Life of a creative: what it’s really like to live and work in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is known either as the place you come for a week but end up staying for a lifetime, or as the city you use as a springboard to bounce into creative rock stardom elsewhere. But what is its magic? We tap into the brains of W+K’s Genevieve Hoey, Martin Beswick from 180 Amsterdam and Michael Aneto at Perfect Fools to find out what it’s really like to live and work in Amsterdam.
Managing partner, Perfect Fools
Can you define Amsterdam?
The best way for me to describe Amsterdam is to use the analogy of our round table at Perfect Fools. Everyone comes by and sits here for a bit. Some of the people are British. Some are Dutch. Some are Finnish. Some are Italian. Some work here, some have just come for a chat. I believe that, nowadays, this business is all about a conversation…
Well, a while back it was more about clients writing briefs that they thought were right for their communication needs – and agencies would come up with ads that they thought were right for that brief.
Along the way, I think we’ve started to realise we’re not on different sides of the spectrum, we’re not on opposite ends of things – we’re actually all on the same table. So perhaps here in Amsterdam more than other places, now more than ever, it’s about a chat. It’s about having conversations. Less predefined briefs, more getting together at an earlier stage in the process to chat. And it’s always about their business – never about their communication – communication is just a tool.
So what made you come to Amsterdam in the first place – and what’s kept you?
I moved to Amsterdam because I wanted to work outside of London – but didn’t want to go too far. At the time I liked the city, but in a way I felt the work here was a bit indulgent. So I came in 2009, but what’s really kept me where is two-fold: Perfect Fools and, crucially, because it’s easy.
‘Easy’ is actually a big thing. It’s both the benefit and the problem about Amsterdam. Once you’re used to this place it’s surprisingly hard to leave – not because of the lifestyle per se, but because it’s just so easy to get stuff done here. Which is good and bad in equal measures.
How does international work at your agency?
It’s funny; we’re actually the only Swedish agency in Amsterdam. But at the same time we are perhaps the only agency in Amsterdam that has no Swedish creatives working away somewhere. So that just gives a small insight into how mixed up things are in this city. Obviously, when Perfect Fools first set up the Amsterdam office eight or nine years ago, there were plenty of Swedish people here. Back then it was still special. Since then probably every Hyper Island student has tried to work in Amsterdam. Now, you don’t need Swedes to be a Swedish agency.
Does advertising still exist in your world?
It’s funny, the longer I’ve worked in advertising, the less I feel like I work in advertising… It’s much more about creating an experience, something you can’t capture into a showreel, something that’s closer to digital design.
What are the threats to Amsterdam advertising agencies as we know them?
There are a number of threats. There are more agencies out there, new ones popping up every day, also brands are increasingly setting up their own in-house agencies, there are talented freelancers working as one-man or one-woman-bands. You’ll always have that brilliant developer who can always make more than just a website…
On the other hand, there are more chances to get in and speak with brands. The barriers of entry are lower; brands are working with more and more partners, rather than a fixed agency with a big retainer. So do your best to get in there. And once in, do your best to stay in there.
Again, it all starts with a conversation.
Creative director, Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam
Let’s start with the work…
Amsterdam is one of the last bastions of the big, global idea – some massive global campaigns have come out of this tiny town.
And the challenge here is definitely in creating work that can travel across cultures and languages.
This forces your ideas and thinking to be as simple and pure as possible, which is a great skill to hone. There are no lazy local idioms here.
This city is all about big bold brand work, and incredible design.
How did you get here?
I got into advertising possibly later than most creatives. I tried several different paths. At the time it felt erratic, but in hindsight it was the perfect career trajectory for what I do. Even a job cleaning Heath Ledger’s film trailer, I’m pretty sure I use those skills every day.
I did a film degree, worked in book publishing, magazines and media, and fought the urge to become a writer every step of the way. Finally, age 30, I quit a six-figure job and landed myself a seat as the oldest junior copywriter ever.
Fast forward through several years, agencies and countries and I’m creative director at W+K Amsterdam.
What do you like most about working in Amsterdam?
This city is packed with rare creative souls, sans the big city puffery. The dickhead ratio here is very low. I’ve only met one or two truly outstanding examples in my time here. Most people are pros who keep it humble and let the work do the talking.
There’s always someone new and interesting rolling into town. Amsterdam is the kind of city that attracts a very particular kind of person. And they’re generally particularly interesting to work with.
The DNA of Amsterdam is entrepreneurial. People embrace the freedom to experiment and fail. Galleries, pop-ups, shows, events. That energy permeates the advertising community.
How do you rank Amsterdam creatively?
Very highly. Amsterdam runs its own race generally. The work that comes out of this town has a strong character, humour, a point of view. It’s very distinctive. We can’t make excuses here. The output here has to be of a world-class standard to cut through.
Have you made your best work here?
I’m not sure any creative ever stops midstream to say they’ve made their best work. But I think Amsterdam provides this incredible opportunity to experiment, to play, to create. People always seem to leave feeling like they’ve stretched their possibilities. Creatives are restless souls and never really happy anywhere. But they do tend to stay here longer than most places.
Creative director, 180 Amsterdam
One of the most appealing things about Amsterdam is that the city feels so small geographically, but it feels big and ambitious in scope. Everyone you meet is doing something different – everyone is either starting their own thing – or working for a place that’s starting something new.
It feels like things here get started by people, not corporations. Just like the guys who started 180, just a bunch of people in a room. That feels quite empowering.
So how did you get here in the beginning?
This isn’t very original, as just like pretty much everyone else I came over for a short project and have ended up staying for the last seven years. But to be totally honest I always wanted to work here. Mainly because when I was a student at Stockport College I was slightly obsessed by KesselsKramer.
Kessels was unique at the time. Really experimental, always doing weird and crazy stuff. I never did get that job at Kessels, but it did refocus my attention and I ended up starting my advertising career at Mother London, which felt like the closest match.
How is the work different to London?
The main difference with working in Amsterdam is moving from local to global in your mindset. You can’t use the normal cultural references. You can’t use a joke. A joke doesn’t translate to 20 difference languages…
That’s how you get good quickly as a creative in Amsterdam – you have fewer tools to work with. The artist who works with only five different colours is more inventive than the artist who works with a thousand different colours. When your palette is limited you have less to work with so you have to either be more inventive, or make that one tool work harder.
So what does work?
You actually have to strip things down to the core idea. Distil it down to that one single thing that you need to say – the one insight. 180’s PlayStation ‘For The Players’ is one of the best examples of this. A campaign being about a bigger thought – a truth that everything PlayStation does is for the players.
Why do you think Amsterdam is such a creative place to work?
This goes back to the history of Amsterdam, it’s always been a port where people come in from elsewhere to make some money and then go somewhere else next to make more. It’s always been a bit of a pirate’s town. Always been almost as many foreigners as locals. It’s the city where the very first cheque was written. It was created to stop pirates stealing the cash. It’s always been about innovation and necessity, commerce and creativity, and that’s still the case today.
People come here all the time to find a platform to be creative. So many interesting characters have been through this city. Tarantino came here and stayed above the Betty Boop coffee shop where he remained until he’d finished the script for Pulp Fiction. Chet Baker spent lots of time here, up until his untimely death – also in Amsterdam. And of course John Lennon and Yoko Ono came here to start a revolution with their bed-in, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
How do you get your inspiration?
Amsterdam always inspires me. You never have to look far; you’re always bumping into people with optimism. It’s a place where you somehow feel it’s all possible. In London, whenever I stepped outside I’d be confronted by a million people. Nobody will stop and give you the time of day. Everyone is too busy trying to keep themselves afloat to worry about you.
What are the hurdles?
I guess the challenge is learning to think in a global way, rather than a local way. It’s probably the easiest place in the world to live in. You can land here and within a month you’ll have a place to live, friends, a local bar… a community. Everyone I know has settled in. It’s a village thing – I mean who doesn’t feel welcome in a village?