In an ad business worn down by three years of recession, Mother is a refreshing breath of inspiration. The London agency's audacious, wickedly-entertaining work alone is enough to win it admiration on both sides of the Atlantic at a time when agencies have lost their creative nerve. But Mother's story is not just about what you see on its prize-winning reel. Amid an industry dominated by the multinational networks and their huge holding company parents, Mother's success started as a whisper that's become a roar. The seven-year-old independent, founded by four relatively unknown U.K. ad execs, is now a $200 million testament to the potential of powerful ideas. Early on, Mother improbably attracted the likes of Unilever and Coca-Cola, the sort of clients with long-held institutional ties with agency networks disdainful of creative "boutiques" like Mother. Last November, Mother moved its assault on the status quo to New York when it opened a second office.
For Mother, London, it wasn't long before other blue-chip marketers, with serious business challenges, found their way to the start-up crammed into a former clog factory, where a beat-up camper serves as a conference room. In 2001, the agency bested Wieden Kennedy, Amsterdam, for the international launch of a new Siemens youth-focused cell phone, Xelebri. Likewise, Mother's lack of European network didn't prevent it from landing online financial service provider Egg's business across Europe. In 2002, Mother shook up the clubby London ad scene when it handily walked away with Orange mobile phone's account in the year's biggest shootout for a $60 million account. Perhaps even more astonishing was last December's decision by national pharmacy chain Boots to award its $79 million integrated account to a group led by underdog Mother, which beat some of London's biggest agencies for the business. The agency's fearsome new-business prowess belies its status as the industry's favorite creative hot shop. In a rare move, the British trade magazine, Campaign, felt compelled to bestow its Agency of the Year honors upon Mother in both 2001 and 2002.
If the agency's appeal taps into marketers' growing skepticism about the need to partner with big networks, Mother's success also validates a new, nimbler kind of operating alternative. Much is made of the fact Mother doesn't believe in account executives, at least in the traditional sense, with their contact reports and written briefs. Instead the agency insists creatives be the direct conduit to the client, along with "strategists," staffers who function as part account planner and account executive. Almost 50% of the agency's 90 staffers work in the creative department, compared to about 18% in most traditional agencies, Mother says. (Rounding out the agency's staffing are "mothers," senior production people who handle the logistics of execution.)
Mother's founders put emphasis on agency product, not client hand-holding process.
"Most agencies put the client in the middle and organize the work and the people around the client," explains Mark Waites, one of Mother's creative founders. "We put the problem in the middle and invite the client to be part of the circle around it."
Waites argues that in scrapping the role of the account executive, arguably an archaic middleman, the agency gains in efficiency and greater productivity. Mother's output backs him up. Last year, the agency that also works for alcoholic drinks distributor Diageo, media company E-Map and the Observer newspaper, produced some 350 TV spots and 270 press and poster ads.
That frantic pace dates back to Mother's inception in December 1996, when its founders were given the deadline task of launching the U.K.'s fifth national TV channel. The agency was started by Robert Saville, who had been joint creative director of Gold Greenlees Trott, that has now been absorbed into TBWA Chiat/Day; Waites, a U.K. agency veteran who moved to New York in 1992 and worked at Margeotes, Fertitta Partners and Amster Yard before returning to London; and Stef Calcraft who had been an account exec at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Fourth partner, American art director Libby Brockoff, who worked with Saville at GGT, returned to the States and was replaced by Andy Medd, a client at Beecham, which is now Glaxo Wellcome. (The company's fifth partner is finance director, Matt Clark.) With no offices, the team found temporary space in a printer's storeroom, where they had just two weeks to develop and produce the first round of Channel 5's radio, posters and print work. Six weeks later came the big launch push as Channel 5 went on air. Mother produced some 270 press ads and 50 individual campaign posters, as well as on-air content. On the first day of broadcast, 75% of U.K. viewers turned on Channel 5.
"That experience helped define the way we work," recalls Saville. "As an agency, we work quite quickly and directly."
That intensity in focus and pace is apparent during a recent visit to Mother, London, where staffers work side by side on long wooden tables under kitschy chandeliers. (The agency is in the process of moving from
its Clerkenwell building to new quarters in London's artsy Shoreditch area.) Scattered around the main floor are furniture castoffs and chrome lamps from the '70s. Ad-hoc meeting areas are composed of kitchen tables with plastic-backed chairs. Most ad agency entrances trumpet the name of the place and show off work. Not at this office, where like all mothers, it's about food: Visitors are greeted by a worn leather couch and old coffee table offering a platter of strawberries, lychees, pineapple, raspberries and pears. The surrounding neighborhood has grown popular among ad agencies, photographers and designers and has become home to a growing number of cool bars and restaurants. But at lunchtime, most Mother staffers seem content to load up their plates with tuna fish or pasta, compliments of Mother's basement canteen, and eat as they work. (It's not all nose to the grindstone, however: For the last three years Mother's founders have taken the entire agency on year-end ski trips to Switzerland or France. "We've found skiing down mountain tops is a good way to bond," says Saville.)
But Mother is about to find out what it's like to scale difficult new peaks. New York is a notoriously difficult market to crack for out-of-towners. In tackling it, the agency has hired the well-regarded Fallon creative team of Linus Karlsson and Paul Malmström who are recognized for their work on MTV, Brawny, BMW and Virgin Mobile. On the business side Mother has hired strategists Andrew Deitchman, previously the global director of marketing communications strategy and business development at Red Cell and Rob DeFlorio, a former ad director at Nike. The office already has picked up Chipotle, a burrito chain that's part of McDonald's Corp.'s Partner Brands portfolio, and a creative assignment from the National Basketball Association.
"Mother is on a mission and are rewriting the rules, and if we can help contribute to that, great," says Karlsson on behalf of the New York partners. "We passionately believe there is a better, smarter, more effective way of communicating with people. We believe clients are asking for change, at least that is what we keep hearing, and the big agencies aren't necessarily providing it."
The agency's London founders insist that for the New York operation to become successful it's critical that Mother's Manhattan office, located in a Bond Street loft above the Etna Tool & Die, develop its own personality.
"Mother, New York won't be another Mother, London. We have incredibly strong partners who are running it themselves," says Saville. "We've found people who share our way of thinking. They don't need us. They'll do well on their own."
A Manhattan outpost run by Swedes and Americans for an English agency doesn't come as a surprise at a place where staffers bring a broad range of experience. Some strategists come out of the client side, bringing an insider perspective from companies like Nike, Coca-Cola and Unilever. Mother is the agency of choice for young talent and has attracted creatives from Europe, America, Australia and South America. "We are a multinational agency," Waites says with a laugh. "We just have it all in one office."
The agency embraces a "new populism," arguing that great brands don't talk down to consumers. To do that, Waites offers some guidelines: He urges staffers to try to find the truth in a product and use simplicity and clarity in crafting a focused message. Nonetheless, they should find "fame" for a marketer, avoiding undistinguished ads that have the impact of wallpaper in a cluttered media universe. Mother creatives need also to reward consumers with some entertainment value in exchange for interrupting their time, he advises.
Mother's hip, ironic sense of humor plays out in cinematic, super-saturated colors and visually compelling, sometimes surreal imagery in its commercials. The agency's print has a poster-like use of provocative visuals and little copy.
But the agency's work isn't just the stuff of award-show annuals. Egg's "Brilliant Industries" campaign hit a record high in awareness, at more than 86%, within three months of the launch of Mother's first campaign. For Dr. Pepper, Mother's "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" pitch scored the highest awareness ever recorded by Coca-Cola Great Britain, which distributes the drink. (Mother has done so well with smaller Coke brands, it was given responsibility for Coke's flagship product in the U.K. last year.) With Unilever's Batchelors Super Noodles, a mature brand with few growth prospects after being on the market for 15 years, Mother's advertising fueled a 70% increase in sales volume.
Other concepts from the agency have become a culture phenomenon in the U.K. Nearly two years ago, an iconic wooly monkey Mother created for ITV Digital was at the center of a battle after the broadcaster went into bankruptcy and the company's administrator, Deloitte & Touche wanted to sell the rights to the character, which was valued at $3.7 million. Mother, that was owed money by ITV, wanted instead to donate the primate to U.K. charity Comic Relief. Partner Andy Medd remarked at the time: "(Deloitte & Touche) should remember that mothers nearly always win custody battles" which proved to be the case.
This spring the BBC is airing a 50-minute pilot written by Mother that uses the character. The agency can be further expected to blur the boundaries of entertainment and marketing. In what is believed to be the first such deal in the industry, Mother just hooked up with Miramax, where it gives the motion picture company first-look rights to any of the agency's concepts. Mother will also serve as an advertising and marketing consultant to Miramax and Dimension Films in the deal negotiated by Mother, New York's Deitchman.
Therein lays the difference in Mother: "We are ultimately about finding creative business solutions from a place where creative people run the business," says Saville. "It gives us a freedom that doesn't exist in most agencies where [bottom line prerogatives stipulate that] before a client even walks through the door the agency knows it's making an ad. We have advertising; we have strong expertise in design and in experience marketing. We're about radical solutions." ca