Geraldo Vallen / Join The Pipe
"The world is a lot bigger than this little country of ours."
Following his huge success with CZAR, the outfit that won him the Palme d'Or for worldwide production company, among other awards, Geraldo Vallen shifted his interest to the planet’s well-being, co-founding Join the Pipe, a non-profit organisation aimed at providing clean drinking water and eliminating plastic pollution. His willingness to publicly shame NGOs for their short-sightedness soon earned him the label “the enfant terrible of the charity world”. But Geraldo isn’t simply a critic; he puts his money where his mouth is, along with his blood, sweat and tears. “Not having the budget of the big NGOs doesn’t mean we can’t make an impact."
Interview & translation by Inge Oosterhoff
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? I grew up in a middleclass family, in a small town called Harmelen, near Utrecht. Both my parents worked six, maybe seven days a week, so me, my brother and my two sisters were mostly looked after by a nanny. My parents loved us, for sure. But the things I do as a parent now: drop my kids off at soccer practice, talk to them about their lives, parent-teacher conferences, that wasn’t a thing at our house. My dad probably didn’t even know which school I went to. But you have to realize that it was a different generation, parenting styles were very different back then.
What kind of work did your parents do? My dad owned a construction company that managed interior projects for large institutions, like schools and offices. My mother managed clothing stores in our hometown.
So entrepreneurism really runs in your family? Yeah, you could say that, although it was mostly my dad’s thing. My mother was kind of pulled into it by my father. She was a kindergarten teacher before she began running the stores, and I think she’d have been happy staying a kindergarten teacher her whole life. But my dad wanted to open up stores, and he needed someone who he trusted to run them, so that task fell upon my mother.
Did their business ventures inspire you? My first job was for my father. The companies my dad worked for always needed lots and lots of curtains. Imagine a hospital with 20 floors; all those windows need drapes. Me and my brother and friends would put runners on the curtain rails. Weekends, vacations, they were often spent doing that. It was an easy job, the only skill you needed was to be able to count the number of runners you put on each rail.
When I got older, I’d also help out my dad at the office, and I worked at my mom’s stores. Taking out orders, manning the youth division. But it wasn’t my thing, really. Waiting around for someone to walk in the door. Working for my parents was a good way to earn some money, learn the tricks of the trade. But I had absolutely no desire to make that my future.
What kind of future did you see for yourself? Honestly, I didn’t have a specific goal or passion when I was younger. I lived with my parents, did odd jobs for a few years. I’d spend a winter or two as a ski-instructor, come back and work for my dad, leave to work in France over the summer; whatever came my way really. I did that until I was 19, 20 maybe.
Did you go not to college? No. After I finished high school, I did Secondary Vocational Education to please my parents, but as soon as I got my certificate, I started working. School really wasn’t my thing.
How come? Both my sons have dyslexia, and I’m pretty sure I have it too. I’ve always had trouble with spelling. My wife did A-levels in high school, took Latin, so they definitely didn’t get it from her! It wasn’t until my sons were diagnosed that I thought: Hey! That’s what I’ve got! But dyslexia wasn’t a thing when I was young. You were simply labeled a slow learner and seated at the back of the class. I think that’s why I wasn’t interested in school, why I would rather just go out and do things.
At what point did you begin to get more direction in your life? That’s kind of a weird story. I was working on a boat in France one summer, and an ex-girlfriend asked if she and her boss could come to shoot a video there for Harper’s Bazaar. That’s how I met René Eller, who I later founded Czar with. He had his own production company at the time and I ended up working for him for a few years. Organizing public for TV-shows, shooting videos, photography for magazines, I took care of the production side of things. But he wasn’t very good at running his business, and eventually he went bankrupt.
A manager at Elsevier magazine offered to pay off René’s debts if we did a project for him in Bratislava, producing content for some sort of Slovakian MTV.
We’d spend three to four months at a time there, but there was shit to do in that town. There wasn’t even a proper bar! So we came up with a plan to open up our own bar. We went to a catering industry fair back in the Netherlands to see if a Dutch beer brand was interested in breaking into the Slovakian market and sponsoring our project.
You founded a video production company instead. How did that happen? They had a karaoke set at the Amstel beer stand at that fair, which was a novelty then. This was the early ‘90s. The Amstel guys mentioned that Pioneer – the Japanese electronics company that produced the karaoke set – was planning to introduce karaoke to the Netherlands and had set out a call for a production company to create karaoke video’s for the European market. I quickly registered a company in my name, since René was still bankrupt, and we entered the competition. We were up against EndeMol and two other big companies, but we ended up getting the assignment!
The problem was, those Pioneer people from Japan wanted to come by our office and meet us, and I was working from my parents’ attic at the time. We figured we could use the office space at the HQ of Elsevier in Amsterdam, which we had the keys to through our Bratislava project. We spent a weekend decorating the place with TV’s, posters, to give it a kind of MTV vibe. An ex-girlfriend pretended to be our secretary. We secretly welcomed the Japanese executives there and signed the contract. Out they went, no one at Elsevier ever noticed. It was crazy, we didn’t even have a company bank account yet. But that was the start of our production company Czar – which was the name we had planned for our bar in Bratislava by the way.
You and René started Czar together with Rogier van der Ploeg. How did he get on board? We knew Rogier from when I was still working for René’s production company. We produced a few music videos for new artists, like Loïs Lane and René Shuman. The music video business was very new then, and we only had one competitor in the Netherlands: Rogier van der Ploeg. We had talked to him about starting up a production company together, instead of competing for the same jobs. But René’s business went bankrupt not long after, and that plan went out the window. We kept in touch though.
Rogier joined us when we got the karaoke gig. It went well for about four years: we produced thousands of karaoke video’s a year, had offices in Amsterdam, ItalyMilan, Cape-Town, Kohl, London, Belgium, South-Africa even. Then the Japanese office suddenly pulled the plug on the whole project. That was tough. We had twenty or so people working for us, who we had to fire.
Me, René and Rogier sat down to talk about our next move and decided to begin producing commercials, which is similar to producing music and karaoke videos. We had to make a name for ourselves in a new market though, create new material, new show reels. But we had the talent and skills to do it.
What was the division of roles between the three of you, and what did you personally contribute to the company? We started out as directors, all three of us. But that was intimidating to other directors we worked with, who thought we’d keep the best projects to ourselves and not give them a chance. Directing wasn’t really my thing anyway, so I began recruiting. If I have one real talent, it’s recognizing talent. I was able to pick the cream of the crop. The Dutch film academy got mad at me for pulling their students out of school too early, haha! But I didn’t just get people on board. I’d feel responsible for their success too, so I’d sit down with them for the first few years and just spar, polish their ideas. Help them really build on that talent I saw.
When did you realize Czar was a success, and how did that feel? In 1996, not long after we started producing commercials, some of our work was nominated at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. I didn’t even know the festival existed, but we ended up winning everything. The Palme d’Or for best worldwide production company, the Grand Prix for Rogier’s Rolo Elephant commercial…It was the first time a small Dutch company won all the big awards, instead of a big name from America or England. Rogier was suddenly the big kid on campus that the whole advertising world wanted to work with.
So it was pretty clear then that we were a hit. But that was also when I started thinking: okay, so what’s left? It was like we’d reached all our potential success in one go. So yeah, we got all that international recognition, but that was also the moment when I began to lose interest.
Do you need an element of competition to stay motivated? Maybe. I definitely get bored easily. As soon as something becomes routine, I lose interest. Like, in video production, you get to travel all over the world, work with the most amazing people. But after a while, it all comes down to the same thing: meeting with clients, traveling, booking camera’s, deciding on styling. There’s a certain routine to it that you keep coming back to, which I started to resent.
Right now, with my work for Join the Pipe, I am always dabbling in new projects. Yes, we have a long-term goal, but short-term, there are always new things to learn and get into. That really suits me.
About that, you co-founded a non-profit organization aimed at providing clean drinking water in Africa and other countries and cleaning the plastic soup in our oceans. Why the career-switch? Like I said, I’d begun to lose interest in commercial production, and I was looking for other ventures to get into. I had just opened some bars in the Netherlands and was looking to open one in Barcelona. I ran into a guy there who was trying to market water filters, which is how I got introduced to the topic of clean drinking water.
Through a series of chance meetings and events, I got in touch with Paul van Beers, who, after installing water pumps for NGO’s for 20 years and retiring, went back to Africa and was shocked at how many of the pumps there were out of order. The quality of those pumps was so low that they’d break down in no time and people would go back to drinking from polluted rivers. So he took it upon himself to design a better pump. His knowledge and drive are what drew me in. He taught me a lot, made me look at Africa and the non-profit business in a completely new way. I decided to help bring those pumps to Africa and build on what he had started.
But really, the switch to the non-profit business was motivated by my mother. She had had three children before she had my eldest sister, who all died shortly after birth. It wasn’t a secret, but my mother never really spoke about it. During our last conversation she said: “You know what? I’m not scared of dying, because I know I’ll see my babies again.” That really made a big impression on me, the fact that she still felt so strongly about her deceased children after so many years. She also mentioned that maybe, after making all these commercials, I could do something more meaningful with my time.
I spent decades making the richest people even richer: the Heinekens, the McDonalds, the Brenninckmeijers of this world. It was time to start helping the less fortunate.
When I was asked to be a part of these water projects, my mother had just passed away, and it seemed like a good way to honor her. Help decrease child mortality, do something positive.
Clean drinking water for everyone and no more plastic soup are pretty ambitious goals. How do you going about realizing them? With Join the Pipe we find simple and straightforward solutions to big problems, we organize local clean up actions, educate people about the plastic soup and provide them with water bottles in return. For example, we install water pumps in Africa, and we designed our plastic water bottles to fit exactly into the piping that’s required. You need 100 meters of pipe to get anywhere near groundwater there, so that’s a very efficient way to get a lot of bottles to the village you’re providing with water. I’m also a strong believer in the power of local knowledge. We only work with locals, and generate local opportunities. We found that there’s a market for water bottles in Africa, so we managed to lower the production costs. Now people can sell them at a local price and still make some profit.
As far as the plastic soup goes: we tackle the problem where it actually lies. In the Western world, we think we can solve the problem by putting some extra trashcans on the streets or going after companies like Coca Cola; a brand that’s mostly consumed in the West, where we have professional cleaning and recycling services. But 98% of all plastic soup comes from rivers in Asia and Africa. With Join the Pipe, we organize local clean up actions there and provide people with water bottles in return. That way we kill two birds with one stone: we spread awareness and reduce the use of disposable bottles and other plastics.
You’re known as the “enfant terrible” of the charity world. How did you end up with reputation like that? I blatantly call out big NGO’s for being short-sighted and making mistakes. You know, when an organization receives billions of euros and has worked to solve a problem for fifty years, and nothing much has changed, it’s time to call them to account. That stuff wouldn’t fly in the corporate world.
NGO’s like Unicef send over some white people to install cheap and outdated water pumps, which break down after a few months. There’s no telephone number to call when that happens, no local knowledge on how to fix it. Nothing gets solved, but meanwhile, Unicef can say they installed eighty water pumps.
I say: all NGO’s with expensive white people on their payroll should leave Africa. We should involve locals and corporate businesses to solve these issues. I point out that putting soaps next to water pumps solves nothing. If you want people to stop drinking with dirty hands – which everyone does there – you need to give everyone their own water bottle. I don’t care if things have been done this way for decades, I care about getting results. So yeah, I don’t make myself very popular in that industry, but at least I’m shaking things up.
You’ve mentioned that having a big mouth comes at the price of you not getting any funding. So how do you go about financing your work for Join the Pipe? I invest my own money, as well as money we make off the sales of our water bottles in Western countries. Right now, we’ve designed bottles with the skyline of different cities, which can be sold to tourists there, who can then fill them at our water stations. We may have less funds than large NGO’s, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make an impact. Not being dependent on investors also means having the freedom to carve out our own path and experiment. We are executing new ideas, which will have proven their worth once everyone else comes around to them.
How has Join the Pipe changed your view of the world? I’ve become a lot more cynical. My wife tells me, “you’re becoming too much of a grouser.” But I can’t help it. I mean, I can still have a laugh with a beer in my hand, but it angers me how much bullshit it being spread, and how much it prevents problems from being properly solved. Traveling everywhere myself, looking at these issues up close, has made me realize how often the public is lied to. That might make me an old grump, but it also makes me a hell of a lot more realistic. The media, politicians, NGO’s; everybody has their own agenda. It’s good to be aware and critical of that, to not let yourself be misled by others.
Water bottle company Dopper recently took you to court for sharing negative messages about them on social media. The court ruled that you are no longer allowed to make negative claims about them, but you appealed. Where does that combativeness come from? If I see something that I believe is unfair or wrong, and a face-to-face conversation isn’t productive, I’ll try to get my point across in a different way.
I was never a big user of Twitter, until I saw Paul van Beers call out Unicef online and succeed in making them roll back a misleading online campaign. So if I feel it’s necessary, I’m not afraid to publicly call someone out on their bullshit.
Now, in this case, I haven’t been acknowledged in my actions or claims. But that’s okay, I’m not embarrassed about it. The truth will come out eventually.
Do you ever regret the things you say? So far, no. I only open my mouth if I know I’m right about something, and I have proof to back it up. If there was any doubt in my mind, I’d be like: “Jesus, was that really necessary?” But I know I’m right, so I don’t really care if others don’t agree.
You know how in some movies there’s this guy who, for the entirety of the movie, you think: “what a jackass!” Then in the last three minutes he says something and you’re like, “f*cking hell, he was right all along! He was the only one who saw it!” That’s how I see this playing out. People may hate my guts now, but in the end, I’ll be redeemed. I realize that that moment might never come, but that’s what I’m holding out for.
What misconception about yourself would you like to clear up? That I have no business doing what I do because I had wasn’t trained in geology, or born in Africa, or worked for NGO’s my whole life. An outsider’s perspective can be incredibly valuable. Plus, it doesn’t take heaps of background knowledge to see where things go wrong. All you need is a good eye, and I’ve got that. I’m truly at my best when the shit hits the fan, when the captain abandons the ship. Give me a problem and I’ll solve it.
What do you hope people will say about you after you’re gone? I want to enter the history books as the person who introduced the water bottle in Africa, and who cleaned up the plastic soup. That’s the promise I made to myself, so that’s what I’ll do. I don’t have much time left, maybe 20 twenty years if I’m lucky. That is why I’m so impatient with other people’s bullshit. I have no time for it! Whoever stands in my way, needs to be cleared away. And if you don’t want to be on my team, I’ll find someone else. Dutch organizations don’t want to work with me? I don’t need them. I’ll find a partner elsewhere. Right now we’re talking with a big organization in America. If they get on board, we’ll be able to install thousands of water pumps all over the world. The world is a lot bigger than this little country of ours.
And finally, what advice would you give someone wanting to start up his or her own successful venture? Don’t be afraid to get into arguments with people. Stand for what you believe in, and don’t try too hard to conform to existing ideas. You might end up in a niche of the market you’re in, but often that niche is big enough to thrive.