HAPPENINGText: Scott Goodson

Something odd and rather interesting has happened to Amsterdam. Not long ago, when advertising, fashion and other media people thought about the Dutch capital, it talked almost exclusively about wonderful Dutch talent working at Dutch companies and agencies. But today, a new multiculturalism is lining the sweet canals.

Last Thursday, a CEO for a well-known American brand visiting our agency remarked: “The way we look at it, if London is the New York of European advertising, Amsterdam has got to be the San Francisco.”
Not a bad comment considering that most alert Americans would rate SF as one of the best places, with some of the best agencies, to place their business. How did this come to pass?

Going against conventional USA agency wisdom – most American agency outposts traditionally set up in London – Wieden and Kennedy opened it’s European headquarters in Amsterdam in the early 1990s to service Nike, which had a few months earlier decided to base it’s Euro headquarters just outside the Dutch capital. It wasn’t so much that other multinational agencies had not set up in Amsterdam. The point here, was that W&K set up their first, biggest and most important office in Amsterdam, not London. As a result, some of the brightest creatives and strategists descended upon the city to launch Nike to Europeans.

Years passed, and while Nike ads began to emerge from the W&K garrison outpost, the city remained the capital of Dutch advertising, which by the way was known throughout the 1990s was some of the best in the world. But then, something happened. Gawd if I know exactly what.

Overnight, a new energy kick in. For example, some former staff of W&K left to start their own agency. Some Nike retail marketing people left the shoe corporation to start Framework design, and others from outside Holland moved to Amsterdam. But perhaps the single most important thing to occur (no, American brands didn’t begin to follow Nike, recognizing Amsterdam as the place to launch their beachhead for Europe. On the contrary, most USA brands continue to use London).

Rather, European clients looking to build their brands across borders (primarily from Italy, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland) started looking for talented agencies outside their home markets, outside the traditional US and UK advertising networks, and not ONLY agencies in London. When these clients looked out at Europe, they saw a couple of small, multi-cultural agencies in Amsterdam. And this is where they’ve put their business., Dunlop, Adidas, Credit Suisse, Xerox, O’Neill Sportswear.

Historically, only London-based independent agencies – such as BBH, Legas Delaney, and WCRS, attracted these kinds of accounts (and still do to a large extent). But it seems that just as they lost their independence (all three have sold to corporations now), clients began to look elsewhere….for something new.

In the USA, clients have for years traveled to the far corners of the USA to place their coveted accounts with the best talent in the USA. They recognized that geography was not as important as having a top team dedicated to their brand. So, clients such as BMW gave their business to Fallon in Minnesota, the Milk board of America gave their business to Goodby in San Francisco, for example. And this is exactly what was beginning to happen in 2000, when we set up StrawberryFrog in Amsterdam.

As Noreen O’leary wrote in her Communications Arts article about the city, “Amsterdam in all of its flawed perfection, may be the ideal backdrop for an industry straddling high and low culture. In this city of Rembrandt and gilded architecture, red-light brothels and junkies, visitors these days can see plenty of evidence of a flourishing ad agency business that is becoming one of the world’s most creative communities. No longer just an outpost for multinational networks, the canal-lined streets of Amsterdam have become home to a growing number of start-ups squeezed into churches and stately townhouses; old brick factories; even a storefront boutique near the Anne Frankhuis”.

They are an idiosyncratic group of locals and foreigners who like the free-thinking atmosphere of the place and share the international ambitions of the Dutch as well: With multicultural staffs, Amsterdam’s agencies aspire to become no less than communications traders in the tradition of the city’s merchant predecessors. It’s an eclectic mix. There is the ‘oldest’ of the new, Wieden & Kennedy, the Portland, Oregon, agency offshoot which set up operations over seven years ago to service Nike and has since attracted European clients through powerful, image-driven work. But the surge in new agencies really dates back some three years when KesselsKramer opened its doors in a town without many independent shops. More recent start-ups include those run by newcomers to Holland: StrawberryFrog, a small creative agency set up last February, is designed to operate with a network of freelancers via the Internet. And last September, 180 was formed by U.S. and U.K. principals who broke away from W&K to join Adidas’s agency roster.

Text: Scott Goodson

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