Photo: Koen Denolf © | All rights reserved.
THOUGHT LEADER OF THE MONTH – KOEN DENOLF
Koen Denolf – The eventful life of an ambitious content marketing prophet
“I remember I woke up in party clothes on a beach in Grand Canary, when a wave washed over me. There was a group of tourists watching and waiting for this to happen. Then they applauded. That was about my life at time.“
Shy, yet incredibly ambitious, a man who set himself high standards. He now lives his life in the beautiful Belgian town of Ghent, in iron-clad discipline and leading his own content marketing agency ,’The Fat Lady’. Meet Koen Denolf, content marketing prophet, author, speaker, and our thought leader in Belgium
You now live in Belgium, which is a multilingual country. Were you born there?
I was born in West-Flanders, close to where WWI took place. The West Flemish have a reputation for being hard workers, but also have a joy for living. My mother was an entrepreneur and had a very no-nonsense work ethic which she passed down to me. A lot of people in the region are like that, so many great entrepreneurs and politicians come from this area. I remember that as a child I never got to stay home from school when I was not feeling well. There was no idling in our house.
What were you like, growing up?
Actually, I was an angry young man, quite a handful. I moved out of home at a young age and lived in over 10 different places. Often with friends, sometimes alone. I also lived in Madrid for a while.
What were you doing in Madrid?
That’s quite a long story. At the time I worked at an Ad agency. Eskimo, an underwear brand that had more or less fallen out of grace, came to us to make the brand hip again. We started organising Eskimo parties. At first very small, in private lofts, but it rapidly grew to legendary parties of six thousand people. I was about 27 at the time, a partner in the advertising agency, a party promoter and also teaching high school.
When did you have time for a girlfriend?
Well… I didn’t. I really didn’t have time for a steady relationship. I was more of a fling guy. I was living in this party world all night long. Sometimes I went out on a Thursday and didn’t come back home until Sunday. I even remember several occasions where I had to go straight to school from an event, to teach Statistics for 7 hours. And then back into the nightlife.
I still don’t know how you ended up in Spain…
I had been on holiday in Ireland and met a Spanish girl. She offered me a ‘when you are in Madrid, you are welcome in my house’ ticket. At one point with all those parties and everything I was doing, I became really exhausted and needed to get out of Belgium and this life. I left very quickly. I had to make a few arrangements at the ad agency, so I could leave for a few months and I was able to group my lessons in one semester. Then I just left for Madrid, where I took it easy for a while, lived from one day to the next. I ended staying there for three months and we started a serious relationship. Then I had to go back to Belgium for the teaching job. I invited her to move to Belgium with me and I even started looking for a job for her.
And then things went awry. Helena wanted to learn a bit of Dutch before she moved to Belgium. She put up a note in the supermarket to find someone who could teach her Dutch. A correspondent from a big Dutch newspaper who lived in Madrid responded to the note. Helena never came to Belgium. She is now happily married with her Dutch journalist, with kids.
Back to square one. Back into the nightlife. For a number of years again. I remember I woke up in party clothes on January 1, 2000, on a beach in Grand Canary when a wave washed over me. There was a group of tourists watching and waiting for this to happen. Then they applauded. That was about my life at the time. Until I was 32 and met my first wife. An ex-girlfriend of mine had called her and said: “You have to take care of Koen, I’m worried.” I am still grateful to her for that. We are now divorced, but she did manage to put my life in order.
At that time you were still a partner in the agency? When did you start with the content marketing?
I had an eery experience at one point, while I was giving a presentation. It felt like I was watching myself. It was like an out of body experience, where you look down at yourself and ask questions like: didn’t I say this yesterday? And also last week? It seems I’d just had enough of the advertising industry and the emptiness of it all: the people, the lavish parties, award shows. I couldn’t stand it any more. So in 2007 I started ‘Het Salon’ (i.e. ‘The Saloon’) in partnership with a Dutchman, a journalist who lived in Belgium. Het Salon was an agency for customer magazines. We just went out there, on the market, with lots of guts. What we did is send companies that already had a magazine a polaroid picture with their magazine in a paper bin, with the message that we could do better. Het Salon was a hit from day 1. And to me it felt really good. Because at the end of the day, with customer magazines you have something real in your hands.
In 2015 we merged with an ad agency and eventually became The Fat Lady.
Photo: Koen Denolf © | All rights reserved.
Photo: Koen Denolf © | All rights reserved.
What was your role at the ad agency?
I was a strategist. Although many see me as Creative. I have always had several roles at once. At The Fat Lady I evaluated all these roles and made a list of the people I needed to take over those responsibilities. At the moment I have made myself totally replaceable and I love it.
You come across as rather shy and modest, at least to me. But you clearly have everything ﬁgured everything out in your mind.
Yes. As a person I am rather shy, a bit subdued. But this also evolved over the years, as I became more experienced. I once did a project for a big bank. At the time I worked with three really experienced English consultants. They taught me a very wise thing. They said: “The people you give presentations to have boring jobs, boring offices and boring lives. That one moment on Friday afternoon when the ad agency comes to pitch is the highlight of their week. You really have to make it memorable.” And that became my motto ever since: delivering what they need and giving a memorable presentation. I relish standing in front of an audience. I even did a keynote in Spanish in Madrid once. They loved it.
And if you look ahead? What do you see yourself doing in 2 years?
I have reached a certain point in my life where financially I don’t have to work anymore. That is a luxury. I just want to do things that I find valuable. Although the writing was a real ordeal, I got a lot of satisfaction from writing my latest book.
So if you don’t have to work for a living, how do you fill your time? Do you still have hobbies, apart from your work?
I don’t really have time for hobbies at the moment. I get up every morning at 5.00 am. Between 5 and 6.45 am I prepare for my day. Then I cycle to the gym and work out from 7 to 8. I go back home to shower and have breakfast. Then I drive to the office and I’m usually home by 7 pm. I make dinner for myself and my wife and then I do some reading. I go to bed every evening at 10 pm.
Wow! That really is an iron discipline. How long have you been doing that?
About three years. I find it very pleasant. Exercising in the morning really gives me energy. I do have a number of plans: I’m working on my sailing licence, I’m going to play Padel and I’m going to learn Italian.
Because what is another language, right? You already speak Dutch, French, English, German and Spanish….
Yes. I know Italian already, but I want to improve it. As a student I worked as a conductor on the sleeper train from Ostend to Milan. I think I’ve travelled to Milan about a 100 times.
You really are surprising! So what’s next?
In a few years I would like to sell The Fat Lady internationally. Join the European summit. I’d rather put it on the international map than to make the most of it financially. That is a legacy that I would like to leave behind.
And regarding your work: what do you still want to learn or improve?
The big question nowadays is: are we doing well? It’s all about numbers, figures, data. I have an assistant, she is 22 years old. She has a kind of organic insight in data. She can connect the dots. I feel I’m lacking in that specific area. I would like to better understand this in the coming years. I teach content marketing at four different schools, I have to be able to answer their questions, all of them.
I also see the same trend within our clients: they have gone from ‘let’s try this and see where it takes us’ to ‘how can we make the most of it’. That effectively means data and results.
And how about Belgium on the European content marketing map. Where do you think it stands?
The entire content marketing business in Belgium was founded within customer media. That is not a problem in itself, but at a certain point you have to be able to address content from what your audience needs, through any possible channel. Not all content agencies have been able to make that switch. We are all united in a trade organisation called Custo, where we promote the profession. But what is ‘the profession of content marketing’? That alone is a discussion we haven’t yet concluded.
In Belgium we see a lot of new, small content production agencies. Then there are the big ad agencies who aim to make content marketing a part of their business. Although they are really good in concept and creation, their focus lies more on reach instead of the more relevant numbers. There are 5 or 6 agencies you can qualify as content marketing agencies. The Fat Lady being one of them of course. I always joke: “If you want to make money in content marketing, you have to start an agency in Belgium, because the market is there.” But don’t be mistaken. You have to understand the Walloon and Flemish culture to succeed. It’s two completely different populations, so simply translating your content will not work, but definitely fail.
ABOUT KOEN DENOLF
Born on March 5
Owner of The Fat Lady (19 employees, revenue 3.6 mil)
Author of ‘Van marketeer tot publisher’‘From marketer to publisher’ , 2016 and ‘Dit is Contentmarketing’ (‘This is Content Marketing’), 2020.
Belgium bears the official name of the Kingdom of Belgium and is divided in three areas: the Flemish, the Walloon and the Brussels-Capital region. Brussels houses the administration centre of the European Union and NATO. Belgium is a multilingual country. In the Flemish region about 60% of the inhabitants people speak Dutch. In the Walloon region French is the main language, with about 40% of the inhabitants speaking it. Less than 1% speaks German on the East side of the country. This multilingual context and the differences in the three regions are the cause of a very complex political system that divides the country into different cultures as well.
Facts & Figures about Belgium Inhabitants:
Inhabitants: 11.3 million (2020)
Flemish region: 6.5 million
Walloon region: 3.6 million
Brussels-Capital region: 1.2 million
Area: 30.689 sq km
Official languages: Dutch, French, German
GDP per inhabitant: € 34.750
Official languages: Dutch, French, German GDP per inhabitant: € 34.750