The eyebrow-raising success of Strawberry Frog in winning Credit Suisse's global branding task moves the spotlight of world advertising once again to Amsterdam. The Dutch creative centre already enjoys a reputation as the hothouse of continental Europe. And as Mark Cunningham, the chief executive of the Amsterdam-based TBWA Campaign Company, points out, its performance is in many ways second to none. 'If you look at Cannes awards per head of population, nowhere else can match Holland,' he says. 'This agency alone won more awards last year than the entire German ad industry.'
Holland's reputation as a creative hub has been further enhanced by the domination of Wieden & Kennedy's Amsterdam outfit over the rest of the network, particularly the apparently subservient London office. Much-admired local outfits such as Kessels-Kramer have added to the city's reputation for experimental creative. Now the Frogs, as Credit Suisse's new agency refers to its staffers, are looking to play the same game in the territory of multinational networks such as McCann-Erickson. 'Our whole business idea is challenging big corporate ad agencies for international accounts,' Scott Goodson, Strawberry Frog's co-founder, says.
But to what extent is Strawberry Frog's success an achievement of Amsterdam?
The agency draws its staff from 14 different countries, including ten from the UK, and does not seem to think of itself as essentially Dutch.
Goodson himself is Canadian and founded the outfit alongside a Dane, Caren Drakenberg, last year. 'When we set up, we had a long look at London as well,' he says. 'The trouble is, it's outrageously expensive to start a business there.'
There is an unusual contradiction in Dutch advertising's international profile, with foreign imports such as the W&K breakaway 180 boosting the country's international reputation for funky creative, while being almost ignored by the local industry surrounding them. 'Wieden & Kennedy and 180 are very good, but the Dutch advertising industry would not consider them Dutch agencies,' Nick Hough, Leagas Delaney's managing director, who spent three years in Amsterdam with Lowes, says. 'They often forget to mention them in the press and they often don't win the Dutch awards that they enter.'
That could be because local agencies can boast a genuinely creative-led approach that Dan Wieden would go green at. 'More work in Amsterdam is done based on intuition and experience,' Hough says. 'The market is less bogged down with research and so creative ideas don't suffer the death of 1,000 cuts that they often do here. Dutch marketing is very entrepreneurial in outlook and clients are much more responsive to creative ideas. Some of these are ludicrous but others hit the mark.'
According to Hough, this willingness to experiment comes down, in the end, to money. 'The cost of media is relatively cheap and therefore it's less of a problem for clients to take the occasional risk,' he says.
However, it's unlikely that the potential lunatic streak in Dutch advertising is solely due to the balance sheet. Local creatives may not conjure up their scripts over chunky reefers down the Grasshopper, but there is something different in the air in Amsterdam. The country's forward-thinking legal culture isn't unconnected to the ad industry's risque style. 'This is a very tolerant society,' Cunningham says. 'People don't tend to have double standards on issues and that keeps things more open. People here think the English thing about hiding nipples in ads is particularly silly.'
Of course, experimentation, by its nature, doesn't always equal success.
According to Hough, anyone plonking themselves in front of a Dutch TV and expecting a transcendent experience during the commercial breaks would be disappointed. 'There's a lot of rubbish,' he says. 'I don't think the overall standard is higher than the UK, there are just more peaks.'
The Kessels-Kramer co-founder Johan Kramer agrees that his homeland still has some way to go in terms of advertising quality. 'There are more great agencies in London,' he says. 'We're still not there yet.'
Kramer points to his own agency's experience to illustrate the most surprising failing of Amsterdam's agencies. Despite its reputation abroad, international clients are under-represented among Kessels-Kramer's accounts. 'When we first started we had much more international business,' he explains. 'We've been sleeping for a few years and a lot of clients have gone to London instead.'
It's a strange failing, because the Dutch industry seems ripe for expansion abroad and yet many local agencies seem content to leave that to the likes of W&K and Strawberry Frog. Amsterdam is one of Europe's foremost commercial hubs, with companies such as Nike and Tommy Hilfiger racing to establish headquarters there. Tolerance to other cultures, and a tradition that encourages fluency in foreign languages, particularly English, could give Kessels-Kramer and the rest a considerable start over UK competition.
'Amsterdam's a great platform to go after business in Paris, Milan and Berlin,' Goodson says. 'A French agency would have problems winning a German client but people don't feel so threatened if you're based in Holland.'
And international competition shouldn't depend on Amsterdam remaining indifferent to foreign clients for long. 'We're focused on being an international agency once more,' Kramer says. 'That's where our new-business drive is.' If that's an attitude that's reflected across the city, then the Dutch won't be relying on Strawberry Frog to take care of international business for much longer.
This article was first published on Campaign