Having landed in Santa Monica, California, by way of Sydney, New York, London, San Juan, Paris and other far-flung locations, the creative personnel of full-service agency The Many bring myriad cultural touchpoints to their art and craft. What doesn’t get lost in translation is a seamless collaboration style.
Christian Jacobsen, cofounder and strategy and business partner, had the idea for the agency, formerly called Mistress, in the mid-2000s. His thought was to fill a need he recognized as increasingly pressing: advertising was evolving quickly, with new media and formats, and many traditional agencies simply didn’t have the bandwidth to deliver in this foreign landscape. He envisioned an agency which wouldn’t require long-term agreements or agency of record contracts—one that would offer its services on a project basis. Hence the name Mistress—not a client’s main agency, but a side resource. It would be a creative and production agency that delivers beyond the usual broadcast TV, radio, print and out-of-home.
Jacobsen, who was at the New York office of Kastner & Partners at the time, was working with Jens Stoelken, who was managing director. The two were servicing Red Bull together. Jacobsen shared his idea with Stoelken, who bought into it. Jacobsen had previously worked with creative team Damien Eley and Scott Harris at Ogilvy in New York. The pair was now working in London, at Mother. He reached out to Eley and Harris and ran the idea by them. Jacobsen also reached out to a freelance designer he and Stoelken worked with at Kastner & Partners, Blake Marquis. The five partners formed Mistress in 2009, during the great economic down-turn—at first glance, not a great idea. But it was the perfect landscape in which to offer a different model—one which would be less layered, less expensive and offer streamlined timelines.
Jacobsen’s vision paid off, with initial projects coming from ESPN, Mattel and Vita Coco. Mistress’s roster expanded to include American Apparel, Disney, Netflix and Red Bull, to name a few. Besides creative, account services, strategy and the usual compendium of services, Mistress built a full-service design studio in-house, run by Marquis, which creates everything from packaging to logo design to animation and films. An in-house content development production studio was added as well.
With the rallying cry “We exist to address the fundamental, unmet needs of advertising,” the agency is fulfilling its promise to act as a kind of SWAT team for special initiatives, like experiential and live events. Its approach to creating and executing social media campaigns has yielded measurably excellent results for its clients, and Eley says the day has come where social should just be considered media, straight up. “It’s absolutely a key piece to any advertiser’s plan—it’s not fringe anymore,” he says.
Because the founders and staffers come with heavyweight, traditional-format résumés and reels of TV, print, radio and the usual, they often find themselves in new business pitches for mainstream campaigns too. And, increasingly, they’re winning accounts where they are the agency of record, rendering their original name a bit obsolete. Eley says, “The name Mistress was no longer really the definition of our brand. It had been that way for four or five years.” Earlier this year, the agency embraced its new normal and changed its name to The Many. Whether referring to the number of nationalities at the agency, its diverse client roster or the disparate projects it navigates, The Many captures the agency’s spirit and culture.
With staff numbering ten in the earliest days, it has now reached around 80, and there are plans to grow. In the agency’s ten years, it’s been named Ad Age Small Agency of the Year three times, in 2011, 2014 and 2018. Eley, Harris and Marquis set the tone for the creative and design teams. “We’ve worked in enough environments to know how [staffers] want to be treated,” says Harris. In 2017, Amir Haque became a business strategy partner, adding valuable services to The Many’s offerings: media expertise and data analytics. Now, the agency itself measures results and holds itself accountable, tweaking where necessary and scaling where there’s success.
Basically, it was a merger of two agencies: Haque’s Supermoon and Mistress—both successful, both numbering under 40 staffers, and both named an Ad Age Small Agency of the Year. “Even though we were located in Los Angeles and were around the same size, we had never pitched against each other,” Haque says. “That showed how complementary our agencies were.” While Supermoon focused on results-oriented goals, employing more traditional creative—mostly TV—Mistress’s approach leaned toward the untraditional and even the eccentric, according to Haque. The blending of the two proved a winning combination. “As results and data have become more and more measurable, the industry has overcorrected,” Haque posits. “They miss a tremendous opportunity to have even bigger results with less expected work that may not be immediately measurable—they’re missing the journey they could be taking. They don’t know how to set a longer, more meaningful path.”
John Boudouvas, vice president, marketing of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, the city’s official marketing organization that’s also known as Discover Los Angeles, found a useful side benefit to hiring The Many. “The first time I met the team, they were Brazilian; Australian by way of New York and San Francisco; from London and other places—everyone’s got all the markets we focus on in their backgrounds,” he says. “A built-in focus group. That really helped us craft our messaging.”
Discover Los Angeles already has an in-house creative department, so The Many’s project-based model works well for it, with The Many conceiving and executing special initiatives. In 2017, after the Trump administration proposed the first travel ban, client and agency took a stand, positioning Los Angeles as a haven for travelers and immigrants. Discover Los Angeles created the Everyone is Welcome initiative, and The Many added on to it, devising a plan where travelers flying into Los Angeles International Airport would see hundreds of volunteers holding up signs on the ground that, all spelled out, would say Welcome in either Arabic, Spanish, Chinese or English, coordinated to the origin of flights coming in. It was a massive undertaking that took months to plan. Iman Forde, The Many’s director of project management, says, “There were many, many moving parts. For example, what if our cameramen were on the wrong side of the plane for landing? But it all worked out.”
Qdoba Mexican Eats, whose brand promise is superior taste, freshly made, is known for its queso, a concoction made of soft cheese and chili flakes. A web search will yield many recipes, and apparently, it’s a thing to either master authentically or ruin. When Chipotle came into the queso game with scads of marketing dollars, The Many took advantage of Qdoba’s fans’ love of their queso. With a small budget but a giant platform, the agency created the campaign #TheirWordsNotOurs and brought thousands of fans’ Tweets to life with GIFs and illustrations. Here are a few samples, and these are verbatim:
I wish it was acceptable for Qdoba’s queso to be my significant other.
About 99% sure qdoba queso is actually from heaven
Would give all my limbs to have a lifetime supply of chips & queso from Qdoba
“We saw all the posts and thought, ‘We can do something here,’” says The Many creative director Lixaida Lorenzo. “We went to Qdoba with the insight and turned around the work in three weeks.”
Then The Many noticed something else: Twitter was blowing up against Chipotle’s recipe—guests were less than crazy about the concoction. Here’s just one post:
Chipotle queso tastes likes milk & cardboard had a baby
Guests were downright making fun of it. So, The Many created GIFs to react to and comment on the Chipotle posts—not snarky, but more of a disappointed and charming vibe. The feeling was likable and engaging versus divisive, which was smart, and reflective of the brand. Within 24 hours, #TheirWordsNotOurs made more than 13.4 million Twitter impressions, 3.5 million media views and more than 90 thousand engagements.
Qdoba creative director Grant Knapp says, “The Many’s model is both familiar, borrowing the things that work from big agency structures, but different, as their size allows them to stay nimble and move quickly, a really important trait for my business.”
Threaded throughout The Many's culture is autonomy. For example, after associate creative directors Celine Faledam and Rachel Guest attended a conference and learned that nearly 90 percent of children have been exposed to hardcore porn by age eleven, most often by accident through social media platforms and the internet, they approached Eley and Harris with the idea to create an awareness campaign directed at parents. The two partners said yes, immediately. Eley says, “We told them they could have all the time and resources they needed, including production.” Harris adds, “They would come to us with work and say, ‘Do you want to see this?’ and we would say, ‘We trust you.’”
Their passion project turned into PSA campaign Give the Talk. Faledam says, “We wanted to communicate to parents to give the talk to their children. If you’re not having the talk, porn stars are going to do the talking for you.”
To capture the idea, they hired real porn star Monique Alexander for TV and digital spots. The star and her costars appear to be getting ready for a scene, and Alexander sets up the problem, ending with, “We don’t want to be your child’s role model. We think you’re far more qualified to teach your children the facts of life. Yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable. Awkward. But if you don’t, we’ll be their only lesson.” It’s a clever way in to deliver a powerful message.
Day to day varies wildly at The Many. Because they are not bound by convention, those who work at the agency could be wiring up tiny animatronic owls wearing terry-cloth robes, filming naked actors for a reality show or shipping truckloads of avocados to a client’s competitor for a social stunt. Many scenarios for an agency aptly named. ca