Technical talent: how a lack of tradition hasn't hindered Amsterdam's digital scene

Having matured later than its UK counterpart, the Dutch digital industry is often accused of lacking tradition, but this hasn’t hindered the high-end technical talent or the creative start-ups currently coming out of Amsterdam.

MediaMonks' tshirtOS for Ballantine's20 miles south-east of Amsterdam, surrounded by forests, lakes and meadows, is the town of Hilversum.Known to many as Media City, the borough is home to the Netherlands’ radio and TV industries, and its modernist architecture houses audio and TV studios, production companies and broadcasters, as well as a number of technical universities.Logically, Hilversum also plays host to a number of digital agencies, perfectly placed to service these media companies and to take advantage of the talent emerging from the universities.One such agency is MediaMonks, arguably Amsterdam’s most famous digital production agency, despite not technically being based in Amsterdam. With some 170 employees, and clients including Tribal DDB, Mother, Wieden + Kennedy and BBH, the agency’s work is wide-ranging, from Heineken’s James Bond to campaigns for KLM and Adidas.Catching up with Victor Knaap, one of the agency’s four Dutch founders, he tells us: “There are a lot of universities and education institutions around because a lot of the big TV networks are here. The largest sound and animation university is based right next to our office.“One of the guys that came from that university [Erik-Jan de Boer] just won an Oscar for the opening animation of Life of Pi. It’s really high end stuff they do, so we pull a lot of talent from there,” he explains.For Knaap, there’s a clear distinction between Hilversum and Amsterdam, even if he’s not always quick to correct clients who assume the agency is based in the capital. For him, “the technical guys are based around this part of the Netherlands, while all the hipster designers come from Amsterdam”.And while I’m sure this tongue-in-cheek account of Amsterdam’s digital scene is purely for my benefit, Knaap’s description of his agency as “a safe pair of hands” is refreshingly honest. He explains that the agency’s USP is that it gets work done on time. “It’s something you can’t underestimate”, he says. “You can’t imagine how many fuck-ups there are in this line of business.”He continues in this candid vein, admitting that, as a digital production company, the agency’s job is essentially to make things look good. “If someone brings a shit idea to me,” he exclaims, “then a huge, bright, shiny shit idea comes out”. Luckily for him, he says, MediaMonks gets to work on “a lot of sexy international brands,” for a number of “sexy agencies, like Wieden + Kennedy or 180,” so the “shit” ideas are few and far between. Tribal DDB Amsterdam's Bronze Lion winning work KLM Space Also based away from the city centre, although admittedly not quite as far out as MediaMonks, is Tribal DDB, one of the older and bigger online agencies in Amsterdam and a company which, Knaap explains, is “killing it” from an interactive perspective and which is “on its way to becoming the best in the world”. Headquartered in Amstelveen, a southern suburb of Amsterdam also home to agency client KLM, a successful year for Tribal DDB has seen it collect three bronze and two silver Lions at Cannes (for its KLM ‘Space’ campaign, Heineken campaigns ‘Ignite’ and ‘Your Future Bottle’, Amstel’s ‘Trophy Can’ and Philip’s ‘The Sound of Creation’) as well as a Silver Clio, a Webby award, and several site of the day and site of the month awards from FWA. The agency’s head of strategy Antoinette Hoes explains that the Dutch industry is great at “incorporating different cultures, nationalities and disciplines” into its work. And as much as Dutch universities are now producing graduates good enough to win Oscars, “talent travels these days” she says, and the city is extremely attractive to the international crowd so the agency scene benefits from constant supply of high quality digital people from all over the world. And just as the industry’s ability to produce and attract quality digital people raises no concerns for Hoes, its ability to retain the best graduates is likewise not worth worrying about. “We like our Dutchies best after a stint abroad,” says Hoes. “So we think it is great that they are tempted abroad and know that we will welcome them back someday.” Jasper Mittelmeijer of social media agency LikeFriends delves even further into the merits of the Dutch educational system, shaking his head as he explains how, traditionally, creativity and science were kept separate. “They were even housed in different institutions,” he says, “making it harder for the two ingredients of innovation to meet”. This was far from an ideal situation, he says. “One might even call it stupid”. Things are very different these days, however, with universities “pushing students to be more entrepreneurial, creative and daring”. And conversely, says Mittelmeijer, “art schools are far more market-minded”. Mittelmeijer admits that the digital industry in the city might lack tradition, having “matured later than in the anglo-saxon market,” because of which there isn’t such a strong base of well-trained and highly experienced people for juniors to look to. This leads to “a bit of ‘wheel-inventing’ at times,” but “inventing the wheel comes with its fair share of fun and, more often than not, throws up some interesting opportunities,” smiles Mittelmeijer. LikeFriends' work for PepsiLikeFriends founder Stef de Jong explains how, for outside talent, “Amsterdam offers a European experience, with English as a main language”. “The city culture is open,” he says, “and we feel that the city focuses on people more than companies. “If you’re bold, brave and work hard, Amsterdam is a great base for either starting up or developing your career.”New to the city and developing her career is Marjolein Koppelaar. Until recently Koppelaar worked out of London for Ve Interactive, but, in her new role as MD for the Benelux region, set up the shopping cart recovery agency’s Amsterdam office – a mere two weeks before we showed up on her doorstep.With the marketing services company’s footprint already spanning the world, from offices in Sydney and Stockholm to Sao Paulo and Shanghai, Amsterdam was perhaps an obvious choice for the agency’s next address.“Amsterdam is a hub within Europe and the tech and start-up scene is growing very fast,” explains Koppelaar – something evident when you look at the success stories emerging from the city in the past few years, including mobile augmented reality leader Layar, file transfer platform WeTransfer and online travel agency“Around the Grachtengordel [the canal district] there is a real growth of these kind of companies. It’s great to have like-minded companies around you and it is definitely exciting to be part of the fast-growing community,” Koppelaar says. “And compared to other European cities it’s a relatively small city and not as hectic as London or Berlin”.Perhaps then, Amsterdam’s size is its strength. For all its historical, creative and cultural significance, the city is not a sprawling metropolis in the mould of London, Paris or New York. But instead of this being a weakness, Amsterdam’s compactness might go some way to explaining why the city acts as such an effective incubator of ideas.“We’re a small country but have always been internationally minded, especially in Amsterdam,” says Koppelaar. “I think the combination of the Dutch mentality of ‘keep both feet on the ground’ and the international spirit makes Amsterdam an attractive city, especially in the online world where there are no borders.”Asked about the city’s weaknesses, Koppelaar laments the fact that it is slightly behind in terms of digital technology expertise, explaining that it “follows London and Berlin in some areas”, including the shopping cart abandonment industry which was relatively unknown about just two years ago, despite being an essential part of businesses strategies in London. Likewise the performance marketing industry, where it seems that “the discussion about ‘last cookie wins’ only started recently at a broader audience,” despite having been going for a while in the UK.“We are working in a very exciting industry however, and it is changing all the time,” she adds. “I think most of us are very excited about that.” Minivegas' work for Sony's The Last of UsMinivegas creative director Maarten Boon is similarly excited by the what’s happening in the digital industry in Amsterdam, saying the mood in the city is “pretty positive”.“Dutch consumers are really digital-oriented,” he tells us, “and next to that, collective belt-tightening has forced agencies to conceive more efficient ways to get the message across, which inevitably shifts the focus from TV commercials to digital.”We catch up with Boon at the production company’s Kerkstraat headquarters, from where the agency hawks its very own blend of filmmaking, animation and technology to clients as diverse as Adidas, CNN, Levi’s and Nissan. Our meeting comes as the buzz is spreading around Sony’s new HD ad for horror survival game The Last of Us, created by Minivegas and 180 Amsterdam, which Boon describes as “an incredibly exciting project”.“It required taking very sophisticated game-play graphics and merging them with the real-life environment of a man, in his living room,” he says. “We have created an ad that is not only true to the game it promotes, but adds a new dimension of engagement.”For these type of campaigns, Boon says working across platforms is essential, and luckily it is something “that has always come naturally” in Amsterdam. While digital is a big part of the agency’s output, “advertisers want to see strong synergy between all areas” of a campaign, “which is why it’s great that there is such a culture here of multidisciplinary agencies”.As the trend of Amsterdam becoming ever more important on the international stage continues, and global brands flock to the city to set up European hubs, Boon explains that it leads to a “knock-on effect for the industry,” with “more international work, bigger budgets and a creative industry that is driven to create increasingly innovative, compelling campaigns”.It seems that this small city, brimming with clients and agencies, large and small and local and international, has created the perfect, all-encompassing advertising ecology for digital companies to thrive in.“Plus,” says Tribal DDB’s Hoes, “there’s bitterballen and Gay Pride”.