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Collaboration on the canals: setting sail with Amsterdam’s captains of the creative industry

As part of The Drum’s Creative City focus on Amsterdam, we jump on board a canal boat and dip our toes into Amsterdam’s collaborative creative scene.

In the shadow of the recently revived A’dam Toren, a renovated tugboat with the name De Watermannen painted on its side bobs gently on the waters of Amsterdam Noord, getting ready to coast its canals.

De Watermannen’s captain for the night is Bart Kokke, an independent creative producer and veteran of Amsterdam’s advertising industry who, three years ago, launched Creative Cruise as a way to encourage collaboration in the city.

Kokke welcomes The Drum on board with tales about his boating past and explains the thinking behind tonight’s cruise.

“For 10 years I organized exclusive boat parties as a DJ during Kingsday and Pride Amsterdam.

“With this experience behind me, I came up with the idea of a business cruise where I would pick up all the ad agencies right in front of their offices. It would make it easy for the busy ‘captains’ of the creative industry to get involved.”

On the water, Kokke tells us, people feel free to be themselves. “The nautical industry boasts ‘liberty and amity’,” he says. “People can make true connections and even friends for life on a boat. Plus, when you are on a boat it isn’t so easy to get off.

“But the real reason I started this was to share my connected way of working with the creative industry. It results in inspiration, insights, new connections, leads and creative collaborations for every guest on board.”

Always collaborating

Before we set sail, a crew of enthusiastic sailors approach from the direction of A’dam Toren, the 22-floor tower that reopened last year to house musicians, DJs, film makers, designers and creatives. Among them is Hans Brouwer, one of its founders, who describes it to us as a “vertical city of stories”.

Brouwer, chief executive and founder of MassiveMusic, came together with Club Air’s Sander Groet, Duncan Stutterheim of ID&T and Eric-Jan de Rooij of Lingotto to renovate and revive the tower as ‘Amsterdam Dance and Music’.

“It’s no surprise that a bunch of pioneering music companies, such as Gibson and Sony, now eat, breathe and live here,” he explains.

“We’re always collaborating, whether it’s business networking or a jam session. The Stone Twins, for instance, are the designers and art directors behind both A’dam’s brand identity and MassiveMusic visuals. I always question myself and try to inspire, while being inspired by others. When you never take anything for granted, that’s when you know you’re evolving.”

Meandering along Herengracht canal, we soon find ourselves in Amsterdam’s answer to Madison Avenue, home to 180 Amsterdam, Wieden+Kennedy, Anomaly, Amsterdam Worldwide and many more creative studios, agencies and production companies. Instead of a concrete jungle however, the big agencies here live in a kind of Dutch picture postcard, where boats float by, people cycle to their next leafy destination and the narrow architecture that defines the city appears to rise up out of the water. It is here De Watermannen makes its next stop to pick up even more potential collaborators.

Collaboration, it becomes clear, is the key element of Amsterdam’s creativity. This cruise is itself a team effort, Kokke working with digital agency Superhero Cheesecake, production house Dopamine and 3D animation studio Colorbleed to bring it to life.

Tom Hankins, founder of Colorbleed, explains that in the Netherlands it is important to get involved and partner with others. “With the Creative Cruise, we celebrate this industry in a way that gets local pioneers inspired and connected. By bringing together the creme de la creme, packed as adventurous pirates around the Amsterdam canals, it sets a vibe where ideas find their juice, connections get fired up and leaps can be taken in creativity.

“We’re all very collaborative and a close bunch that are very open with each other. Events are hosted all the time by agencies and act as get-togethers to inspire each other on every level. The Dutch are humble and we know very well that others are doing great inspirational work. We accept this and allow it to motivate us, to settle for nothing less.”

Looking sideways

For many, Amsterdam is a place you visit for a few days before deciding never to leave. And so goes the story of Shaun Fernando, who made the move from London 10 years ago and now works for Noisy Carrots, a music production studio. As he joins the boat he tells us how he has found that the creative freedom of the Amsterdam scene allows “a more flexible approach and spontaneous projects”.

“Working in such a bustling creative scene, for example, we got to know singer-songwriter and composer Maya Lavelle and knew she would be perfect for a project. From copywriters to cinematographers to film directors, connecting great talent in a city like Amsterdam is remarkably easy.”

For Marlies Mols, who heads up marketing agency Moxie’s Amsterdam outpost, this collaborative approach to working is increasingly popular with clients. “They want a group with different specialists, labels or agencies and combine their expertise, where necessary, to get the best work done for their brand.”

It is one reason top creatives and brands alike are choosing Amsterdam over other European hubs such as London, Stockholm or Berlin, but it’s not the only reason, according to Jordi Romkema of Superhero Cheesecake.

“We have easy access to one of the largest airports in the world, with direct flights to countless other cities. But despite our huge international community, the city is still small, familiar, laid-back and compact. It’s a creative melting pot. And just jumping on your bicycle to go to a meeting across town is a relaxing way to prepare yourself. It helps give you peace of mind.

“Also, the Dutch are go-getters. We want to get things done, fast. It’s built into the mentality of our people. We are citizens of a small country but want to be able to go to the top. That helps with doings things on time and within budget.”

Jaap van Oirschot of creative agency Mr Fox is next to join us on the boat, and also has a thing or two to say about the Dutch mentality. “Creative risk-taking has always been in our bones,” he tells us.

“Going back to the never-ending fight with the water and the innovations that inspired, and the Golden Age that gave us the liberal and tolerant mindset, combined with excellent logistics and digital infrastructure, well-educated workforce that speaks at least one foreign language – it all makes for a great creative cocktail.

“To quote the great designer Alan Fletcher, we’ve embraced the art of looking sideways. Both literally, when you’re on a bike, and metaphorically, when you witness the cross-pollination that happens when working together with a group of people from diverse cultural backgrounds and professional expertise, with a shared purpose.”

Taking a sideways look along the length of De Watermannen, there’s no doubt some cross-pollination will come from tonight.

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