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Uncompromising on Craft: Why Mother’s Thom Whitaker and Danielle Outhwaite-Noël Collaborate with Wizards / Satanists



The creative directors behind years of IKEA UK’s best-crafted advertising speak to LBB’s Alex Reeves about the craft of writing, oversharing and also directing music videos under the name Humans

Uncompromising on Craft: Why Mother’s Thom Whitaker and Danielle Outhwaite-Noël Collaborate with Wizards / Satanists
Audio post production company 750mph has partnered with Little Black Book on a new interview series called ‘Uncompromising on Craft’. The series is dedicated to learning from the sharpest minds in adland who transfix eyeballs, set the industry benchmark and make the work that we all wish we'd made. 

Next, we’re speaking to Thom Whitaker and Danielle Outhwaite-Noël, creative directors at Mother, where they run the IKEA UK account. Under their watch, the London agency and iconic home furnishing brand have teamed up with some of the world’s best craftspeople to fashion work of many different shapes and sizes, from cheery animated social content to designing a remote-controlled boat that clears rubbish from polluted waterways to writing a bespoke track with a grime legend for a Christmas ad.

They also direct commercials and music videos through Riff Raff under the name Humans.

LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Thom and Danielle to hear more about their philosophy on craft, from their feelings on copywriting to their incredulity at the supernatural talents of people in the VFX industry.

LBB> When we talk about craft in this industry, it's often focused on the production side of things - but of course there's plenty of craft talent in an agency. What, for you, are the most important crafts of a creative?

Thom & Danielle> Writing is such an important craft to us. We’re always asking ourselves, how can we say a lot in as few words as possible? That’s why you’ll often find us scribbling out things in sound sessions and re-drafting things right up until the last minute. There’s always fat to be lost from a script and gags to be sharpened. 

We’ll no doubt look back at this interview and wish we’d reworded it 15 more times too.

LBB> And how about the more subtle craft of diplomacy and management that's bound up in the role of being creative directors - things like protecting work from death by comments. What have you learnt is key to keeping that balance?

Thom & Danielle> For us, the relationship between client and creatives is really important. We’ve never been fans of the whole ‘them versus us’ approach. It takes a whole team of people to make great work, and if there’s mutual respect then it makes those difficult conversations easier to have, and those are the ones that ultimately make for better work. We try to be as open and collaborative as possible through the whole process so that everyone is along for the ride. We’re big fans of oversharing. It’s when people get left out of the loop that comments can feel counterproductive to what you’re trying to achieve.

LBB> What were some early ways / projects in which you honed your craft as creatives?

Thom & Danielle> We both studied at Watford under the watchful (and very discerning) eye of Tony Cullingham. That’s where we learnt our first big lesson before entering the industry; and that was that 99% of ideas go in the bin. We quickly learnt that if you want to make great work you’ve got to put the graft in. Now, obviously along the way we’ve learnt how to self-edit and know when something’s worth fighting for, but it was really important for us to learn the art of letting ideas go first. 

LBB> You're both creative directors at Mother and directors represented by Riff Raff - how has becoming directors changed the way you view good craft?

Thom & Danielle> We’ve always had a lot of respect for the directors we’ve worked with, and have tried to learn as much as we can without getting in the way. Since we’ve started directing ourselves we’ve realised just how much prep goes into the job before you even get to the shoot, so we try to give directors as much space as possible on set and keep comments to a minimum. You’re far less likely to catch us peering over a director's shoulder on a shoot nowadays!

LBB> You've been behind some of the most beautifully crafted pieces of work in recent years through Mother's partnership with IKEA. Let's talk about the core decisions behind making sure those were so pitch-perfect. Silence the Critics was kind of groundbreaking in a few ways. Now it's been a while, what do you think were the most important decisions in making sure that was so special?

Thom & Danielle> Silence the Critics was pretty unique because there were so many different elements coming together at the same time. It wasn’t just a case of shooting something and then trying out different tracks in the edit. The music had to be locked before the shoot, and then once we had the edit locked we had to get the animation right, which is a whole world of options to navigate. Luckily our excellent client loved the idea and backed it right from the start, so then it was just a case of finding the best talent and keeping everything on track. Working with Star One, D Double E, Wake the Town, MJZ, 750mph, Whitehouse and ETC... we couldn't have asked for a better lineup. We love to collaborate with nice people who enjoy crafting stuff as much as we do, so in that regard it was the dream project. 

LBB> Fortune Favours the Frugal was also a stunningly crafted piece of work. What was most tricky about getting that one right?

Thom & Danielle> Silence the Critics was our first foray into CGI, but at least there we had real-life objects to 3D scan and refer back to. Creating a meteor made out of trash in space? There aren’t many of those to reference for lighting or scale. Which is a massive shame.* Fortunately we were in the safe and colourfully manicured hands of Tom Kuntz and ETC once more. Tom is one of the best visual storytellers around so has a really strong vision when it comes to framing, composition and pace. And ETC went above and beyond to bring that vision to life in a not huge amount of time. We’re not sure how they do it. Actual magic? Some sort of pact with Satan? Either way, seeing them create interstellar garbage out of literally nothing was a sight to behold. We’re now wondering what we can throw at them next...

LBB> I also love how a lot of Mother's output protects the craft of even the 'smaller' stuff like social content. What are your thoughts on that?

Thom & Danielle> We’re firm believers that you don’t always need a budget that’d make Bezos blush to make beautiful, well-crafted work. Smaller projects are a great opportunity to take more risks and work in a different way, and that’s something that really excites us. 

LBB> Are there any other pieces of recent work that have taught you new things about great creativity and/or craft? 

Thom & Danielle> We’re lucky that IKEA aren’t wedded to a particular shape of work. We do lots of TV and print, but we’ve also put on a theatre show, designed bird houses, made music videos and created art installations out of pillows and duvets. We even ‘vandalised’ the logo on the front of their biggest store. We see every brief as an opportunity to do something different, learn stuff and keep crafting. We’re very lucky.  

*This is most definitely a joke. Please don’t cancel us.

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750mph, Thu, 12 Aug 2021 13:47:20 GMT