While it’s fitting that the year’s best television promo featuring nude people engaged in playfully sexy mid-air frolicking would spring from the minds of a group called Mistress, the Santa Monica-based agency’s moniker actually has far more conceptual clout behind it than any easy, cheeky inferences drawn from such an association might suggest.
Indeed, long before that dazzling spot for VH1’s Dating Naked helped it win 2016 North America Agency of the Year at the recent PromaxBDA Promotion, Marketing and Design Awards, Mistress was part of a movement of creative companies storming Los Angeles from yonder bergs, itching to break into the city’s fertile entertainment marketing scene. But unlike most of its rivals looking to ride the westward wave, Mistress arrived at its early digs in Venice with a powerful understanding of its own identity.
“Six-and-a-half years ago, we were all working at big agencies around the world and were all quite senior people and were all battling with our clients’ desires,” said Damian Eley, creative partner at Mistress and one of five company founders whose collective experience includes stints at Ogilvy & Mather, Shepard Fairey’s Studio Number One, and the international powerhouse known as Mother. “There was a bit of a zeitgeist going on where clients wanted the option of working with other companies and other agencies,” Eley continued. “So mistress was very much a concept: It was like we were going to come out and tell the world that we were a project-oriented business able to come in on the side of an existing relationship. That gave us a lot of focus and it enabled us to think of Mistress not just as an agency with a whacky name, but as a brand.”
From the moment it opened for business in 2009, Mistress was tactfully tempting brands to stray from their primary creative partnerships, and the effort paid immediate dividends. One of the first companies to respond to the allure was Mattel, who deviated from its primary agency, Y&R, to bring Mistress aboard and breathe fresh life into its Hot Wheels line of toy cars. In the process, it hoped to get a demographic excited about the product who never had been before: 16-25-year-old males.
“At the time it was on the side with their existing relationship with a huge multinational agency,” said Eley. “We were really one of the only places saying project-to-call, which was a huge point of difference in the marketplace… Six-and-a-half years later, it’s abnormal if you don’t have a number of different agencies as a client.”
Staying true to their new roots in the world’s entertainment capitol, Mistress responded to Mattel’s challenge by transforming Hot Wheels into a full-on entertainment brand. Catering to a bigger-sized consumer, they executed bigger-sized Hot Wheels, reimagining the brand’s signature miniature race tracks as giant, real-world stunt opportunities. The first of these tent-pole events involved a life-sized ramp mirroring a Hot Wheels product called the V-Drop, which is exactly what that name implies: a sheer vertical drop down which the car drops before flying out into space as though being shot out of a cannon.
Debuting in 2011, at the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, the real-world V-Drop was 10 stories high, composed of 90 feet of orange track. The video of the event on the official Hot Wheels YouTube account depicts a massive crowd looking on as a yellow-clad driver pilots a full-sized Hot Wheels car down the track and 332 feet through the air, breaking a Guinness World Record along the way. It has nearly 30 million views, and remains a hair-raising spectacle to watch even in this oversaturated age of hair-raising online spectacles.
The stunt above, along with high-profile work for ESPN and Red Bull, compelled Ad Age to name Mistress its Small Agency of the Year in the agency’s first year of existence. Barely a year later, Mistress would engineer another record-breaking stunt, where not one but two life-sized Hot Wheels cars sped through a six-story double vertical loop at the 2012 X Games. But if these high-impact, high-traffic stunts were the muscle that successfully raised Hot Wheels’ profile in the minds and hearts of its new target audience, it was the bones of the operation that truly marked Mistress as an agency to watch. It turned out there was a deep and multilayered narrative engine propelling the stunts. In tandem with the record-breaking jump, Mistress unveiled a four-part web series involving a mysterious, anonymous group of drivers called Team Hot Wheels and a top-secret test facility where they engineered their thrilling exploits.
Throughout the series, the identity of the mysterious “Yellow Driver” remained in question, finally pushing viewers to the Hot Wheels Facebook page to discover who he was—which generated hundreds of thousands of new social media followers. The fictitious world would only expand at the X Games event, where the Yellow Driver was joined by a Green Driver, along with more original branded content involving Team Hot Wheels. By the time the dust had settled it was clear that Mistress wasn’t just building brands; it was building mythologies.
In the years since its splashy debut, Mistress’ gift for world-building has only become more nuanced—even with hardly-nuanced properties, such as Netflix’s Narcos. For this wild ride through the Escobar era of Columbian drug cartels, it could have been “very easy to get distracted by cocaine and violence, the core themes of the show,” said Eley. “But what we also realized is that the youngest side of the [show’s] audience wasn’t even alive in the ‘80s, didn’t even understand the cultural-historical significance of Pablo Escobar’s story. We wanted to break out that story as a series of factual tidbits that [would let us] impart a sense of documentary almost through the social work. Once we had that honest place to start, then you have license to really push the creative as far as you can.”
Where that creative got pushed included irresistible Instagram infographics (above) accompanied by the hashtag #Cokenomics, interactive show-themed caricatures playing off Facebook’s release of its “reaction” emojis, and devastatingly clever real-time response posts to key current events in and around the show’s launch.
“We definitely understand brand and in the past year or two, as we’ve moved into working with a lot of entertainment companies, networks and shows or series, it’s been a lot about finding the truth of what the network is doing and leveraging the content of their shows into a bigger storytelling element of who they are and where they’re headed,” said Blake Marquis, Mistress’ design and interactive partner.
“Otherwise,” added Eley, “you get sucked into just doing random executions.”
Even for “Love Is In The Air,” the unstoppable Dating Naked promo, all the frisk and froth and breathy energy only works because it is grounded by a strategic core built from the bricks of classical storytelling tropes. “If you look at [the show]‘s young demographic, they’re hiding behind their social platforms. There’s a distinct couple of layers you put between who you are and what the public sees of you,” Eley said. “If you strip away your online psyche to be naked, it is the most romantic thing you can imagine… So our strategy going in wasn’t about nakedness, it was about romance, and once we were in that strategic space, it enabled us to push into some really different areas.”
Included in those areas was an opportunity for Mistress to once again display its unparalleled experiential marketing chops, with an instantly sharable Dating Naked stunt unfurled just in time for National Nude Day.
Less than seven years after its founding, Mistress has grown from less than 10 people to closer to 50 people on staff, with a clientele that also includes the likes of World Surf League, IMAX and the Oakland Raiders. These days, it’s not so much the sneaky, seductive side attraction for its clients anymore as it is a major creative partner for some of the world’s biggest brands. The agency’s role as a mistress is not so much literal as it is an aura “that permeates through the whole culture nowadays,” said Eley, one “that has enabled us to be confident and straightforward when it comes to demanding a level of respect.” Just as a little action on the side can inject life with a little excitement, with Mistress “you have a sense you’re going to get something a little different, a little more exciting than what you get in your day-to-day,” added Marquis.
But of course, Eley said, “it helps to be called Mistress when it comes to parties. We like to think we own Valentine’s Day.” He’s quick to add, however, that “we’re always careful not to fall back on that kind of Mistress pun. It’s very much a philosophy, and an attitude.”