Wake The Town
Stuck in Motion
Contemplative Reptile
  • International Edition
  • USA Edition
  • UK Edition
  • Australian Edition
  • Canadian Edition
  • Irish Edition
  • German Edition
  • French Edition
  • Singapore Edition
  • Spanish edition
  • Polish edition
  • Indian Edition
  • Middle East edition
  • South African Edition

Mick Johan on Feminism, Eccentricity and Toxicity


From art school reject to the first-ever editor-in-chief of VICE Netherlands, and a creative director at SuperHeroes today, Mick Johan speaks to LBB’s Zoe Antonov about some of the craziest moments in his career

Mick Johan on Feminism, Eccentricity and Toxicity

Mick Johan’s bio calls him an ‘artist, writer and drummer’ from Amsterdam, but he seems to be a whole lot more than that. Ex-editor-in-chief of VICE Netherlands (and its first-ever person in the role), an art school reject, a feminist, and an ex-mailman, among other things. Starting as a ‘creative kid’, Mick remembers writing from a very early age but also being drawn to skateboarding and soccer. When he moved on to try his luck at several art schools– each of which ended in semi-disaster– he realised that when one door closes, another opens. So for Mick, that door was the arrival of VICE to the Netherlands, which he was distributing at the time as a mailman. 

He tried his luck in getting into the company and sure enough ended up speaking to Andy Capper, editor-in-chief of VICE UK at the time. After a fiasco involving a few feet pics and some French hip-hop, Mick landed the role of a lifetime. (Which he actually ended up googling after his meeting with Andy, because he had no idea what an editor-in-chief does.)

During that time, Mick's advertising adventures also started, through a range of advertorials at the magazine, one of the first of which was a project he worked on for Levi’s. Working at VICE set his groundwork for an amazing network in Amsterdam and his first, very confident and free-willed, steps into advertising. Two years later he grew somewhat tired of the role, in the true spirit of somebody who seems to always need a level of motion in their life, and became one half of the creative duo Miktor & Molf.

Today, Mick has assumed the role of creative director at SuperHeroes in Amsterdam, where he is never out of ideas. From writing novels to moving to Japan to be a stay-at-home dad, drawing apologetic penises to truly understanding the underbelly of the ad industry, Mick’s career is one to behold. LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to him about all that and a whole lot more, below.

LBB> Tell me more about your childhood - were you a creative kid? What were your interests and was there some sort of inkling of what you would pursue as a career later on? 

Mick> I was a creative kid, I always loved to write and draw. But I had a lot of energy growing up too, and I loved to play outside. When I was eight, I stumbled upon skateboarding and that really resonated with me. I was in a marching band and started writing poems and journals at around the age of 12. They were very punky. I was pretty good at football (soccer) but that was something everybody just did without ever choosing it, you know? I always loved to create stories, and wanted to create comics. 

LBB> Growing up, you got kicked out of several art schools - what was that experience like? Why did you get kicked out and did you learn anything from that experience, or was it just a small bump on the road? 

Mick> The first one was the HKU University of Arts in Utrecht. They said I ‘wasn’t mature enough’ within a few months. In reality, I was a really angry 19 year old and I thought a lot of the stuff they wanted me to do was bullshit, so I decided not to do it. I guess they were right. But it really pissed me off, so I went to another art school immediately to prove them wrong: St. Joost in Den Bosch. I loved that school. I was taught how to weld, how to handle a camera, and do ceramics. 

There was one teacher that kept telling me I had no business being there. He picked a lot of fights with me. I guess he was testing me, but unfortunately, I let him get to me and ended up dropping out after six months. 

Then I went to the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague and I felt a lot more in place there. However, I studied graphic design and ended up building a music studio and a skatepark together with my friend, artist Steven van Lummel. I got zero study points for it though, because it wasn’t part of my education. We also made an illegal art school zine. We stole the keys to the xerox room for it. Good times. Anyway, I stuck there for three years I think and then they kind of realised I’d never be able to finish it the way they wanted me to. But I really loved it. All these possibilities and different techniques crammed in so little space. No regrets. 

LBB> How did you go from being kicked out of school to becoming editor in chief of VICE Netherlands? Why did you go for the job and what did you expect from it? 

Mick> I became a mailman after art school and found out VICE was coming to the Netherlands. I knew the magazine from a bookstore. They sold VICE, which was a cheeky thing to do because it was supposed to be a free magazine. Anyway, I heard they were coming to the Netherlands and I wrote an email that I was interested in contributing. They wrote back to me, saying they needed an editor-in-chief first and added a profile. I thought: This is me. I came up with some articles and a fashion shoot and was invited to have a chat. That’s where I met Andy Capper, who was the editor in chief of VICE UK. 

He asked me if I liked French hip-hop more than Jay Z, and started showing me pictures of girls' feet in his hotel room. Then he asked me if I was ready for it. I said I was and that was it. I was the first editor in chief of VICE Netherlands. I walked out of the office and literally googled ‘editor in chief’, because I had absolutely no idea what the function was. The magazine and its tone of voice really resonated with me, and it felt as if there was space for all aspects of my creativity in this job. 

LBB> This was also the time when you got into advertising - how did that happen and why? What were the first projects you faced and what challenged you most in them? 

Mick> Well, it was a free magazine and there were pages to be sold. We did a lot of advertorials and I really loved coming up with stuff that fit both VICE and the brand. I remember one of the first projects I did was for Levi’s. We came up with a fictional character, a cool guy named Joe, and you could follow him on Facebook (this was in 2006 I think, and people were just about to leave Myspace for Facebook), and interact with him, find hidden goodies and eventually get invited to an event at the store. I forgot what the exact idea was, but we got hundreds of people into the Levi’s store. 

The branded photoshoots we did were wild because I always wanted them to involve real people in their natural habitat, and highlight some kind of meaningful subject. This meant we had a lot of not-model-esque people wearing cool branded clothes, and brands weren’t always into it. Our publisher, Thijs Boon, ended up always making us do two fashion shoots: one for ourselves, and one that had to be sexy for advertisers. 

LBB> Why did you end up leaving VICE and instead forming the creative duo you're still part of? What was the benefit of being in a creative duo over working alone? 

Mick> After two years, I was done with creating a magazine every month. It felt like a drag. Matthijs Booij, my partner in crime, had just finished art school, and through VICE, I built up quite a network in Amsterdam to get us started. 

We worked and skated together a lot in art school, and for both of us, not working together was never really an option. So we started Miktor & Molf. I’m much more of a team player than a solo operator. Whatever comes out of working together is never what you would have done alone, and I love that. We felt more confident going into the world as a team because we knew at least one other person likes what you do. Also knowing someone is expecting you to show up and work was good for both of us. 

LBB> What is the weirdest and most eccentric project you've worked on? What was the outcome? 

Mick> Sheesh, that’s a difficult question, there have been so many. Especially with Miktor & Molf, we built a concrete swimming pool, shot music videos and once presented two routes for the artwork of an album for Dutch act - De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig, who were quite big in those days. One was ‘The sinking flagship of Dutch Pop Music’, since they were becoming old. The other route was ‘XTC Hangover’. They chose the latter. It became a CD booklet like a singing card. You’d unfold it and it would produce sound. It took us months of negotiating with China to get it the way we liked. For the live show, we made a huge backdrop with the Taj Mahal in the clouds and on the windows, we projected weird motion graphics fitting their different tracks.
Seeing it in front of 30,000 people at the Lowlands festival was definitely a high. We made them a nice logo too which they’ve been using for almost a decade now. Anyway, the chemistry between us and them was great. All of us loved pushing buttons and people. I guess now you would call us disruptive. 

LBB> And what was one project that you think changed the course of your career? 

Mick> I’d say a pitch for Nike SB I worked on, as a freelancer for SuperHeroes. It was for a shoe release, but we ended up creating a global community. It was a lot of fun and it got me my job as a creative director at SuperHeroes, which was a big fat change since I haven’t had a job in over a decade. Shoutout to SuperHeroes for pulling me into the advertising world. To be surrounded by a great team of creatives, designers, motion designers, strategists, developers, producers, account-, social-, PR-, and office managers, (I probably forgot some, sorry) that amaze me and who I learn from every day is a luxury beyond anything I’ve ever known. Absolutely love it. 

LBB> Tell me about the apologetic penises exhibition - one project that definitely raises eyebrows from your resume - what prompted it. Overall, how do your feminist views intertwine with your creative career? 

Mick> Well, I lived in Tokyo with my wife and kids for a while. She works for Onitsuka Tiger / Asics and they wanted her to relocate there, but we could only do it if I was to be a stay-at-home dad. So I became a Tokyo expat wife, and it was amazing. When we lived there, I noticed that it was not considered normal at all to be a stay-at-home dad. Then, the first #MeToo wave happened and I felt I had to do something. Being a straight guy made me aware of the fact that I am part of the problem, so I started apologising. I wanted to apologise for all of it - the patriarchy, the enablers, the perpetrators, the whole nine. 

I apologised with hand-drawn sad penises saying sorry in five languages on postcards, so anybody who had one could send it and really apologise. I still draw them. The exhibition in Anagra gallery in Hanzomon, Tokyo, had over 100 penises on display. The show got some nice press. 

As to my feminist views, I guess I was raised like my sisters. I grew up with older sisters only and my dad was in the army, so he was away a lot. My mom and sisters made sure we all did the same chores - I had to fold the laundry, vacuum and do everything just like them. My sisters are very smart and amazing, so I grew up looking up to women. It didn’t feel very special to me. Being a stay-at-home dad in Tokyo really showed me that being a stay-at-home dad was not considered normal. At least over there. So, I tried to normalise it as loudly as possible. 

LBB> Today you work with SuperHeroes, what does your work with them entail? 

Mick> As a creative director, I tend to focus a lot on the people and the atmosphere. I think creative juices flow best when you feel happy so I try to lighten up the vibe and take away worries as much as possible. I’m also responsible for the creative output and I love to push the boundaries a little. SuperHeroes’ mission is ‘saving the world from boring advertising’. We focus on young millennials and gen z, who try to avoid advertising so we have to make it more interesting for them; more relevant and more fun. I like to go a bit weirder, give the stuff that you can’t use but that cracks you up as well. If possible, for clients as well as creatives. I think there’s elevation in having fun. We like to fly at SuperHeroes, and I’m all Peter Pan about flying. 

LBB> What do you want to see the industry change fundamentally in its ways of working?

Mick> I think we live in a time where energy needs to be revalued. This is already happening, but I feel human energy is being left out of the conversation. In our industry, tremendous amounts of human energy are wasted and it's burning people out. Pitches cost lives, yo. I think it’s a toxic and unsustainable system that has had its best time. Let’s invest time in getting to know each other instead. 

LBB> What is one universal truth you've learned about advertising from your years working in it? 

Mick> There is not a single person who cannot teach you something you didn’t know. 

LBB> And what is the most frequently told lie? 

Mick> “I’m doing great!” 

LBB> Any final thoughts? 

Mick> Free Palestine.

view more - People
Sign up to our newsletters and stay up to date with the best work and breaking ad news from around the world.
SuperHeroes Amsterdam, Tue, 08 Nov 2022 16:51:41 GMT