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Independent Influence: Mistress co-founders on why after living in three continents they ended up in LA

Scott Harris and Damien Eley

Welcome to Independent Influence, a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we're featuring an interview with Damien Eley and Scott Harris, co-founders of LA shop Mistress and longtime creative partners.

For Damien Eley and Scott Harris, the phrase "change is the only constant" aptly describes their career arcs: after cutting their teeth at Australia’s AWARD School 20 years ago, the two went on to hold creative roles at agencies in Sydney, New York City and London before setting up shop in Los Angeles to co-found their agency Mistress.

While it’s clear that these two aren’t content to maintain the status quo in their professional lives, the one thing they’re happy to keep the same is their relationship with one another: Eley and Harris have counted each other as creative partners since they first began working together in Australia 20 years ago, and plan to keep it that way for the next 20.

The pair started out at BMF in Sydney before moving to Ogilvy & Mather New York to work with brands including Sprite and Miller Lite, the latter of which they created a spot for starring boxer Evander Holyfield. They then took up creative director posts at Mother London, where they helped create a full-length musical for Unilever-owned Pot Noodle that debuted during the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

When the duo joined forces with Christian Jacobsen, Blake Marquis and Jens Stoelken to launch Mistress in LA seven years ago, they were set on creating an agency that would prioritize project-based, boundary-pushing work instead of chasing agency-of-record status.

Since launching, the independent agency has seen a number of successes: in 2011, it helped Mattel-owned Hot Wheels create a life-size version of one the brand’s products that went on to break a world record at the Indy 500. More recently, the shop created a Spanish-language campaign for Univision’s El Chapo. Mistress has also worked with brands including Imax, Discover Los Angeles and PayPal.

The Drum caught up with Eley and Harris to find out more about why they decided to launch their own agency, what they look for when bringing in new talent and what it’s like to work with the same person for 20 years. Read what they had to say below.

What is the best thing about having a creative partner? Worst?

Damien Eley: We’ve worked on this relationship for 20 years now. Not only are we best of friends, we’re sort of interconnected in pretty much every part of our lives. We kind of know how each other works. We’re both different people as creatives, but we really understand each other. I think we both value each other’s feedback.

A lot of times when you’re running a business, you have to sort of fall back on that one decision you made, whereas having two different points of view - particularly on creative - there’s not too many times where it doesn’t make it better by having another brain to fall back on a bit.

I suppose the flip side is when you do work together with someone for 20 years, having that second brain attached to everything sometimes makes it harder to make a big call.

Scott Harris: The best thing about having a creative partner of 20 years is that I know Damien will always have my back. He is always incredibly honest and I always respect his opinion - so it helps us get to the right place quicker. The only downside - you don't have to be as nice or diplomatic to someone you know so well.

How has your relationship changed over the years?

SH: Twenty years in we're still great friends, but we don't eat as much pizza at our desks at midnight any more. We used to torture ourselves - we were relentless. We're relentless in a different way now - we think faster and smarter, we handle separate clients so we provide fresh perspective on the other's business which is really beneficial. Out of work, we still watch rugby together, we still hangout socially, we still drink rum and Cokes.

DE: We haven’t separated that partnership mentality at all. We still sit next to each other. Pretty much both of us knows what the other one’s working on. The roles of the job have broadened, but we still pretty much try and make every big decision together.

Why did you want to start your own agency?

SH: We found ourselves doing more and more unique work in our previous jobs. 10 years ago we were experimenting with augmented reality when it first came on the scene and at the same time created a full length musical for Unilever. We realized we wanted to be in a position where we could pursue all these different avenues of storytelling as fast as culture served them up. It was a fresher way of approaching clients' challenges than many agencies out there who always seemed fall back on to the disciplines they were most comfortable in - we wanted to be comfortable in everything. Starting Mistress did that for us.

DE: We had been working together for about 12 years or so. We were working in London at a fantastic creative agency called Mother. We had noticed that we’d started to do the type of work that was really pushing up against the rest of the industry. We’d gotten to that point where we’d started to understand that we had our own voice, our own style. And that was something I don’t think you have until you’ve been doing something for a long time. You start to have the confidence that you’re doing things a little bit differently than a lot of other people. And thankfully we were working in a very collaborative, supportive, creative environment around the agency, but for the first time we started to think, ‘wow, a lot of what we’re doing is very different to what a lot of people are thinking. There might be an opportunity for us to just go out and do our own thing.’

Why did you choose to set up shop in LA?

DE: It’s hard to sort of think about it right now, but at that moment in time, LA was still considered a backwater almost, very much a second or third tier market behind New York and San Francisco. So I think there was genuinely a feeling that there weren’t that many great creative agencies in LA at the time and that we would have the room to be able to grow [the agency] into something that was our own.

SH: We worked in Sydney, New York and London and we wanted to keep moving forward. The world of content was just starting to crack open eight years ago and we knew that there was no better market to create the sort of ideas we wanted to than Los Angeles. The whole city is built around entertainment and attracts the sort of creative talent that was often untapped for advertising.

Do you plan to keep Mistress independent?

DE: Over the course of seven or eight years of building something from scratch, having that independent mindset is almost part of the way you think. It enables you to be entrepreneurial. Every couple years, the five partners of Mistress have sat down and pretty much questioned or challenged our whole business model, and we’ve been able to react and move in the same direction that we think the agency should go, which is really hard to do if you’re attached to a bigger entity.

SH: We plan on staying independent so we can guarantee our clients and potential clients the same sort of passionate creative problem-solving that has been successful for us and our clients' business. Having to sacrifice any of our process or the types of clients we work with would not be something we could ever consider.

What do you look for when hiring talent?

DE: It’s a pretty intense list of things that we look for. It’s a very tough time to be a creative right now, because you’ve got the pressure to understand and know all of the very latest things about how social and digital advertising works, but also to have this passion for big ideas. It’s a lot to ask.

One of the things that is sort of required these days as a young creative is a fundamental knowledge of how social works - not just how all the different platforms work, but all the latest products that are coming out of the main social media platforms.

SH: A life and interests outside of advertising. We've hired rappers, TV writers, inventors, artists - an understanding of how advertising works of course is imperative, but seeing self-motivated people who are mastering different disciplines always gets us excited.

Since opening Mistress, what work or campaign are you most proud of?

DE: The first big work that Mistress was able to do was for Mattel for the Hot Wheels brand. We came in on the side of the client’s relationship with an existing agency, so we came in as a project agency. But the thinking that we brought to the table was huge. We ended up doing these very nontraditional pieces of marketing. The scope of what we were doing was just so much bigger and more different than what anyone else had been doing and it really proved that this agency called Mistress was able to sort of do very different things.

What has Mistress’s biggest success been so far?

SH: Adapting to the changing face of the world we live in. We just did a great social and digital campaign for Univision's El Chapo series - all in Spanish. They came to us for our thinking - and we've developed such an international flavor to our agency that when we needed to create the entire campaign for a Spanish-speaking audience, it was second nature. When we created a 360 Facebook experience in-house - it was second nature. We're extremely proud to reflect on how quickly we evolve.

Independent Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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