Amsterdam: the creative city

He worked in world cities like London, New York, Dubai and Vancouver, but he lost his heart to Amsterdam: the British copywriter Jon Haywood (47). “It’s not just a beautiful city, but also a great city for creative professionals to work in”, he explains. He first arrived in Amsterdam in 2013 and found a job with the start-up creative company Nomads, now called The Formery. A former colleague had alerted him to the vacancy. “I flew over for the interview and two months later I was at work in the Netherlands. It was much easier than when I moved to Vancouver, which required a lot more paper work.”

Jon Haywood is far from the only creative professional from abroad to have gone head over heels for Amsterdam, which now enjoys a worldwide reputation as one of the world’s leading creative cities. According to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, there are now some 20,000 creative professionals from abroad at work in the Netherlands, of which 90 percent are based in Amsterdam. And virtually all are very positive about the city: a survey by the City of Amsterdam shows that on a scale from 1 to 10, their average score for the city is an 8.

Superheroes

With such a reputation, agencies have little trouble attracting new talents from abroad. “As soon as we need someone, we just post a vacancy on Twitter, LinkedIn and international job boards”, says Rogier Vijverberg (49) of Superheroes. His company currently employs people of 12 different nationalities. And there’s a reason for that: Vijverberg feels that it’s important to work with people from outside the Netherlands. “We want our work to resonate internationally. And it’s a lot easier to make that kind of work if you have many different cultures under your own roof.

The Boardroom

This is also an important argument for Jacques Vereecken of production agency The BoardRoom (part of MediaMonks) to work with foreign directors. “When working for international brands, it really helps to have creative people from inside and outside the country on your payroll. After all, people from another culture can respond to a commercial in a very different way.”

He usually meets expat workers via his network. “Sometimes I search for them, sometimes I bump into them.”

Temporary contract

The majority of expats are given a temporary employment contract – often a series of contracts in succession – and do not intend to settle in the Netherlands permanently. Those who decide to stay do so for the quality of life in Amsterdam.

Englishman Ben Blench (42) is an expat who decided to stay. He spent six years working in Amsterdam for a girlfriend’s company, took a year off to travel the world, and then decided to become a freelancer. Not in his native London, but in Amsterdam. “Life in the city here is much less stressful than in London”, he says. “You’ve got all the amenities close together. You cycle along the wonderful canals to your work. And I also prefer the work culture here. It’s less hierarchical, and people are a lot more direct.”

Grab every opportunity

His first year as a freelancer was not exactly inspirational. “At first you just grab every opportunity that comes your way. It’s only when you’ve acquired something of a reputation that you can afford to turn down annoying jobs.”

Blench’s first assignments came through his personal network, which is usual for freelancers when starting out. The biggest challenge consisted in all the legal matters that had to be arranged. This he found quite complicated. “After all, many of the forms and the explanations are written in Dutch.”

The Freeforce

As the freelancers’ collective The Freeforce discovered, Blench is not the only person to struggle with this aspect. Since 2011, this group of independent creative professionals helps other creatives to connect to networks and with financial support in case of incapacity to work. Pascal Boogaert (46), board member of the collective: “Early this year a couple of freelancers came knocking on our door. They had just arrived in Amsterdam and had no idea how to get started as a freelancer here. That’s why we came up with the idea of the 'Expat Buddy'.”

The idea is to hook up a ‘new’ freelancer with a more experienced colleague. The Danish photographer Torben Raun (43) has lived in Amsterdam since 2005, and has been appointed as the collective’s first Expat Buddy. He will be the point of contact for freelancers from abroad and will help them through the challenging first months. The Freeforce is now planning an event where expat freelancers can network with international agencies.

A matter of luck

A quick survey among agencies and expats indicates a clear need for such networking events. Agencies and international talents usually find each other through whatever networks are available, but whether or not the match proves successful remains a matter of luck.

A bit of support by a ‘Buddy’ would be welcome, says graphic designer Martin Pyper (49). The Englishman has lived in the Netherlands for over 25 years and has sometimes been contacted by British professionals wanting to live and work in the Netherlands. “How do you approach an agency, what are the important cultural differences? Someone with experience in these matters can be a great support.”

Engage with the Dutch

His main advice for new expats? “Stay away from the expat community. If your intention is to set up a new life in the Netherlands, then you need to engage with Dutch people.’

You should especially try to master the language quickly, says Pyper. “You notice that conversations become less superficial if you speak Dutch. If you speak English, then people will ask how you like it here. If you speak Dutch, then they’ll assume that you also have an opinion on politics and football here.”

Language

By talking to other expats, it emerges that Pyper is something of an exception, however. Most of the international creative professionals do not speak Dutch. According to Jon Haywood, it’s because they barely get a chance to practice speaking Dutch. “As soon as Dutch people notice that you’re an English speaker, they immediately switch to English.”

Though this can change during the Friday afternoon hang-out at the bar, says Australian web developer Sam Garg (29). “After five beers, everyone’s speaking Dutch.”

Integrating

A few years ago he decided from one day to the next that he wanted to move to the Netherlands. “I had just come out of a relationship and no longer sensed any challenge in my job”, he remembers. Amsterdam seemed an interesting city, so he looked for vacancies on the internet, and before he knew it he was on his way to Funda for a job interview.

Garg really went for it: he bought a bicycle, rented a dwelling in Diemen, and went out to enjoy the city every weekend. He learned a few words of Dutch, but what really matters is your attitude, he says. “You definitely need to be outgoing. When colleagues used to switch to Dutch when having drinks, I would quickly feel cut off. In such a situation you need to step forward and mingle with the people. They are not in need of new friends, but you are, so you need to make the effort.”

Wanderbrief

The Freeforce is not the only initiative to link up agencies with expats. Earlier this year, Mark van der Heijden (29) launched the international online platform Wanderbrief. More than 5000 creative freelancers have already registered to conduct marketing campaigns for over 100 businesses worldwide. Companies pay these freelancers by means of a flight ticket and accommodation, and if all goes well, with an instructive experience.

“We want to inspire and facilitate talents in the creative sector”, Van der Heijden explains. “They can register with us so that we can match brands and agencies with the right creative people for them.”

Backpacking

He hit upon the idea for Wanderbrief through his project ‘The Backpacker Intern’, which allowed him to travel the world for two years straight. During his travels he worked as an intern in return for food and accommodation. In 2015 he returned home to start Wanderbrief with Valentijn van Santvoort (formerly a strategy director at Boondoggle). “It’s actually not very different to The Backpacker Intern, but we wanted to drop the association with internships. After all, I already had six years of working experience under the belt, which of course helped open many doors.”

Participants in the project only spend a limited amount of time abroad: two to four weeks. But if it’s your goal to spend more time abroad, then this is a perfect way to learn the ropes at international businesses, says Van der Heijden.

This article – written by Claartje Vogel – was published in Adformatie in December 2016. Dutch link available here.