“It was love at first sight!” proclaims Blake Marquis, as he recounts the decision making process of a group of five chaps who’d only ever met together once.
“That’s the first of many Mistress-related puns,” says co-conspirator Damien Eley. He may be joking, but he’s not wrong.
Back in 2010, a lithe little minx of an ad shop opened its doors in Venice Beach, LA. Mistress was created to be a nimble, no-strings-attached kind of agency that would take brands on a wild ride without demanding they put a ring on it. Its five founders, Blake, Damien and his creative partner & fellow Australian Scott Harris, along with Christian Jacobsen and Jens Stoelken, who all had a wealth of big agency experience behind them, saw an opportunity to create a different kind of agency. Brought together by Christian, after a night fuelled with personal chemistry and a table full of Mexican food (isn’t that how the best affairs begin)… the agency was born.
“We sat around a table at Christian’s house and we talked about what we wanted Mistress to be. We all had good, stable, well-paying jobs and we had to sit down and decide if it was a smart move to do this,” explains Scott. After all, it was in the middle of a recession.
Turns out it was a pretty smart move. In the year Mistress opened its doors it was named Ad Age’s ‘Small Agency of the Year’. They’ve hooked up with an admirable roster of funky clients like Hot Wheels, Red Bull and Jägermeister, have seen their revenue double in the past year alone and have grown from five guys around a dining table to a nimble-yet-substantial outfit of over 30 people. This Mistress, it seems, has proven to be something of a honey-trap.
On the surface, it might seem like Mistress’s success is all due to looks. After all, the team have invested a substantial chunk of time in the building of the Mistress brand. Creating a cool and quirky image that has attracted a certain kind of millennial brand, but dig a little deeper, and there’s also an intelligent core that drives their approach.
“Mistress is a brand. We, the five partners, spend over 20 per cent of our time outside of work working on our own brand. We have meetings every week where we focus on Mistress. We are more than just a company or an agency. It’s not just some pun on a chick who’s going to meet you in a hotel room. There’s a philosophy that permeates throughout everything we do,” explains Damien.
And that philosophy is neatly summed up by a phrase that recurs throughout our conversation: “we don’t want to fold your socks”. Rather than cling to brands, structures and tradition, the gang want to stay flexible and are happy to work on a project-by-project basis. That way they can free themselves up for more unusual, boundary-pushing output.
This approach led them to their key breakthrough work ‘Hot Wheels for Real’, a stunt involving a life-sized Hot Wheels ramp. The project tore up the Internet and gained high profile coverage across the mainstream media.
“When we first went in to meet the Hot Wheels guys we were pretty small. They had an interesting business model that they wanted to grow over five years. We went away and realised that, to meet the goals they wanted, we had to approach it in a different way. To a certain extent, Mistress grew around that project. Really it came from a bunch of truths that we honed in on. Instead of taking on the sort of small projects a start-up agency might have done we took in a five year plan and we said ‘this is how we do it’,” says Damien. Thinking small was not an option. Thinking small was not an option.
To think that they could create not one but two record-breaking stunts for the toy manufacturer belies a certain swagger. Indeed, even in its early days, Mistress’s strategy exuded confidence. Rather than grab any client that came along, the team had a very clear idea about the kind of products they wanted to work with.
“We always wanted to work with clients we believed in. It’s really important. Even when we first started, and as painful as it was for our other halves, we turned business down because we didn’t think it was appropriate for us. That meant that the jobs we did, we put everything into,” explains Scott.
The result of this Christian Grey-like combination of passion and restraint is a back catalogue of work that defies categorisation as ‘advertising’. As well as the two record-breaking stunts, Mistress has also flirted with longer format work and the entertainment world. They created, for example, a five-part Fox series for Red Bull and an hour-long show on ABC for Hot Wheels. It’s not surprising to learn that Scott and Damien both worked on Mother’s Edinburgh Fringe show Pot Noodle: The Musical – the first ever brand musical show.
This crossover with the business of show is one of the key reasons Mistress is an LA Lady. Nestled in the so-called ‘Silicon Beach’, the agency is just moments from Jerry Bruckheimer’s new studio, as well as the likes of B-Reel and Google. But in Venice Beach – and LA more generally – the team spotted a gap in the market for an indie advertising outfit.
“One of the first conversations we had was ‘where is the perfect place?’,” recalls Damien. “Christian was out here already so LA was high on the list. None of us wanted to go back to New York because we’d all experienced working there already. Places like Sydney were relatively small compared with LA. LA has really moved on a lot in the three years since we’ve been there. Three years ago 72andSunny were just hitting their stride, but, aside from them, there weren’t any real independent companies. There was Deutsch and Chiat – all decent companies, but different to what we wanted to become. California is the eighth biggest economy on the planet, bigger than Spain, so it was an interesting place for us to come. And the fact that Scott and I had spent four years in London, the lure of the beach was a big factor.”
Now well established in their Mistress home a couple of blocks from the seaside, the team are looking to the future. They’ve just opened Neato, a sister company run by former Red Bull National Marketing Manager Michael Poznansky, which will exclusively target the ‘collegiate’ population, and there are numerous projects in the pipeline too. They’ve recently finished shooting a year’s worth of content for Hot Wheels and they have a social media campaign for Hampton Hotels on its way. Beyond that, the team are enthusiastic but tight-lipped about the prospect of developing their own IP and aren’t averse to the idea of opening a ‘bit on the side’ elsewhere in the globe. Australia, Europe and Brazil are floated as potential outlets for some future Mistress lovin’.
But that’s all in the future. For now the focus is on strengthening the Mistress brand, teasing out a culture and laying the foundations for an entity that transcends advertising. “Mistress as a brand has to be bigger than an advertising agency. We’re setting it up so we can go off and do a world record-breaking event, or do a book or do a TV series,” says Damien. “We refer to Mistress as ‘she’. We feel we have to look after her. If we treat her well, she’ll treat us well. It’s like having a relationship with a real mistress.”