City Spotlight: Tiny Amsterdam Boasts Big Relaxed, Liberal Vibe

How the Dutch Town Compares With Other Advertising Capitals

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See the fun canal-side offices Amsterdam agencies enjoy, from a converted convent to a remodeled water-pumping station:

"There's a lot to be said for not fighting your way to work and working on a canal," said Al Moseley, president and chief creative officer at 180 Amsterdam.

Like him, many of the senior figures in Amsterdam's cluster of global shops have experienced life in ad capitals like New York, London or Sao Paulo. But while the Netherlands' biggest city is tiny by comparison, with about 820,000 inhabitants, the quality of life is unmatched.

Quality of life

"The fact that you are on a bike can't be underestimated," said Eric Quennoy, exec creative director at Wieden & Kennedy, Amsterdam. He and fellow ECD Mark Bernath believe this "tranquil" lifestyle helps inspire the vibrant creative work Amsterdam agencies are known for. "In New York, there is more madness on the street, but here you can live a more mellow existence and put the madness into your work," said Mr. Bernath.

Many say the Dutch city's relaxed style feeds its creativity. "Everybody always wonders why we cycle around without helmets. It's not just keeping your hair intact, it's the nonconformist approach to life," said Rogier Vijverberg, founder and creative director of local agency SuperHeroes, which is now also opening in New York. The Netherlands is also a financially rewarding place for an ad industry expat. The government offers a 30% tax break to foreigners working in advertising, part of a scheme to attract creative companies.

Agency landscape

Wieden & Kennedy opened in Amsterdam in 1992, after Nike decided to put its European headquarters in nearby Hilversum, known as the "media city" because it's the center for radio and TV broadcasting. Digital production company MediaMonks is also there.

Wieden staffers populate the other international agencies -- including 180, Anomaly, Sid Lee and 72andSunny -- that followed. Post recession, a new wave of startups set up shop, including We Are Pi, founded by four ex-Wieden staffers in 2011, and Dutch hotshops such as Achtung.

Locals say there's still a divide between Dutch agencies, which do mainly Netherlands-based work, and international shops, staffed mostly by expats and responsible for international campaigns. At Wieden, just 27% of the staff is Dutch.

"The work culture is very different," said Dinesh Sonak, managing director of the Art Directors Club Netherlands, who is trying to bring the two sides together. "People at global agencies tend to work longer hours and have their own expat community. But both sides realize they can benefit from an exchange of talent."

Agreeing there is "great Dutch talent coming up," 180's Mr. Moseley cited "experimental" work from local shops like Lemz. Its "Sweetie" campaign for child-exploitation charity Terre des Hommes won the Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions festival by using a 3-D avatar of a fake Filipino child to catch webcam sexual predators.

Marketer landscape

Amsterdam is home to Heineken, No. 74, with $477 million in 2013 worldwide ad spending, on Ad Age's 100 Largest Global Marketers ranking. Other Dutch marketers include KLM, Philips and Nearby Rotterdam is the co-headquarters, along with London, of the world's second-biggest global marketer, Unilever.

Nearby Schiphol airport is a stunt magnet. Fun-loving KLM and DDB & Tribal Worldwide recently startled travelers in a waiting area by replacing regular seating with a business-class seat that suddenly reclined. They also grabbed headlines by pretending a dog on KLM's lost-and-found team could seize items left behind on planes and find their owners by smell before they left the airport.

Industry digs

Herengracht is Amsterdam's Madison Avenue. Tall, elegant canal houses line the gracious banks of the so-called "Gentlemen's Canal." In addition to Wieden, Anomaly, 180 and We Are Pi, Facebook has a small office there. Another neighbor is Amsterdam's mayor. Even for those with no canal view, office life is an architectural adventure. Sid Lee's digs are a remodeled water-pumping station and 72andSunny is in an old school. KesselsKramer's converted convent has majestic stained glass windows and religious icons.

Outside the charming cobbled streets of the old city, new areas opening up include West Amsterdam, where the likes of MTV are located. North of the city, architectural firms, music venues and 3-D printing companies are moving in.

Challenges and opportunities

Having lots of expats in advertising and marketing means talent can be transient. It's rare for people to stay more than eight to 10 years. On the flip side, the international mix of Amsterdam agencies attunes them to global work. Wieden's Mr. Bernath said: "We have 20 different nationalities in the agency, so we're quickly called out if something doesn't work."

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