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Made in Amsterdam: dissecting Dutch creativity

What does it mean to be ‘made in Amsterdam’ in 2017? As part of The Drum's Amsterdam installment of our Creative Cities series, we speak to seasoned creative leaders and up-and-coming talent as we dissect ‘Dutch’ creativity.

It’s pretty well documented that Amsterdam has changed a lot in recent years. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to have noticed the transformation, regeneration and gentrification taking place. When it comes to the creative and advertising world however, there are a couple of developments of particular interest.

Firstly, there has been a melding of Dutch and international cultures in advertising. Then we also have the rise of digital craft and Dutch digital design. However, it is when these come together that some of the most creative and most interesting work happens.

Dutch international

Historically speaking, there were two distinctly different ad scenes in Amsterdam – namely Dutch advertising and international advertising.

As sacrosanct entities they rarely met, save for the occasional ‘biertje’, and certainly never on the creative floor. Now, however, there are clear signals that the goalposts are moving and that international and Dutch advertising cultures are increasingly coming together.

But is this melding of two different entities creating a new breed – ‘Dutch international’ if you will – and is this what’s making Amsterdam such a uniquely great place to work, and the work from the city so uniquely great?

The young creative team of Michael James Phillips and Scott Kooken (aged 26 and 21 respectively) won the Young Lions Cyber Gold at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity in June, and is a great example of this new breed of ‘Dutch international’.

They tell us: “We are a Dutch/British partnership and coming from two different backgrounds means that we both bring our own values to the table. This friction is the very thing that makes us a good team. We always surprise each other with different points of view or introduce each other to nostalgia from our childhood that the other can experience for the first time.

“Also, looking at a brief from two different perspectives really helps us fire at it from multiple angles. We see that in the variety of ideas we come up with.”

And on the question of why this new breed of creatives is less focused on nationalities and national identities, they have this to say: “Our generation was born with the internet and as a result we don’t see borders based on geography. That makes the work of the new breed push the boundaries into the ‘who and what’ of the moment. Today, you can start a campaign from your phone right there in the moment. That’s a power and connection we’ve never seen before.”

72andSunny Amsterdam’s Nic Owen sees a lot of Dutch values embedded into his agency, especially the idea of creativity as a collective force rather than an individual one.

“Robert Nakata [72andSunny’s founder] worked in Dutch design companies before setting up the agency in LA. And Dutch design culture is all about putting your work up on the walls so that everyone can see it with an independent mindset.

“If work is on someone’s computer then there is an ownership of that work. But if it’s on a collective wall nobody owns it, so everyone is free to comment on it and everyone is free to make it better. So that DNA – that Dutch way of working – has always been part of our culture at a global level.”

As for Dutch creativity, “It is constantly evolving,” he says. And evolving in a good way. “You can see it in the way the city is designed. The way they can build a road under a canal. The way they can build a car park under a river. The way the road signs look. Everything about the city is well conceived and has a thought to it.”

For Dick Buschman, founder of digital powerhouse Achtung, the distinction between Dutch and international agencies will gradually disappear because of a typically Dutch hallmark – “working together”.

“I think we’re really good at that, and it helps create a better business, better solutions and, in the end, clients benefit from that international environment.”

Someone not content to wait for these distinctions to gradually disappear is Antoinette Hoes, formerly of Wunderman and, before that, DDB and Tribal. Outspoken in her support of bringing the two together, she says we should “tear down the walls between the international and local agencies and see how we might profit more from each other”. She points to Kingsday merging with 180 Amsterdam as a great example of this.

Indeed, this merger of the very much established and quite legendary international agency 180 with the five-year-old Dutch shop Kingsday raised a few eyebrows along the canals, but is in fact bang on-trend if you look at how fast the rate of integration is going this year.

Dutch digital design

Moving on to what could almost be described as a new ‘Golden Age’ in digital creativity coming out of Amsterdam, Bas Korsten, creative partner at J Walter Thompson Amsterdam – the agency behind ‘The Next Rembrandt’, which was last year’s most awarded campaign to come out of Amsterdam – says that something we need to take note of is digital craft.

“Just two examples of the many here are MediaMonks and Superhero Cheesecake. They do international work, or work with international appeal, for international clients. And they’re winning a lot of awards for it. Adding the Netherlands’ agencies and production companies together, you see a remarkably strong performance – with a focus on digital craft and digital design.”

For Buschman, the essence of the Dutch approach, especially brought to digital, is about simplicity, “both in interaction design and in the way it looks”.

“I think we try to make the perfect bridge between how people use things and the way it feels, the way it looks. I think the Dutch are really good at that part because they think from a conceptual point of view: ‘How can we make this work seamlessly?’

“And the Dutch are Calvinistic, so they cut out all the unnecessary things. And then they add a subtle thing that lifts it from functional to something more lovable. And that’s the essence of Dutch digital design. It’s the simplicity brought to something beyond functional.”

Going back to Korsten’s favorites and one of the Netherlands’ leading creative exports – MediaMonks – the digital production company’s founder Wesley ter Haar defines the character of Dutch digital craft as having previously followed leading international voices, such as the Swedes, but taking their very beautiful aesthetic design and adding something it lacked – “a bit of humor, a bit of ego, a bit of a ‘position’ almost”.

What we are seeing now, he says, is “an amazing combination between these sort of weird Dutch traits where there is a practicality and a creativity to it, but without taking itself too seriously”. “Luckily,” he adds, “the weirdest things work online.”

“I think we as a culture have a natural connection to that and we are now finally starting to find our voice in an aesthetic style. And hopefully we are going to push that.”

And with MediaMonks probably already one of the biggest digital creative production companies on the planet, it will be interesting to see where this push might take it next.

Another company pushing this voice in digital is Amsterdam’s Perfect Fools. Managing partner Michael Aneto is English and works for a Swedish company with Finnish owners – something that isn’t particularly unusual in Amsterdam.

“Perfect Fools started in digital, so we are digital natives,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean much to anyone anymore. So we have now evolved into a technology design company. We start looking at culture and then designing for that culture. And then we create the technology to serve that design, which in turn influences the culture. That is the trifecta we play with.”

Hoes believes that knowing how to leverage data and technology to create emotionally appealing, hard-hitting work is what will make agencies thrive.

“Smart use of data will get us to stronger insights into the human psyche. Smart and ethical use of tech will make sure consumers are touched by our communications, not repelled by our intrusions. This is an intersection where the Netherlands can thrive.”

And so the best of Amsterdam seems to be the coming together of Dutch, international and digital. It kind of makes sense when the winning work is exactly that – and indeed the winning team for the Young Lions at Cannes was Dutch, international and cyber.

Bas Korsten summarizes it thus: “Dutch people, inhabiting a tiny patch of land next to the sea, are used to going out into the world and sucking up influences and ideas from all over, and then making their own ideas from that.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Owen leaves us with this thought: “The best place on earth to do international advertising is Amsterdam.”

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