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Yann Mathias: “Advertising Was Art, It Can Become Art Again”
Advertising Agency
London, UK
LBB speaks with MTArt’s chief creative officer about artist and brands relationships, and why brands need to embrace creativity today

As chief creative officer at MTArt Agency, Yann Mathias (right) doesn’t shy away from big questions, like “Can advertising be art?” and “What potential do NFTs represent?” He tackles all of them head on, informed by a career spanning 25 years across fashion, design, art, innovation and their intersection with commerce. A fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Central Saint Martins (where he was a co-founder of The Design Laboratory) and, his approach to his role keeps art, creativity, and their potential at the heart of what he, and the agency, do on a daily basis. 

For Yann, business development and creative activism aren’t incompatible concepts. In fact, both help to inform the other, when done well. In this way Yann is the conduit between the artists MTArt represents and the brands they collaborate with, working to ensure that the match between the two is forensic, so that the work created serves artistic and commercial goals - without compromise. As such, no two office days are the same. Part of his responsibilities are based around research and inspiration, which Yann then shares to surprise, motivate, and educate, with subjects spanning the latest market research to technological and biological advancements; anything that can spark creativity. 

So, what can artists bring to brand collaborations? A democratisation of art is one answer. Another is an unconventional approach and a non-industry eye that’s not constrained by old ideas and practices. A novel approach to visual and narrative storytelling that cuts through the predictability of advertisements and captures the hungry consumers’ imagination. That’s not speculation - Ipsos, MTArt’s partners, found that “the riskiest, most unconventional creative is often the most effective; ‘non-conforming’ ads, in other words, creative that goes outside established category ‘rules’ perform 21% more on brand attention than ‘conforming creative’.” Clearly, more brands need to embrace the potential that art and artists can offer. 

Today, LBB’s Zhenya Tsenzharyk speaks to Yann about why artists are the new influencers, the church’s patronage of artists, and why brands shouldn’t be afraid of embracing art in their campaigns. 

LBB> How does your background in fashion inform what you do today? 

Yann> When I decided to go into fashion, it was because I was convinced that fashion was the original communication major. The way people dress tells you a lot about them. It was a perfect creative discipline that was mixing all my interests, like design, while also being very business oriented. It’s fast and it's creative. It has different demands from business marketing, manufacturing, event design, and a clear understanding of an audience. These are the tools I carried throughout my career. I stayed in the fashion business for five years and then, after that, I slowly moved towards becoming a creative director. I was asked to set up the design laboratory at Central Saint Martins, which was a multi-disciplinary studio, to tackle commercial briefs in a 360-degree approach.

LBB> You recently became the director of innovation and impact at MTArt, can you explain your role a little bit more? 

Yann> I was always interested in innovation and impact. Innovation is how you change things for the better, which is MTArt’s sector alongside our institutions and galleries. The MTArt model is about changing that and democratising art while making it more impactful for communities. It’s about supporting artists and brands by doing research on the latest technology and products available that would be sustainable and can ultimately create the best work for communities.

LBB> What does a typical workday look like for you?

Yann> There is no typical workday, which I love. Usually, it’s talking to and inspiring artists and clients, and then after, developing a creative direction. I always try to make sure that there is a perfect fit between the brands and the artists when we collaborate. My role is to amplify the campaign or project. I ask how we can improve a collaboration beyond an artwork or installation which drives creativity. I also brainstorm internally with the team. I go into the office everyday not knowing what I am going to expect. 

LBB> Do you feel that you sometimes provide the strategic bridge between the artist and the client?

Yann> Completely. I amplify the strategic brief but also the engagements that the audience will have between artists and brands. 

Above: Claire Luxton's 'Elegance of Worldliness' installation at Intercontinental Park Lane

LBB> What’s your opinion on the creativity of brands today - do you think anyone is pushing boundaries? And what is the consumer appetite for boundary-pushing work?

Yann> There is not enough boundary pushing, but it is changing. I spent 24 years of my career in design innovation. I noticed that design became a commodity. It’s very difficult to tell stories, or to engage with an audience with design. However, there are more and more brands interested in doing meaningful collaboration with artists because it's unscripted and real. If you create a perfect fit, you will create a very authentic collaboration that really tells the story of the brands and their values through the artists’ mind, eyes, and skills. There is a big shift, because more and more companies want to work with us and artists. Is it enough? I don't think it is. I would like more but we are getting there. 

One of our partners, Ipsos, shared research with us that showed that the creativity we supply is 21% more successful than traditional advertising campaigns. I think we are onto something extremely special and extremely exciting.

Consumers have an appetite for boundary pushing work. They are looking for more empathy, more creativity, and more depth. I believe that artists are creating very engaging campaigns where the audience can see themselves. It leaves consumers space to be part of it, instead of the traditional advertising campaigns where consumers are just told or sold a message. We've done a lot of projects where audience collaboration is required. The brands who have worked with us were very surprised by the impact. We have a pretty big audience already and brands want to have access to those audiences for themselves, and vice versa. It's a win-win, because it creates a very strong, deep engagement.

LBB> In the relationship between clients and artists, should there be symbiosis or hierarchy? Why? 

Yann> Symbiosis. It's all about background work and finding the perfect fit where we know that the values of the artists are a perfect match with the values of the brand. Then, what the brand wants to tell turns into a very natural collaboration, where the artists are excited about telling their own story because of shared values. The brands, despite having demographic goals and objectives to achieve, trust the artist to deliver something that will be in perfect symbiosis.

LBB> You believe clients should directly communicate with creatives. What’s the benefit of this and how can clients do this effectively?

Yann> We don’t tell our clients to do something, we educate them on the values of working with artists. After that, equal discussions are had about understanding who we are going to talk to and what materials are needed. From experience, it’s very powerful to take your clients on a journey with you, instead of just delivering concepts. They feel a sense of ownership and pride of achieving and working on those projects. I make sure that we are not just having a meeting once a month where we build concepts, but meetings where they are engaged, participating, curious, and asking questions. It’s a journey that we take together.

LBB> How do you strike the balance between being collaborative with a client while protecting their ideas and mission? What about protecting artistic integrity for the artists you represent?

Yann> Again, it’s about creating the perfect fit. I will never push an artist that doesn't share the values of a brand — it could be a recipe for disaster. The first step when approaching a project is to analyse a brand’s values, its message, and objectives. After that we suggest an artist who shares those values. There’s a natural selection that happens. 

Historically, the biggest patron of the arts was the church, which was actually the first big corporation. I think brands (if it's done properly) are the future patrons of the arts. It's our role to make sure that it is done this way. The audience can see through any lie. If it's not authentic, if it's pushed, or if it's just because we want to have access to an audience, it will be a failure, because your guests will know. All the artists we represent give us a breakdown of their values and interests. Some work around sustainability or climate change, and some of them work around diversity, women’s empowerment, or innovation. Some artists work in the AI, NFT, or metaverse space, learning how to amplify and democratise art in a space that hasn’t really been explored before. We match artists with brands, like preparing the best ingredients to achieve the best dish. 

LBB> How do you decide which artists to represent at MTArt - what do you look for?

Yann> We try to make sure that none of the new artists who are joining are going to compete with someone already on the roster. To start, we look at their career, but also their desire for change. An artist’s career needs to evolve. If an artist comes to us and says, “Well, I'm very happy with what I've got,” there is no point in joining the agency. We've got collectors, public art, and the creative agency, so we are really looking at artists who want to challenge themselves and push boundaries. We invest in artists. We are an artist agency, not an art agency. We represent talent. That's what we are about. We really cannot build their profile or their career, but we bring them opportunities. 

We get around 200 applications per month and we sign one artist every two months. We look at skills, philosophy, work, values, and their desire for evolution. After that, we pass the profiles to the committee, who help us make the final decision. The committee is formed of art and brand experts, institutions, and collectors. It helps us to also break the mould and make the right decision. 

Above: David Aiu Servan-Schreiber's work with Glenfiddich

LBB> As we look to the future of technological advancements, do you believe AI, AR, and other innovative tech will impact the creative design industry? 

Yann> Of course. It’s just a new tool and canvas. For example, you can democratise an art installation with technology. You can invite visitors and audiences from all around the world to experience the art exhibition in a digital way. NFTs are here to stay. It’s great that digital artists finally have a system that will make their work more valuable. The metaverse is an interesting one because we can create physical digital or digital physical. It gives us many more opportunities. When it comes to VR and AR, the technology is still developing and evolving. I'm still frustrated about having to use my phone because you must be able to see it without any interference but it's getting there. Various companies are developing much more intuitive technologies that are not yet breaking day-to-day interaction with the world so it's very exciting. 

But it's not just about NFTs, AR, and the metaverse. We do a lot of research on the latest technology that will allow artists to create amazing experiences. For example, giant 3D printers using natural earth where you can print up to 20 metres. It's completely ephemeral so you can create a statue that lasts for three weeks and then it disappears. There are other various technologies using bioluminescence and bacteria, which I'm also completely in love with. We do a lot of research, and we pass our innovation reports to the artists to get them inspired, because it's very interesting how motivating those technologies can be for the audience as well. It’s surprising, new, and educational.

LBB> You touched a little bit on NFTs, the metaverse, and its potential. Do you see any drawbacks to its use?

Yann> Yes. It became a trend. A lot of people are making NFTs which means that not all of them are quality. Everybody is doing it, but it does not mean that everyone is doing it well. For us, not all our artists should do NFTs, and we really cannot guide the ones that should do it, to do it properly. The metaverse is the same. Not one day passes where a client doesn’t call us asking to do something with the metaverse. I ask them what they want to achieve by entering that space and they don’t know. They just want to be part of the results without having a clear understanding of what it is and what they can achieve with it. It’s very much about educating them. We've got some experts working with us now that are always here to help when we have the need. It's fascinating because we educate clients and brands on the power of these technologies and explain to them that perhaps it’s not what they need.

Clients need to understand it's not just stepping into a world, and everything being fantastic. But are these new technologies here to stay? I believe they are and it’s going to keep growing. Mixing the physical and the digital is very powerful because you still have something with creative integrity and depth that you can share with people from around the world. 

It also gives brands access to different, younger audiences who are a bit more tech savvy. If you think about the luxury sector, they are excited to have access to those people because the audience is ever changing. To be able to create relevant experiences in the metaverse makes sense.


LBB> What advice would you give brands who are reluctant to embrace the more artistic side of things?

Yann> I will tell them that they should not be afraid. MTArt is getting very good at looking at ROI on campaigns. We are looking at the way the audience engages with the artist’s work compared to traditional advertising campaigns. Artists are influencers but they are influencing in a very intelligent way through culture and craft. Because we share the same values as the brands we work  with, it creates deep connections between brands and audiences. 

LBB> From your time at MTArt, what are some of your favourite collaborations between artists and brands - why?

Yann> It’s difficult to choose. It varies because all the collaborations I've done since I joined have been different, meaningful, and impactful, but all very, very unique.

We did a project with InterContinental Hotels & Resorts and artist Clair Luxton about celebrating the 75th anniversary of the InterContinental Group. This project started in London and is now growing into a global campaign. It's now inspiring room design, and the way the resort is going to do cocktails and cakes. What started out as this giant artwork became the start of an inspirational journey that is feeding all the elements of the hotel itself, which is very interesting. 

We did a great project with Glenfiddich about sustainability. That was mind blowing as well. David Aiu Servan-Schreiber was such a superstar because he was very curious, and he wanted to know everything about the brand. He really used this knowledge to create the unique campaign and windows at Selfridges, as well as the packaging.

The collaboration we did with Octopus Energy and Robert Montgomery was mind blowing because he was encouraging the audience to switch energy sources through a beautiful installation. It was poetry. 

Again, it's very difficult to choose because there is not one campaign that we are not proud of. Each project we start with the concept of ownership. We need to honour each one of those projects personally — not just us, but the artists as well. We work hard to deliver something that doesn’t sell out because we are passionate about everything we do. 

LBB> Finally, do you believe that advertising can be art?

Yann> Yes. And to switch it up, art can become advertising. If you look at it, art is the original communication method — from the caveman that started recording their adventures on the wall, the artists working to visualise something that is bigger than themselves, to propaganda, which is advertising as well. It’s very powerful. It tickles the curiosity in people's minds where you can see an image and interpret it the way you want. That’s the beauty of art. Art is a very strong storytelling tool and is very, very impactful in terms of communication. Advertising was art, but it lost it a bit and could become art again. It’s up to the brands to be confident that they can communicate their message and stories well and do so with proper collaboration.