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Mark Waites. Photo: Katrīna Ģelze

The Truthful Liar 0

Agnese Čivle,

Not too long ago, the British art director, Mark Waites, agreed to deliver a guest lecture in Riga to the Latvian Art Directors' Club (LADC). As it turns out, Waites once dabbled in the fine arts under the tutelage of painter Laimonis Mieriņš, a WWII-era Latvian immigrant to Britain. Now, with years of hindsight, Waites admits that the strict drawing teacher inadvertently did teach him a valuable lesson, and that it has served him well in his work in advertising. It is not for nothing that Waites has had success in such high-profile ad companies as BMP (now DDB London), Leagas Delaney and Ogilvy & Mather, was a co-founder of the ad agency Mother, and has received numerous advertising industry awards and recognitions, such as from Campaign Magazine, Marketing Magazine, and Creativity Magazine, the British Television’s Advertising Award, and so forth. Parallel to his heading of a successful ad agency (which, thanks to its strategically clever name, Mother, no one can say anything bad about it), Waites is actively working on screenplays for short films, and can be proud of his listing on the internet movie database, IMDb, for his well-received short film, “72 Faced Liar”.

During's conversation with Waites, he couldn't resist telling us what he had just recently seen from the window of Hotel Bergs: a shadow, supposedly cast by a statue set up on an adjacent building's roof, suddenly began to lift a shovel! It turns out that the shadow really did come to life – somebody was clearing snow off of the roof. This time, Mark wasn't lying... but to find out what he did, indeed, lie about, read on.

What was it that motivated you and your colleagues to create your own agency in 1996? Where there things that you wanted to do differently? 

Usually, people decide to go their own way when they have become tired of working for the profit of someone else. That is, if they are convinced that they can do it better than others can. It could, possibly, be a part of human nature – having faith that you can be better than the rest. 

To leave one's job and start your own thing – overall, I recommend it to everyone who has met with resistance in his/her current situation, and who is sure of his/her ability to work successfully.

Back then, we wanted to excel at our work. We didn't want to make things complex and turn advertising into rocket science. We wanted to work simply, and get joy from doing that.

Do you remember the very first account that you had at your newly-formed agency, Mother?

Yes, we started with a whole campaign, and that's the best way to start-off a new agency. It was the advertising campaign for the brand-new, fifth and final analog television channel for the BBC – Channel 5. We had signed a contract for the first six months of the campaign, so we were sure of having a source of income for the first half of the year. What would happen afterward – we didn't know. Now, Mother can plan out its jobs and finances even 18 months in advance, but back then – we only had six months in which to get the next accounts.

Which account do you credit with having the biggest impact on the growth of Mother? And which one has meant the most to you, personally?

In the history of Mother, a very important job was the one with ITV Digital, which Campaign Magazine named “The Campaign of the Year” for 2001. Yes, old Al and the sock monkey [commercials featuring “Al and the Monkey”] became very famous!

Also, our 2007 campaign for Boots pharmacies, “Here Come the Girls”, was extremely successful.

But the project closest to you is always the next project. It's so exciting – to meet new challenges, to see what you have to come up with next.

Are there any ads done by others that you wish that you had come up with?

Oh, tons! Tons! For instance, there's this American writer and creative director, Eric Silver. He created an advertising style in which the message was conveyed through a motif of violence, but in a humorous sense (the press campaign, “Life doesn't stop for pictures”, for the Miyama 645DF camera). 

How important is humor as an instrument in advertising?

An ad must be able to evoke a reaction, but it must be a light and pleasant reaction. Anger or sadness aren't exactly of that type, and admittedly, it is much harder to provoke these emotions than to get a chuckle. But there's a thing about humor – it must be really funny and come from the real world; it can't be an “ad-joke”. So, before you come out with a joke, make sure it's funny!

What do you think are the most important changes that have come about in the advertising industry since you started working in it? 

Definitely, something that I call the “digital tsunami”! The whole platform of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine... It's a revolution!

How do you see the industry in the future?

No idea. We're always waiting for the new thing. Constant change, the emergence of new things – that's the new stability of today. There isn't a feeling of things being anchored down, and I don't think that there ever will be. 

Mother works in London, New York and Buenos Aires. How does the agency's work differ in each of these cities?

Since the agency keeps to Mother's unified school of principles, there really aren't any real differences. At the root of everything is our objective to change our clients' business for the better, the desire to do a great job, and the belief that we can do it. 

The work in New York and London is very similar, since there isn't a big difference in the markets. Well... Madre, Buenos Aires is, perhaps, working at the capacity that Mother, London was at ten years ago. 

How would you comment on the advertising industry scene in London? As we know, London has more ad agencies than any other city in the world.

London still is an excellent job field that attracts creative people who are ready to do things better than others. It creates good and healthy competition. I like to work in an atmosphere like that. 

I may be a bit disappointed about there being less really good work now than there was before – like three or four years ago. Clients want to get more, but pay less. But, as there is in any industry, advertising also has its highs and its lows. There are years when there's an overabundance of good jobs, and years when there aren't that many. Right now may not be a “golden age” for London. 

What is the Mother's client like?

Bold, ready to do things with an approach never tried before. Ready for what it is that Mother does. We often have to decline offers of collaboration.

What do you require to start doing a successful, creative job? A certain time of day, the people around you...?

… alcohol, drugs (laughs). Inspiration, of course, but I don't know where it comes from. I'm just thankful when it comes around again.

The advertising strategy that you begin with is very important. A good strategy guarantees creativity. The first step that the strategists give their team is very important. The strategy directs you toward the result; it's easy to work, and a lot of ideas arise. The worst is when you've been working on something for three weeks, but everyone is at a loss and still trying to figure out what to do... it's a headache and no one knows in which direction to head.

What do the industry awards that you've received mean to you?

They're just like horoscopes. If you read your daily horoscope and it's good, you think: “Oh, great! I'm going to have a wonderful day, and I believe it!” If the horoscope isn't all that good: “Ah, it's all rubbish!” It's the same with awards: if I win – great; if not – that doesn't mean anything anyway! You can't take them too seriously. I try not to let them get to me, and I don't let it get to my people, either. 

However. They keep up the vitality in the industry, and make one reach for new and fresh ideas – and make you avoid the ones that have already been used.

You've been the honorary chairman of the jury for the ANDY Awards. What's the atmosphere like behind the scenes there?

It's a room that contains all of the most important people in advertising. Unbelievable minds! It becomes really interesting once the deliberations start. You start to think: why is that person defending that campaign or that one, what does he see in it?... Then you try to understand his unique view of the work in question.

But, since I'm always looking for similarities among people, then I can safely say that the advertising community is made up of very similar personalities. Whether they're ad people from São Paulo, New York, or Latvia – similar personalities, just like the law of gravity, are attracted to and choose the same career field. Just like another type of personality will choose to, for example, work at passport control in an airport.

In large part, the people coming together at ANDY are ad people who already know each other, who have met each other at Cannes, or have been on the jury of some international-level show, so the feeling is one of a weekend being spent among friends. 

In your opinion, what is the relationship between advertising and art? And what is your personal relationship to art?

The artistic duo of Gilbert & George, whom I know, maintain that they never watch television or films, and that they never go to the shows of other artists – so that they don't pollute themselves, and can think only about their own ideas. 

The daily life of a person in advertising differs in that if you're going to work in this field, you have to absorb as much as possible – every tiny little thing, every smallest change and trend. I used to study drawing at Leeds College of Art. That's also where I met the only Latvian that I had ever known up to that point – the drawing instructor, Laimonis Mieriņš. I learned drawing from this instructor once a week, for three years. During the war, he immigrated with his family to Germany, then to England, where they worked on a farm. Much later, he was invited to work at the Jacob Kramer College of Art, in Leeds.

I clearly remember him, with his foreign accent and stern voice, constantly telling us to “Draw the structure!” 

He could read the inner world of his students just by glancing at their drawings. An unbelievable man! If I didn't draw the structure well enough, didn't make it solid enough – he'd slap me on the back of the head and say: “You lazy bastard!” When coming here, to Latvia, I was terrified that all Latvians were just like that – that they'd punch me and call me a lazy bastard (laughs heartily).

At the time, I couldn't have known that he was preparing me for a life in advertising. He taught us to reduce all of the information in a drawing into just a few lines. He'd say that after a few strokes of the pencil, you must be able to read everything about the woman portrayed in the drawing, what her skin is like... (shows me, on his computer, one of his drawings of a nude). “Draw the structure!” At the time, I couldn't have known that this lesson would serve me in advertising, in which you have to reduce all of the complicated marketing structure, plans and infrastructure into a 40-second commercial that must contain all of the truths about the product.

And that's the way it is – if I don't work hard enough on an ad, and I don't convey all of its truths – then the audience will look at my work and say “Oh, you lazy bastard...” 

Let's talk about you and film. Would you like to give yourself over completely to film-making? 

That would be great! But I can also touch it through advertising. Digital technologies have opened a world in which small film projects – short films and other video works – can be made online; you don't need a cinema or a television set. Many of our clients are looking right in this direction. We made a couple of short films last year, and now we're continually looking in the direction of documentaries and short films.

Outside of work, I've made a short film called “72 Faced Liar” (2003). And I have a couple of more screenplays ready, too. [See the trailer for the short film here].

Did you get the inspiration for “72 Faced Liar” from your personal life? 

Perhaps. But I didn't try to write my life into it. The screenplay is about a guy who lied a lot.

What are your film favorites? Which films are worth seeing?

Have you seen Quentin Tarantino's latest film, “Jango Unchained”? It's brilliant! Stanley Kubrick's film, “Barry Lyndon”... ahhh, brilliant directors. Brilliant films. I've also watched Vincent Gallo's film, “Buffalo '66”, numerous times. Since I have small children, I've also seen a slew of Disney movies. Amazing works. 

Besides film, what other hobbies do you have?

Spending time with my children – making snowmen, sledding and snowball fights. And my motorcycle. And still – films! Right now I have a project that I'm doing in my free time... Oh, I should have grabbed my camera! I'm filming material in which I ask people to tell me a story about themselves that isn't true. I've already filmed 23 lying young people in Los Angeles.

What would be your story of lies?

I have two stories. One is about my time spent in the Israeli army (in which I've never served, of course). And the other has to do with the laws of traveling in time – you can only go into the future, never into the past. I tell people that I'll give them a million pounds if they figure out how to travel back to the past, and then kill me at the Stockholm Science Seminar. 

Tell me a lie about the time you've spent in Riga.

I'm the brother of the mayor of Riga. You can't tell anyone that I'm here. I know too much about his links to the mafia and so on... He could decide to get rid of me. I'm not Mark Waites; I'm Sergei Such and Such. Everything about the Mark Waites who has arrived in Riga, has been fabricated.

Which is the best interview that you've ever done? 

This one! Absolutely! Because we were ready to speak about something else, not just advertising. Now tell me your fake story...