How Amsterdam Became the Industry's 'Talent Trap'

Liberal Attitude, Relative Affordability Among the Reasons Shops Flock to City

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NEW YORK ( -- When Toronto-based Taxi last year began plotting its expansion into Europe, agency heads had narrowed the possibilities to four cities: London, Barcelona, Paris and Amsterdam.

GOING DUTCH: 'What makes the city so desirable is the way the Dutch approach life,' said John Norman of Wieden & Kennedy, Amsterdam.
GOING DUTCH: 'What makes the city so desirable is the way the Dutch approach life,' said John Norman of Wieden & Kennedy, Amsterdam.
Their visit to the latter in late 2008 confirmed much of what they heard had attracted ad shops and other multinational businesses to Amsterdam in recent years. A charmingly bohemian, English-speaking city, a diverse population of 750,000 representing some 200 nationalities, top-notch creative talent, a premium on work-life balance and -- of no small matter in these economic times -- relative affordability and attractive tax breaks.

But they found something surprising, too. "They courted us, which was quite nice," said Taxi Chairman Paul Lavoie. "They had a day for us where we met with lawyers, accountants, and they explained some of the fiscal advantages of moving our business to Amsterdam." From there, Mr. Lavoie and Taxi CEO Rob Guenette were whisked on a tour of established agencies such as Wieden & Kennedy, 180 and Amsterdam Worldwide, which, despite being the competition, readily answered Taxi's questions. Their visit was capped with a party. "I thought it would be 10 people at the most, but it was 85 to 100" Mr. Lavoie said. Among them was Job Cohen, the mayor of Amsterdam, who welcomed the duo and said he'd really like to see Taxi plant roots in the city.

Amsterdam's marketing efforts are working. Taxi, Europe, officially opened its doors there last month, one of a growing number of firms that are choosing it as their European headquarters over cities such as London and Paris. In 2008, jobs in the creative industry grew 11.2% from the previous year, and overall, 105 firms from 22 countries set up shop in Amsterdam last year, building on 94 companies that arrived in 2007 and 86 in 2006.

The bigger picture
"The city officials are organized, and there is a healthy overlap between government and business that is there to help you out and hold your hand," said Mr. Guenette. Among the agency community, "there was a generosity in Amsterdam that went beyond each individual's corporate objectives. ... They were looking at the bigger picture. When we pitch against each other, it will be warfare, but there's enough of a variety of agencies -- big, small, independent, network -- so European clients, and global clients, can just go to Amsterdam and pitch their business there."

The first international agency to set up in Amsterdam was Wieden & Kennedy, which landed in the early '90s when its key Nike client decided to open a European headquarters there. The next few years saw the arrival of more international creative shops, such as 180, which launched in 1998, followed by StrawberryFrog, which last year rebranded as Amsterdam Worldwide. That premier digital agency AKQA, which boasts clients such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola, chose Amsterdam helped the digital scene gain momentum. Hotshops such as 72andSunny and Sid Lee attracted attention, too, as did Boston-based Modernista, which opened to service its General Motors client. The ad scene today is a healthy mix of local ad and design shops, creative and digital agencies, and the presence of the network offices of Publicis, TBWA and DDB -- all located on De Professor W.H. Keesomlaan in Amstelveen, the city's version of Madison Avenue.

Amsterdam's growth into an ad mecca hasn't taken place overnight but rather is the product of hard work and investment of real money to woo businesses. Beyond the tours like the one Taxi experienced, the city is running a marketing campaign dubbed "I Amsterdam" to promote Amsterdam as a creative hub in international media and running promotional stories and interviews in its own glossy magazine dubbed Proud.

The city persuaded the Miami Ad School to set up an Amsterdam branch, and more possibilities for creative education are in the works, said Riske Akkerman, communications adviser at Amsterdam InBusiness, which helps international businesses get started in the city. One idea officials are mulling is the creation of an institute, New Amsterdam Creative Academy, to incubate more talent, Mr. Akkerman said.

Members of the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce and agency representatives recently traveled to China to promote Amsterdam as a creative center and later this year will roll out similar initiatives in New York. And when the organizers of the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival were seeking a city to host its Eurobest awards in November, they picked Amsterdam. "There is an overwhelming sense of creativity in the city, you can feel it everywhere," Philip Thomas, CEO of Cannes Lions, said earlier this year. "The energy and passion of this city means it was an easy decision to bring the Festival to Amsterdam."

"A special attribute about Amsterdam is their tolerance of ideas -- when you're in the ideas business, it's nice to be in an environment where people aren't trying to kill your idea before it even starts to take hold," said Alex Melvin, managing partner and founder of 180 Amsterdam.

Champagne Valentine
There's no doubt the city has a high threshold for creative experimentation. A quick list of the names of the agencies that call it home demonstrates the anything-goes attitude: there is 2009, which changes its name according to the calendar year (to communicate it is always on top of the latest ad developments); Bureau Pindakaas, which means "peanut butter" in Dutch; BSUR (Be As You Are), John Doe and digital agency Champagne Valentine. When another strangely named shop, Nothing, opened its doors earlier this year, it revealed an office that was made entirely of cardboard.

"Ten years ago we looked at opening in London, but it was a bit like a historical theme park floating off the coast of Europe," Mr. Melvin said. "It's introspective and backward-looking rather than embracing the now and looking forward."

Compared with the rest of Europe, the Netherlands is relatively affordable and also boasts tax advantages, such as a competitive corporate tax rate of 25% -- lower than the EU average -- and expats enjoy up to 30% tax-free salary reimbursement.

"Creative recruitment into Amsterdam is pretty damn easy," said Dave Luhr, global chief operating officer for Wieden & Kennedy. "There is no other city is the world so art-directed.

Such attributes are what make Amsterdam what Philippe Meunier, chief creative officer and senior partner at Sid Lee, likes to call "a talent trap." Amsterdam's lenient laws that tolerate prostitution and marijuana don't hurt either, according to Wouter Boon, who runs the city's popular ad blog, Amsterdam Ad Blog. He says that kind of liberal attitude is appealing to creative thinkers of all disciplines, including musicians, dancers and photographers.

"What makes the city so desirable is the way the Dutch approach life, that, quite simply summed up as having a gezellig state of mind: a great balance between work and personal life," said John Norman, executive creative director at Wieden & Kennedy there.

"My commute to work is six minutes on a bicycle," said 180's Mr. Melvin. "We have 150 people here and only one car owner amongst us all. We all work in a stressful industry, but when you leave the front door at work there's a beautiful canal and an hour and a half in the plane and you're in the south of France. There is no other place in the world that offers what the city offers in terms of the work we do."

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