Original article was published in EMERCE, in Dutch. An abstract is here.
Maarten Roelofs about creating creative work from Bangladesh: “I want to bring and share. That suits me better “
How can you have digital creative work made by people who have never seen an airplane, let alone been to Cannes? To answer that question, entrepreneur Maarten Roelofs was asked at a ministerial audience in Bangladesh. Where his company Diva World Wide makes distinctive work that Dutch people might see every day.
After selling his online businesses, Roelofs started a mission. He not only wanted low-quality work to be done in the country where he had accidentally ended up four years earlier, but on the contrary prize-worthy work. That which is visible at the front. And now everyone who has worked with outsourcing to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh is usually not really impressed with the design and communication skills in that region. A nice challenge.
Bangladesh is about 3.5 times larger than the Netherlands and has – probably – 190 million inhabitants. The country is largely dependent on low-quality work in the textile industry. And that is also one of the reasons that Roelofs was asked for a ministerial audience. Robotization is heading towards the country and that forces the leadership to think about the future, about other fundamental sources of income.
Why were you called?
“Just before I returned to the Netherlands, at night actually, the request from Minister Zunaid Ahmed Palak came to me to report to the ICT Division in the afternoon. That was just possible.
Palak, who became the youngest minister worldwide at the age of 34, has great ambitions. What is often underestimated is that he also has a large capital. After all, this country trains hundreds of thousands of IT people every year. Their work is sometimes as basic as creating logos for local stores in rural areas.
The conversation with the minister was about how those people can do work that can compete internationally with the world top in technical and also creative areas. And: how can you have creative work experienced by people who have never seen an airplane, let alone been to Cannes?
You could call it too ambitious, but if something is done in Asia, it goes fast. Everyone sees that. For example, a twenty-kilometer subway rail is constructed in a few years. No superfluous luxury in a city like Dhaka.
Many Asian countries are known for low-quality work or complex but very invisible work. Large-scale image editing or back-end processes that are extensive. That kind of thing. You will encounter few Webbys, Cannes Lions and FWAs from South East Asia. That has a lot to do with a creative backlog and the lack of confrontation with top work. In recent years I have been able to support two students with international masters in Europe. You see that immediately reflected in the quality of the work. “
What kind of work have we actually discussed?
“Although we now – oddly enough – mainly work in the background for many agencies, you can regularly come across our work at De Persgroep, RTL and, for example, the DIRK. However, we usually leave the honor to the Dutch office for submissions to prize festivals. But to give you an idea: we produce an average of eighty campaigns per month, from concepting to complete data-driven campaigns. Interestingly enough, the number is getting lower, because we are involved in more complex projects with a longer lead time. “
How does this fit in with the larger picture of Palak’s interest?
“The question of how you can turn a country into a service industry. And how do you make the country interesting for new parties with such a big neighbor as India is around the corner? It was also about that. You must always be careful when quoting from conversations with officials, precisely because it involves trust. But I am very impressed. In the following conversations I was invited to the table with very knowledgeable and energetic, but also very specific people who have a clear assignment. It reads: “Make this country a pioneer in IT as quickly as possible, but also in terms of green energy, IoT, and big data.”
By the way, it surprised my colleagues when I mentioned that supporting large freelance platforms can be harmful to the image of a region. Many freelancers come from poor areas. They take on any job when earning 80 euros a month is the norm. This is how you maintain the “cheap” image. “
Did you learn anything from that meeting?
“Yes. I have literally been able to see what attention and appreciation for their work does for people. I had shown this young minister some work that was produced in his country for the Dutch market. His response: “Shall we open a call to the office?” Then you have us. The distance from an average Bengal to the social top layer cannot be bridged. It was like a blessing from the divine when our designers and developers suddenly came face to face with the minister. He also promised to come to the office soon.
Mind you, this is an online tiger economy that is still completely green and young. They still have to form an image and opinion about how to deal with the major powers on the web. Do you open the gates completely, like Europe? Or is the Chinese approach a bit more defensive, perhaps better? Once you have a large party like Uber take over the market, you do not create work, but instead you remove work and you maintain a new underclass. The Chinese model, with some protectionism, is not so bad in some cases. This country now faces these fundamental choices. You can see that now also in the real estate market. The few foreigners who come to work in the NGO sector or try to acquire real estate. From Japanese to Americans. You come across them all.
Many foreigners are busy with picking up, picking up and picking up. I want to bring and share. That suits me much better. “
What do you see happening in the coming period?
“The Netherlands and Bangladesh work together a great deal in politics and technology. We are both on a swampy delta in which climate becomes a major potential factor. A country with a surplus of labor potential on the one hand, and one with a labor shortage. The wish is to work together more.
About myself: I now travel up and down every month to connect the two. At the end of this year we expect to have around 45 employees. And maybe, because that is where we started this conversation, there are some productions that take home a Spin Award, SAN Accent or AMMA Award. Or two. Talk to me about it around that time.
I myself continue to find this a wonderful interpretation of life after 45. “