The Invention of Mother

Can Mother bring a new business and creative style to New York?

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Mother/N.Y. partners (clockwise from top left) Linus Karlsson, Paul Malmstrom, Rob DeFlorio and Andrew Deitchman
After an extended period of speculation about when and who and where, the four partners spearheading the launch of Mother in New York are in place, and right away it's clear they are focused -- on real collaboration with the right clients, on media-unlimited ideas and, for the moment, on their moms.

"The Swedes," creatives Linus Karlsson and Paul Malmstrom, and "the Americans," Andrew Deitchman and Rob DeFlorio, are assembled in their brand new office space above Etna Tool & Die on Bond Street together with their moms, who have come from homes in Sweden, New Jersey and New York to do some modeling and general bearing of witness. The vibe is pure possibility; pure Mother. The biological mothers are glowing, coming off their photo shoot (courtesy of yet a third Malmstrom, Paul's brother, Emmet), and so are the sons, just receiving the keys to their gorgeous yet unpretentious space. "It's a historic moment," beams the art director Malmstrom. And it could be, for the U.S. industry, as well as the eight people happily bouncing around a New York loft amid empty pizza boxes.

Or, at the very least, really interesting. Few things seem more interesting now, in fact, than the prospect of reinterpreting a London creative force like Mother in the U.S. at what is perhaps the most interesting (in the Chinese curse sense and in the OED sense) time in ad history -- when the industry is poised at a post consolidation/mid-jobless recovery/pre-actual recovery period, when it appears that the business will actually not just spring back into its previous position, and when clients, rightly or wrongly, have already signaled varying degrees of boredom with the big-agency status quo.

The London Mothership, in its seven years in operation, has become the object lesson in how to succeed as an independent creative hotshop, moving through its lifecycle from head-turning upstart through audacious creative laboratory to "legitimate" player, never abandoning the spirit of any of those incarnations or its core philosophy of collaborative creativity. The prospect of fronting an American spinoff of this phenomenon -- simply irresistible to almost anyone, surely — was enough to lure creatives Linus and Paul away from Fallon; Deitchman from the bosom of WPP and his role as global director-marketing communications strategy and business development at mini-net Red Cell; and DeFlorio back to the agency world after a year traveling and 11 years working on the plummest account on Earth at Nike. That was the easy part. Now, the interesting and potentially historic part will be what Big Marketing in America will make of this agency.

The New York agency will challenge a model that may not be broken, necessarily, but is "dated and slow." "Our sense is that a lot of clients are seeking a change in their relationship with agencies, on all levels," say the partners, collectively. "They've been oversold and underdelivered for too long, and they have every right to ask: 'Am I getting my money's worth?'" In sum: "We're really going to try to change things and shake things up."

It's something that Mother/London has done handily since the shop was founded in 1996. Now an 85-person, $200 million agency, run by partners Mark Waites, Stef Calcraft, Robert Saville, Andy Medd and Matthew Clark, Mother has become a mecca for creative talent from around the world and, if the quality and quantity of business wins over the agency's life span is an indication (and it is), for clients. The shop has famously applied its creativity to multinationals like Unilever and Diageo in addition to Orange, Xelebri, Egg and others, and gave the agency world further notice this fall when it added Coke's U.K. flagship brand to its existing Coca-Cola business. So major marketers have clearly overcome any queasiness they may have experienced at the thought of working for an agency called Mother, with no account execs, no offices in its offices and commercials that feature lumpy guys representing not the other guy but the brand hero (as they did in "Face Off" for Super Noodles). But as any smoker or etiquette expert will tell you, New York is not London. The scale of U.S. clients relative to those in the U.K. has caused many to assume that a small startup would have problems handling the kind of account that befits a Mother. And there are arguments that U.S. clients as a species don't have the same attitude toward lumpy guys (i.e. creative pioneering) as their U.K. peers.

"The challenge is how, in a market that is dominated by big brands, a small brand breaks through," says BBH chairman, worldwide creative director John Hegarty, whose New York office launched at the end of 1998 and has, arguably, just found its stride in the last year and a half. "That's a much bigger problem in the U.S. than in the U.K. Small agencies there are much more interesting to clients than they are in the U.S." The learning and success curves are also longer in the U.S., argues Hegarty, pointing to the "recent" industry conquest by Crispin Porter + Bogusky -- an agency in its 11th year of life -- as compared with the relatively meteoric ascent of Mother. "It takes longer to break through in the U.S., you have to be more patient and persistent," says Hegarty. "You have to understand it's a longer game. We always say it's a marathon, not a sprint, but the marathon in America is about three times longer than it is here in Europe." Hegarty says BBH principals knew at the outset that they would not even engage in serious stocktaking until the New York shop's five-year mark.

Mothers in New York and London consider the size issue a red herring. "We will not measure success based on size or billings," say the New York partners. "We measure our success by how attractive we are among the greatest creative minds out there, clients and agency people." (Besides, notes Malmstrom, "if each person took up one square foot of space, we could have a 5,000 person agency.") "We think things have changed in terms of the way clients want to work with agencies," say the partners. "It's about getting smart people around a table to work collaboratively to solve a problem or come up with a new way of approaching something. We don't think it's just what Mother London has done, it's a trend that's happening here. Clients who are focused on infrastructure or size have lots of options. But they're going to be focused on things well beyond that." Rob DeFlorio, of course, brings an especially salient perspective on the agency model as it pertains to client relationships. The biggest issue there, he says, is talent. "As a client, you're concerned that the best people at the agency are working on your business. As the relationship matures, you become aware of whether the agency is attracting the best people. Too often, you get the feeling that the top people are off trying to get new business and have left others to do account maintenance." He also acknowledges however that the talent issue goes both ways. "Behind every great campaign is a great client," he says. "And the reverse example is also true -- and more abundant."

Mark Waites says the particular structure of Mother has always allowed the London shop to turn out an inordinate amount of work, emphasizing that Mother started as "four people around a table" handling a $24 million account -- Channel 5. Its now well-known organizational traits meant that creatives and "strategists" deal directly with clients -- no account execs, no written briefs, no contact reports, "because all the key players are sitting down and communicating all the time," says Waites.

The Mother that will nurture New York, though, will not just be a copy of the original, transplanted to America with a London founder at the helm. Why? "We can't be in two places at once, we have a business to run, so we did the next best thing -- we hired a team that thinks as close to the way we think as possible," says Waites of the New York configuration. "Also, it's going to take years for us to understand the marketing environment over there as well as Rob, Andrew, Linus and Paul do. Having said this, I can see us swapping knowledge and people."

The U.S. partners says they love the Mother M.O. and will create their own version of the agency -- allowing for flexibility to respond to clients -- while operating inside the sacred Mother traditions of creative primacy and unobstructed client contact. "Mother is not about geography or replicas -- quite the opposite actually," say the partners. "It's simply about a belief system on how to go about things that we share with our friends in London. And that belief system is not English, American or Swedish, it's a global and human one. There's no fat or excessive stuff at Mother. There's no middle management, paper pushers or human firewalls here. Clients work directly with the group of people who are hands-on involved in their work." The partners are looking now to hire one or two creative teams, "probably younger, that are willing to be coached and developed into creative superstars." In hires and in everything else, collaboration is key. "That's fundamental for us. It's not about one or two people. It's about how collaborative and open you as an individual allow yourself to be toward others, coworkers and clients. If you've got that down, you're going to do great."

But are U.S. clients ready for the potent creative cocktail that the Swede-directed Mother will serve up -- particularly now? Mother in London has made its name cutting new, sometimes challenging creative paths; similarly, the Swedes altered the course of creative here, with work for MTV, Lee Jeans, EDS, Virgin Mobile and others. And as another New York creative mover, Eric Silver notes, "As the economy goes, generally, so goes clients' tolerance for bolder creative." Silver, now at Saatchi/New York says, sensibly, that it's "just about impossible" to start a new shop in New York, yet he adds: "But if I were betting, I'd bet on Mother to do the impossible. They'll find a way to do it."

Mother creative has tended to give consumers maximum credit, in that it largely presents an engagingly unvarnished picture of reality and the product's and consumer's place therein. The partners brilliantly sum up their take on what Mother creative does: "It works hard and plays hard."

"All communication needs to connect and engage with you somehow, and the usual corporate monologue doesn't do that," say the partners. "Why? Because it doesn't care what you think or who you are -- despite all the consumer insight decks that most agencies spend so much time creating. Brands that are realistic about the role they play in people's lives have a much better chance of connecting. Too often, strategic planning ends up in hyperbole instead of honesty."

More than a creative hotshop in the traditional sense (great TV), the new entity will be especially focused on what the kids today would call media-neutral solutions but what are really just creative solutions. Waites says the Swedes' creative reputation included a dedication to multiplatform thinking, which was an important draw for the London founders. "We believe in not just good advertising but good communication. If you look at Linus and Paul, they don't just create great TV commercials. They create the web property, the character that could spin off into TV, the T-shirts, the events, intricate campaigns across many different media. It's always interesting and engaging, and if it's supposed to be funny, they make it genuinely funny. If it's supposed to be cool, they make it genuinely cool. It goes for Linus and Paul and it also goes for Rob and Andrew. We talked to a lot of people and we just felt really close to these guys. We finish each others' sentences."

All of the new partners are schooled in integrated, and interactive, means of conveying brand messages and the ways technology is changing consumer/brand dynamics. "Agencies are used to controlling things because that's how they make the big bucks, but that's not necessarily how it's going to work," say the partners. "The new consumer is active and wants to be part of creating the brand. Consumers are the new creatives and we, the agencies, are going to be secret consumer co-conspirators that 'feed' them with elements that enable them to create their own experience of the brand. The lesson is: You're going to lose control if you try to keep it, and you're going to gain influence if you let go and let the consumer in to be part of your brand."

Says Waites: "The guys in New York know exactly how we approach our creative work -- a lot that they'll do will be the same as what Mother does here and the same as good creative and creatively-led people do all over the world -- which is the true belief that their creative solutions can make a difference. And I'm not just talking about creative advertising." Waites illustrates the emphasis at the shop with a quick excerpt of a talk he's giving at an upcoming Asian ad conference. "I'm asking: 'An account person walks into your office with a brief for a TV commercial. What's wrong with this picture?' Well, before someone has even come up with the solution to the problem, we're being told what media it's going to run in. If clients come to us with a problem and let us solve it, we do believe our creatives are smart enough to communicate with clients and smart enough to think about what is the real solution here, not just 'let's win another award.'" That approach is what allows the agency to cover so much ground and produce a huge amount of work, which relates back to the size issue. "It's a weird thing in advertising," says Waites. "I think that the more people that work on a project, the less that gets done. I can't imagine it works the same in the coal mining industry." The "make the logo bigger" bane of creatives is "an account person coming up with a creative solution, says Waites, it's not a difficult client. "Instead of putting the client in the middle and putting the agency around the client, let's put the problem in the middle and put a team around the problem that includes the client." And if there's any template the Mother is exporting, that's it, say the New York partners -- it's the philosophy they already have and will bring to the new office. Deitchman makes a small revision, illustrative of the cheerful optimism that pervades Mother New York: "We'll also put the opportunity in the middle."

And while many anticipate Mother heating up a New York environment that isn't the creative fount it could be, all the Mothers see America as the cradle of creativity, not a creative dead zone. "We have to stop looking down at ourselves here in the U.S. and thinking that Europe is so much more creative," they say. "It isn't. America has been the home of creativity and mind-blowing thinking for the last 100 years or so. Europe still hasn't been on the moon."

The four new partners say creating Mother in New York is about work that benefits the agency, the client and the consumer. Mother's success here, even its attempt, creates another beneficiary: the New York ad market.

(This article appears in the November 2003 issue of Creativity.)

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