Getting to know SGK Anthem - Amsterdam

Back Getting to know SGK Anthem - Amsterdam

We speak to Marcel Verhaaf, Executive Creative Director at SGK Anthem - Amsterdam, to learn more about the multi-Pentaward winning agency, what it’s really like to work with them, and their take on upcoming challenges within the industry.

Clients have a plethora of choice when it comes to selecting a packaging design agency and navigating such a selection can be difficult. What are the distinguishing or unique capabilities of the Amsterdam team?

Choosing the right packaging design agency is tough; there’s so much great talent to choose from across the globe. Some agencies specialise within one category, others have a wealth of experience of working with start-ups. Many agencies have their own unique aesthetic; a design style that is reflected across the breadth of their work.

Our main differentiator is our cultural empathy. As well as ensuring we have a diverse mix of talent within the team from different parts of the world, we tap into our global business reach to learn from other teams in different regions. Because we’re able to identify and understand cultural differences, we are then able to find the common ground, ensuring our designs are easily understood in different markets to help amplify the consumer brand experience.

Südzucker Group - Cukier Królewski Packaging Design

Detailresult Groep - 1 de Beste Verse Halfvolle Melk Packaging Design

We understand that you work with both large international brands as well as small local brands. What are the differences when working with brands of such different scale?

We’re very nimble and flexible in our approach to projects and are able to scale up or pair back a project based on client needs.

Larger brands of course have more spending power when it comes to advertising, so in one respect they could take more creative leaps. However, the numbers attached to that risk are so large that taking bigger steps is often avoided. Such brands require a well-established and experienced design partner to support them in navigating such challenges.

When working with smaller brands we’re often working directly with the founder and so getting to know them on a personal level and truly understanding their vision is paramount. Typically such brands are more entrepreneurial and indeed dare to do more, attracted to working with SGK Anthem because of our experience with larger more established brands; their ambition is growth and working with a seasoned team provides great reassurance.

Looking beyond your award success with the Pentawards, what do you qualify as success?

The ability to challenge the status quo and to learn. This is something we promote within our team across all areas of the business to ensure we continue to develop, grow and thrive.

From a creative perspective, ultimately success is defined as effective design for our clients. But in order to create such work, we have to constantly challenge ourselves and the world around us - to interrogate category norms and explore new and ingenious ways to communicate on pack. That’s why the Pentawards concept categories are so invaluable; it gives us a sort of training platform to experiment, taking our learnings back to our clients to help provide insights and inspiration.

Oxo Conceptual Packaging Design, Pentawards 2020 Bronze Winner

Unilever - Knorr Ambient Soups Packaging Design, Pentawards 2019 Silver Winner

Agency culture continues to be a hot topic in the press, how would you describe the company culture in Amsterdam and how is this perhaps impacted by culture more broadly in the Netherlands?

We see little value in a more traditional hierarchy so in terms of organisation we are relatively flat and have somewhat of a family atmosphere. We don’t want people to feel like they’re working ‘for’ SGK, we want them to feel like they’re working ‘with’ SGK. After all, the success of the business as a whole is a direct result of the contributions of each and every single member of the team.

Typically the Dutch are very free by nature and rather adverse to authority, as well as being straight forward, modest and egalitarian. But within our team we’re not only Dutch - we’re also Belgian, Portuguese, Argentinian, French and English. This diverse cultural mix is of huge benefit when it comes to design, providing a fantastic blend of perspectives and experiences.

During the last few months we have all seen a host of changes in both our professional and personal lives — some for good, others less positive. How have you dealt with these changes?

Though the operational transition to working remotely was smooth, we’re not oblivious to the personal challenges faced by having no separation between home and work life, as well as the loss of the social aspect of agency life. We’re currently exploring how we can redesign a new ‘normal’ while ensuring the health and wellbeing of our team is protected.

However, the unique situation in which we have all found ourselves has provided positive opportunities to think and behave differently - something which inspired our recent ‘Design for Change’ Series, looking at how packaging design can be used to help influence positive change cross-category.

Design for Change Series 2 - Color Me Up Conceptual Packaging Design

When looking to make a hire, what are the most important things that you look for?

When making creative hires the candidates experience is of course the starting point. However, this doesn’t necessarily need to be presented as a very polished portfolio. Finalised design work is, more often than not, a team effort and of course the result of numerous influences. Personally, I like to see a lot of sketches alongside finalised commercial work. The way someone sketches and develops initial conceptual ideas can be very revealing in terms of the creative process they go through, their personal approach and strategy when it comes to design.

More broadly, selecting new team members based on a good fit with the agency culture is vital. We work with many different types of brands operating in many different markets, meaning we have to understand and be empathetic to many different consumer perspectives, often about the same product. In such an environment we require mentally lean and collaborative individuals; there is no room for big egos.

If there was one thing you could change within the design industry, what would it be?

A better appreciation for the difference between knowledge and opinion. Initial conceptual designs as well as more developed designs are the results of well worked creative and strategic methods. There’s a logic and also a magic to creativity and this balance needs to be upheld and respected in order to prevent dilution of the end results. Anyone can have an opinion and while all opinions are welcomed, they’re not always valid if they’re not based on either insight or vision.

What sources do you and your team draw from when looking for creative inspiration?

Alongside packaging design trends we also look to more avant garde disciplines including fashion, photography and new material innovation. Such disciplines tend to be more future focused and experimental, providing a rich source of more unique creative ideas - ideas which then need to be carefully ‘translated’ into a relevant and on-brand packaging design.

Grolsch - Grolsch 0.0 Packaging Design (in collaboration with Elroy Klee)

WEPA Professional - BlackSatino Visual Brand Identity and Packaging Design

Looking to the near future, what would you consider to be the key ‘big picture’ challenges and opportunities facing FMCG brands - how can packaging design help?

The need for more distinctiveness. Many brands and marketeers are trend savvy and, whilst this is valuable in terms of consumer understanding and brand activations, it can also result in many brands adopting similar design cues and claims on pack. A brand's packaging is only one medium of communication as part of the media mix and no longer needs to do ‘all the jobs’.

Brands need to be more considered and future focused, more proactive rather than reactive. Yes, certain brands may consciously decide to be on par with their competitors - to be part of a collaborative category look and feel and this is their prerogative. But others should be more fearless in order to create greater saliency. After all, for most brands the goal is not to blend in with their competition, but to stand out.

There’s not many industries in which you can say this, but in ours, safety can kill. A lack of distinct brand imprints is dangerous and can result in somewhat of a ‘kiss of death’. Now more than ever it’s possible to design the unexpected, for brands to overcome the fear of standing out and to dream big in designing their own distinct futures.

What’s next? Anything exciting you’re able to share with us?

Currently our focus is to continue to invest in our sustainable packaging design team. More specifically, we are promoting a new perspective in this area, something we refer to as ‘temptainability’. By designing more enticing packaging solutions, adding value to brands and therefore increasing performance, together we can create new commercial opportunities for investments in sustainability.

Our objective is to help brands identify key occasions to enhance the consumer packaging experience and at the same time to navigate the circular economy maze. We have a wealth of experience in this area across the team and indeed the business more broadly and are committed to using design to provide solutions for brands that are both desirable and sustainable.

About SGK Anthem

Marcel Verhaaf is Executive Creative Director at SGK Anthem.

SGK Anthem is a leading global design agency that defines, creates, produces and transforms packaging and brand experiences to amplify brands, giving them the freedom to speak louder, scale faster and grow stronger. SGK Anthem is part of SGK, a Matthews International Company.

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