Mother Loves You

Published on .

At London's hottest agency, things are done by the book -- it's just not the book anyone else uses.

By Stefano Hatfield




The men of Mother (from left): Robert Saville, Mark Thwaites, Andy Medd, Stef Calcraft and Matt Clark
Mother may be the world's hottest ad agency, if not the coolest. The five-year-old Agency of the Year in London has just entered the U.K. top 30 in billings, disproving virtually every piece of received wisdom in the advertising rulebook. Most of all it has shown that not only can a small creative shop win multinational business despite global consolidation, but it can do great work for such clients, too.

Mother launched in December 1996, broke with the convention of sticking the principals' names above the door, chose what appeared to be one of the silliest names in advertising history and still became a meaningful agency. What's more, it did so with good, but hardly A-list, founding partners. Robert Saville had been joint creative director of GGT (now part of TBWA), where he was best known for Holsten Pils and John Smith's, while Stef Calcraft had run Haagen Dazs, Heineken, NatWest Bank and Phileas Fogg snacks at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. They were joined by Andy Medd, formerly a Beecham (now Glaxo Wellcome) and Coca-Cola client and Mark Thwaites, a peripatetic creative who had last worked at Amster Yard in New York, having previously been at BMP and DMB&B, Leagas Delaney and Ogilvy & Mather. (The fifth partner is finance director Matt Clark, once of Grey).

They began with what was clearly going to be a project -- Channel 5, the launch of the U.K.'s fifth terrestrial national television channel. Mother said, vaguely, that it would only handle business project by project, largely because that's all it won at first. At a time when it was fashionable for new agencies to make grandiose statements about changing the future of advertising, Mother made no such claims. However, today, it still has no "suits" among its 60-strong staff, and a more radical structure than many agencies that hyped their own working practices. From year one, Mother has created successful ad campaigns for big clients. It has won and retained Coca-Cola, Unilever, Mars and Campbell Soups, despite their international alignments. What's more, it does exciting and challenging work on their brands.

Mother set up not in Soho or Covent Garden in London's West End, but in Clerkenwell, before that East London area became achingly fashionable. Most of its staff work in a large, but crammed, open room at long workbenches, and have to switch their work station every three months, junking their junk. There are designers in the basement, but remarkably little of the usual paraphernalia one associates with the creative, traffic or production departments of a more traditional agency.

In place of account handlers and planners, there are strategists (part planner, part account man) and "mothers" -- senior staff who are usually ex-heads of creative services, the people that manage the logistics of getting the work out. The ground floor space is dominated by a giant kitsch caravan on the way in, that serves as one meeting room, and what can only be described as an elevated boudoir, which serves as another. The lighting is by chandelier. You can watch them work as you read this, via webcam at motherlondon.com Unusually, but deliberately, Mother's fame spread primarily through students and its creative peers at rival London agencies. In a press-obsessed marketplace, it did not particularly cultivate the media, but talked only about what it "won and did." The agency has never cold-called a new-business prospect. In five years Mother has won 14 out of 16 competitive pitches. In a London ad market that still tends to keep clients a little at arm's length, it is the most collaborative of agencies, with the most blunt-speaking of principals. Mother's projects have turned into retainers. It turns down clients. Lots of them. It has turned down big multinational advertising groups that want to buy Mother. All of them.

Mother still has pictures of each staff member's mother on the back of each staff member's business card. It produces kitsch and politically incorrect promotional materials for itself, such as the Mother Bible and the Mother Reward Card scheme, and seems to have as much fun building the Mother brand as it does its clients'. Mother is unashamedly serious about its brand. "We are a very hypocritical industry," Saville says. "We talk about creating brands, but then we all put our names above the door. We talk about creating emotion, but then we just show pictures of our own work. The power of our brand means that really good people want to come and work here. That is what it's all about." Perhaps most interesting of all though, Mother talks in plain English, and sets out at every turn to demystify the advertising process. For instance, "Planning is not really a job, it's a discipline, and it's best delivered by the creative who has to deliver the solution," Calcraft argues. " The moment that planning was invented as a job, the suits became redundant." "The other side of account handling is 'get out there and sell the bloody work,' " says Saville. "An account handler's worth lies in what he has 'sold'. The difference with a strategist is that they create a desire to buy in development."

"There are only two questions that matter," argues Calcraft. "Who on earth are we going to talk to, and what are we going to say? The problem with the business is that everyone over-intellectualizes it. And that's why we don't have suits."

"The margin is in the confusion," says Saville. "The big agencies know that the model is fucked, but they can't afford to do anything about it. The agency's business objective is not the same as the client's. The agency's objective is to hang onto the client's business. There's a big difference between not telling a lie and telling the truth."

"The problem is that client structures have changed and agency structures have not," chimes in Calcraft. "Clients have changed -- especially those under 40. The old idea was that clients don't understand creativity, and agency creatives don't want to talk to clients, but today's clients have an entirely different set of influences."

Mother was born with the launch of Channel 5, which, ironically, remains to this day some of the most unremarkable advertising the agency has ever created - but the multicolored logo was pretty much ubiquitous in Britain in 1995-96, and it got the startup noticed. Next came, a joyful, unpretentious campaign for a small radio station named Magic FM, before a phone call out of the blue, from a relatively junior Unilever client, led to the agency landing the Super Noodles account, which really saw it break through. The Super Noodles campaign, with its recognition that its consumers were slobbish and lazy, often overweight, has resulted in the brand growing 60 percent over four years, and even more remarkably, the tiny Mother surviving the brand's ownership switch from one multinational, Unilever, to another, Campbell's.

One of the reasons Mother is less inclined to sell to a network than many other agencies is that in addition to U.K. clients like Egg, HFC Bank, Kiss FM and Costa coffee, it already works for major multinationals, and always has. In addition to Unilever (for which it now has Lever Faberge's Organics shampoo), it has Campbell Soups, Mars Pedigree Masterfoods new product development work, and the Coca-Cola corporation's Lilt, Dr Pepper, Live, Oasis, Schweppes and Burn brands. What is Mother's secret in a world of multinational alignments? "We don't work for Unilever," Saville says. "We work for seven people within it who are nice and want to do good work and make a difference and care. The same goes for Coke. Coke is just brilliant. The clients are smart, ambitious, open and fun -- they have a sense of humor. The problems start when you depersonalize the relationships, and then the brands."

And it shows. For Coca-Cola, Mother has created a series of intimate, humorous and most of all, human campaigns, particularly for Lilt and Dr Pepper. They share a quality that many Mother campaigns exhibit. I might describe it as "kitsch," and imply a criticism that the work is a little one-trick -- the kind of accusation flung at Cliff Freeman, for example. Saville, inevitably, has a different take. "There is a sense of irony and knowingness in our work," he argues. "The consumer knows the game. If you know the game too, it transcends the medium."

The Mother philosophy is best expressed in a tract from the Mother Bible, the latest in a long line of kitsch Mother marketing materials, this one in the style of a holy book. Mixed in with the Book of Robert and the Book of Stef is a description of what happens when advertising is allowed to overclaim for itself through "corporate showing off," which "leads one away from the truth. It leads clients and agencies alike to overblow the importance of the brand in their custody. A ready meal like Super Noodles becomes 'the reason Mum's kids love her.' Or a pint of beer transforms the average Joe into the life and soul of the pub. It is of course BOLLOCKS," says the Bible.

"It is Mother's view that only by admitting the limitations of a brand can you hope to have a mutually beneficial relationship with the customer," the good book continues. "So a pack of Super Noodles becomes a packet of nosh for when you are too lazy, rushed or, more likely, drunk to prepare proper food. In this instance," the Bible concludes, "the customer recognizes themselves and gives the advertiser the benefit of the doubt."

Put another way, says Saville, "it's better when consumers are on your side. Our work is very human and imperfect. People are more likely to love you that way. The stuff that gets through is the stuff that is warm and loved rather than revered by the creative community." It is a philosophy that can be seen through ITV Digital's knitted monkey, one of the cult U.K. characters of 2002. It all sounds a bit too good to be true. The partners point to Channel 5, the first client, as the least successful of their relationships. They parted after 18 months, still the largest account they've lost.

The future is about Mother's work traveling overseas: for Egg, won recently off HHCL & Partners, for Mars, and perhaps Dr Pepper. There is also interest in opening in New York, if they can find the right sort of like-minded partners. New York would be interesting, because Mother, despite its cosmopolitan staff, is extremely English by nature. The work really is heavily ironic, and -- by U.S. standards -- politically incorrect. The agency is also fending off the advances of WPP and the other big groups. "Mother would be the worst agency in the world in captivity," says one rueful rejected suitor. "And the truth is the agency already has the kind of clients that big agencies lure smaller agencies with, and it is already highly profitable -- another advantage of not having all those suits hoovering up the margins."

"Mother was a statement of intent," concludes Calcraft. "But success builds a luster. We are not creative luvvies, we are very pragmatic, but we know that in order to sell things you have to go the extra mile to make things different."
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