Amsterdam's global skies

Perhaps it is the city's compactness that forces people to 'think outside the box' and strive for the big idea.

Walking through the inner city of Amsterdam, we are often overcome by the same questions as when we walk through our own agency: what’s the secret? What is it that makes this place tick? What does it have that other places don’t?

At first glance, Amsterdam presents you with none of the dimensions of a big city – it’s a town, rather than a metropolis. The first reminder of anything that looks like a skyline is on the outskirts. The fabric of the inner city is a promise of smallness, rather than anything large and global.

Yet this is the place where Brad Pitt often comes to relax and be himself (and George Clooney does too).

This is also the place that was built on global thinking long before others ever discovered that there was a "rest of the world". Everywhere you go in Amsterdam, you can find the traces of a long and rather successful history in international trade.

Most people know the history of the Dutch painters. But not many people stop to realise how the history of Rembrandt is (more than anything) the history of a 17th-century town that was already wealthy and developed enough to hire and pay a guy like Rembrandt.

You could say that creativity and business have always gone together quite well in this town.
Not much has changed in that sense. Look at us: over the past year, we have won international and global accounts such as TomTom, Heineken and C&A – all from this tiny office in this small town in this miniature country. And it was in the same little office that we came up with the monumental idea (if you don’t mind us saying so ourselves) of "Heineken ignite – Heineken’s first interactive bottle".

So, we ask again: what is it that makes this place tick? How is it that it means anything on a global scale; how come Amsterdam gets to play among the big boys at all?

History is part of the answer, of course. A town that has been thoroughly commercial and international for such a long time has developed its own global DNA.

Alistair Beattie, who joined us this year as the head of strategy and innovation, is not "the Brit" in our team, as he would certainly have been in many of our offices in other cities – he’s just "that guy with the nice, calm voice".And the same goes for all the other colleagues from abroad we have welcomed lately.
Being international just isn’t much of a topic in a town that went worldwide so long ago.

The Dutch have as little place for boasting as they have for large squares and enormous buildings

Walking through the office cafeteria where we have lunch together, you may well have the same experience as when sitting on a downtown terrace. You may hear some Dutch every now and then, but the main language here is an international version of English, with accents derived from Hungary to Down Under.

But being international can’t be the whole answer – even if it is being international "the Amsterdam way". It doesn’t explain the creativity that our little village has become somewhat renowned for.

The other part of the secret may very well be the smallness. There simply is no room in Amsterdam for a Champs-Élysées or a Times Square. Space is constricted; large gestures are physically impossible.

And think about this: there is no other city in the world that makes the rest of the planet feel so big. So, is it strange to think that in tiny houses and narrow streets only the broader-minded can survive? Could it be that, if you make the box smaller, people will more quickly think outside of it?

Following that thought, the smallness of everything here may very well be one of the reasons Amsterdam is such a perfect place for big thinking.

The Dutch have a saying: "Just act normal, and you will be crazy enough." (We have never found it in any other language.) It’s all about not making yourself bigger than you are – even if you do grand things.
It’s that sort of gravitas that is certainly unique to this town. The Dutch have as little place for boasting as they have for large squares and enormous buildings.

Maybe more than the international aspect, we think it is this gravitas that makes Brad and George (and Alistair and his colleagues) feel so easily at home here.

To be a truly global advertising agency, one must not only do away with national borders and cultural boundaries. One must also be able to think outside of the existing conceptual grids.

And walking through Amsterdam, we are overcome by the same feeling as when we walk through our agency: we seem to be under the right skies for that.

Manfred Bik is the strategy director at DDB and Tribal Worldwide

See more of Adland in Amsterdam 2013


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