Last Wednesday the ADCN (Art Director’s Club Nederland) hosted a session in ‘De Kring’ on the Rembrandtplein dubbed ‘XXX Expat’ (XXX is part of the city’s shield), with the noble aim of bringing two parts of the Amsterdam ad industry together; the Dutch and the expats. Some would say these two groups are surely two sides to the same coin, others would say these are separate entities with little or nothing in common other than geography. The somewhat lacking relationship between these two communities has been well documented over the years, yet despite this, nothing has ever quite bridged that gap, except of course – modest as we are – Amsterdam Ad Blog. Lode Schaeffer (ECD at Indie), new chairman to the ADCN is determined to branch out and readdress the balance. The idea was simple; get five speakers from leading agencies in Amsterdam to each give a presentation about the experience of living and working in Amsterdam as an expat.

The evening kicked off with Chris Baylis (ECD at Tribal DDB, British), Baylis talked about “Dutch optimism”, something he applauded as one of the great positive cultural traits of the city. He continued, however, by showing how this optimism has a downside when applied to the work place, and quickly becomes a laissez-faire attitude to deadlines and overtime. He explained how shocked he was upon arrival that Dutch employees as a rule refuse to work weekends, a delinquency he had thankfully managed to stamp out of the agency by hiring more international folk who were prepared to sacrifice their free time and days off. So the thing you initially like and champion in a culture becomes the thing that you don’t like and try to change. This insight came up a few times throughout the evening.

Next up was Eric Quennoy (ECD W+K, Australian) who took us on a leisurely, sprawling train of thought following his journey of experience in Amsterdam during the five years that he’s worked here. This talk was more free-form than lecture, and all the better for it. The last 5 years of his career have been “the most productive and the most satisfying so far”, which he puts entirely down to the city itself. The “nurturing environment” and “oasis of calm” allows all the chaos to go into “your work instead of your life” and the “beautiful backdrop of the city” affects you positively as a creative person. He pointed out that in other cities you spend half your time competing with other companies, watching what they are doing, trying to stay ahead “keeping up with the Joneses”. Whereas here he feels free to do his thing. Just as great artists retreat to epic landscapes to create their final opus, “we ad people do our best work out of Amsterdam” – well said Eric.

Jennifer Skupin (Creative, KesselsKramer, German) started things off by unwittingly, but comically, reinforcing a certain national stereotype when asking to “be in control of her own slides”. The idea of structure and control versus fluidity was evident in her presentation as she contrasted German ways of defining things versus the Dutch way. The prime example being KesselsKramer, which is branding meets design meets advertising. This idea of blurring the lines between different disciplines would be all but impossible in her native Germany. She admired the Dutch “strong sense of design” and the importance attached to “corporate identity”. She made an interesting point by contrasting Dutch police cars and fire engines with German ones. Dutch design won, hands down. However not all aspects of life in Holland were equally pleasing and she termed Amsterdam a ‘stop-off place for the International crowd’ populated by the transient.

The following speaker was Ron Smrczek (ECD TAXI, Canadian) who was the freshest blood on stage with only ten months in Amsterdam under his belt. Therefore – as he admitted himself – some of his observations were “rose tinted”. His main points were about Amsterdam being beautiful, old, multicultural, yet English speaking and how the city stays true to its roots and history. TAXI merged with a local agency, so there’s a strong Dutch culture at the office, he joked about the way everyone took lunch together, which was great, but “WHY does it have to be exactly the same every day?!”
His final observation was that on the surface there doesn’t appear to be a huge ad or design industry here, but if you scratch away you can find little pockets of magic.

Finally, Stephen Hancock (Creative Director 180, British) set up his well thought-out presentation by observing that 180 still feels quite isolated “in our own spaceship” as an international agency – even after 13 years here. What attracted him to the ad scene in Amsterdam was the random mix of people and nationalities in the mix, as opposed to London, for example, which seems to churn out “one type of person, quite wanky.” He agreed with previous speaker Jennifer Skupin that it was easier to blur the lines here and many disciplines under one roof and noted that historically Amsterdam has always been progressive, global, outward looking. Another typical thing about the Dutch is that the way of thinking is far more polarized; you either “love or hate” something – which he literally quoted from the invitation – as opposed to the lukewarm “like or dislike” (see picture). The combination of a “no nonsense” approach and wanting to have “everything under control” is translated in Dutch design; it all looks so well ordered and linear. Designer Dick Bruna, famous for creating Nijntje (or Miffy), was mentioned as a product of this sense of restriction and discipline. His final point was the town and its industry is small enough that “everyone in this room knows each other by default” so there was no more excuses in bringing the Dutch and the International audiences closer together.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the speakers were on the whole positive about Amsterdam. Their insights were largely shaped by the amount of time they’d spent in the city and the experience of living here; as opposed to any really deep insights into Dutch culture – perhaps Stephen Hancock’s design references came the closest to this. Ultimately the event worked best as a rallying call and reminder to the Dutch ad community as to just why so many international folk move over to work in Amsterdam. In fact it’s sometimes far too easy to take the good life for granted.