Friday, May 17

Lessons from Amsterdam


This year's Adforum Summit was held again in Amsterdam. The last time we were there was in 2007, and this was where I came face to face with the advertising agencies which were not "Dutch", but based in Amsterdam and winning business from major brands across Europe and the world. Their working language was English although the staff spoke many languages. Rather than boast about the offices they had around the world, these agencies boasted about how many languages were spoken in their office - 27 was, I recall, the number for Weiden & Kennedy.

Among some of the more outward looking agencies in Prague there was some discussion about whether Prague could become like Amsterdam, a creative hub for the whole of Central Europe. This topic was explored in the Velvet Evolution film. Brian Elliott of Amsterdam Worldwide explains in the film what he thinks makes Amsterdam such a success.

But the last visit was pre the financial crisis. What has changed in Amsterdam?

Two of the agencies I first met in 2007, Amsterdam Worldwide, and 180, are still going strong. We met with Kessels Kramer, a remarkable agency with a quite insane website, whose office is an old church. We met Anomaly, an agency which has managed to redefine what an agency provides for clients, and how it gets paid for doing so. Sid Lee is originally Canadian, but chooses Amsterdam as its European base. All these agencies continue to attract the attention of the biggest brands such as Coca-Cola, Adidas, Carlsberg, Chevrolet, and create campaigns which rank among the most admired in the world.

Of course these agencies are very good at presenting themselves. It took a while to find the evidence that the crisis took its toll on these agencies. Both 180 and Amsterdam Worldwide are smaller by headcount than they were in 2007. Yet this only highlights the achievements of these agencies. They get onto pitch-lists of the world's biggest brands. How can an agency with a headcount of only 40, based in a city of 800,000 inhabitants, and a country of under 17million, win all these clients and create all these great campaigns? Or more pertinently why can a Prague agency with a headcount of two or three times the Amsterdam agency, not win such clients or create such work?

The first lesson is that you don't have to be big to be good. These agencies employ a lot of highly talented people. Individually they are paid a lot more money than their counterparts in Prague, but they may be a lot more efficient. Really talented people solve their clients problems more quickly.

The second lesson is that Amsterdam is a global magnet for talent. There are several reasons why; one, it has a 500 year tradition of openness to the world. People with talent from any country can come to Amsterdam, build a career, and feel personally comfortable. Everyone speaks English, and Dutch people don't worry that as a result their Dutch character is being eroded. Two, there are related businesses which attract similar talent, film and TV production for example, as well as artistic talent attracted by Amsterdam's rich cultural heritage.

The third lesson is one which Brian Elliott regularly points out. These businesses are in Amsterdam partly because there is a 'digital backbone'. The government has ensured that businesses in Amsterdam can easily access reliable very high speed internet so that they can do business around the world. It has indeed attracted companies like Cisco who actually build these backbones. We saw an example of the consequences of this with the presentations hosted by "Appsterdam", a non-profit organisation which helps both established and new creators of apps to flourish.

Amsterdam is unique, and as Brian Elliott says, Prague should not seek to copy Amsterdam, but to be itself. However many people in the advertising industry believe Prague could and should be a bigger player in the global communications market. The establishment of PIAF is an example. That is a small step although I am not sure it helps to unite the Czech industry in welcoming the world. Cheaper prices for young Czech delegates would be a welcome step.

Prague shares Amsterdam's advantage of being a relatively desirable place in which to live (certainly compared with other CEE capitals). Unfortunately the Czech government has not seen the economic potential of creating a digital backbone, nor of making it a more accessible city. On the contrary there is a complete failure to build fibre optic networks, free up the market for fixed line internet, or prepare for LTE. How will the world come to Prague, now that Czech Airlines has been reduced to a service for Russians and Hyundai executives, and international rail and road links remain little better than they were twenty years ago?

In other words, we can't make Prague a European 'player' without wider support from politicians. To get this, the industry needs to speak with one voice. Not only should AKA and other associations raise their voices, but our industry should join forces with the film production industry. They have exactly the same needs of Prague's infrastructure and general business environment, but they do not speak to each other at all.

Finally we need to note that Amsterdam embraces the world because Amsterdammers are supremely self-confident people who have no doubts about their place in the world. Of course I know that you cannot just expect a shy person to go out and talk to people. But maybe we could make a start by taking to heart a notice that hangs in Kessels Kramer's office. It reads "Work Hard, and Be Nice to People".

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