Zware Jongens on choosing to break rules and operate quietly in our loud, attention-seeking world
Intentionally shrouded in mystery, Zware Jongens is an elusive concept agency based in Belgium and The Netherlands that have long been fixated on not having a public portfolio. While most creatives broadcast their every move, Zware Jongens are faceless, authoritative and prone to dark humour; seeking to be quiet in our often loud, attention-seeking world. In line with their equally elusive rebrand, which was created with the help of Barcelonian designer Pol Pérez, we caught up with Co-founder Filip Janssen in an attempt to find out a little more about the agency’s unconventional approach.
EM Hi Filip, how are you doing?
FJ Thanks for asking.
It’s a crazy world we’re living in, and a lot of crazy things are happening these days… that’s obviously very sad.
On a personal level however: all good, healthy and plenty of adventures ahead. No complaints.
On a professional level, we’re satisfied too, but I’m sure we’ll talk more about that later on.
EM What led you to start the agency in 2014, together with your fellow “concept veteran?”
FJ Well, it mainly came from an inner will to create ‘good stuff.’ Stuff that works, that surprises, that touches, that sticks, that has ‘soul,’ …
Diederik and I met when working for a mutual client in New York. Even though we have extremely different personalities (indirect vs direct), very different backgrounds (hospitality, strategy vs communication, design, events) and nationalities (cf. Dutch vs Belgian which might seem the same for many; but boy I can tell you it’s a different world), we got inspired by each other’s vision. Those differences, accompanied by our international experiences and broad vision are also part of our strength.
We asked ourselves “What could possibly be the worst thing to happen?” Fail, so we decided to go for it. It was ‘now or never’ to combine forces, passion and foremost gut feeling. Though it’s for sure not always a fairytale, we haven’t regretted that choice ever since.
Fearlessness permeates everything we do.
EM What challenges have stood out to you since starting out?
FJ Well, life is a challenge.
One of the professional challenges is sticking to our vision and the reasons why we once started. We see a lot of agencies doing great stuff until they’ve reached the top of the curve and become too big/corporate to deliver the same level of projects that brought them to the top of the curve. Lacking soul, becoming very generic, etc. That’s heartbreaking to see and something we definitely want to avoid.
Part of that is not compromising, believing in our own principles and keep evolving.
Another challenge is that we’re active in a very wide range of disciplines – from strategy to branding, to interior design, to communication and so on – and in a very diverse range of sectors – from boutique hotels to museums to jewellery to healthcare to fashion to software to legal to restaurants to drinks and so on – that combination challenges us daily… but hey: being challengers, we like challenges and we like pushing our clients forward. So, bring ‘em on!
EM Was it a conscious decision at the beginning to try to work across a wide range of disciplines and industries?
FJ Yes. It’s logical to us. We don’t want to be limited in our creative thinking. Everything starts from the strategy and ideation. From there on, it can result in anything: a space, a packaging, a campaign, an experience, a product… we need that space and our clients benefit from that too.
EM What is the current status quo of Zware Jongens, in terms of your team and projects you’re working on?
FJ In terms of projects: we’re being contacted with interesting briefings and are currently working on some very cool projects across the globe. In Amsterdam, Rijad, Zurich, Marrakech, Antwerp and Barcelona to name a few. We’re grateful. Being under the radar attracts too.
In terms of team: we expanded our bases in the lowlands into a cohort of fearless makers and doers around the world. Our core team is the beating heart; strategy, creative direction, ideation, management of all projects. We take pride in guiding clients through the creative trajectory – where caution deserves being thrown into the wind, conventions warrant questioning, and the status quo asks to be defied. Constantly. This is how we elevate.
EM What is the relationship between your bases in Amsterdam and Antwerp?
FJ Locations play no role at all. We’re one team that accidentally has its roots in the lowlands. Our teams however are everywhere and hybrid. We don’t want to be limited in any way; neither by physical spaces or places. We want and need different visions. As a team, waking up with sunshine in Cape Town, rain in Seoul, storms in Los Angeles and a hangover in Amsterdam is what enhances our projects.
We don’t believe in portfolios. We never did.
EM Why have you decided to present yourselves elusively and not have an overly public portfolio?
FJ Good question; one that we get asked often and still ask ourselves; from time to time.
The answer is simple though: we don’t believe in portfolios. We never did. That’s how we worked since the very beginning. The first years on ‘invitation only’ or through referral of other clients only. Nowadays we’re still very selective on projects, respecting our house rules. In the end, it’s all about trust, but you have to find the clients who give that trust and space to you, or the other way around of course.
Would it be smarter to show our portfolio? Business-wise most probably yes, but we like the experiment, and you could say it succeeded. Eight years later we attract even more interesting projects, became stronger as a team and foremost we stuck to our values and vision. Whispering can be more impactful than shouting, no? It all depends on your vision, inner belief, and the initial reason to start this adventure.
Would it be easier to show our portfolio? For sure, but that answer is simple too: the easy way is almost never the best way. In the end: we’re Zware Jongens.
It helps us also to stay open and not to be seen as the actor who’s always cast as ‘the bad guy.’ Fearlessness permeates everything we do, from our projects and processes to our interactions and baseline constitution. It’s the key to how we stay mediocrity averse and pro-brave creation. Our work and way of doing so shows that it’s possible to be both confident and compassionate, to be a good listener as well as the person that gets things done. ‘Don’t be everybody’: our enduring mantra.
To be unafraid to do things differently and combine this with proper processes and strong principles is what leads to stand-out results. Caution deserves to be thrown into the wind, just as rules require being broken, and the status quo challenged. Constantly.
EM Can you tell us about a moment where doing something fundamentally differently led to a stand-out result for one of your clients?
FJ Well, for example, I remember the first pharmacy we did. We never did that before and that’s actually what we like most. This also relates to the fact that we don’t show a portfolio. Our best work is usually created when we dig into new sectors, new products, etc. It assures a fresh look, you’re not influenced by certain processes and you question certitudes. So when new clients ask about our experience within their field, we hope there’s none. You could say our clients need to have ‘balls’ and trust.
So, about that pharmacy: it was the first open-plan pharmacy in the world, we focused on the positive aspect rather than the negative, applied non-pharmacy materialisation, etc. This case served as an inspiration source for many other pharmacies across the globe. We got invited to lecture about it in NYC, we strategised the future pharmacy concept for a major Italian pharmacy chain, and so on.
And obviously, there’s much more to tell: At a time when the whole beer landscape was focusing on heritage and monks, we decided to focus on the future and ‘Untouched by monks.’ Same here: it was the first beer we did and it ended up as the world’s best beer design.
EM Without a portfolio, how do you tend to get introduced to potential clients? And how does the first interaction typically go?
FJ It works mostly via word of mouth and our network of existing clients and partners with whom we build a long-term relationship. Most clients we had in the early days are still with us today. Good work assures new work…
The first interaction is usually quite informal: we chat, we feel, we ask questions in order to understand their issues or challenges. We obviously explain our way of working and share our house rules to assure a smooth process and strong result.
Caution deserves to be thrown into the wind.
EM What led you to work with Pol Pérez on the agency’s visual identity, instead of tackling it internally?
FJ Well, accepting the fact that we’d be our own ‘most difficult client ever’ we decided to approach our own identity update just the way we do for our own clients; by moulding the best team across the globe and looking from the outside to the inside (instead of inside-outside). So in this case, Barcelona-based Pol Pérez played a seminal role in the design of our visual identity. We pushed and challenged Pol. And so did he, which is great. It was an exciting collaboration. Pol is very talented, smart and a nice guy to work with. This is obviously very important too when working together.
We envisioned remaining in the dark, emphasising this through a logo that is not a logo ‘as such’ but rather a blurry rendering of our name, expressing our enduring mantra.
EM What would you like to see more and less of in the design industry?
FJ More gut feeling. Less of the same. Don’t be everybody!
EM What would you like to do as an agency that you haven’t yet had the time or opportunity to do?
FJ One client a year. Carte blanche.