Mark Waites is the creative supremo and co-founder of Mother which has been one of the hottest creative agencies in the world for 25 years.
I’d like to know that in twenty five years time Lürzer’s Archive will still want to write about us.
Director Hermann Vaske met Mark to shoot with him for his new film “Why Are We (Not) Creative?” He was assisted by Mark’s daughter Edith as “second unit”. In this conversation, Mark talks about his new plans to make movies with his company Mother Pictures.
Mark Waites: Am I talking to you or am I talking to the lens?
Hermann Vaske: No, to me.
Okay. So imagine this: If I had bottomless pockets, like billions and billions of dollars, and I said to any director in the world “I can fund all your projects. Doesn’t matter how much they cost, I can fund them. But when each project is finished, I’m going take it and lock it in a vault. No one can ever see it.” I don’t think any film director would take me up on that. Because, it’s not enough to make. They want to, have to, put their stuff out there. For a lot of people creativity is a means of attention seeking. And approval seeking. I’m not saying that’s why I’m creative but I’m suggesting that that’s a part of it.
You know, I once went to George Lois, the famous madman, and he gave me a book. And this book was called “Be careful George, be careful George”. Of course, his parents said that to him. And then he took a pen and inscribed: “Be reckless Hermann.” That was good advice. Because a lot of people, you know, are too careful, you know? I think then it comes down to fear. And fear leads to self-censorship. “What would the neighbours say, what would the press say, what will your parents say?”, you know? And then, then they don’t follow their creative thoughts.
Yeah, and I’d like to think that at that point that they’ve killed themselves. We’re not going to be talking about them in years to come. You know when you and I stand there and talk about creativity, we’re not going to talk about those people because their work has been forgotten. So therefore, they’ve been forgotten. Because they were fearful.
They chickened out.
They chickened out.
Yeah, they chickened out.
And creativity needs courage.
Yeah, probably. I mean sometimes, sometimes a great deal of courage, you know? It depends what’s at stake.
What else screws up creativity? You mentioned fear?
That’s a big one, fear. Because there are different types of fear. It’s about people who don’t want to lose their jobs so they don’t want to rock their boat. Certainly in advertising. People who don’t want to upset big clients because they can’t risk losing their jobs. They have, you know family. What else?
Freedom of speech?
I think I’m right when I say that around the world there are more journalists in jail now than there have ever been? It’s like a bad time to be a journalist. You’ve got to be brave to be a journalist.
Censorship, yes … Documentary filmmakers who tell the truth or bring us the truth …
I was just in HK you know, filming in the front row with Joshua Wong, the young leader of the protest and it was not amusing what I saw
Don’t mess with the Chinese government.
The Hong Kongers are even prepared to die …
Wow. Humbling. We are lucky, what would we do without freedom of speech today?
In what way is the pandemic hindering creativity?
Last year I spoke to a well-known British writer when we were two weeks into our first lockdown and asked him “How’s you lockdown going?” He replied “I’m a writer, I haven’t been out of the house for 25 years”. I guess for some their creativity carried on as normal. I’m looking forward to what creativity the lockdown unleashes. In the 70s over here, we had a three-day working week and mass unemployment and out of that came snarling punk rock. We can respond creatively to anything.
Who are today’s gatekeepers then?
Who are today’s gatekeepers? I mean, leaders of the country of course.
But also who decides what films we watch? I met some guy from Brazil
who kept talking about “soft power”. He was really talking about
propaganda. They want the right messages to go out. He worked for
an oil company.
And also, who has the power to inform? Totalitarian states, Silicon Valley? Total control, that screws up creativity. What about bureaucracy and institutions?
We grew up taking freedom of speech for granted but we’ve slowly come to realize that there are incredibly dark forces at work in the world. Look at the way the Russians use questionable truth as a weapon and understand that you can detach people from the truth until they don’t know which way is up. And that’s the strategy, go around and destabilize the world.
That’s basically why people are creative; I am who I am and I am not afraid to be different and, we should add, don’t ask for approval. Just look at the actions of Pussy Riot in Russia. They didn’t ask for approval before they entered the stadium at the World Cup …
The banning of Pussy Riot was a wake up call. It was the first time many people realized the level of censorship over there … Humor is very important. There was a guy years ago, I believe he was Egyptian, who, before he was murdered, was known as “the most feared cartoonist in the Middle East”. And this was way before the Parisian newspaper, what was its name, Charlie Hebdo? The whole idea of being a feared cartoonist I think is fantastic because a great political cartoon can really nail a truth. And that can really be a … a joke that hurts. The reaction to the Parisienne cartoon proves that. They were also picking on some pretty tasty targets. Not to do that brings us back to fear again. Then there’s a much lower level fear. I’ve seen it around Mother, particularly with students on an internship. Everyone comes together to share their ideas and they’ll be embarrassed to show what has been going on in their heads. I’m used to sharing every bad idea that comes into my head but some people can be a little bit fearful, a little bit embarrassed, and that can hinder creativity. If you think about the extent to which artists talk about the state of their minds, some really do reveal a great deal. If you’re not prepared to reveal that much, that can really hinder you as an artist.
That brings me to another subject. Can education kill creativity?
Yeah I think so. The wrong education.
Can you elaborate on that?
I was once on a panel and someone asked me “Is a mentor a good idea? And I said a mentor is a great idea, but not a shitty mentor. You don’t want a mentor who is going to steer you in the wrong direction. Or allow you to get away with thinking that isn’t good enough. I think a good mentor will teach you standards. Experience is the finest education. I always tried in my career to work for the best companies I possibly could. You would continue in your education. You shouldn’t work for a company that can’t teach you anything.
It starts in your family. Like Edith, here.
Edith (Mark’s daughter): Hello.
I think we have a young cameraman.
Oh you’re right, good point – camerawoman … Or camera person?
Edith: Camera person! Or Camera guy!
Ok, camera person – second unit.
But it starts in the family, education, you know. To engage and to …
That’s where it starts. And it continues with education. But beware of getting the wrong teachers.
Always. It’s a cliché, you know. A young mind is an empty vessel and be careful what you put in there.
It’s a true cliché …
I’m talking in clichés, I apologize.
So at home, you know, when Edith shows you a picture and you hang it up on the wall, you know, and give some feedback.
Absolutely! Do you want to come upstairs and see Edith’s action paintings?
Edith: Action paintings? Oh yeah!
Yeah, let’s go upstairs!
You are providing vital information Edith, for the viewer …
Yeah, yeah. You have to go a little slower for Edith to catch up with us …
The dog (Norman) ran across one of the paintings. Camera pans.
Edith, Jackson Pollock … So do you like to paint and do art?
Edith: I like to do sports more … We didn’t get a white frame, so we painted it white …
We found some canvases on the street. So we painted them white and well it was fun – it has to be fun.
Was it fun Edith?
That’s what I mean, kids to be encouraged at school, at home wherever ...
Edith: I am also doing a parrot at school.
Have you ever painted Norman?
We painted him, well … we got paint on him.
That’s very creative … alright. So in creative education you need to uncork something.
To uncork it, yeah, that’s a good idea. Or just, inject some fresh energy into it. Sometimes thinking on the same problem can get very boring. Day after day going around and around with the same thoughts a person can, kind of, get boxed into their own thinking and not see a way out. And at that time, it’s important for someone to come along and show them a new path. Somewhere else where their thinking can go.
What is your advice to young creatives?
What I think everyone should know, is what they’re getting into. Like, I don’t think you can just get up and be a stand-up comedian without understanding the history of stand-up. And I think it’s the same with advertising or filmmaking. Learn the history. Even if it’s a self-imposed school you need to know your stuff. Then you’ll know what’s been tried before, and how people broke it before. I know that sounds like dull advice because it means homework, but I think it’s really important. It is important to know what you’re talking about. Rather than just expecting it to be good at it because you believe yourself to be so original. Really few people are. You need to know what’s happened before, so you know where to go next.
What are your creative infl uences?
I grew up during something of a golden era for British advertising. Collett Dickenson Pearce was an amazing agency doing great work for Heineken, Fiat, Benson & Hedges. For a young man wondering what career to choose it was a time when advertising was advertising itself. Great writing continues to be a huge infl uence particularly writing for fi lm or television. My dream job would have been to be in the writers’ room for Seinfeld.
Looking back at all the great campaigns you did, which have stood the test of time?
I always see Mother as a crazy project that got completely out of hand. We
started a long time ago with a daft name and an idea to put the creatives in
charge and then did stuff because it felt right or made us laugh. Somehow
all these years later, here you are still wanting to know more about us. It
makes me very proud. And it means that Mother has stood the test of time.
There’s been a lot of great work over the years from all over the world but
I get most excited when I hear about an idea and I can’t wait to see how it
turns out. We’re always thinking about the next thing.
Tell us about your current company?
I’ve set up Mother Pictures, which is a fi lm and TV development and production company.
Why did you venture out of classic advertising?
Like a lot of writers in advertising, I’ve always looked to fi lm and television for inspiration and wanted to give it a shot myself. In the past I’ve written and directed a couple of short fi lms, had a storytelling project on Vimeo and executive produced a feature. I found it very satisfying to create something other than an advertising campaign.
What fi lms are you working on at the moment?
We’ve optioned a book called “The Glamour Boys” which tells the true story of a group of mainly gay British Members of Parliament who were opposed to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler. They’d been travelling to Weimar Republic Berlin (think “Cabaret”) throughout the 20s and 30s and were friends with, and may have had relationships with, the Brown Shirts, whose leader Ernst Röhm was himself gay. This meant they had front row seats to the rise of the German Nazi Party and were the fi rst to raise the alarm. Just speaking out in opposition meant putting themselves at risk, as homosexuality was illegal here at that time. Chamberlain called them The Glamour Boys in an attempt to mock them. It’s a fascinating story.
Have you been neglecting cinema in favor of TV?
We haven’t neglected cinema at all. Television is an ever-growing market right now and represents huge opportunities both creatively and fi nancially but I still love fi lm. Films are often more experimental than TV, as some ideas lend themselves more to the shorter format or wouldn’t work over many episodes. Plus, I like having a start to fi nish experience in under two hours rather than staring at eight seasons of a television series – which can be daunting.
What fi lm projects are you looking for?
I want to make projects that I’d choose to watch myself. I don’t want to repeat something that has already been made. There are lots of police procedural shows that I don’t watch and wouldn’t want to make but if we found a project which was doing something new with that form then we’d be interested.
What does a project need to get you interested?
It’s very broad but there has to be something there that piques our interest. This might be a revisiting of history, like „The Glamour Boys,“ or a place where two genres come together like never before, or a piece that contributes to a debate in some way – perhaps by offering up a point of view that we haven’t heard before. All with great characters. It’s always about great characters.
What is your ultimate goal with the new company?
To be solvent without selling out. Just like Mother I suppose.
And I really want us to be known as a place where quality comes from. And I’d like to know that in twenty fi ve years time Lürzer’s Archive will still want to write about us. I might be dead by then but Edith will be here.