It’s an €8 billion industry run from tilting canal houses built for 16th-century merchants. A place where ideas dreamt up while cycling along cobbled streets are served to 100 million Americans on Super Bowl Sunday. If Don Draper were an adman today, he’d have given up martinis on Madison for the creative hothouses on the Herengracht. ‘Amsterdam is having a creative renaissance, and the work that is coming from a handful of small shops is truly world-class,’ says Martin Peters Ginsborg, Executive Creative Director (ECD) at local firm Anomaly. ‘What’s impressive is the flexibility and diversity of scale. Amsterdam produces everything from global campaigns for iconic mega-brands to smaller projects for local start-ups.’

His fellow ECD, Lars Jorgensen, puts it down to the creative minds to be found here. ‘The fact that we all live in a city built below sea level is a great testament to the kind of unreasonable thinking this city was founded on.’And that creative buzz reaches beyond the city’s adland – which is mostly clustered around the picturesque Canal Belt – to fashion, art collectives and tech start-ups. ‘The pioneers, traders and sea-faring folk of the past made Amsterdam into a city that is a real melting pot. It’s where the friction is and creativity flourishes,’ says Kerrie Finch, founder of PR agency FinchFactor.

‘It’s like no other city in that it is truly international. The UK thinks it’s international, but it’s incredibly parochial: it’s British, London, Soho, and they only talk to each other. France is very French, Germany’s very German, but Amsterdam is global, thanks to the mix of people.’ Al Moseley, President and Chief Creative Officer at 180 Amsterdam, agrees: ‘New York and London are very much about themselves. They are megacities, but inward looking. Amsterdam is a small city in comparison but has an outward view, which it’s had for more than 400 years.’

Talent magnet

That genuinely global view is a recurrent theme when speaking to some of the local industry’s leading lights. Moseley has more than 20 nationalities on his staff, while the local office of  Wieden and Kennedy (W+K Amsterdam) claims 25 and 72andSunny a whopping 26. At Anomaly, there are 10 in a staff of 45. 

‘We have a very diverse group,’ says Anomaly’s Jorgensen. ‘People who have worked all over the world and have ended up here because of the city’s international calibre, the buzzing creative energy and community, and because of the agencies and their can-do attitude. Add to that a work-life balance that you will not find elsewhere, and you have the perfect cocktail.’ Over at 180 Amsterdam, Moseley reckons that, ‘Creative people want to come to the city because it is very easy and rewarding to live and work here. Life is simple, leaving you time to work on the important stuff that moves the world on.’

Amsterdam Worldwide is another local shop with a global view, and founder Brian Elliott believes that while ‘word of the quality of life and high creativity has spread rapidly’, the ease of hiring international talent makes a big difference. ‘All levels of government have helped to make incoming businesses and people welcome, with a special, dedicated one-stop service. This makes it easy for talent and it flocks here.’

Big brands

That ease of doing business doesn’t just apply to the ad industry, but to the broader world as well, and a host of big brands have their global or European HQs here. As Victor Knaap, CEO of digital production company MediaMonks, explains, ‘Since the mid-1990s, we’ve seen an influx of global brands. The first was Nike, which led to a cascade of others, including Netflix, adidas, Sonos and Calvin Klein.’

And along with the big names from abroad, of course, Amsterdam has its own global players. Heineken’s HQ is a 10-minute bike ride from the home of Booking.com or Philips, while the big Dutch financial institutions and Shell are just a short train ride away. But, according to Finch, the local agencies do not thrive on proximity alone. ‘I’ve been here 15 years and seen it really change from a city that only had one internationally focused agency,’ she says. ‘Today, it’s normal that international companies will come to Amsterdam specifically to seek a creative lead. It’s normal that an American or Asian company might look at five agencies and they’ll all be in Amsterdam, even if the buyer has no base here.’

Innovation

Ultimately, the success of any creative industry comes down to the quality of the ideas on offer. The global repositioning of men’s deodorant Axe/Lynx, for example (see ‘The big hits’), was the work of 72andSunny’s European office in Amsterdam. As MD Nic Owen explains, ‘We were able to give them a very progressive, provocative positioning that they couldn’t get anywhere else in the world.’

Founded in Amsterdam in 2001, MediaMonks is now the largest (and generally considered the most impressive) firm of its kind on earth. According to CEO Knaap, ‘The advertising industry is relatively young here. It means we’re more open to breaking the rules and challenging the norms. We don’t do dogmatic thinking. The city’s rebellious reputation and laid-back spirit makes it an attractive place for aspiring creatives.’

Over at 180 Amsterdam, Moseley reiterates the city’s standing as a place for innovation. ‘Amsterdam has a great history of challenging the status quo and is famous for its innovative ideas in the world of television, technology and marketing.&rsquo

"Amsterdam is having a creative renaissance, and the work that is coming from a handful of small shops is truly world-class" - Martin Peters Ginsborg, Executive Creative Director, Anomaly

The Amsterdam approach

For all the internationalism, there are certain aspects of the Dutch national culture that seep through into agencies here. Thriftiness and being direct are, the stereotype goes, ingrained into Dutch culture, and both are good news for clients who might be used to bloated agencies talking in circles. 

‘The Dutch culture of openness and directness empowers creatives to push things just a little bit further. Amsterdam-based agencies are more confident to discuss daring concepts with their clients,’ says Ivo Roefs, CO-CEO of DDB & Tribal Worldwide Amsterdam. ‘Another aspect that the ad industry does differently here is the smart, cost-effective execution of operationally complex concepts. It’s used to working with budgets that are less extensive than in New York and London, and is trained in finding solutions to deliver the maximum within these limitations.’

That efficiency permeates throughout Amsterdam agencies, according to Anomaly’s Peters Ginsborg. ‘Reduced bureaucracy, smaller organisations and the elimination of layers means that everyone working on an account is personally involved and engaged in the quality of the work,’ he says. ‘Without gigantic budgets, we’ve had to be lean and mean,’ adds MediaMonks’s Knaap, ‘so we’re constantly pushing for smart and effective, as opposed to big.

By the numbers

Read more about the city’s creative industries, in figures.