Outward Bound

StrawberryFrog’s staff has it made. This year, co- founder Scott Goodson took his team of 40 on a five-day trip to Marrakesh; last year they soared in hot-air balloons over the Alps. In between these jaunts, the Amsterdam-based staff enjoys life in a liberal city where clients tend to be more open-minded as well.

The catch is that paychecks don’t come close to Manhattan levels. But that hasn’t put off the ex-pats from creative agencies including Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Wieden + Ken nedy, Fallon and Bartle Bogle Hegarty who have worked at Goodson’s 3-year-old agency. Amsterdam offers the kind of experience money can’t buy much of in New York advertising these days: creative excitement in an upbeat work atmosphere.

As the American ad industry soldiers through the second year of a recession, more creatives are looking to stretch their talents overseas. U.S. ad agencies have long hired from around the world. But for Americans, born in the center of the traditional advertising universe, career trailblazing has more likely involved a move to Portland than Portugal. Now, with the globalization of marketing coupled with the increasing use of English as the international language of business, U.S. copywriters and art directors are globe-trotting like never before.

Cities like Barcelona, Hamburg and Prague—currently enjoying a resurgence in local culture and the arts—are all popular destinations. But it’s Amsterdam that seems to be at the top of everyone’s wish list.

“The atmosphere in Amsterdam is becoming a magnet for a range of creative people. It’s fantastic from a cultural perspective, both in creative terms and lifestyle,” observes Peter Wood, worldwide head of art at Euro RSCG MVBMS, which opened in Amsterdam in February 2001. “You can walk from the red-light district to the area around the beautiful Van Gogh museum, where we are, and you feel a kind of energy, light and opportunity as you move throughout the city.”

It’s easy to see why creatives are drawn to the free-thinking atmosphere of the canal-lined city. Clients tend to be open to more offbeat ideas (hot shop KesselsKramer, for example, hit upon an attention-getting device, and free media to boot, when it stuck little ad flags into piles of sidewalk dog excrement for local hotel Hans Brinker). And the idiosyncratic advertising community is housed in churches, stately townhouses, old brick factories and boutique storefronts.

StrawberryFrog’s Goodson de scribes Amsterdam as the San Fran cisco of European advertising, with London comparable to New York. While Ameri can creatives have long aspired to the best of British advertising, it’s harder to break into London’s institutionalized, clubby ranks than it is to find a place in Amsterdam’s more counterculture community.

“In London advertising you wear Emporio Armani, in Amsterdam you wear fleece,” observes Goodson. “Everything is more casual here. Amsterdam’s the artsy capital of Europe—the gar bagemen here look like jazz musicians.”

It’s not surprising that students are drawn to the city’s cutting-edge agencies. The Miami Ad School offers students the chance to spend a quarter term working in local agencies by day and attending class at night. Participating agencies—including Straw berry Frog, FHV BBDO and Lowe—pay one-half of a student’s tuition and pick up housing costs.

It’s also a lot cheaper to live in Holland than in cities like sky-high London. “The cost of living overall is lower—and then there’s the ready availability of drugs and sex,” says Wieden creative director Jon Matthews.

Amsterdam is something of a Euro pean hub. In addition to local marketing giants like Heineken, Uni lever and Philips, many global companies—including Nike, Adidas, Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger—have based their European operations in the centrally located city. Local shops like Wieden and 180 pitch themselves as international agencies that just happen to be located in the Neth er lands. Their staffs reflect that, coming from countries throughout Europe, as well as Can ada and America.

Elsewhere in Europe, job hun ters say Barcelona derives creative cachet from SCPF—30 percent owned by WPP—which is known globally for its award-winning profile at Cannes. Hamburg’s appeal comes from shops such as Jung von Matt Werbeagentur; Prague is known for the work coming out of the Leo Burnett office there. Other cities on the rise in their attraction to American creatives include Ber lin, Bombay and Shanghai; on the wane are Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Singapore and Syd ney.

Off advertising’s beaten path, some creatives are happy to sacrifice career ambitions for lifestyle. Ice land’s rugged lava fields and glaciers, along with a hip, thriving youth culture, are increasingly drawing attention to Reykjavík. Jon Arnason, creative director at Gott Folk McCann Reykjavík, says he has seen a lot of new interest from U.S. copywriters and art directors. For Americans accustomed to big-budget marketing for a multicultural mix of consumers, the country presents its own unique challenges.

“Iceland’s small but highly sophisticated. The population is only around 280,000, and close to 60 percent of people older than 25 have college or a higher degree—not an easy crowd to persuade. The standard of living is among the highest in the world,” Arnason says. “But it’s a small market and therefore there are small budgets to work with, so the emphasis is more on the ideas, simple ideas. Not just for the local brands but also major international brands. That’s a pretty good reason for a creative to come here.”

Kerry Keenan, an American who spent a year at Leo Burnett, Warsaw, says her overseas experience influences her work even now, some two years after her return to the States. “You have to learn to think without words. Your ideas have to be noncultural: Simple, visual, posterlike is the way to go. It’s a good way to learn to tell a story with pictures,” says Keenan, now a group creative director at Bozell, New York. “Not to knock words, but if you have to explain an idea it might not be such a great idea.”

Good lessons to learn early in a career, which seems to be the best time to find work overseas. “This is something younger creatives are more interested in doing—they’re not used to fat, cushy sal a ries,” notes recruiter Bonnie Lunt of Bonnie Lunt Management, New York. “Once you reach a certain level, it’s harder to move over. After the midlevel—jobs around $125,000-150,000—these jobs are impossible to get. They’re very protective of them.”

Some cities with well-respected creative shops remain fairly closed to outsiders at any level of the business. In Tokyo, where agencies like Tugboat and Hakuhodo Creative Vox are raising the city’s creative profile, Japanese business culture and language difficulties are a bar rier to Americans. São Paulo, acclaimed for its advertising, has lost its appeal because of Brazil’s economic problems. “We had more interest [from U.S. creatives] when our currency was better,” re marks Alexandre Gama, founder of São Paulo shop Neogama/BBH.

While economic conditions and cultural trends impact agency life, what ultimately creates the vibrancy of a local advertising community are the individuals attracted to it. “Look at a place like Italy, with its wonderful traditions of fashion, design and architecture,” says John Hegarty, creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London. “This is a place that should have terrific advertising, but it doesn’t. [In Italy] it’s not a highly regarded profession, so it doesn’t attract the best talent.”

Concurs U.K. peer Tim Delaney, founder of Leagas Delaney: “I think it may be less about the city and more about the individuals drawn to the place. It comes down to talent.”