My wife and I love cities. Therefore we fell in love with Amsterdam when we moved there in 1999 to start an ad agency. And when we moved in 2004 to start our New York City office, we ended up falling in love with the ultimate city known to man.
Amsterdam was the perfect springboard for our company StrawberryFrog which we had envisioned as a leaner, less mean, dinosaur-slaying machine. Amsterdam was, and remains, one of the hottest advertising cities in the world, which enabled us to attract some amazing minds--with the cultural mix igniting some incredible work. There's nothing cooler than a global soul that ends up generating only the darkest of espressos and the freshest of yoghurts, and none of that watered-down or pasteurised stuff you tend to get from those massive corporate bureaucracies.
And while five years ago it was still San Francisco, NYC has now regained its title as hottest American ad city. Madison Avenue is rocking and StrawberryFrog has been fortunate to be considered one of the sizzling-est new names in the American ad scene. By having an agency in both continents, we are closer to trends and all the visceral stuff that makes for smart cultural insights. Our Amsterdam-honed approach of "Total Engagement" -- merging advertising, entertainment, actions and content -- is now all the rage in America, where many agencies still define a solution with a 30-second TV spot....
But the hop to the Big Apple has taught me a thing or two. Customs guards as excellent cultural barometers. Upon arrival in Amsterdam I usually skip to the officer, receive a shrug and get asked the perpetual 'Do you speak Dutch?' to which I perpetually respond 'Nee'--an answer that gets me another shrug and occasionally a welcome. Meanwhile, in NYC I have to strip naked, lay down on an X-ray machine and have my finger nails scraped. After filling in my L1s and other slips, I then have to get in a very long queue to meet a very nice but very firm customs official. After many questions, I receive a shrug and a welcome. Only the shrug seems universal on both sides of the pond.
Of course, there are many other differences between Amsterdam and NYC. The garbage men, for example. In New York they look like men who collect garbage--and are the most-friendly guys you'd ever come across. In Amsterdam they all look like jazz musicians. In fact everyone in Amsterdam looks like a jazz musician.
And of course all the cliches about Amsterdam 'service' are painfully true. A friend's story sums it up best: 'I once told my waitress at a well-known Amsterdam joint that I had been waiting for an hour-and-a-half for my dinner, only to be told by the waitress that, "NO" in fact I had only been waiting for an hour.' In New York, this is impossible to imagine. You are fawned on.
Another Amsterdam-based service trauma I'm still recovering from stems from when we decided to do some renovations on our house. A massive undertaking. It took months of planning and then even more months to entice the carpenters to start their work, which they did only a few days before their July holiday. So the house stayed unfinished until early autumn. Not so in NYC. They say what they'll do and do what they say. On time and on budget. That's the sort of stuff I can get used to.
But I do miss how things always happen more organically in Amsterdam. As Amsterdammers, we had lived in village-y Zuid just up from Cornelis Schuytstraat. The first few months in Amsterdam were the best. We met the most incredible neighbours. Dinner parties ensued. Long evenings with too much wine. We became friends with a photographer, an artist, a judge, a physiotherapist. My New York neighbourhood is populated by friendly bankers.
I did all the rest of my networking with Z, our flat-coated retriever, who now has to make do with only one walk during office hours by Susan our daily dog walker. Before, he'd join me on my 10-minute walk to work through Vondelpark. (Today my NYC commute takes me almost an hour by bike, train and taxi.) I used to meet all sorts of people in Vondelpark. For example, on one of these walks I befriended Max and Heather and Willem--Heather even ended up becoming a colleague and moving to NYC with us to help build up the firm there. The only person I remember ever meeting in NYC was a bomb specialist who grabs a coffee beside the taxi stand at Grand Central Station. We exchange a few words now and then.
On the plus side, there is less dog shit in Central Park than in Vondelpark. As a dog owner I can appreciate how people get pissed off at the brown stuff clogging up the grooves of their shoes and it seems that New Yorkers are nicely trained at plucking the stuff up with little plastic bags. In Amsterdam, it was my dog that ended up plucking up a bag behind some Vondelpark bench and getting massively wasted from the crystal meth inside it. Best to keep them pooches--or maybe even them dealers--on the leash.
My days are different as well. In Amsterdam, I dropped into my office chair at 10ish in the morning, checked email, tickled the receptionist, hugged staffers, slouched, brainstormed, ate a leisurely lunch, went back to work and then went home for around six. In New York, I'm on the train at eight, office at nine. Two Starbucks' el Grandes in tummy. High-five the receptionist. At my desk, I first download 150 emails from the night before. Go through a stack of paperwork. Review meetings, of which I have about 10--and that's before lunch. Plus a dozen phone calls to return. Financial slips. Replies to invitations. Oh, and doing creative work. As for hugging, it's not allowed here--jail time and a snip await any offender. I leave for home around 7.30 and get there just in time to tuck my two sons into bed.
While I do miss the gentler rhythms of Amsterdam, there is an energy and a vibe in New York that is hard to believe and even more exciting to experience. You are electric and alive every day. You plug in and play. Bang, the day begins. Ding, the lunch bell sounds. Kapush, the train doors close and whisk you home again. What a ride. But at this time in my life, with a patient wife, two growing children, one dog and 100 dreams, a house with a nice big backyard and a two-car garage is something else I can easily get used to. And the journey has just begun.