Amsterdam // Don’t Believe The Hype



The mayor of Amsterdam says he’s going to clean up his city. Translation: he’s shutting down the brothels.

If you don’t know the story, Amsterdam has legalized prostitution. Unlike Nevada, it’s not way out in the cut. Amsterdam’s Red Light District is right in the center of the city and the main tourist area. Like Nevada, it’s not exactly a free-for-all.

The girls are supposed to be Dutch (I’m not sure if this is law or just custom), they can’t have pimps, and they get tested regularly. They don’t make house calls. Their work is contained to about 12 square blocks of Victorian houses. They stand in front of the windows, dressed in lingerie, on view for the window shoppers. See one you like — just walk up and begin the transaction. The price is 50 Euro, no haggling. I’m not aware of the particulars of what that buys, if there are “extras,” etc., but that’s the story.

Problem is, people don’t always play by the rules, especially when there’s money involved. (What?!) Recently, the place is filled with Russian girls, most of whom have Russian “managers.” The quaint, if randy, historical landmark is a perfect target for money laundering. By one account, brothel houses have sold in the last year for as much as 10X market value.

The mayor’s reaction is, well, reactionary. Little by little, he’s shutting the windows down. When I was there last summer, just about every 10th window had been replaced by a display by a local fashion designer.

The campaign is called “I amsterdam,” intended to showcase the many talents of Dutch citizens other than, say, quickies.

Not a bad name, but a bad idea. Let’s say you’re there to get your freak on. How excited  are you going to be that someone has replaced the object of your prurient desires with a mannequin sporting the latest styles? Does that make you want to go out and buy some clothes?

But the problem is much bigger than that. To be clear, I’m not writing as an advocate for prostitution. Let’s remember — I’m the brand activist. What I care about is Brand Amsterdam.

Whether the mayor likes it or not, his city’s brand has a lot to do with hookers and pot. Now, I happen to love the city, and I don’t partake in either one. I may be in the minority. And part of what attracts me to the city is the vibe of openness and freedom-of-spirit that permeates. Start taking that away and what’s left.

For the most part, the food sucks, there’s no good shopping to speak of, no world-class hotels, limited natural wonders. Amsterdam does have great museums and beautiful canals, but so do a lot of cities. All of this speaks to what has likely prevented Amsterdam from being one of the world’s great capitals (To all my geography fans out there, I know it’s not the nation’s capital. Please try to stick with me.)

What it does have is that young, free energy like nowhere else I’ve been. Millions of young adults trekking their way through life exploration, and Amsterdam is a beacon for that liberation.

In September, I walked the Red Light District among let’s say five thousand other people on a Sunday evening. Some were young guys there for the sex, but a lot more were tour groups, older couples, and groups of college-aged girls gawking and giggling.

Take away the brothels, and how many of those people still come to check out the latest Dutch designers? My guess is many of them skip it as a destination.

Does this mean you can never reinvent your brand? Of course not, but you never want to change ahead of your audience. Baby steps if you’re going to lead them in a new direction, and plenty of checkpoints along the way to make sure they’re still with you.

If I were consulting the mayor, I’d first want to make sure we have something really compelling to add to the brand. Let’s deliver on that before we start taking things away.

By the way, I did find one great hotel: The Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy. It’s a very creative art hotel in the trendy Eastern Docklands district. Right near the water, and with really good food. I also had a drink at the Dylan, which was beautiful, but a little stuffy.


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