Amsterdam’s creative leaders collaborate at Cannes Lions festival

Amsterdam’s creative leaders collaborate at Cannes Lions festival

Amsterdam’s creative leaders collaborate at Cannes Lions festival

Amsterdam’s finest creative leaders launched the Embassy of Dutch Creativity, a pavilion at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The initiative builds on a long tradition of international trade and collaboration. More than thirty creative agencies collectively connected with the festival’s international crowd, sharing Amsterdam’s open culture and creative spirit.

Amsterdam’s cultural diversity attracts creative talent from around the world, making it a hotbed for innovation in advertising, design, media, technology. Brands like Heineken, Nike and Playstation all thrive on the city’s vibrant mix of cultures and disciplines, which have made advertising and design one of its most important export products.

Even though Amsterdam is always ranked among the top creative hubs in the world, there is still work to do. No wonder, Dinesh Sonak, managing director of ADCN, the association for creativity in advertising and design has the ambition to turn Amsterdam into the "Silicon Valley of Advertising". Sonak: "It goes without saying that Amsterdam, with its many creative sub industries such as design, fashion and dance, has a strong position in creativity. But we are competing with places like London, Stockholm and Berlin for the best talent."

Centre of the world

Amsterdam's tradition of creativity and innovation was founded centuries ago. The most important contribution to this tradition is Amsterdam’s geography; the city is both centrally located in Europe and bordered largely by the sea. On top of that the Netherlands is a small country, which has always forced the Dutch to trade with their neighbours and turned them into a multi-lingual, open-minded people.

A deciding era in Amsterdam's creative history has been the 17th Century, the city's the Golden Age. At the time the very first multinational in the world, the Dutch East India Company - or VOC in Dutch - was intensively trading with Asia and turned Amsterdam into a prosperous harbour and made it the centre of the world. The wealth that flowed into the city not just financed the world famous, UNESCO-listed canals, but also attracted nationalities with different cultural backgrounds and skills from all over the world. The Golden Age thus laid the foundation for Amsterdam's progressive nature and entrepreneurial spirit of which the city still reaps the benefits.

10-minute bicycle ride

Today 6% of the Amsterdam's jobs are based in the creative industry. And within this industry no less than 60% works freelance, which stimulates the transfer of people and knowledge between companies and makes the economy enormously dynamic. Add to this the size and bicycle-friendly climate of the city and you can easily imagine how the city has a dense, collaborative network of creative people and businesses.

One of the leading independent art directors and designers in Amsterdam Ewoudt Boonstra, who worked for international ad agencies in Portland and LA, recently told Amsterdam Ad Blog: "On my bicycle I can go anywhere in 10 minutes. What makes Amsterdam so cool is that it has the same stuff as a mega city, but in a compressed form". And, according to Boonstra, another important contributor to the creative climate is the healthy work-life balance. Though 'healthy' doesn't necessarily means that in Amsterdam people work less hours. Boonstra; "The most important lesson I've learned about the differences between the Anglo-Saxon advertising culture and the Dutch is that in the Netherlands we work more efficiently".

On top of the scale and pace of life, the Netherlands has a non-hierarchical, informal culture which makes doing business easier. James Veenhoff, partner of Fronteer Strategy and founder of Denim City, who will be speaking at the Embassy of Dutch Creativity: "Amsterdam is very informal, you simply meet thought leaders and top entrepreneurs in the street. At the same time the city is ambitious, which thus perfectly combines the human scale with a larger-than-life attitude. This is very stimulating."


The reason that Amsterdam internationally does especially well in advertising is that sports brand Nike opened its headquarters in the Dutch capital in 1992, followed directly by its lead creative agency Wieden+Kennedy. According to Creative Director Alvaro Sotomayor, who already worked at Wieden in the agency's early days and has become a true 'Amsterdammer' "The agency started as a nest of pirates with different nationalities and skills, who helped to put the agency on the international advertising map". After Wieden's early success many international agencies decided to also open an office in Amsterdam.

Today Wieden+Kennedy - located on one of the canals built in the city's Golden Age - is one of the biggest creative powerhouses in town, still working for Nike, but also for other global players such as Dutch online travel agent and American gaming brand Electronic Arts. According to Sotomayor the key to Wieden's constant success is: "we never stop learning and have always kept our humour".

One of the most successful clients of Wieden+Kennedy in the past years has been Dutch beer brand Heineken. In Cannes this collaboration resulted in a Grand Prix of Effectiveness in 2013 and this year the Dutch brewer earns the title Creative Marketer of the Year. According to Mark van Iterson, Global Head of Design & Concept at Heineken, Amsterdam is the perfect city to be headquartered: "The strength of Amsterdam's creative culture is that it's universal, not bound to one single culture. Because the Netherlands is a small country the traders and craftsmen always had to be smart, inventive, and open their minds for business. Heineken's pay off "Open your world" is not just our advertising, it's really in our genes."

Campaigns that travel

With only 800.000 inhabitants and at the same time 190 different nationalities the city is a true melting pot in which one of the key assets automatically is to be culturally neutral. Together with the fact that English is the unofficial second language used in business, the city is the perfect breading ground for campaigns that have the ability to travel the world. That's why apart from Wieden+Kennedy the city has a wide variety of internationally orientated agencies working primarily for global brands. Examples are: 180, We Are Pi (both Wieden spin-offs), Anomaly, 72andSunny and Sid Lee.

Apart from the truly international agencies Amsterdam is also home to an enormous amount of local agencies that prefer experimentation and innovation above serving global clients. Dutch agency KesselsKramer, based in a former church, for example, is known for its unorthodox and sometimes even edgy work. The agency, lead by Erik Kessels who is also an avid curator of photography exhibitions, has always remained relatively small because it prefers just making stuff over politics.

Another agency with a strong intrinsic motivation that proves that an experimental attitude can even have global impact is Dutch advertising agency Lemz. With the 'Sweetie' campaign for charity Terre des Hommes it very creatively persuaded governments around the world to do something about child-exploitation. The campaign won the agency a Grand Prix for Good and 13 golden Lions (!) in Cannes last year. The impressive feat also gained Lemz the title 'Second Independent Agency of the Year'.

Now, with the global economic crisis slowly disappearing, brands from around the world stand in line to work with Dutch advertising agencies. Even accounts such as Jameson whiskey and Irish airline Aer Lingus who never left the UK before, have recently moved their accounts to Amsterdam - to Anomaly and KesselsKramer respectively.

Connecting cultures

Amsterdam doesn't just attract creative minds; its creativity has also become an export product. Production company MediaMonks that already years ago ambitiously called itself the "biggest production company in the world", is now seeing its self-fulfilling prophecy become reality. The company has in no time opened offices in London, New York, LA and Singapore.

Wesley ter Haar, founder and COO, about the company's international success: "I think our global growth is based on three production pillars; quality, efficiency and scale. This might sound like a simple list, but in many ways I am convinced that to deliver on that promise is connected to being born and bred in Amsterdam. Companies that work with us get the best of both worlds; an ambitious and agile production shop, that delivers with 'a safe pair of hands'".

But even relatively small creative shops such as SuperHeroes who "save the world from boring advertising" last year opened an office in New York. Rogier Vijverberg about his move to New York: "Although there are already many creative agencies in New York, we feel we can actually add something. We bring a liberal Amsterdam attitude with us that overarches and connects cultures. In New York we are seen as a boutique agency that has the freedom to experiment, which feels like an oasis for marketeers wanting to escape the large scale network agencies."

Dutch Design

An industry closely related to advertising and already for a few decades an export product of the Netherlands is 'Dutch Design'. Industrial and interior designers such as Job Smeets & Nynke Tynagel (both forming Studio Job), Marcel Wanders and Piet Boon are renowned on all continents for their original and distinctive designs.

But what is it exaclty that makes Dutch Design so popular? Richard van der Laken, partner at Amsterdam design agency De Designpolitie and founder of the international conference What Design Can Do, says Dutch Design is primarily known for its "conceptual nature", which makes it "inspiring and thought provoking". Foreign critics generally define it as a combination of conceptually intelligent, colourful and with a healthy dose of wit. Cleverly playful is thus maybe the best way to describe it.

This is why designers from all over the world travel to the Netherlands to study graphic and industrial design. Van der Laken: "The Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and Design Academy Eindhoven are infested with foreigners that are educated in the Dutch Design tradition. That's why my studio and those of my colleagues are overflowing with young, eager interns that want to learn the Dutch craft." Many of these students remain in the Netherlands and ironically turn Dutch design into something that is not necessarily Dutch anymore but stands for a style that has an international DNA and appeal.

Startup Delta

Other successful creative sub industries from Amsterdam that are thriving internationally are fashion, dance and digital technology. Especially digital, consisting of gaming, apps and start-ups, is quickly growing at the moment.

One of the key building blocks for Amsterdam's tech success is the fact that the city is home to the Amsterdam Internet Exchange (AMS-IX), the largest global data hub in the world, and that the Netherlands has one of the highest broadband densities in the world.

An example of a successful start-up is Blendle, a pay per view platform for newspapers and magazines that has closed deals with the biggest publishers in the world, thus offering internationally renowned titles such as New York Times, The Economist and Der Spiegel. Its user base is quickly growing thus making it bound to become the iTunes for quality news.

Peerby and 3D Hubs also quickly grow their user base. The two start-ups, just like Airbnb both based on the concept of a 'sharing economy', give access to products owned by others. Peerby, recently receiving large investments from several incubators and expanding to the US, let's you borrow products such as land mowers and film cameras from your neighbours, while 3D Hubs offers 3D printing services.

Amsterdam is also home to two international incubator programs, Rockstart and Start-up Bootcamp, attracting start-ups from all over the world. Oscar Kneppers, founder of Rockstarts, believes the Dutch start-up scene perfectly combines money and creativity: "London attracts money and Berlin creativity. But Amsterdam has the best of both, it is a city that attracts young, smart minds, that not just want to grow their start-up here, but also want to stay". Another advantage of Amsterdam, according to Kneppers is that the Netherlands has a multi-disciplinary start-up scene: "Different cities in the Netherlands have different specialties and because we are a small country, collaborations between these disciplines are easy. You can travel anywhere in the Netherlands within 90 minutes".

It's not just Kneppers' start-up program that catalyses the Amsterdam tech scene, but also the Dutch government having the ambition to turn the Dutch economy in of the most creative economies in 2020. Part of this ambition is StartupDelta, a collaboration between local governments, educations, investors and companies, headed by the special start-up ambassador Neelie Kroes, who was the former European Commissioner for Competition.

And even for more mature tech companies Amsterdam is an attractive place to open offices. Thanks to the Dutch corporate tax system, the availability of skilled workers and the central location in the world - unlocked by Schiphol Airport, the fourth-largest in the world - companies such as Uber, Tesla and Netflix have opened their European head offices in Amsterdam.


StartupDelta is not just a body founded to improve the start-up climate, it is also an example of another ingredient of Dutch creativity; collaboration. The reason why the power of collaboration is embedded in the Dutch genes is that it has always been an essential quality in reclaiming land from the sea and taking a shared responsibility for the dykes and pumping stations that make living below sea level possible.

Built on collaboration, for example, is Denim City, an institute that - with a great amount of jeans brands in the city - innovates the jeans industry. The Amsterdam based institute combines funds from the government, NGO's, funds and the denim market. Founder James Veenhoff; "The mayor of Amsterdam personally stuck his neck out this make this happen and I believe this is typical for how the local and national governments work. Their infrastructures are geared towards collaboration with the private sector to get ambitious stuff done".

Another denim brand that is building on collaboration is Dutch jeans brand G-Star. Together with Pharrel William's company Bionic Yarn and Amsterdam based creative agencies FHV BBDO and Part of a Bigger Plan it last year won a Grand Prix in the 'Product Design' category for creating a denim line with a yarn made from recycled plastic from the ocean.

According to Barbera Wolfensberger, chairman of Top Sector Creative Industry, a governmental institute founded to stimulate the Dutch creative economy (and former chairman of FHV BBDO) believes that Amsterdam's advertising industry has the potential to become much more important if it collaborates more intensively with other creative industries. "The ad industry is inhabited by smart people, trained to solve problems. If these minds combine forces with other industries, such as architects, the organisers of dance events and the fashion industry, to name just a few, advertising could make a much more serious and constructive societal impact."

Second Golden Age

International, open-minded, playful, ambitious, and collaborative are just a few of the qualities of the Amsterdam's creative industry that have turned the city in a very powerful creative capital. With the economy growing - since 2011 the amount of agencies has doubled - the city might just be ready for a second Golden Age. This time not primarily built on trading, but on the power to create.