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Roundtable: hedonism and humility in Amsterdam

Amsterdam has a golden opportunity to emerge from the tumult of Brexit as the pre-eminent creative scene in Europe.

Counting Nike, Diageo and Panasonic as well as agency shops like Wieden+Kennedy and 72andSunny among its residents, the vibrant and internationally minded city has become a coveted base for creatives. But can Amsterdam handle this surge of creative talent; can it maintain its healthy prioritisation of culture despite the flux of foreign individuals, or is it likely to buckle under the pressures and expectations of international clients?

While hubs like Hong Kong, London, and New York have adjusted their pace to meet the increased demands of international marketing, Amsterdam has refused to conform, with creatives continuing to regularly clock off at 5pm.

“The Anglo-Saxon working culture is not as productive,” says FutureFactor’s CEO and creative partner, Nick Bailey. “Although people are working longer, they're working less efficiently.”

Dutch businesses trust their employees to manage their own time, work autonomously, and complete the job as necessary. The Brave New Now’s CEO and co-founder, Hazel Livingstone, explains: “In the Netherlands, they treat employees like adults in terms of work-life balance.”

Bert Hagendoorm, chairman of Dutch Digital Design, agrees: “The city offers better healthcare, social security, more affordable cost of living, great working hours and a better work-life balance than other cities. But in the end, there’s quite a difference in salary when compared with New York or London.”

‘Dam drawbacks

Yet despite Amsterdam’s admirable work-life balance, marketers admitted that sometimes it can be difficult to get employees to go the extra mile for the creative work.

“It’s tough to get the best out of your team,” says Bailey. “In a market like London, people take a lot of personal pride in their work, whereas here people do what's asked of them and, as far as they're concerned, it's done. That can be challenging to change.”

This culture may be problematic for Amsterdam-based agencies looking to secure international clients, who expect them to be available at all hours. Anthem Benelux’s head of growth Kirsty Cole says those expectations put pressure on agency teams: “I expect people to take accountability of their work and their client relationships.”

Wilderness’ managing director, Meredith Mogensen agrees: “When you're working with the rest of the world, you have to behave like the rest of the world.”

Those expectations may find it hard to take root. Overseas, harnessing a strong in-house culture is almost essential to offset the amount of work expected of the agency’s creatives. Yet in Amsterdam, promises of ping pong tables and bar tabs fall flat as younger employees prioritise other benefits.

Chris Adams, CEO of social creative agency The Honey Partnership, says that leads to a situation in which agencies struggle to employ Gen-Zers long-term, as although they’re digital natives and more prepared to work at all hours, they’re also more likely to know the worth of their expertise: “When a client walks into a room, they look for a 22-year-old to tell them how to outperform on Snapchat,” he said. “But often it means Gen Z are missing out on our agency's competitiveness.” 

Way To Blue’s EMEA business director, Poppy Mason-Watts, wonders whether Amsterdam could start losing agency people to brands. “They might see the city as a gateway to the big brands; with creatives planning for an agency job only to seek out later opportunities at Adidas, Nike, Diageo or Panasonic,” she said. “That could be a threat.”

That threat isn’t necessarily just from traditional brands, either: As Karen Monnich, partner and client service director from Big Amsterdam puts it: “Amsterdam is the Silicon Valley of the Netherlands. We have big companies that started out here, like Instagram, and we have a strong tech reputation… We're getting there.”  

The new competition

Culturally, the Dutch are very shy and modest about the work that they’re creating. While this may be refreshing in a brash industry, it also means that a lot of Dutch work goes unnoticed, with some local clients not even knowing which agency was behind a campaign.

Entering work into international awards helps – “If you want to be a global agency with a global reputation, you’ve got to be part of that conversation; you've got to be proud of the work you produce,” said Cole.

Amsterdam operates on a very level playing field, especially compared with other creative capital cities around the world. Competing agencies even cross-collaborate – with The Humblebrag’s founder Lucy von Sturmer believing that by doing so “everyone becomes aware of what their strengths are and how they can combine those trends to create something better.”

But as Amsterdam’s creative scene continues its unconventional rose to the top table of marketing hubs, that international focus and pressure to conform to compete risks the unique aspects that made it so appealing to so many creatives.

Despite that, the city’s rise seems inexorable. As Irène Winterkorn, FutureFactor’s connections director, says: “It’s very easy to see Amsterdam as a hub for Europe… that's how people are starting to see us.”

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