Wenlock, the London 2012 mascot paired with his Paralympic counterpart, Mandeville, has drawn criticism and acclaim around the world.

Editor’s note: This article is part of our special issue on business and Olympic ties between Atlanta and the United Kingdom. Click here to read “All Eyes on the U.K.”

When the creators of the Cyclopean London 2012 mascots put an office in Atlanta, it wasn’t a nod to the amorphous blue creature that represented this city’s centennial Olympic Games.

“We drew very little inspiration, I’m afraid [from the Atlanta mascot]. I think that was one of the all-time classic lows,” said Ian Millner, joint chief executive of London-based creative firm Iris Worldwide.

Atlanta’s Izzy, short for “What is it?” has been blasted often over the years by creative types for its lack of direction.

During an interview in late 2011, Mr. Millner diplomatically declined to comment on just where Izzy went wrong but said that bad mascots usually falter in a few ways: They’re overly nationalistic, lacking in story or uninspiring.

“In these days, you’ve got to have a mascot that’s personalizable, playable,” he said. “It isn’t about you; it’s about people and what they do with it, which is important given the era of technology.”

Iris beat out thousands of other competitors with Wenlock and Mandeville, a pudgy pair of one-eyed mascots created for the Olympic and Paralympic games, respectively.

Ironically, since their unveiling in 2010, they have drawn comparisons to Izzy.

Some have noted that their single eyes, meant to be cameras capturing their Olympic journey, are reminiscent of the watchful eye of totalitarian government.

Others have attacked them for their lack of shape, though their creation myth says their round, metallic figures were shaped as they were formed from last droplets of molten steel from the Olympic stadium.

Criticisms aside, the mascots have been a hit with kids and have easily achieved the firm’s goal of engaging the audience’s imagination.

As of Friday, Aug. 3, more than 127,000 customized Wenlocks and Mandevilles with hats, mustaches and clothes had been created on the mascots’ online gallery, also designed by Iris. More than 1.2 million people had “liked” the page on Facebook.

Despite its mascot shortcomings, Atlanta had other charms that lured Iris Worldwide to Buckhead.

Large clients like Intercontinental Hotels GroupCoca-Cola Co. and Sony Ericsson were the main draws, along with a strong base of marketing talent, technology companies and universities, which are all key ingredients for creative firms, Mr. Millner said.

Also, it offered an opportunity to stand out, unlike New York City. Iris went there first, only to find it difficult to break into the local market, even for a company with more than 1,000 employees in 14 offices around the world.   

“When you’re not American, you underestimate the scale of the States and also you underestimate and misunderstand how America works and the degree to which it is so kind of regionalized,” Mr. Millner said. “I just wish we had gone immediately to somewhere like Atlanta because you can stand out in Atlanta and there are so many opportunities and clients there.”

Mr. Millner believes his firm has had a boost by sprouting up in London. A film and fashion hub, the city has an ingrained creative vibe that its leaders are now using to build its technology industry.

That has enabled Iris to push boundaries as it helps brands devise new ways of engaging with audiences in an increasingly digital age. 

Some highlights at its London gallery include a glow-in-the-dark aluminum Heineken bottle devised to liven up the beer stalwart’s image, a TV spot showing Volkswagen trucks pulling down a building and videos using American Olympian Michael Phelps to bolster Speedo’s brand by inspiring stories of “unforgettable swims.”

For more information, visit www.irisnation.com

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...