarchy”. “We think that’s when creative minds of every kind produce their most original and authentic work,” says Jamond. “The Dutch live with the ability to fly in the face of convention. It’s not just about embracing change, but designing it.”This “flying in the face of convention” is something also referenced by 180 Amsterdam president Al Moseley, who explains how agencies adapted their outlook as a result of the financial recession. “After the gloomy economic climate you would expect the mood among the ad industry to be poor, but actually the opposite has happened and agencies have adapted and become more creative,” he tells us. “As the saying goes... culture grows in the rain”.He says that the city has an “infectiously diverse culture that actively encourages innovation,” and with 20 different nationalities at the agency, clients including Adidas, ASICS, PlayStation and Qatar Airways are ensured “a truly global perspective on their business”. 180 Amsterdam's work for Ketel One“Given the city’s DNA, the agencies invariably share a strong global perspective and an ambition to create work that travels and impacts the world.”Moseley also explains that Amsterdam doesn’t have big agencies “in the same way as the US and the UK”. Neither does it have “the culture that goes with big agencies”. Instead, he says, “most agencies keep themselves small enough to be nimble and more open to innovation”. It’s this nimbleness that has allowed agencies like 180 to adjust to some fundamental changes in the industry. Moseley divulges that the old days of creating one big TV ad are well and truly gone, and that creative platforms “need to be able to work from business card to TV, from experiential to social”. It’s a case of being open minded as traditional advertising blurs with other creative disciplines, which Moseley says he likes to think is for the better. He opines that any agency wanting to succeed at scale “needs to offer a multidisciplinary skillset,” which he says can often mean “partnering with others who can offer the right advice and expertise” – something perhaps best evidenced by the agency’s recent collaboration with Minivegas on Sony’s HD ad for horror survival game ‘The Last of Us’.Perhaps Indie’s Lode Schaeffer puts it best when he describes Amsterdam as “one big garden, bursting with creativity”. “Everyone should come to Amsterdam just for that,” he tells us.“Go to New York and you’ll meet New Yorkers,” he says, “and go to London and you’ll meet Londoners”. “Come to Amsterdam,” he beams, “and you’ll meet the world”.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.