“Benelux: The Brain”, by Dominique Rolin, Senior Team Lead, IgnitionOne
As the European Union faces economic and structural challenges, Benelux is a trading partnership quietly flourishing and influencing the world stage.
An early model for European cooperation that predates the EU, the union of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg works as a successful micro market within Europe.
It’s not all banks, chocolates and tulip fields, however. The Benelux’s unique economic, social and financial status has underpinned its success as a powerhouse of technological innovation and creativity.
Foreign businesses from all corners of the world have set up European HQs in the Benelux. They recognise its influence, outstanding telecommunications infrastructure and top-ten world internet ranking.
Although the Randstad (the westerly conurbation that contains the cities Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague and Rotterdam) is considered to be the largest commercial centre, there are industrial clusters and R&D centres in other places, including the North Netherlands (renewable energy), Wageningen (food), Leeuwarden (water technology) and Eindhoven (electronics-advanced engineering).
The quality of multicultural and multilingual talent, and the fact that over 75% of the population speaks English, was attractive for US companies establishing in Europe.
Aside from the presence of professional talent, the Benelux also has a consumer market of more than 27 million people that is trend-sensitive and learns fast; meaning products and applications can be tried and tested ahead of other markets.
Belgium is the region’s hotspot, with more than 1,000 public and private organisations headquartered here. Brussels, as the de facto capital of Europe, is very cosmopolitan and there are an abundance of young and ambitious people, be they self-made hackers or applied mathematicians with a doctorate from the University of Ghent. I personally studied art, but originally wanted to work in web development.
While it’s convenient to lump the Benelux countries together, they are not homogenous. In Belgium alone we have three communities with different habits and cultures (six million Flemish speaking Dutch, 3.4 million Walloons speaking French, 73,000 German speakers in Wallonia). Even though language in the Dutch part of Belgium and the Netherlands is similar, the cultural differences are wide.
So, in 1999, the Benelux was the choice for Netmining (now IgnitionOne) to set up an office. It opened with 10 employees, including four developers, working out of a small space in Leuven, which is about 15 miles east of Brussels, the original home of Stella Artois, now Anheuser-Busch InBev’s base, and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the country’s oldest and largest university.
The business was shaped by two key clients based in nearby Germany – our platform was originally developed for Compaq, but Opel was a key driver of the visualisation technology that allowed us to look at visitors to a site in real-time.
As the internet grew, the importance of showrooms declined. These technologies replaced brochures and the personal interaction that typified the traditional image of a car salesperson and a showroom buyer.
Filip Lauweres, one of our founders, discovered that people weren’t leaving their personal information in the showrooms as much, but, when prompted, they did so online. By investing in people who understood algorithms, we aligned web visits with profiles and improved conversions.
Once other automotive brands saw the effect on Opel, they demanded the technology. Very quickly 70% of our business was geared towards site optimisation for the automotive industry.
Benelux’s role was key, because the nature of its people is to be agile and flexible. The proliferation and fragmentation of media and technology solutions meant that site optimisation and lead generation were no longer enough to satisfy demand, so we had to upscale the technology.
Competitors also recognised Benelux’s potential and we saw point solutions pop up everywhere, so we had to adapt, delve deeper into data, automate everything and integrate across our Digital Marketing Suite.
Growth opportunities, where next?
One common trait among all today’s Benelux IgnitionOne team, is a shared passion for the internet and its development. The Benelux has a rich history in producing and attracting people with these attributes, largely due to the local universities and because the Benelux was also one of the leading regions in offering various IT and technology courses.
We would rather select employees based on their practical coding skills than a theoretical diploma. Given the history of northern Europe as the pioneers of mobile phone production and adoption, we have access to talented technologists who are adapting systems for mobile platforms.
The next evolution in tech will mean, instead of seeing a static snapshot of a visitor’s interest in real time, solution providers will be able to see how a person’s interest has increased over time, through which channels they’ve travelled or which ads they’ve seen.
The Benelux was critical in the creation of the original audience scoring technology algorithms; this was because of the combination of people and location. The culture nurtures the types of people who build and support innovative solutions.
The Benelux has influenced the world with its politics and economics; we’re now finding that its people, and the technology they curate or create, power the success of clients across the globe.
If audience scoring is the engine of our technology, then Brussels is the brain.