No slave to the traditional: lifting the veil on Mistress

Dedicated followers of advertising will get to peek through a keyhole into the headspace of one of the world’s leading small agencies, Mistress Creative, at the Semi-Permanent stage-show in Wellington this week.

The growing global shop two parts Australian, one part German and two parts American. It’s all been stirred together at Venice Beach, Los Angeles, into a partnership of five proponents of eye-catching campaigns. 

Scott Harris, Mistress creative director and co-founder, says he is honoured to have been lured to Semi-Permanent because of its great reputation and the opportunity to mix and mingle with the likes of Jonathan Kneebone of The Glue Society – “someone I’ve known for years and have always really respected for his way of looking at the world”. And rounding out an Australian trifecta of advertising stars are Gavin McLeod and Joshua Rowe of R/GA

Harris, 43, originally hails from the northern beaches of Sydney, the city where he began his pursuit of a career in advertising from the mail room of a big agency while still a teenager. 

Along with fellow Mistress meister and Aussie, Damien Eley, Harris is no stranger to small agencies, having been on board early with BMF in Sydney. “I love how personal small agencies are – how responsible people are for the work and for the business. (At the same time) the truth is, I’ve been grateful to work in one of the biggest agencies in the world in New York and with over one hundred people in London. I learnt so much from the people and met great friends and did great work”.

“Damien and I had been approached about starting agencies before Mistress but had never quite found the right fit.  When Christian Jacobsen called us with the idea for Mistress the thinking was very much how we always imagined we’d like to work”.

When Mistress opened its doors at the height of the global financial crisis the guiding belief was that clients would “happily have an affair with an agency that promised no strings attached”, being the essence of the Mistress brand itself. This was confirmed when AdAge awarded Mistress the title of Small Ad Agency of the year in 2011 which, Harris says, “let us know that the industry thought that what we were doing was as good as anybody else out there, if not better, and it gave us the reassurance that we were on to a winner”.

In this interview Scott Harris lifts some of the veil on Mistress and its work with the big boys of Jagermeister, Disney, Coca-Cola and Mattel (Hot Wheels): 

Is there a secret to the success of Mistress?

“There are a few. Not being married to any medium is one.  But not necessarily being married to any client is another. It allows us to provide fresh thinking to big problems unencumbered with the day-to-day sock folding that an Agency of Record often has to do. We’re also not married to buying eyeballs through traditional media plans. 

“(At a personal level) we were just talking the other day how fortunate we are to have five such like-minded partners. Some places get by great with one partner (but) at Mistress we like the way that we can always promise our clients at least two partners on their business, while all five will routinely add thinking to all clients. We value having such diverse opinions and points of view. We have all done the big agency thing and all believed there was a better way”. 

What defines or sets Mistress apart?

“We went through a period where we were thinking of different nomenclatures for what we do – and we came back to the fact that people are seeking us out for our ability to solve their marketing problems – although we do not do that traditionally we didn’t really want to call ourselves an ‘idea conglomeration’ or something  equally as self-conscious.  Advertising has changed and we’re happy to call ourselves an advertising agency – we just do it differently.

“We believe in putting brands into culture with engaging ideas that people actively want to be a part of rather than force feed them our message. Who was it that said clients get the work they deserve? There will always be clients who don’t want to be challenged.  Who have a top-down culture of fear and politics that prevents anything good from going out, and who quite honestly don’t want anything good. There will always be agencies to service those companies and to pick up those hefty pay checks. You couldn’t pay me enough money to do that – so that means they’ll go to someone big who will – and I think that answers your question”.

If you had to be married to one medium which one would it be?

“If you’re talking about Mistress going to activation or experiential areas instead of digital – that’s not exactly the case. There was a large digital component to Hot Wheels that we concepted but Hot Wheels executed in-house. For other brands like Coca-Cola’s energy drink NOS we are doing all the digital – but we only ever do what we do to reach people most efficiently – if you’re talking to car fans, racing two cars through a 6 story-high orange loop will get more traction in their world than a banner campaign”.

Will you be scaling up?

“We (already) have three sister companies. Neato, that specialises in collegiate marketing. Which sounds niche until you realise that the college population of the the US is 21 million people. Another company we have is Tarot, a millennial trends and insight company run by millennials, not by crusty old people in bad suits who don’t remember what it was like to be young. We also have a company called Bastard – the love child of Mistress. It is a producer of anything”. 

Is there anything that might hold you back?

“We are finding it really difficult to get great talent. It seems every book we see these days has a bunch of terrible ideas for apps. Our last two hires have been a team that had a bunch of patents for crazy inventions in their book, and a rapper”.

Semi-permanent runs this Friday and Saturday, 18-19 October at The Embassy in Wellington. Tickets still going. Click here to purchase.

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