Mark van der Heijden with the carton that is taking him around the world.
At the end of last year copywriter Mark van der Heijden quit his job at Lemz to go traveling. He bought a round-the-world ticket that included 7 destinations. It was a bit of an impulsive decision because he soon found out that he didn’t have enough money. That became the trigger for his now world famous job title: ‘The Backpacker Intern.’ Van der Heijden was in Amsterdam for a few weeks and last week, at the last minute, we were able to book a timeslot in his busy agenda. We sat down for the interview and a beer at De Ysbreeker on Weesperzijde, overlooking the Amstel.
How did you get the idea to do this?
When I realised I didn’t have enough money for my backpack trip, I decided I would work a little during my trip. But I didn’t want a serious job, cause above all I wanted to see as much as possible of the world. Then I thought; maybe I can trade my skills for food and a place to stay.
How did you set it up?
Well, first I came up with the name. And with the help of my former creative partner, Daniel te Lindert, Natasja Loturco & Robin Schlösser, from Studio De Keuken and Erik Post (animation), I created a video, inspired by Bob Dylan’s video clip Subterranean Homesick Blues. Then I built a website and to have some proof of concept arranged two internships at my first stop; McCann Bangkok en Amnesty International Thailand.
I then shared the film through my social channels and after you guys featured it on Amsterdam Ad Blog, it was picked up by some international titles, such as Adweek. Then something very exciting happened; after I landed in Bangkok and opened my laptop there were 100 offers in my inbox from all over the world. On top of that I gained 800 new Twitter followers almost overnight.
What did you do then?
I first replied everyone, but since I couldn’t do a hundred internships, I was in the luxury position of choosing the most interesting internships. I chose TBWA\Chiat\Day, of course, because of the legendary name. But I didn’t just want to work at ad agencies. I also cleaned up dog shit at a dog shelter in San Francisco.
And you always stayed in a hotel?
No I slept at very different places. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, I spent a week with the family of DDB’s ECD, Alvin Teoh, which was a very special experience. I slept in a suite in Vegas, but also on a thin matrass on the floor.
How was it to be constantly pulled out of your comfort zone?
In the beginning it often felt a little awkward to stay at places where you don’t know anyone, but you get used to that. And now I am constantly pushing my boundaries; the experience needs to be crazier every time, to keep things interesting. And the funny thing is, it just happens automatically.
Take my TEDx-talk. Already in the second week I received an email from the TED organisation, asking me if I could talk at TEDxTeen in New York City. I told them I didn’t have anything interesting to share yet, but they said the event would only be in March and that by then I’d surely have an interesting story to share. So I did it – writing my presentation on a bus trip from Phnom-Penh to Siem Reap. The event was broadcasted live in 150 countries!
Next stop is Red Bull in Salzburg. Since I have hardly any money left, companies are now flying me in for internships. It shows that the balance is slightly changing; people and brands now want to become part of the platform. I am fully booked until October.
Anything special on your wish list?
I would love to do an internship at Virgin Galactic. Then I have a chance to go into space and meet Richard Branson. How cool would that be!
Speaking of pushing your boundaries!
Well, I am discovering that 6 degrees of separation is becoming a more realistic concept for me now. For example, I did an internship at Nile Rodgers’s studio, who I met at TEDxTeen, and through him I met so many interesting people; from Warner Brothers, Game of Thrones and Desperate Housewives. And also a few world famous DJ’s. The greatest thing is; they are just people. So, if I send them an email they actually reply.
Where is this going?!
I am preparing a global platform that further builds on my concept, but unfortunately I can’t elaborate on that.
Will you ever return to advertising?
I am not sure. My horizon has widened a great deal. Thanks to all the interesting people I’ve met and all the spontaneous brainstorms, my head is overflowing with ideas. So, if at all, I don’t just want to work in advertising fulltime. I would love to pick up different projects around the world and keep traveling for a while.
Then there’s Creatives, Cocktails & Dreams, which I started before I left. I would like to enrol this in 12 cities around the world.
Do you think this was meant to be?
To be honest, I always thought something big would happen to me. I once did a presentation at Pakhuis de Zwijger about advertising. After my talk I was approached by a 60-year old man who told me: “If you start working for people instead of brands, you’ll become a very influential person.” And then after my TED talk I received so many reactions from people around the world telling me I inspired them, that I suddenly realised I am making a difference now.
What is your key learning from this experience?
Think less. If it feels right, just do it. Secondly, I met many people from tech start-ups. And those who are making it, are actually making it right now. These guys are so creative. It feels to me as if coding is a modern form of painting.
We saw your new tattoo; “Follow the Sun.” What does it mean?
It’s a song by Xavier Rudd about how you can start every day in a positive way. The tattoo was designed by Gwer and I got it in San Francisco.
So you have to run off. Meeting anyone famous?
Haha, not really, tonight I am actually having dinner with my old pal Daniel te Lindert at Loetje. This is something we used to do once a month. And you know what, nothing beats catching up with old friends.