Janez Vermeiren and Peri van Papendorp.
Janez Vermeiren and Peri van Papendorp.
Image: Supplied

I wasn’t a cool teenager. On a Saturday night, while my friends were out painting the town red, I’d be at home flipping through TV channels, getting a rare look at South Africa’s high flyers and their glitzy homes on SABC’s Top Billing. This was the height of early-2000s glamour as model Janez Vermeiren, looking dapper in a tailored suit, would present the show from inside the opulence of a local home. The debonair Vermeiren became as much a South African staple as Nando’s or Charlize Theron.

Vermeiren, as you might already know, is more than just a good-looking Cape-Town boy. He’s done it all. Modelling, owning a modelling agency, and dabbling in business and acting. It’s fair to say that during his time on both sides of the industry, he’s garnered a considerable understanding of South Africa’s media landscape. Cue 2020 and the seismic shift in how the global community operates, precipitated by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, presented an opportunity. A small seed of an idea, germinating for a year in the fertile minds of Vermeiren and his business partner Peri van Papendorp, was ready to be transplanted into the real world. Fylmer is an online service designed to put businesses looking for cool, fresh, new ideas directly in contact with the large pool of African creatives eager to make their mark.

The benefits of a service like Fylmer are vast. Companies that would conventionally use a media agency to source creative talent for an advertising campaign can, for example, now upload a brief directly to the site and immediately have access to a massive portfolio of burgeoning local talent. Vermeiren and Van Papendorp co-ordinate and facilitate the collaboration for a small fee, depending on the scope of the project.

“We started talking about this a year ago, then, when we realised that corona [Covid-19] was happening, we thought this was an opportune time to launch,” Vermeiren tells me over a Zoom call. He’s sitting with Van Papendorp, and their excitement and energy are palpable. I’ve caught them in between meetings. “We did over 130 hours of Zoom calls during lockdown to present the platform to clients and brands,” says Van Papendorp. “It’s just such a new way of working.”

As inescapably awful as the pandemic has been, it’s presented rich soil in which Fylmer can take root. With most businesses operating from home during South Africa’s lockdown, the men had the ideal opportunity to present the game changer to industry players whose diaries would normally have been fully booked. As the virus has resulted in thousands of campaigns being scaled back or cancelled completely, the local creative industry (already under pressure before the outbreak) has been teetering on the edge of collapse. Fylmer now allows everyone — from the smallest graphic artist to the biggest production company — an equal chance to net that big contract.

Anyone can now pitch on that brief. Anyone has the chance to win that brief. That’s why we call it a democratisation of the industry; a levelling of the playing field
Van Papendorp

It’s here that the essence of Fylmer lies. For years, says Vermeiren, it wasn’t necessarily the quality of your work as a creative that would put you in good stead to be considered for a lucrative job. Sometimes, it’s all about who you know, as they say. “It was a very exclusive model, where only the established production companies got invited to pitch on work,” Van Papendorp adds. But Fylmer, he says, turns this on its head. “Anyone can now pitch on that brief. Anyone has the chance to win that brief. That’s why we call it a democratisation of the industry; a levelling of the playing field.” Quality content by South African creators that speaks to our unique social and historical context can now also be whipped up for a competitive rate as prices aren’t inflated to accommodate the middleman.

Plans are in the works to develop a Fylmer app once its founders have a clearer idea of what functionalities are proving useful and what can be stripped away to make for a more streamlined user experience. By the time you read this, Fylmer will have been up and running for just over five weeks. The response by the industry to the model has been overwhelming, as Vermeiren and Van Papendorp field back-to-back meetings with businesses looking to connect with local content creators. It’s clear that they are busy, motivated, and excited by the momentum generated by their initiative as they detail some of the content that’s already in production as a result of Fylmer collaborations.

On top of splintering the content-creation mould, Vermeiren also has the full-time job of raising a young family with his wife Juliana. His oldest son is 16 and poised to enter a world that is forever changed. “This is a real shift, a real turning point that we’re going through at the moment. The world from here onwards is going to be completely different to what he’s experienced before.” Coming from an actively creative family, Vermeiren realises the importance of consistently challenging the status quo, continually producing new ideas, and facilitating an environment that removes the barriers that block free thinking. “The more cool content you’re creating, the more unique your voice is; the better your chance of winning the job.”

Times of great social change have, ironically, always been the bedrock upon which invention and innovation find stable foundations. Vermeiren has come far from his beginnings as Top Billing’s Saturday-night presenter, but the same drive, motivation, and passion that kept so many of us entertained for years have evidently been poured into this new project. Watch this space. 

 From the August edition of Wanted, 2020.

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