It’s an interesting time for the Amsterdam ad industry. As Southern Europe teeters on the brink of economic collapse and Northern Europe battens down the hatches and embraces austerity-chic. Where does that leave the city that markets itself as the convenient, creative middle ground? Thanks to a concerted effort by the local government to tempt agencies and big brands to the city with tax breaks and investment, it looks like the Dutch capital is in a relatively strong position to weather out any lumps and bumps that may come its way. We caught up with Blast Radius’ Senior Creative Director Andrew Watson to find out what’s happening in the industry right now and where it’s heading.
LBB> How do you see the industry in Amsterdam at the moment? Given what’s been going on economically in Europe over the last few years. Are times tough or is Amsterdam thriving?
AW> I think things are as tough here as they are anywhere else, and it’s not as if Amsterdam has avoided the bubble burst… having said that, it has managed to ride the wave pretty well. There was a bit of a lull around four years ago when things seemed to get a bit quiet but it’s picking up again. I’ve noticed agencies opening here – in fact I think there are more international agencies in Amsterdam now than there ever has been in the eleven years since I moved here.
LBB> And how have clients responded? Are they getting antsy?
AW> I wouldn’t know what’s on their radar in those sorts of terms, but in general, the economic climate has been difficult for the past five or six years. People want to get more for their money; they’re shopping around for agencies more than ever before. Gone are the days when they would give you a good retainer for a couple of years. Everything is project-based and nothing is guaranteed – agencies are pitching like crazy to get a slice of the business. Clients are facing tighter budgets and more restraints.
LBB> What do you think has helped Amsterdam stay on top during the tough financial climate?
AW> I think it’s a combination of factors. The government took some practical steps, such as introducing tax breaks that incentivised big businesses to move here. As brands set up their European headquarters here, in Amsterdam, it has made sense that the agencies would follow. You’ve got Nike, Adidas, Converse, Phillips, Nikon and Ricoh based here.
On the other hand there’s always been a sort of entrepreneurial spirit in Amsterdam, which is very contagious. I also believe that when people decide to set up their own shops they often look for a place that feels a bit more manageable. In Amsterdam there’s an easy-going atmosphere and everything’s very easy to do – and you’re slap bang in the middle of Europe. There’s something comforting about Amsterdam and it feels like you have a village atmosphere within a city, which is quite cool.
LBB> The ad industry seems to have quite a tightly knit community in Amsterdam – you’ve lived in the city for 11 years now, how have you found settling into the local culture?
AW> There are two sides to that coin. On the one hand it’s very, very easy to get into the swing of things over here, there’s a good community and you meet a lot of people who are in the same boat as you. Everyone who lands here usually tends to be of a similar mind. In the London ad scene you meet lots of Brits who have grown up in London and stayed there, whereas over here you’ve got lots of expats who have made the decision to move away, so there’s a commonality.
On the other side of the coin, I don’t think assimilating with the locals is as easy. I don’t think there are that many expats who could say that they know that many Dutch people. The two advertising communities are very much separated. You either work for an international agency or you work for a Dutch agency. It might be an Ogilvy, a Y&R or a BBDO but it will be the Dutch branch of that agency and Dutch will be the language spoken there. That makes it quite difficult for expats to get involved. However, I see proof that this is changing now.
LBB> Are there many Dutch people working in these international agencies too?
AW> I’d say less so. We have a couple of creative who are Dutch, and in previous agencies it’s been the same to varying levels. There are a lot of good Dutch agencies around, so a lot of the time Dutch talent are drawn to these agencies first and foremost.
LBB> How do you find attracting new talent to the agency and advertising generally in Amsterdam?
AW> I think the most difficult thing in the industry is finding the best people. That’s always the hardest thing. I don’t think it depends on the country you’re in. I think the local talent in Amsterdam is as good as the local talent anywhere else. If you go to Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam you’ll find some of the best Dutch talent working alongside some of the best Spanish talent and best American talent. I think we definitely struggle to get brilliant local people in, but that’s because there aren’t many great people around generally. The wider you cast the net the more great people you’ll find.
LBB> As a creative, do you feel that the size and atmosphere of city has a positive or nurturing effect on creativity?
AW> For me it does have a positive effect. I grew up in the countryside, and am used to having a bit more space. I found living in London that there was too much going on and that there were almost too many distractions. I’m sure other people would argue the opposite, that if there’s less going on, there’s less to inspire you. When you’re in a big capital like London, Paris, or New York there’s always something interesting to see. But in Amsterdam you just have to search a little harder to find these things. Personally I think the relaxed style of life and the fact it takes me seven minutes to get home makes a huge difference. You do better work and you do more of it when you’re a little bit more chilled.
There is a flip side to that as well as maybe things can be a bit too relaxed. There’s a feeling that perhaps the industry isn’t as busy, cut throat and competitive as it is in other cities. I think that’s true to an extent. There’s a lot less of the internal fighting and competitiveness that you might see in London… that’s kind of nice.
I like the fact that if an agency throws a party in Amsterdam then everyone from the other agencies will attend. You know most people because you’ve either worked with them in the past or you’ve met them at seminars. Blast Radius is a digital agency and, because there are not that many other places doing what we’re doing, the freelancers will circulate between three or four different shops. You’ll be drinking with someone one night, working them the next and then they’ll be off working somewhere else. It’s all quite interlinked like that.
LBB> Where do you see in the future for the Amsterdam advertising industry?
AW> I think that what’s happened over the last couple of years will continue to happen, established agencies will continue to set up shop here. There’s a bunch of sizeable internationals here already – for example, Sid Lee came here three or four years ago, 72andSunny has their office here. Hopefully they’ll stick around and grow, which will incentivise other agencies to do the same.
But I think there are two other areas that will also grow. One of those is the production. There are lots of smallish places run by really talented people cropping up in Amsterdam and I can see these really taking off. Amsterdam is where Stockholm was eight or ten years ago, when companies like North Kingdom and B-Reel, run by really talented young digital guys, were starting up. Ten years have passed and these companies have grown and become established – I can see the same happening in Amsterdam.
And the other thing I’ve noticed recently is that a lot of the Dutch arms, of the more traditional agencies based here, are starting to recruit some really interesting people. They’re increasingly recruiting international people to senior creative positions so they’re obviously trying to bring more of a global flavour. In the past, these big companies were always based outside of the city and you couldn’t just cycle over, which increased the divide between the international businesses and the Dutch agencies. While that’s still the case with a lot of agencies, some are starting to move into the centre, mixing it around a bit. Hopefully these guys will start to do more work that’s recognised internationally – that would be a really good thing for everyone.