POV: Interview with Christian Jacobsen, Partner at Mistress
Christian Jacobsen is a founding partner and strategist for the Los Angeles creative agency Mistress. This isn’t the headmaster-type of mistress or a company that cares about typical agency “affairs.” Mistress, as a brand, embodies a provocative and sassy agency that creates relationships, while sometimes brief, that make brand and consumer advocates.
Before launching Mistress in 2010, Jacobsen spent time in account and strategic roles at Lowe/SMS on Mercedes-Benz, Ogilvy NY on American Express and Miller and Kastner & Partners on Red Bull. Currently a resident of Malibu, Jacobsen’s mountain abode is also “the home of coyotes, bats and snakes.”
You worked at several agencies prior to becoming a partner with Mistress. Why did you decide to found the firm and how have you tried to differentiate it from others?
The most significant point I can make here is that we didn’t start our shop by saying, “Hey, let’s start an agency.” Mistress was founded on inspiration and with a real idea.
The impetus was actually a combination of things. First was the economic crash of spring 2009. Counter to most, we believed it provided the perfect opportunity to start a new venture if you were willing to put the ol’ cock on the block. If we could get ourselves up and running in a recession, we knew we could be successful long-term.
On top of that, the rapidly changing industry was further inspiration. The digital era seemingly broke the rules on client and agency relationships. Smaller digital shops were getting in with great brands on a project basis and acquiring some of the most interesting and progressive assignments. As a brand strategist by nature, I believed a brand-oriented creative shop could do the same thing. But, unlike the digital shops who typically followed the brand positioning and strategies set by others, we could be the ones to craft and lead them.
Our idea was to create Mistress as a brand. As a Mistress, one would expect her to be a bit hotter, a bit more risqué, and generally more spontaneous than the wife. We had no plan to just go out and replicate what we had already been doing at other places. There is a lot in that name, more so than people typically consider.
At Mistress we believe our job is not to do the communications equivalent of sock folding or floor mopping. Clients don’t come to us for that. We’re out to invigorate our clients, our clients’ brands and the relationship those brands have with the consumer. Out the gate, Mistress was unapologetically project-oriented. Over time that concept has evolved to include AOR clients. Mistress, however, still remains very much a mistress in that she’s highly selective with assignments and brands.
Mistress seems to be a creative-dominate firm, but you are an “account guy” by résumé. How do you fit in? What types of people make up your talent pool?
Account guy. Fuck, I really detest what that term has come to mean. I used to want to write a book called “Account Guy,” but then I thought it would be really boring and no one would read it but account guys. And since it would be a book about how most account guys made the title of account guy a pejorative term, they probably would hate it, give it terrible ratings on Amazon and the whole thing would end up a waste of time. So rather than write a bad book about account guys, I co-founded a shop that doesn’t have any.
At Mistress we are absolutely 100 percent creatively focused, which is quite different though from creative-dominated as you suggest. Creative-dominant sounds like only creatives are creative and we all know that is certainly not true.
So, back to your question. Everyone in our place, including myself, is creative in their own right — it sounds cliché, but it’s true. Whether displayed in the office or via passions outside it, creativity is there and appreciated by all. We ensure that when we hire. But what gives me confidence in the future of Mistress is that we are all also really focused on the brand and business impact of our creative ideas. We ensure they stem from brand truth, and we know what we’re out to achieve — creatives included. We know creative thinking is actually a competitive asset for our clients. That’s what we’re hired to deliver.
The metaphor for your agency’s name is explained as, “two parties collaborating on a journey, ending up somewhere different and having fun along the way.” What elements do you believe lead to the most successful agency-client relationships?
I came from account service, but I never bought into the notion that it was a service job or that we are in a service industry. In my mind, we’re not here to meet people for lunch or to take dictations. On the other hand, we’re also not magicians. In my experience, agencies can’t just disappear after a meeting and return with all of the answers.
It’s a two-way street. What we do is listen, partner up, consult, and create IP (intellectual property) that our clients use to generate greater revenue. And that’s what a good client seeks. They’re the experts at what they do, but often they are too close to their brands. Too close. They might have worked at the same place or in the same category for 15 years. Clients want a fresh point-of-view. They want actionable advice. And they want to hear how others have attacked similar problems. If we can achieve that while also making their day-to-day a bit more exciting, that’s all the better.
Our clients come to us because they want our opinion and our solutions, but we must first establish trust and collaboration. Understanding a client’s business, having true insight and proving you can deliver set that up. On the flip side, clients must be willing to listen and be open to your opinions, and sometimes, they have to just let you run with what you know is right.
After being in business for less than one year, Mistress won AdAge’s Small Agency of the Year award. Was that a goal? What did that recognition mean for your organization?
To be honest, our first year (2010) was about just putting our chins down and going for it through what we felt was great work — as smart and big and scary as possible. We had no goals other than not going out of business. The Small Agency Award for our 2010 work validated that it was a good thing we didn’t go out of business because there‘s actually a space for us in this industry. To have AdAge bestow this honor on us was incredibly fulfilling. It was our first award, and it was highly motivating. This year we’ve followed the small agency win with recognition across the global award shows; D&AD, One Show (across traditional, interactive as well as entertainment), the Clios and Cannes. And we’re still aiming to not go out of business.
You say, “We’re not shy when it comes to getting our clients noticed.” Do you feel like other agencies are more timid? Feel free to share some bold examples of your past efforts.
This is a statement about us rather than a comment on the industry. A great thing about being in LA is that we don’t feel like we’re part of the “industry,” and so we generally just focus on ourselves. The point we’re making is that this Mistress doesn’t hide in the shadows and clients should know that coming in. She does things intended to turn heads.
You asked me to note some examples.
Well, we’ve certainly received some interesting headlines. Adweek in particular with a “Hot Wheels Giant Ramp Looks Scary as Hell” for the life-scale Hot Wheels toy we built within the infield of the Brickyard at the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 in 2011. That jump not only set a world record, but also received over 30+ million views on Youtube. And “Papaya King Says Hello to LA with Semen Joke” was again from Adweek for some billboards we placed around Los Angeles when we launched Papaya King on the west coast. The gag was regarding stained casting couches.
Our character for Vita Coco got them into the New York Times as he irreverently commented on things such as mixed flavors being “My kind of threesome,” or contextual media placements like “just what NYC needs, another nut on the street.”
We threw comedian/TV host Bert Kreischer, and his entire production crew and studio set, off the deck of a 30-foot tall barge into the Delaware River to complete the TV series we produced for Red Bull called “On the Wings of Glory.” The show promoted the Red Bull event Flugtag, during which people build homemade flying machines, only to launch and crash them into bodies of water in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
Our show concept was to follow the story-arc of the event itself and have the host, Bert, build and crash his studio set. He was scared shitless, but he did it because Bert’s a pro and is always up for anything. And that’s how the final episode ended — Bert and his TV show crew, cameramen and all, launching off the barge destroying the set in front of the crowd.
More recently, our campaign for Jägermeister has attracted all kinds of attention from ad trades to surfing verticals to business trades like Forbes. Looking back on it, I’m amazed that our producer was able to get all those guys to Prague at the same time to shoot it. It was a pretty amazing experiment in Alpha Men to be a part of and it’s been successful at transforming the conversation around the product.
You’re based in Venice Beach, California, but have partners from Germany and Australia. What strategies do you employ to ensure that, when strategically appropriate, each client’s brand is appealing at an international level?
Our approach with every important project is to include all five partners in the initial briefing. So that international perspective just comes out in the strategic process. As an American, I love the viewpoints from the other guys, and we’ve actually been building the agency around it. Mistress is a nascent shop, but already a global mix. We have people from all four corners of the planet working within our walls. It’s totally inspiring and it definitely affects our work and POV.
Mistress has most recently made industry news for the Jagermeister campaign. How do you
approach a well-known liquor brand like this with creativity – and responsibility?
Simple. Drink enough Jägermeister and you will find yourself becoming very creative. Just don’t drive afterward.
Quite honestly, it gets back to the core principles that predicate how we run our business. Great strategy that will impact the business and the trust from your clients enables outstanding work. It helps to believe in the product and the brand and to want it to succeed. Jägermeister is one of the most misunderstood products I’ve come across, and everyone at our shop wants to contribute to its success just as much as the client does. We collaborated with Sidney Frank and Mast-Jägermeister intensely for nine months prior to launching that campaign. The resulting baby was born from a collective vision.
You have a coveted, demanding client list that includes ESPN, Coca-Cola, Red Bull and House of Blues. Prioritizing must be key. How do you ensure that each project gets the creative strategic thinking it deserves? How does your team maintain a “fresh” perspective to solving a challenge?
Seems daunting, but it isn’t.
First, we have five partners, enabling us to always commit two to every piece of business. Clients get the attention of agency principals, which enables us to get things done quickly.
Second, we’re selective. We don’t take on everything, and we maintain a mix of AOR and project-based responsibilities. This enables us to focus.
Third, ours is a culture of empowerment and collaboration. Our strategists get to work across multiple brands so that we can maximize our impact and cross-pollinate. In fact, with many of our bigger briefs, we’ll get the whole group together to kick things around.
As an organization “unmarried” to any medium, how do you collaborate with other designers, innovators and marketers to ensure that you stay on top of new strategies and tactics available in the marketplace? How have you invented your own?
We’re believers in the power of big ideas. Big ideas can move the needle. Big ideas inspire clients and consumers. And big ideas attract the very best talent. You can do more with less, as the best people out there are actually those who also are visionaries and believers. So we develop concepts that are attractive to like-minded thinkers, and then we collectively work toward manifesting that vision. Those people might be directors, as one would expect, but they have also been technologists, event experts, athletes, physicists, actors — even bicycle builders. Believers in big ideas are actually everywhere, you just need to know how to attract them.
How do you hope the marketing industry evolves in the next five years?
No one really knows where the marketing industry might go, so in some ways we’re all along for the ride. But here are a couple of my thoughts:
- Digital will continue to move away from the flashy, meaningless bullshit of yesteryear and continue to be about consumer enablement. Things are also getting a bit too complicated due to all the options. It’s therefore always going to come back to great ideas and how to organize around them with smart connections planning.
- Consumers (and things) will become more important media vehicles than a lot of traditional media.
- Content will remain king in an increasingly sharable world.
What I’d like to see:
- Procurement somehow disappears.
- The model for agency compensation gets reinvented.
- Clients stop running pitches and just meet with a bunch of agencies to select the best partner and then work with them.
- Places like ours continue to break boundaries and make inroads into the world of entertainment with brands.
One reason that you love what you do: I get to peek behind the curtain of some of the best brands in the world. It’s a chance to work at the companies you admire, while still retaining your objectivity. I have enough distance to learn from each, to consult, and to really add value due to my experiences, while also not getting mired down in internal politics or procedures. No two days are alike. I’m always learning.
Mentor: We all walk in the footsteps of a lot of great people. I’m one who’s always reflecting upon things, and I’ve tried to learn from everyone and everything — the good and the bad. I think I actually have learned more from the bad than the good.
Must read book: I don’t remember the last time I had to read a book so one doesn’t immediately come to mind. Some I’ve come to realize as being influential to me would be “The Fountainhead,” “The Alchemist,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and the story of Myamoto Musashi. If you’re familiar with those then that might tell you something. Or not.
Music that gets you in your zone: That depends on what zone you are talking about.
Anything else you’d like add?
Thanks for the opportunity.
A lot of people ask us what’s been behind our success. It’s a mix of luck, timing and willingness to give it a go. It’s always been our opinion that it’s better to try and fail gloriously than do nothing at all.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr user alangrlane.