“I Didn’t Know Quality of Life Until I Moved Here” — A Portrait of the Expat Ad Crowd in Amsterdam

They bring their kids to the international school in a cargo bicycle and find it hard to make Dutch friends. Expats in Amsterdam live in a parallel world. They boost the reputation of the Netherlands in the global advertising industry, but do they feel at home? A portrait of the expanding expat ad community in Amsterdam.

Integrating: going to squatter’s parties

His best integration decision was to start playing football at DWG Geuzenveld, in a team with primarily people from Surinam. Englishman Simon Neate-Stidson has been living and working in Amsterdam for ten years. I meet him in debate centre De Balie, less than a one-minute walk away from the office of Blast Radius, where he works as a Strategy Director. “I didn’t know what quality of life was until I moved here. Amsterdam has the combination of quality of living and a handful of world-class advertising agencies,” he says. “Over here, a mix of international talent makes work that is recognized worldwide. London, Paris and Berlin don’t have this, because over there they primarily work for the domestic market.” The local population of advertising professionals is so big that they can live in between the Dutch without having to interact with them. When he started working at Wieden+Kennedy in Amsterdam ten years ago, Simon experienced how easy it is to blend in with the expat community. “All my friends worked at Wieden+Kennedy or 180, and didn’t speak any Dutch. We worked together and we went out together. I decided to force myself to integrate by putting myself in scenario’s outside of the advertising world. That enriched my life a lot. Since nothing is more than a ten minute bike ride away, it’s easy to experience many different things. I see more bands here than I ever could in London.” Within five years after his arrival, Simon spoke Dutch.

Jennette Snape, head of creative agency Dolly Rogers, greets me with three firm kisses. The Australian has an office in the warehouse of advertising agency Indie. She feels at home in Amsterdam because of its scale, the language, and the design culture. “When you go out, you can be spontaneous because everything is nearby. You can get drunk with falling of your bike as the only risk. There’s no language barrier over here because everyone speaks English. If you would want to work in Germany, you would have to speak German. And the Netherlands has a great international reputation in design.” Her Italian intern Alice Spandaro praises the beauty of the lettering on our café’s and our traffic signs. Jennette also loves the waywardness of Amsterdam. Stockholm, where she worked for a while, didn’t have that. “They were too perfect there, I missed the freaks.”

“Expats don’t connect with the underground scene in Amsterdam. If I have guests over from abroad, I take them to squatter’s parties.”

Jennette knows the danger of staying in your own circle. “If you work as much as expats usually do, you can’t explore the city in your own time, so you just follow your colleagues. Agencies create comfort zones: a job, an apartment, colleagues as friends, and a place to drink on Friday evenings.” That’s why she gives her interns assignments by way of initiation in the city. Get a crate of beer by bike. Take the ferry to deliver a package in Amsterdam-Noord. She herself got to know Amsterdam by going to openings in galleries. “Expats don’t connect with the underground scene in Amsterdam. If I have guests over from abroad, I take them to squatter’s parties.” She recently held her own party with the theme ‘Snoop Dolly Dogg’ in a squatter’s restaurant in the Plantage neighbourhood. Jennette was the queen of the night in her Dolly Parton costume. Upon entry I had a pink cape draped around my shoulders to shake off my stiffness. She got people with different lifestyles to meet. Artists, musicians, squatters, and expats made bets with ‘Dolly Dollars’ to be able to buy cocktails. Cowgirls and ad boys got entangled playing Twister.

Going out: completely grachtengordel

What does life after work look like for expats? Friday afternoon, 5 p.m. ‘Biertje o’clock’ at Blast Radius. When you cross the tourist-packed Max Euweplein, you don’t realize that up above there’s an advertising agency employing seventy people from almost twenty different nationalities. Sitting back in their office chairs with a beer in hand, they listen to a speech by a creative team, about parallel dimensions and news regarding the progress of a pitch for a well-known international beer brand. Often the drink is continued at the dingy Café de Koe in the Marnixstraat. Simon Neate-Stidson: “That bar wouldn’t survive without us.” Jokingly, Simon calls himself “the oldest clubber in town.” “I often go to Club Trouw and Paradiso. And I DJ in the Jet Lounge, the bar of a friend of mine.” The expat party is organized by production company Glassworks, says Simon. Expats don’t go to tourist spots, but they’re completely grachtengordel. A favourite hangout is Café Tabac, on the corner of the Brouwersgracht and the Prinsengracht. A lot of expats live and work close by. “Or Café Brandon, around the corner of the former Wieden+Kennedy office. It’s an institute.”

What bothers Simon in the Netherlands is the bad service. “When you enter a store, you’re not always greeted or acknowledged. It took me years to get used to that.” It’s another reason why expats are picky when it comes to choosing places to spend their scarce spare time. They often end up in venues that are founded by expats. “There are pockets of passion here,” says German Uli Kurtenbach, Strategy Director at Amsterdam Worldwide. I agreed to meet him at Screaming Beans, a shop for coffee aficionados in the Negen Straatjes. “I pick places where people really care about what they do.” Bars, restaurants, and shops where the level of service exceeds the Dutch norm. He mentions cocktail bar Vesper, in a side street of the Brouwersgracht. The Amsterdam underground scene is not really his thing. “I sometimes go to illegal movie screenings where an American expat shows a movie to about ten people and talks about it. For me, it doesn’t get more underground than that. But even in Berlin it’s all become a lot more grown-up.”

Expats in Amsterdam - Expat Haunts

1) Vesper, cocktail bar | Vinkenstraat 57, Amsterdam
2) Tabac, bar | Brouwersgracht 101, Amsterdam
3) G&T’s really nice place, brunch & cocktails | Goudsbloemstraat 91, Amsterdam
4) Fraiche, restaurant | Westerstraat 264, Amsterdam
5) Jason Hartley’s Lovefood HQ, restaurant | Koggestraat 1, Amsterdam
6) Greenwoods, tearoom | Singel 103, Amsterdam
7) Screaming Beans, coffee | Hartenstraat 12, Amsterdam
8) The American Book Center | Spui 12, Amsterdam
9) The English Bookstore | Lauriergracht 71, Amsterdam
10) Brecht, bar | Weteringschans 157, Amsterdam
11) Two For Joy, coffee | Frederiksplein 29, Haarlemmerdijk 182, Amsterdam
12) The Butcher, hamburgers | Albert Cuypstraat 129, Amsterdam

The social life: making Dutch friends

Heather’s trans-Atlantic move was taken care of and paid for, she got an apartment on the Brouwersgracht and only had to buy a bike for her daily ride to Amstelveen. But she didn’t feel at home at DDB. “At the lunch table, all Dutch people were sitting together, talking in Dutch.” She switched to Tribal DDB, with more young people and a fifty-fifty ratio of expats and Dutchmen. Strawberry Frog, her next employer, was closer to her home and had a culture that better suited her, but the transfer also meant being surrounded by even fewer Dutch people. She wrote a sharp column for Amsterdam Ad Blog about the trouble she had with making Dutch friends. “Dutchmen probably think that I will eventually leave anyway. They’ve got the same friends since the sand-box, so why would they even try? But maybe they just get that impression because I primarily hang out with expats.” She’s friends with the instructors in her gym and a handful of Dutch people she worked with. “And I dated a Dutch guy twice.”

Uli Kurtenbach calls Amsterdam “the best place to live in Europe.” But if you are happy with the people you work with, he says, then location doesn’t matter. His next destination could be Los Angeles. With his cargo bicycle he takes his children of six and eight years old to the Amsterdam International Community School. On the school playground he meets other expats, sometimes accompanied by a Dutch partner. “My kids are totally cosmopolitan,” says Uli. Yet they do celebrate Sinterklaas. And Halloween in Amsterdam-Zuid, organised by the American Woman’s Association. Uli isn’t part of a club of compatriots, like many Americans and Britons are. “I already had a club: Wieden+Kennedy. There was no reason to meet anyone else. With 150 interesting people who are aware of the latest in culture and music, there’s something special to do every night. It’s impossible not to benefit from that.”

“In the United States you can pursue happiness until you die. Europeans have already found out what makes them happy.”

“When Dutch people speak English,” Jeffre Jackson says thoughtfully, “they behave differently. More civilized and reserved.” We drink a cappuccino in Winkel, on the Noordermarkt. He just took his daughter to a Dutch school in the Jordaan. “When they know you well enough to start talking Dutch to you, they are frank and open-hearted.” While travelling through Europe with his girlfriend after finishing his study at Harvard, he felt compelled to move to the Netherlands one day. He started as a Strategy Director at Wieden+Kennedy in 1998, so he could live in Amsterdam. Now he is a freelance consultant. His friends are still primarily expats, but he made the city completely his own. Jeffre’s favourite place is the Amsterdamse Bos, and his favourite book is about the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, “The Embarrassment of Riches” by American historian Simon Schama. “I love Amsterdam every day. The culture is healthier here. In the United States you can pursue happiness until you die. Europeans have already found out what makes them happy.”

Work ethic: jungle drums at 5 p.m.

A common opinion is that expats work harder, while Dutch people create a better balance between work and private life. “At five o’clock in the afternoon you hear the jungle drums of people going home at the same time,” says Heather. “One of the first Dutch sentences I learned was, ‘That’s not possible.’” The opposite of the can-do mentality she was used to in America. Simon has a more nuanced view. “Expats do indeed work long hours, they often live just a few minutes away from their office in the city centre.” He notes that international agencies are increasingly aware of the fact that Dutchmen are also willing to take on this lifestyle. “The Dutch people I worked with have the same focus, and work hard as well.” Jennette recalls the start of a new international agency in Amsterdam, which she worked for as a freelancer. “All employees were flown in. They worked so many hours that they weren’t able to enjoy it. That’s simply a shame. But it did lead to romances within the team.”

Uli works until six. His children took over his evenings. “I know the quality of working hard, but I am particularly in favour of working efficiently. My hunch is that Dutch people understand how to do this. It’s not about the number of hours, but about concentration.” Still Uli is a bigger fan of the energetic American culture than he is of Dutch pragmatism. “In the advertising world, there’s a lot of bragging about working late,” Jeffre Jackson says. “Leaving early means investing less energy. It’s hard to find good Dutch creatives because there’s a clash between different work cultures. A lot of them don’t see their work as a calling.”

“They like the status that comes with working long hours,” says Amsterdammer Wouter Boon, who keeps the expat community posted about Amsterdam’s agency world with his Amsterdam Ad Blog. “Because people don’t have anything here, their colleagues become their family. In the evening, bachelors return to their empty apartments. That’s not very cozy and makes it easy to work longer. Work and private life are barely separated.” Expats are roughly divided in two categories. Those in their twenties and early thirties with a few years of experience, who are not yet weighed down with property or children in their homeland. And middle-aged senior ad executives, who are brought in for a lot of money. If they have children, they usually go to an international school. Few have the intention to stay in the Netherlands forever. “Among expats there are people who are turned on by the job, and people who are turned on by the city,” says Wouter.

Advertising: stuff Dutch people like

Expats often don’t get Dutch advertising, and not only because of the language. Heather was astonished by a commercial for dairy brand Mona, in which a woman who’s eating a chocolate pudding thinks about getting intimate with a black man. “That would be unthinkable in the United States. Simply racist.” She often laughs about the website stuffdutchpeoplelike.com, that makes fun of Dutch phenomena such as red trousers, three kisses and gel hairdos. Heather adopted the Dutch habits that fit her personality. “When I’m back in the United States, I find it weird to be hugged by everyone. My friends are surprised when I want to kiss them on the cheek.” Jeffre thinks that Dutch advertising is twofold. On the one hand there are the jokes that seem to be borrowed from the eighties. On the other hand the Dutch are good with emotionally charged advertising. He remembers a commercial for internet provider Freeler, which stuck with him because of its subtly. “The maturity of a national culture,” says Jeffre, “is reflected in the best of its advertising.”

“The maturity of a national culture is reflected in the best of its advertising.”

Simon notices that more expats are hired by Dutch agencies, that international agencies take up Dutch accounts, and that more and more start-ups want to make international work. “International talent attracts more international talent,” he says. Still a lot of expats consider Amsterdam to be a stopover rather than a final destination. “Amsterdam,” says Uli Kurtenbach, “lets you do anything you want, but doesn’t have the energy to change you. It asks nothing, it gives nothing.” He loves Amsterdam’s tolerance, and the lack of pressure and strict dress codes. But the passivity can frustrate him. “I care about fashion. Every now and then I just want to dress up for something.” The city doesn’t have the intensity of New York, which Uli often misses. Jeffre Jackson doesn’t share his restlessness. He and his American girlfriend divide their working-days to take care of their daughter. They called her Madelief. ♦

The original Dutch version of this article was published in Adformatie, the journal of the Dutch advertising, marketing and media industry, on 21 June 2012.

Journalist Ebele Wybenga (1987) is an Amsterdammer by birth. He writes about lifestyle, contemporary culture and advertising for independent media and brands, including NRC Handelsblad and Adformatie.

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