Communications with the Communications World

During a roundtable in Amsterdam  on the state of modern advertising today a few things become clear: it’s all about rapid-fire change as consumers become civilians and clients need re-educating. Meanwhile, it’s getting harder and harder to find locally-generated creative talent.

By Steve Korver, 03-04-2008, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly



So what happened to all that buzz around Amsterdam as a European advertising capital? Five or ten years ago, it was all the hype: internationally oriented ad companies were descending on Amsterdam to take advantage of both the infrastructure (read: Schiphol) and the city’s large creative pool.

Amsterdam-founded companies like StrawberryFrog and 180—equipped with the then latest marketing buzzwords, such as ‘guerrilla’, ‘viral’, and ‘consumer-oriented’—successfully tapped the city’s multicultural talent for their often quirky campaigns for major brands. Even global giants Wieden + Kennedy followed their big client Nike to Amsterdam to ‘Just Do It!’ Meanwhile 180 got busy with wrapping Adidas products with squids and StrawberryFrog started dunking Mitsubishi mini-vans in aquariums.

Business was good and creative prizes were won. In 2004, the city’s reputation hit its peak when Netherlands-based agencies picked up 16 Lions—the Oscars of the advert world—at Cannes, thereby placing the country third after the US and the UK. Many editorial inches in local and international media painted the city as the emerging advertising capital of the world.

But more recently, Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam have been laying off staff. StrawberryFrog is regrouping after losing the global Heineken account in 2007—while at the same time opening a new office in Sao Paolo. And 180 was recently bought by Omnicom, the world’s largest ad agency holding company, as an ‘independent branch’.

Of course this could all be natural economic ebb and flow, it does still raise the question: what happened to the buzz? Surely an industry based on buzz can maintain the buzz? Or are we seeing signs of a collapse?

Alex Melvin, founder and CEO of 180, laughs when asked over the phone if Amsterdam is dying as an ad capital. ‘Well, maybe partially. Fifteen years ago it was the local Dutch agencies who were winning all the important prizes. But then five or ten years ago the international agencies became the torch bearers. And now that too has died down somewhat. But I relate it more to the coming global recession. Agencies are the first to feel the brunt—that’s where the budgets get cut first. Laws of the jungle and all that. But there are still new agencies and post-production houses appearing in Amsterdam.’

‘But at the same time, you do see the city and Dutch government working to promote the creative industry,’ continues Melvin, citing as example last Tuesday’s Iamsterdam-sponsored Creative Company Conference at the Muziekgebouw, which brought industry players together to talk about ‘creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship’.

Melvin comments: ‘The appearance of conferences like that is usually a sign that the industry has lost some of its own momentum.’

Communicating vs advertising
To find out what was going on, the Weekly asked a few industry players to sit down and discuss. And one of the first lessons was that when you get a dozen communications professionals around one table , one  creates less of a buzz and more of a racket. In the dense hours that follow, one thing becomes clear: no one is planning to pack their bags and leave town anytime soon.

But everyone agrees the industry is undergoing big changes. Major corporations are now seriously turning their marketing dollars towards the internet. They, like the ad agencies themselves, are also continuing to brand themselves silly. Ab Winsemius, strategy director at 180 Amsterdam, explains: ‘Since all products are very similar these days, branding is about adding value with an idea. You still have old school examples like in the US, where people are buying lots of Fiji Water but don’t even know where Fiji is. And since it’s flown in, it’s probably the most polluting water ever. But it’s being stuffed down their throats. However, other companies who’ve been around longer think a little differently. It’s about finding ways to move away from traditional selling techniques.’

By way of example, Winsemius mentions TNT, which used to sponsor the Dutch Open golf championship. ‘But then the new CEO decided to use the five million euro budget to enable people to send second-hand stuff to poorer places. This is a good example of creating brand behaviour instead of just advertising.’

So has the consumer become the master? Fast-talking Brit Jason Hartley, strategic director of new agency Look, begins by attacking the terminology. ‘I hate the word “consumer”. It dehumanises, like we’re actually talking about aliens or something. We only need to think about how we behave as individuals.’

Hartley says that the ad industry has to rethink how it talks to people. ‘Are we advertisers or are we in communication? We have to draw a balance between what individuals want and what the company is telling them to do. The real problem is that people have become a little too clever. They remember stuff and if they forget they can always check the internet.’

RappCollins’ Serge van Wijngaarden, a 2-metre-tall, tattooed former doorman and soap opera writer, believes that individuals hold the ultimate power: ‘They simply don’t have to buy the product.’

Joep Beving, of MassiveMusic, agrees: ‘Brands have become political parties, and we vote for them by buying them. Consumers have become citizens.’ Therefore the industry is spending more time not convincing consumers but convincing their clients to deal with these new realities. ‘Brands have to listen and learn. And that’s difficult for them,’ says Hartley.

Winsemius sums up the situation: ‘You can’t hide anymore. You’ll be found out. And that’s the whole point of the new media. Every company gets found out. There’s more transparency and insightfulness going on, so all you can do is work hard and be really good at what you do.’

Change is hitting an industry described by Winsemius as ‘the most conservative and reactive industry around.’

But Murray White, creative director at Springer & Jacoby cuts to the bottom line: ‘Ultimately we do still have a master. And that’s the client.’

Is the new buzz word no buzz word?
So what exactly happened to the traditional ad agency? Or did they just all change their names to ‘a brand communications building agency’ in their own re-branding process?

‘There’s still bad buzz around the word advertising itself,’ says Dylan Berg, a copywriter at They. ‘Studies have shown advertising to be the least respected profession, after salesmen.’

‘Or is it lawyers?’ someone chimes in.

‘There’s a reason the ad film festival comes right after the porn film festival at Cannes,’ jokes Berg. ‘But there is good and bad advertising. Advertising on its own has a bad brand. When I tell people I’m in advertising, I can tell from their faces that they’re imagining “BUY NOW!” But when I mention doing work on their favourite brand of shoe or Greenpeace, their view shifts. If you give them the specifics, they don’t hate it.’

Beving observes that advertising is becoming more integrated into popular culture. ‘Just look online at MySpace, Facebook, all those social networks. Everybody’s busy with self-marketing. It’s like they’re all in a huge training programme to learn to do what we’ve been doing—what we make our money with. It’s becoming what everybody does—and everybody will become better and better at it. Not only generating internet content, but also knowing how to sell something and touch points. They’re doing all the stuff we’ve learned from experience as well. We were just a couple of years earlier than the rest.’

It’s hard to stand out with all this background noise. According to StrawberryFrog’s Brian Elliott, ‘When we started nine years ago, you needed to set yourself apart from network agencies of the time. But at the end of the day you have an eighteen month window to prove yourself. People want to see the work, and then they either like it or they don’t. You’re as good as your last work. Now our name in itself does nothing for us.’

‘The industry is so confused,’ says Elliott. ‘We’re so full of euphemisms and bullshit now that we’re going to have to go back to the essentials.’

Ad city Amsterdam
Meanwhile Amsterdam remains an inspiring place to work for international creative types. And the actual working environment is much more relaxing and less hierarchical then other ad hotspots of the world. Winsemius notes, ‘That’s the biggest thing I encountered when I went to the US to work for a few years. Here the clients I worked with lived around the corner and we could spend a lot of time working around the garden table.’

‘In the States you have to go up eighteen layers before you get your thirty minutes of decision-making,’ says Winsemius. ‘That adds complexity and a lot of risk-avoidance. Every extra meeting you have, something gets taken away from that idea that was so great.’

Hartley: ‘But there’s definitely something extra about this city. There has to be a reason some of these companies gravitate here, other than tax breaks. Balance of life, maybe?’

‘The bikes, the coffeeshops, maybe?’ suggests Van Wijngaarden with a smirk.

Suzanna Koppedraayer is owner of Sukoi Amsterdam, a company that headhunts creative talent. ‘Amsterdam is a hub for creative people in general. So many people would jump on a plane tomorrow. And they’re not coming here for the coffeeshops. It’s mostly people with young children who want to move here.’

But parents aren’t the traditional sources for an edgy local creative scene…

So what happened to the local talent?
Many round-tablers expressed the rising difficulties in finding young creatives. They are currently looking towards Scandinavia for interactive web design; and to London and Belgium for 3D.

Several believe that Amsterdam has just gotten too expensive for the next generation of creative talent to grow up in.

White: ‘I think it’s getting harder and harder for those bohemian dudes to come to Amsterdam to live and develop their craft and be the Web guys we can source for projects. The subcultural scene is not what it used to be.’

Hartley points his finger south: ‘But look at Rotterdam. It’s got an amazing underground art and design scene.’

Beving agrees wholeheartedly: ‘Amsterdam has always been an extroverted city, while Rotterdam is completely the opposite. There you’ll experience real Rotterdam: warm, friendly and direct, with no pretensions. There’s been a historical difference for a long time. Amsterdam has been using the luxurious position they created ten or fifteen years ago. And in a way it’s time for a subculture to emerge. But that has been very difficult. We’re seeing a lot of people moving to Rotterdam, because it’s cheaper, and by now there’s more stuff happening there.’

Elliott: ‘People spend more time on the Tube in London than they do on the train between Rotterdam and Amsterdam. So I think both the Amsterdam city council and the Dutch government have to get beyond the idea that Amsterdam is just a brand of itself. They have to see that it represents this country’s creativity and design. And Amsterdam and Rotterdam have to get past competing with each other. There’s a huge amount of opportunity here. When we talk to clients and consultants around the world, they talk about two places in Europe—London and Amsterdam. There are murmurs about Berlin and Barcelona, but very rarely. You’ve just got to cast your net a little wider. Because it’s not about Amsterdam, it’s about Amsterdam as a hub for a lot of areas.’

Oops. Is it time to become the Rotterdam Weekly?


Thanks to Corinne Genestay,  Matt Harrison of KesselsKramer, Rene Nuijens,  Sulakshana Gupta and Robin Kawakami.

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