Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Margo Mars: "We Still Have the Potential to Affect Change, if We Stop the Repetition"

Post Production
London, UK
As part of a new interview series exploring boundary-pushing creativity and production, the Lief founder reflects on how the industry can keep its radical edge sharp

At OKAY STUDIO we’ve become known for eye-opening campaigns, made by creatives that go that little bit further - ensuring that the work really means something. 

We believe that advertising, and film in particular, has the power to enact cultural shifts that will take us closer to a society that is fairer for all. That is why we are thrilled to support this LBB interview series to hear about our industry peers’ favourite groundbreaking work, the kind of pieces that make you stop and think.

Throughout her career so far, Margo Mars has demonstrated a passion for making the impossible possible. Her hard-won reputation is based on her innovative style, and recognised through awards from the likes of D&AD, British Arrows, Campaign, VMA and Tribeca X, as well as the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions. Here, she reflects on how she made her break in the industry, why we need to start telling new stories, and what makes a truly groundbreaking piece of creative work. 

LBB> Let’s start at the beginning - at what point did you first know that a career in this industry was the right path for you?

Margo Mars> When I was five, I decided to have a yard sale. I hired my mum to make snacks to attract the crowds. Although only two kids turned up - and they ate everything, but bought just one used rainbow eraser - it was the first sign of an entrepreneurial spirit. 

My first job was assisting Dawn Shadforth for her Bjork video. She was one of the first and few women directors working in ads and music videos at the time - and upon my entry into this world of advertising, the first thing I witnessed was the frustration of getting only the makeup ads and never the heavy-lifting storytelling.

Above: The music video for ‘Who Is It’ by Bjork was directed by Dawn Shadforth in 2004.

All the seeds had been planted, and eventually when I founded Lief - a lifelong career ambition - it was hugely important that we promote and celebrate inclusivity and be a champion for underrepresented creative voices.  

I’ve NEVER stopped being hugely inspired by the energy and endless possibilities of a career in creation. With Lief, I am building a universe around that energy. 

LBB> In your TEDx presentation, ‘Why advertising needs more voices’, you talked about the importance of the - literal - lens through which we view ads and, by extension, the world around us. How have you found the response to that, and have you taken any encouragement from it?

Margo> I am very outspoken about this, so when I got the invitation to speak at TED and was able to extend this idea to the public, it was a hugely motivating experience. 

From within the industry, like-minded people found inspiration in my ‘courage’ to speak up. The responses from the general public, from complete strangers outside of our ‘bubble’, following the live event (and later published on were the best. 

The consumers of the work we make commented they found it “mind-boggling that the system still exists,” and explained how eye-opening the talk was for them. I learned a lot from that. 

The world would be poorer if we have only one culture. The multiplicity of cultures strengthens the world. It broadens our understanding of things we may not experience ourselves, so my message was simple, that “we must create space for new narratives.”

LBB> During the talk, you mention that the public is largely ‘in the dark’ when it comes to how ads are made and who is behind the camera. Why do you think advertising has thus far avoided the same scrutiny as TV and film (if you believe it has)?

Margo> It’s invisible, right? Who makes the story of an ad, and what is actually influencing you. 

I am reaching out to the public to demand transparency from brands telling the stories that shape their world and influence their thinking. The system that maintains the status quo urgently needs to change. Only then can we ensure a positive story both in front of and behind the camera.

Above: TEDx ‘Courage To Connect’ in conversation with Nadia Moussaid

Representation is without doubt getting better in front of the camera, but diversity in major and award-winning work remains astonishingly lacking behind it. In 2019, men directed 94% of the work given 266 awards at the British Arrows. In 2020, 96% of all the Super Bowl ads were made by men. Of the “Best Work of 2020” noted by the UK Advertising Producers Association, 85% of it was by men and NONE directed by people of colour.  The optics are great on one side of the lens, but the diversity data behind the camera couldn’t be further from the truth. 

It was only once the public started demanding change from brands that we started to see more representation truly come about on-screen. The public HAS to start demanding real representation from advertising as it has done from entertainment, behind the camera as well. That’s the answer. It’s a matter of consumer power. 

As audiences, we don’t want to be brainwashed. Acclaimed big budget directors are shaping the way we think and are being trusted with everything, from tampons to power-tools. That trust is not extended to diverse voices at all. Because of systemically entrenched hiring patterns, underrepresented voices have historically been kept out of the narrative. Award underrepresented creators with ALL types of stories, including those that matter.

Watch the credits! In fact, demand the credits. Demand transparency of the process.

Be conscious of what you see. What influences you. Pay attention to the male gaze in advertising. Brands find allies in directors who do not push back on directives that are false and damaging, such as selling insecurity to women as a BEAUTY brand. I call it “Her story, His lens.”

Demand advertisements that come from a place we can feel good about: truthful, authentic AND entertaining. Appreciate the brands that DO good. Those that give us insight, not stereotypes.

The advertising industry is still tiptoeing around systemic issues in mostly private conversations. I no longer feel vulnerable in calling these out. Fighting for this makes me so happy, and I will continue to be outspoken about the changes that must be made. 

LBB> This interview series is supported by OKAY STUDIO, who are shining a light on work that shifted cultural boundaries. With that in mind, is there a recent example of work that you believe moved the cultural needle?

Margo> New voices inspire me. I get so inspired watching fresh work from across the globe. You get this jolt that hits you right in the gut, and you realise there is so much more out there. The first time I watched Lief’s Luo Jian’s short film ‘What Do You Know About the Water and the Moon’ at the BFI London Film Festival - I was blown away. She is a new generation Chinese filmmaker and… wow. Her contemporary Tang Yi just won the Palme D’Or in Cannes with her graduate short film too. Just wow, check it. 

Above: What Do You Know About the Water and the Moon, 2019, 16’ Luo Jian

It doesn’t always need to be the biggest work, either. One tends to mention the same major ads when listing examples. For me, ANY work that’s been awarded to someone other than the usual director actually moves the cultural needle, just by doing so. Full stop.

Unfortunately, advertising is still lagging where entertainment is winning big. The film world is successfully taking risks with first-time filmmakers, and telling the stories that matter. Yet here we are, still convincing creatives to even look at reels for a 30-second product ad. It’s such a blind spot. 

This shift has to start at client level, as there are certainly some agencies that are continuously working with the same directors where they could easily broaden their storytelling if pushed. It limits creating outstanding creative work. To stand out, you have to make out-of-the-ordinary choices.

There are very brave clients out there, ready to make and be part of a new narrative. I am pointing my claws at them, and can’t wait to show you what the cat dragged in... 

LBB> We’re loving the recent ads you guys have been working on with WhatsApp, highlighting the value of privacy in emotive, often quite cathartic ways. Do you think that demand for privacy from tech companies is an example of a cultural shift?

Margo> Thank you! I think the demand for privacy comes from the public and Facebook’s WhatsApp are tapping into that as a business.

Companies right now are investing billions in shaping the way we see things, through stories. We see up to 10,000 ads a day! There’s nothing wrong with that, I actually love how an ad can have an impact on the way we see the world, and do good. And we really can, as an industry. 

Above: WhatsApp, Secret Language, dir. Courtney Hoffman

LBB> OKAY STUDIO is passionate about the power of great post-production, particularly when working on projects that break cultural taboos. From your perspective, in what ways can top-quality post elevate a piece of work?

Margo> Craft in any department is important to transport an audience to FEEL the messaging. Craft adds feeling through the personal intention of the craftsperson, in the way they use their skillset to bring the work to its fullest potential. 

You can have the most amazing cinematographer, costumes, and sets, but once in the hands of, say, the colourist, it can all be undone in one switch and you are left feeling NOTHING. Editing, of course, is the master of it all. I have HUGE respect for editors. All in all, the finessing of the stylistic approach is as important as the shooting itself. Just as the quality of the post can break it, it can make it sing. I love that. 

LBB> Given the upheavals of the past year and a half, both in terms of the pandemic and with technology, do you think that advertising still has the power to move hearts and minds en-masse? Can creativity still transform society?

Margo> Of course! 100%. Our industry still has huge potential to affect change, and spread ideas that reflect a better world back to us.

We must make space for new narratives though. Stop the repetition. Opening up the possibilities of who creates, what they create, and how we speak to people is about a creative liberation!

LBB> In 2017 you founded Lief, promoting a culture of inclusivity and a mission to work with diverse filmmakers. Was that done in any way as a reaction to the dominant culture of the industry at the time? And do you feel that culture has since meaningfully changed if so?

Margo> Absolutely. I founded Lief because I felt it was time to be more playful with what we think a production company is, even what a client is. I needed to work intuitively. Not be led in any way by the cynical, the scared, the comfortable. I don’t want to be that person or be in that position.

To me, it’s really important that we create, not wait for some permission; feature films, episodic content, documentaries, shorts, art, product. Just by doing, you are leading. It’s ALL about creative energy that elevates everything - and we have tons of it. 

As for the culture shift, Lief definitely came at the start of a wave of transformation that is still in full swing. I’m beyond excited to be growing the brand and to be a curator for many more brand and agency briefs to come. 

Yet we are now at a crossroads. Yes, there is lots of great new content being made, boundaries crossed and ceilings smashed. But it can quickly become complacent, repetitive, and a ‘must do,’ rather than coming from the heart. Not everything has to be cool and on-trend.

Real miracles and wonders are those not definable, those pieces that you cannot compare to anything else. 

LBB> And, we have to ask, what is the significance of the winged lioness in Lief’s logo?

Margo> “Lief” is Dutch for ‘very sweet,’ but I wanted the visual to be more badass than that. 

My partner came up with the concept, and together we spent a long time studying cats, seeing how they were rendered in art throughout the ages. When we look at iconic creatures from history, they are winged and gorgeous but they are always lions, never lionesses.

Every detail was considered - her raised paw, the alert ears. The spirit of Lief’s winged Lioness, and of course her positive energy, are all embodied in this logo. 

Above: Lief logo, 2020, Fraser Muggeridge Studio

LBB> Finally, the past 18 months have been challenging for so many of us. Throughout it all, how have you been staying creatively motivated and inspired?

Margo> Underrepresented artists are used to having to make their voices heard creatively, and so it’s only natural to be inspired by them!

I’ve taken time to reflect, support and look at opportunities for change, expanding into new segments. Looking at what we can trash. The ego. The gatekeepers.

Culture and art are so important in connecting us. It’s rare to see so many brands testing out new formats and finding different ways of interacting with audiences. There has been a space created by this challenging time, and what replaces the lost old order is up to us. 

As for a few milestones of 2020, working with Academy Award nominee Petra Costa. Lief released ‘Êxtase’, the debut feature of Moara Passoni, which premiered In Competition at CPH:DOX 2020 and had its U.S. premiere at MoMa’s Doc Fortnight.

Above: Êxtase [Trailer], 2020, 80’ dir. Moara Passoni

We made the London segment of launch films for IN THE BLK, supporting Black designers at Paris Digital Fashion Week. Director Elisha Smith-Leverock and I pulled out all the stops to make the showcase as joyous and beautiful as we could with ‘Rejoice Resist’. I’m very proud of that.  

Above: IN THE BLK, Rejoice Resist, dir. Elisha Smith-Leverock

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