Riding the fourth wave of international advertising

Robert Röling, PhD student at the University van Amsterdam (economic geography), wrote an article about his research on Amsterdam’s success in attracting international agencies and creative talent – or the other way around, if you will. The article is titled “Small Town, Big Campaign: The Rise and Growth of an International Advertising Industry” and published in the academic journal Regional Studies. Röling’s thorough article starts with describing the history of international advertising. In this context scholars always used to speak of the big two waves. But nowadays there are already four, Röling explains. And Amsterdam is the centre of the fourth wave.

The first wave of international advertising dates from the 1920s when the industrial revolution gave American advertising an enormous boost. New York, and particularly Madison Avenue, became the first epicenter of international advertising. Agencies like JWT and DDB were successful they started to expand outside the US.

In the 1960s the second wave was centered in London and Paris. A new creative élan changed the advertising industry. Agencies like Saatchi and Publicis introduced ‘soft-selling’. Until then American styled advertising was known to ‘hard-sell’ products by using a literal and bombastic tone of voice. In the 60s humour was added to persuade the consumer in a more friendly way. During this second wave ‘swinging London’ was the place to be.

In the 70s a more diverse product range and a larger variety of consumer behaviour forced agencies to become more flexible. The typical international advertising agencies from the third wave, emerging in the 1980s, were smaller, and therefore more flexible, compared to the first two waves. Many of them were breakaways from the first and second wave agencies. At that time BBH, Fallon, and Crispin, Porter + Bogusky emerged as international agencies. Another typical third wave agency, Wieden+Kennedy, opened its Amsterdam office in the 90s – following Nike that opened it’s European headquarters here. And, as Röling mentions, this was a ‘critical juncture’ for the development of Amsterdam as an international advertising hub.

Anti-cyclically the global networking agencies from the first and second wave only grew bigger and bigger during this period by buying creative, independent agencies. They thus became less and less flexible and more dependent on shareholders who were only interested in growth.

The fourth wave of advertising was basically a continuation of the process of deconsolidation that started in the 80s. It was the introduction of the internet in the 90s and the changing role of the consumer that entitled the fourth wave to have its own chapter in the history books. The rapidly changing media landscape forced agencies to cooperate more and more with external, specialized parties, instead of doing everything in-house. Thanks to internationally orientated agencies like KesselsKramer, 180, and Strawberry Frog opening their doors in Amsterdam in the 90s, Amsterdam is now riding the fourth wave.

One of Röling’s most insightful observations is that today the Amsterdam offices of the global network agencies, like BBDO, DDB, TBWA, Publicis, Saatchi, and Lowe are predominantly nationally orientated in terms of both their clients and employees. What’s more, almost all of them are located outside the city centre in relatively cheap, not very inspiring office buildings, closer to Schiphol airport. The independent, third and fourth wave agencies, are all located in the city centre, preferably in the old merchant houses along the canals. Understandable. That is what makes creative folk from all over the world want to work in Amsterdam. And, not to forget, the clients don’t mind a meeting in such an environment either.

So, to summarize Röling’s article, the key to Amsterdam’s international success is the increasing importance of small, flexible, independent advertising agencies and the attraction the city has on exactly these types of agencies and people. It is the size of the city, the friendly pace of life, and the international attitude of the people that attracts creativity. That is what makes Amsterdam the international centre of the fourth wave of international advertising. And since we’re only just climbing up from a global economical crisis, we still haven’t reached its peak.