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Is Amsterdam ‘the Harvard of advertising’? Reflections with Wesley ter Haar

Is Amsterdam an unsung hero of the modern marketing landscape? / Gaurav Jain via Unsplash

Wesley ter Haar is co-founder of MediaMonks and, since a merger with Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital in 2019, executive director of that organization too. Now based in Los Angeles, he hails from the Netherlands and, as we found out in a recent roundtable session with other Dutch agency leaders hosted by The Drum Network’s head Holly Hall and Dutch Digital Design’s Bert Hagendoorn, remains evangelical about its capital Amsterdam.

The Netherlands’ most famous international export in the agency world, MediaMonks, wasn’t actually founded in Amsterdam. “We started our company in Hilversum, a tiny town, and then lied about being in Amsterdam for a good 15 years before actually opening an office in Amsterdam,” says founder Wesley ter Haar. There’s probably no higher praise you can give a place than pretending to be from it. “We lied about being in Amsterdam for a reason,” he says; in Europe at least it’s “the most open and international main city that attracts good international talent.”

In contrast with London, Paris, Madrid and even Berlin, which focus largely on “local work for local people,” Amsterdam “historically has been a place that has to look outside of its local landscape and borders in order to be able to meaningfully do business.” And with more constrained budgets than in the UK or USA, say, Amsterdam is an excellent proving ground: “If you can work with local budgets, you can make everything work.”

This internationalism gives the city “a bit of an alumni set-up,” he says, because so much talent goes through Amsterdam before heading out to other global centers. Wesley himself moved to Los Angeles (before returning home to the Netherlands and remaining there when the world locked down) and says that his calendar was immediately filled with invitations from old Amsterdam friends.

A global agency in 2021

MediaMonks is no longer based in Amsterdam alone: now, S4 boasts 6,000 employees in 33 countries. For a start, he says, it’s always been the case that “offices only work if there’s a real local team or a real local vibe to them.” Expansion efforts that overfocus on mimicking a culture that worked in one place in an entirely different part of the world can, he says, often fall into the trap of becoming “just a logo on a door somewhere.” It’s important to maintain the feel of a certain location, rather than stamping your own idea of culture on it.

That expansion started over a decade ago – first into London and then Singapore – but recent revolutions to the shape of the business world have caused Wesley, along with everyone else, to rethink the purpose of the office. With leaders seeing output remain high when teams went home to work, he hopes that we’re moving beyond a control paradigm (focused on seeing what people are doing during the day); instead, “the office is for community now.” That doesn’t make the situation straightforward though, with an age-based bifurcation on approaches to returning to the office: older workers are happy to remain at home, and younger people are more focused on IRL value exchanges such as learning and mentorship, and are keener to return in some form.

What are agencies for now?

Thinking about the office isn’t the only thing that’s been changed by Covid-19; according to Wesley, other long-gestating trends were hastened too. “[There is a] massive push for more traditional chief marketers to fully make the switch to digital native creative thinking, and there’s been a bit of a hold up for a long time, but the trends that Covid compressed all move to that space,” he says. The agency’s role is to show up for their clients in moments like this, helping them “feel more native to the current ecosystem and landscape” – and, rather than just getting them to spend big on the latest shiny brief (on NFTs or the metaverse, perhaps), “positioning as a partner to help them move into that space.”

Simple enough, but it’s worth remembering the pressure on every brand to make moves like this. “Now every brand becomes a DTC performance brand because everybody’s pushing so much spend into digital spaces,” he says, and combined with inflection points like the recent difficulties besetting Facebook and obstacles to targeting and tracking like Google’s impending changes to third-party cookies, “it’s going to be more and more difficult to get your metrics on that digital spend.”

The upshot is that “owned web and first-party data becomes more and more important, which changes how we think about advertising because then it’s not about can I get a click and convert; it’s can I build a baseline of loyalty and lifetime value.” His partners and clients seem to understand that, but “it’s not easy to switch the massive global advertising machine to that model.”

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