The creative and cultural industries are crucial drivers of economic growth and job generation, estimated to employ more than 30 million people globally. New technologies have become increasingly prevalent within these sectors, and today there is an abundance of goods and services leveraging digitalisation to enhance creativity.
Costa Rica is enjoying particular success in this regard, exporting creative solutions and services across the globe, from digital animation to branding design and content creation. Pixel 506 is just one of the burgeoning number of creative solutions providers leveraging technology to make a growing contribution to the country’s thriving services sector. Established in New York 11 years ago, the agency now boasts over 80 employees across Latin America.
“We started as a branding company and then quickly moved into tech,” says Pixel 506 founder and CEO Antonio Ramirez. “That was our sweet spot: working between creativity and software development. We were the first company in Latin America offering user experience for US companies.”
A competitive market
While the full extent of the damage remains to be seen, Covid-19 delivered a major blow to the creative economy worldwide. However, these industries have an essential role to play in supporting a full and prosperous post-pandemic recovery.
It is fitting, then, that in November 2019 – months before the impending crisis – the UN designated 2021 as the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, a resolution that aims to foster and promote the creative industries in order to build a more inclusive future.
Costa Rica is eager to lead this conversation. The country’s creative industries employ more than 42,000 people and contribute 2.2% of GDP. Demonstrating the sector’s value, the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Global Innovation Index 2020 ranked Costa Rica in first place for cultural and creative services exports as a total percentage of trade.
The country’s audiovisual industry alone is made up of nearly 500 enterprises and accounts for 26% of all jobs within the cultural economy. From film distribution to news agencies, television to radio, the segment has been steadily growing at an average rate of 8% every year since 2012.
The country’s video game sector has over 20 studios offering a variety of export services with a particular focus on developing original IPs. Meanwhile, Costa Rica boasts more than 60 studios specialising in 2D and 3D animation, visual effects and a range of post-production services for a coveted list of multinational partners that includes Dreamworks, Disney and Cartoon Network.
For Sesame Workshop, the New York-based non-profit behind Sesame Street and decades of award-winning educational programmes, collaborating with a Costa Rican partner has resulted in huge creative and cultural benefits. The organisation’s film producer, Kimberly Wright, met Johnny Corrales, the director of Mekanismo, an audiovisual studio located in San José, at the annual Kidscreen Summit earlier this year.
“When considering new production companies and animation studios to work with, we look for talented individuals who can tell a story and have a passion for creating content for children,” says Wright. “Since it is a very collaborative process between our content creators and our production and education teams; we also look for partners who are able to take direction well and turn around our feedback efficiently.”
Impressed by Corrales’s work and enthusiasm for the project, Wright and her colleagues at Sesame Workshop went on to commission two live action number films from Mekanismo for Sesame Street’s 52nd season.
“Johnny and his team have been providing us with visuals and other materials that give us a clear vision of what we can expect from the films, and doing a great job of staying on schedule,” reflects Wright. “We have been impressed with Mekanismo’s level of professionalism, attention to detail and efficiency, and feel this is the beginning of a long-term working relationship.”
The producer is excited to share a taste of Costa Rican culture and the country’s beautiful landscape with young viewers. Such has been the partnership’s success, Wright says the non-profit hopes to collaborate with more Costa Rican production companies going forward, with hopes of commissioning a ‘Foodie Truck’ film for a segment about healthy eating.
Returning to Pixel 506, Ramirez agrees with Wright’s assertion that finding the right cultural fit for any creative partnership is essential. He highlights Costa Rica’s “top-notch talent” and its service providers’ ability to enable “seamless communication with clients in the US”. Indeed, the country is home to a highly skilled, bilingual workforce, one of the best animation schools in Latin America – Veritas University – and a multitude of technical training colleges.
Since setting up his company over a decade ago, Ramirez has watched nearshoring gain momentum. Back then, Pixel 506’s CEO had a vision to go beyond “outsourcing companies in which employees just replied to tickets”, instead creating an environment where Latin American and US talent could work together collaboratively and share ideas.
Today, this vision has become a reality. The founder even now finds himself hiring US natives who have come to Costa Rica in search of a new adventure as priorities shift post-pandemic. Ultimately, says Ramirez, Covid-19 has helped encourage the idea that “it doesn’t matter whether you are here or there, talent is talent.”
It seems Costa Rica’s efforts to carve out a reputation within the creative and cultural industries are paying off. “I was talking to a CEO [of a global brand consultancy company] and he told me that what he liked about Latin America is that as a big company you can find a niche in every country,” says Ramirez.
“Costa Rica stands out in graphic design, user experience and software development. Of course, creativity has many different meanings for different people.”
Looking forward, he cites artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, analytics and big data as areas that will continue to boom as technology seeps ever further into the creative sectors.
“What I am seeing is a lot of companies merging services,” notes Ramirez. “So, if you now have a very good user experience and data team, you have a winning combination because a lot of companies in the US want to find ways to use data to enhance user experience.”
The country’s flourishing innovation ecosystem certainly helps. “There is a network of software and creative companies and we all collaborate,” says Ramirez. In order to build valuable partnerships with US clients, Pixel 506 works with other Costa Rican companies, drawing on their niche expertise to cover all bases. For example, this year Ramirez’s company acquired San-Carlos based Golabs Tech, which specialises in AI and machine learning.
It is this willingness to explore how technology can be used to boost creativity that is crystallising Costa Rican service providers’ reputation as risings stars in the creative and cultural industries. As companies seek new avenues of growth, there is value to be found in cultivating these partnerships and creating the solutions together.