Everything you always wanted to know about Amsterdam talent but were afraid to ask

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Amsterdam's creative ecosystem is winning the attention of clients worldwide.

There’s no place quite like Amsterdam when it comes to talent. It’s still the only city where you can sit in a room with 20 other nationalities and make the best work of your career - and still leave at 5pm sharp. This unique creative melting pot, spearheaded by the legendary international agencies of the late '90s and early '00s has been imitated, but never quite replicated.

In fact, the pool of talent in the city has grown incrementally in the last decade. This is down to a few factors: the growth of Amsterdam’s creative ecosystem, the stretching of the idea of Amsterdam to include cities like Hilversum and Utrecht, and the ‘blending’ of international and Dutch talent in creative shops (it’s no longer us vs. them). Not to mention the increasing number of brands and tech companies moving to the city in droves; replicating this model and frequently poaching the best in class from the creative industries.

However, that’s not to say that getting top international talent to sign on the dotted line is easy.

At The Drum’s first Boardroom Breakfast in Amsterdam, hosted by brand experience agency HarrimanSteel in partnership with Bert Hagendoorn, chairman of the Dutch Digital Design collective, the following questions were raised:

  • How does this battle for talent actually play out ‘down in the trenches’ – in the day-to-day operations of Amsterdam’s creative shops of all sizes?
  • And what does the age-old dance between attraction and retention of talent look like today?

Over an intimate breakfast featuring both Dutch and international creative business leaders, from the likes of MediaMonks, DDB Unlimited, One Shoe and The Brave New Now, there was a lot to say – and nobody held back.

INSIGHT #1: Show me the money

You could talk around this one, but the bottom line is that salaries in Amsterdam do not compete with other global hubs. “The money is always a challenge - it’s never going to be on a par with NYC or London,” said Sebastian Scheer, design director at MediaMonks. Even for talent eligible for the somewhat controversial 30% income tax break, the rates of taxation are… let’s say, a little harsh. However, the cost of living is lower – and the benefits in lifestyle more than make up for it. But the trick is you need to actually ‘sell’ this to your candidate of choice. This was a point underscored by Hazel Livingstone, chief executive and co-founder at creative agency, The Brave New Now.

“When it comes to bringing new talent in from other countries, you have to spend the time, invest in the relationship. It’s essential to do some wooing, then pitch Amsterdam as a city and a different way of working. Obviously, this can be quite challenging – especially when you have a business to run! It’s all about generating your own company culture and bringing that across whilst expanding on the benefits of a life in Amsterdam.”

Lawrence Du Pre, managing director of DDB Unlimited suggests that the industry could do more to “sell” the softer benefits of living in Amsterdam. “It’s easy to flatter talent at first by showing interest in working with them. Then when you get onto practical issues, the governmental and municipal level is also easy to navigate. However, it gets much more difficult when finding the right stats and information about the ‘softer’ benefits such as lifestyle and culture. This is where, as a whole, the industry could a lot more.”

Kerrie Finch, founder of FutureFactor PR agency cited recent research by her firm, where the two main deciding factors was the city itself and the reputation of a company. “Key talent is willing suck up less money to work at a company that has a strong reputation, so investing in your company’s brand is vital.”

INSIGHT #2: The big ‘why’

Alongside the frequently mentioned improved work-life balance, there is a notably lower cost of living in Amsterdam. Matt Sullivan from The Drum revealed a key insight from The Drum’s wellbeing research, which concluded that the number one disruptive factor to wellbeing and happiness in our industry is cost of living. So, should Amsterdam make more of a play on this factor?

Lucy von Sturmer, founder of The Humblebrag, a purpose-driven thought leadership and PR consultancy firm agrees: “A growing number of people are not motivated solely by money. For an agency, a strong mission and sense of purpose can be a decisive factor for talent not only to join a company - but to stay. Amsterdam as a city, has the same branding opportunity. It has strong values - equality, sustainability, and openness - and these are very attractive to a 'values-driven' generation. Yes, you might not earn the same as in NYC or London, but on a personal level, you might find yourself more fulfilled.”

As an international talent originally from the US, Rob Novorolsky from brand experience agency HarrimanSteel validates this point. “I grew up in NYC and worked both there and in LA where the mindset is really different. People are a lot more cut-throat, and so too is the industry. When I first moved to Amsterdam five years ago, I took a pay cut, but my quality of life improved. The agency I work with now, HarrimanSteel, have invested in me personally from the get-go; not just who I am today, but the 2.0 version. That's pretty rare, and means I'm equally invested back."

Yuri Winkelman, founder of Freshu, a communication agency helping start-ups from A to Z, says: “I am involved with coaching young talent from the University of Amsterdam. This generation’s whole idea of work has radically changed. Students don’t necessarily want to go into a job - they want to work for themselves – or they want to add to the bigger picture from the start. So, a company’s values and purpose are fundamental. This is changing the whole dynamic of work.”

INSIGHT #3: Amsterdam. The brand

Amsterdam is definitely on the map internationally, but it was noted that more could be done as while there is a growing pool of talent, demand still outstrips supply. Jeroen van der Meer, ECD and MD at MediaMonks emphasized the current challenge: “The problem as we see it is that we’re all fighting for the same people.”

Going beyond Amsterdam to cities such as Hilversum, where digital empire MediaMonks has its global HQ, and Utrecht, where many agencies and digital start-ups are based, offers room for growth. Michiel van Velde, CEO of digital agency One Shoe and member of the Economic Board of Utrecht – “People have obviously heard of Amsterdam, but it can be a harder job convincing them to come to Utrecht. Whereas when they actually get to Utrecht, they see it’s idyllic. Like Amsterdam but without the tourists.”

Concluding Bert Hagendoorn emphasized collaboration as a way to overcome this challenge, noting that the industry is already well adept at working together.

“Collaboration is something we’re quite good at. For example, Dutch Digital Design is a collective of agencies that are in the same space. Instead of competing, these companies work together to ensure that their core values and work is promoted at home and abroad. This is the way forward.”

In what was the first of a meeting of minds led to spur collaboration led to a conclusion that indeed – working together to attract international talent is the way forward.

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