Wesley Ter Haar
It’s up to a few people to push the bar upwards.
Wesley Ter Haar is the founder and COO of MediaMonks, whose website – mediamonks.com – describes it as “the biggest creative digital production company on the planet.” It specializes in working for and with advertising agencies to craft great digital work for major brands and campaigns. Work by MediaMonks has won acclaim in the form of BIMA, Cannes Lions, Eurobest, The Lovies, Webbys, and many other awards, and the agency is a member of both SoDA and the FWA Hall of Fame. In the interview that follows, Michael Weinzettl chats to the company’s founder about its values and ambitions.
Hi Wesley, first of all many thanks for selecting the work featured in the Digital section of Lürzer’s Archive. Can you tell us a bit about the criteria you applied when selecting the digital work we’re featuring in this current issue of the magazine?
The most base one is pure, unadulterated jealousy: a lot of the work was on my “wish we’d done that” list and that tends to be a decent indicator. Beyond that, I love seeing work that’s well crafted. I’m a production person by heart and think the love that gets put into the execution of an idea can add untold amounts of value to the result.
How did you first get into the field of digital? When did it all start?
Ah, let me take you back to the heady late 90s: the web was introduced into colleges and I ended up ditching most of my classes to mess around with this weird and wonderful new world. I ended up dropping out, mainlining tutorials and technologies, and started building “stuff” for friends, with friends. Fast forward a few years and we’re starting MediaMonks after spending some time as part of the start-up bubble. MediaMonks was really a reaction to the hot air and buzzwords of the time.
Tell us more about MediaMonks, which you founded in 2001.
MediaMonks is the biggest creative digital production shop. We have 6 offices, 300+ people, and work with the world’s best agencies and brands to deliver digital design and development globally. It’s been almost 15 years since our first line of code, and we hope to still be relevant 15 years from now.
I’ve read a statement by you to the effect that your aim is to “wage war on a mediocre digital industry.” In what way is the digital industry mediocre? Has it always been that way? Has it become more mediocre in recent years?
There is a tendency in any industry to work toward the middle, and it is up to a few people, shops, companies, whatever, to push the bar upwards. Our goal is to be part of that group. It’s a philosophy we share with a collection of amazing competing companies, which is the reason I was able to pick such an amazing collection of wonderful work to share.
What would you say are some of your guiding principles in the way you approach work for a client? What are some of the things you always wish to achieve with your work, regardless of the specific challenges to be taken on?
You need to find what makes it great for you. Production is an amazingly positive position – beyond all the deadlines and hustle, you’re always working upwards. You get brought in when an idea has been sold through, and spend the time you have to polish and push it towards the best version it can possibly be.
What were some of the biggest projects you’ve been involved in/the biggest challenges you have had to overcome during your time in the industry?
The challenge in our industry is always the same: deadlines. We say yes to things that have never been done before, and then need to deliver on D-Day – otherwise people lose a lot of media money. That is the driver – always – and it’s up to us to combine that very functional expectation with great creative work. Some of my personal favourite work revolves around combining a variety of digital disciplines – development, film, animation, games, and so on – and then seeing that come together. Projects like KLM SPACE, Adidas Nitrocharge, or Old Spice Muscle Surprise had a lot of Monks across teams working on it, but the end result is very singular and seamless.
What would you say is MediaMonks’ goal?
We have a very simple goal: quality at scale. It’s something that is against the natural tendencies of any creative industry. Quality tends to be seen as something you get from small teams, this whole artisan movement, but we want to deliver it globally because that’s how we can have a real and defining impact on our industry.
You’re also a board member of digital association SoDA. Can you tell us a bit about this association, its aims, and your role in it?
SoDA, in its most simple form, is a network of entrepreneurs from across the digital agency industry that share their knowledge, pain and passion with a group of likeminded individuals. I credit it as one of the single most important support and knowledge systems for myself, and as a board member I focus on making sure it delivers that same value to current and potential members.
Which achievements by MediaMonks are you particularly proud of?
I’m most proud of the fact that, 15 years in, we’ve never been better. Our industry follows fads, trends and technologies constantly, so to not just be relevant but at the cutting edge of what we do, after what is literally a lifetime in digital, is humbling. With that in mind, I have to look at some of our latest and greatest work: Share the Force in the US, BBQ Cultures in Europe, and Google Time Walk in Singapore show not just the quality, but how we’re managing to deliver it across continents.
You have been on many awards juries such as the FWA, Awwwards, or the Interactive and Mobile jury of Eurobest. How important are awards to the digital industry? And how would you rate them in terms of their importance?
Awards are a great leveller. A lot of the artifice is stripped away and you focus on the work. For us, the focus is on making sure our teams get the opportunity to do career-defining work while our clients should be getting the best work that’s out there. Awards are a yardstick to see if we’re delivering on those two promises.
What, in your experience, has been advertising’s attitude to digital? Do you think that the ad industry has now successfully adapted to the importance of digital and social media? Has it possibly even gone overboard in its enthusiasm for digital/interactive?
It definitely has now, but it’s been a long and winding road to get there. Digital now tends to be front, centre, and central to most campaigns – and that is being reflected in the ad industry’s attitude towards it. I personally think we sometimes fetishize the technology too much now. In the end, great digital work depends on great and culturally relevant ideas, not the latest bit of buzz.
Many agencies have started to build up their own digital department – some even go so far as to expect ad creatives to be able to write code. Others still look for help outside when faced with digital projects. What is your take on this?
I think everyone should learn at least the basic tenets of code – it’s the lingua franca of our industry – and being able to grasp and understand it is a huge plus when it comes to the work we do. I think there is great value to agencies building their own digital teams, but what we do tends to be difficult to reproduce inside an agency. You need a very specific mix of talent and tenacity to deliver high-end digital production, and it needs an organization to be focused on nothing else to really deliver consistently.
What do you think the future for “traditional” media (TV and print) will be?
So many of my digital colleagues have been predicting their fall from grace, where in all honesty I think they’ll be here for the long run. The question for all of us should be less about the form of advertising and more about how consumers will interact with it. From streaming platforms like Netflix to ad blockers on the new iOS, advertising is becoming more permission-based, which means whatever we do – be it TV or digital – needs to add actual value to someone’s day to be relevant.
MediaMonks has offices in Amsterdam, London, New York, and Singapore. Would you say the general attitude toward digital differs from place to place? Are there different ways of working?
We focus on global reach combined with local relevance. There are huge differences in the work we do in the US and Asia, and that extends across the creative but also the consumption of the work. The great anchor in all of this is that our industry wants to do great work, always, so it’s the framework and expectations of what that is which change depending on culture and the consumer.
How do you feed your creativity? What inspires you?
I tend to just read a lot. Creativity for me is not a very linear process, where I look at something and am then inspired to do something similar. It’s about synthesising a lot of different ideas and ideals into something new. For me personally that tends to be where the excitement happens, being able to start connecting the brief to a million different reference points, and then talking it through with colleagues to really shape a point of view.