Creativity Agency of the Year: Mother

Shop Has Been Responsible for Everything From Rock Concerts to Its Own Hot-Dog Business

By Published on .

Joshua Dalsimer

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- "When we were starting out, we said, 'We want to build the most interesting company in the whole damn world," said Mother, New York, co-founder and co-Chief Creative Officer Paul Malmstrom. "Well, now we think it's starting to look and feel really interesting."

Agreed.

In the past year, Mother expanded the already broad range of work coming out of its Bond Street headquarters, it added new and interesting clients while maintaining relationships with the big brands that have been attracted to the shop's nimble nature and idea-driven approach, and it added some interesting talent, including one bona fide digital heavyweight.

During its six-plus years in business, Mother has done the heavy lifting required to earn the description "media-agnostic, entrepreneurial creative shop," and now the 75-person agency is starting to capitalize on a talent infrastructure and culture that seem right for what will surely be more interesting times ahead.

The agency has, from the start, created one of the industry's most-diverse bodies of work, with its output ranging from rock concerts and conferences to laptop designs and hot dogs. In that way, Mother, New York, is a true heir to its own progenitor, Mother, London, an agency that's been a marvel of consistent creative heterogeneity (and quality) in its 14 years of life.

Creativity
See work from Mother on Creativity.

Spirit lives on
Mother, London, was roughly Mother, New York's current size and age in 2003 when it announced it was opening a U.S. operation and recruited former Fallon Executive Creative Directors Linus Karlsson and Paul Malmstrom, aka The Swedes, as creative architects. Former Red Cell global business development/strategy head Andrew Deitchman and former Nike ad director Rob DeFlorio joined the pair as founding partners of the shop (Mr. DeFlorio exited the agency this year).

Mother, New York, has embodied the spirit and M.O. of the original -- no middle (i.e. account) people, and an open, people-centric operating style -- but there was never any need to enforce family values.

"If anything, they reintroduced us to many of [those values]," said Mother, London, co-founder and co-Creative Director Robert Saville. "The Mother way is painfully simple. It is about empowering people to be the very best they can be for the benefit of all of us. The New York partners believed this more strongly than anyone."

Building a New York agency based on these principles took some time, but the partners believe that a certain critical mass was achieved last year.

"In many ways we're building a collective here," said Mr. Malmstrom. "It takes a while to get used to that way of working. It seems that now things are really starting to happen, organically, where all the disciplines are working together in really awesome ways."

The collective clicking manifested itself in some interesting work in 2009.

New products
For Target, Mother recaptured the marketer's design-oriented sunniness with a nine-faced Times Square billboard-turned-product. The agency recruited four New York artists to create the 20,000 square foot poster and then, adding a green/design/turn-your-marketing-spend-into-revenue twist, the agency repurposed the vinyl into 1,600 mini works of art, each available for purchase on Target.com, and then re-re-purposed each piece into a handbag designed by Anna Sui. The handbags sold out in a week. Mother has created other outdoor spectacles for the marketer, including a Manhattan-flavored reinterpretation of the 12 Days of Christmas.

DELL DESIGN STUDIO: Mother, New York, brings up and coming artists (and its own designers) to Dell laptops.
DELL DESIGN STUDIO: Mother, New York, brings up and coming artists (and its own designers) to Dell laptops.
Through its relationship with Dell, Mother created the Dell Design Studio, which offers consumers hundreds of casing-design choices for Dell laptops, including patterns created by Mother designers and works from up-and-coming artists. The agency has also created TV and print work in which Dell's brightly colored laptops appear as candy-coated treats.

To help New Balance sell a limited-edition shoe called 574 Clips, the agency created 480 unique web videos -- one for each pair of shoes made. Polaroid pictures capturing moments from the films were included in the shoes' boxes with a dedicated URL so owners could claim and share their clips. A new New Balance campaign will launch in February.

Once again, the agency spearheaded the Virgin Music Festival for client Virgin Mobile, with this year's fest free to attend in light of 2009's subdued economic vibe. The partnership with Virgin has resulted in some of the agency's other more unexpected duties -- like working on the music tours of Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, for which the shop develops and produces front of house experience, fan contests and giveaways and special events.

Another client partnership saw Mother expand its own structure with the addition of a production unit. Mother had worked for about a year with NBC Local Media on a range of projects. The agency was originally recruited to do communications around the relaunch of NBC Local's websites but then expanded the scope of the project, "creating properties and platforms that acted as content as well as traffic drivers," Mr. Deitchman said. The agency created things such as the Golden Local, a multiplatform initiative that engaged local residents in online debates about the city's best restaurants, services, stores and sights. Last spring, the program evolved into the Locals Only campaign, which saw Mother organizing big-ticket cultural events exclusively for locals, i.e. those who logged onto NBC Local sites and proved their neighborhood knowledge by answering a series of questions.

'Mass roots'
The new unit, Mother Productions, which will have a staff of about 12, including writers, motion designers, editors and producers, will handle all of NBC Local's brand ID and communications while also exploring ways to create new kinds of local and hyper local content, what Mother calls "mass roots marketing."

K-Y INTENSE: Part of Mother, New York's J&J duties.
K-Y INTENSE: Part of Mother, New York's J&J duties.
Mother has helped client Johnson & Johnson give its K-Y brand a new lease on life, this year creating a campaign for K-Y Intense, advertising a product "proven to intensify female satisfaction" to mainstream America. In addition to handling other corporate projects for J&J, the agency also added AOR responsibilities for its Bengay brand.

It also picked up duties on Cadbury's Sour Patch candy, created a public-art spectacle -- soon to be a documentary -- for Stella Artois, worked on print and TV for CBS College Sports, and much more.

Mother is known for developing its own creative initiatives as well. Under its Mother Ventures banner, the shop famously created and (in 2008) sold a hot-dog business, Dogmatic, which earned critical success among New Yorkers last year. The agency will unveil its next major entrepreneurial effort in 2010.

It was a good year for Mother in what has been a terrible year for advertising, to say the least.

"Something happened last year with us," said Mr. Karlsson. "Internally and in terms of the kinds of work we started to do. For the last few years, we've built tools, basically, for all our people here. Whether that was in production or graphic design, or brand experience, or whatever. Now people are all really working together, and enjoying working together."

Generalists
The agency is "on the forefront of being generalists, in a good way," said Michael Kaye, creative director and head of the agency's design group, who, along with Tom Webster, creative director, brand experience, has been a key player in rounding out the shop's offering. "The nature of media being so connected necessitates a bit more of a generalist's approach. To understand how the large idea is communicated through any media is where our focus has gone."

Now, said Mr. Deitchman, when a marketing opportunity presents itself "it's about finding where the center of gravity of that idea is. Is it more design led, more content-based? Now we have the diversity of people as well as the culture of collaboration to find the right center of gravity and work behind whoever we think is the leader for that initiative. It's taken time to get the critical mass of people, the right tools, the right culture."

The agency's approach to client work is less about creating campaigns and more about programming brands, said Mr. Karlsson. "The conversation that brands have with people is, first, an ongoing conversation. But you also can't keep having the same conversation the same way year after year. You have to evolve the story."

Mr. Karlsson and Mr. Malmstrom are nearing their 20th anniversary as a team. The pair started out at Paradiset, Stockholm, moved to Fallon, Minneapolis, in 1996 and worked for a time out of Fallon, New York, before getting the call to launch Mother. "We've done a lot of campaigns, and it's been rewarding. But a number of years ago we thought we wanted to be a part of a business, to change the way the company we work for behaves. We like to think we've brought our creative thinking into our business."

The agency's account-people-less structure, Mr. Karlsson said, empowers creatives, who end up getting more involved in clients' businesses. "[Account management] is a discipline that everyone in that group shares," he said. "It's one little thing but it forces everyone, including creatives, to not just be in their own world." And along with dedicated account managers, Mother eschews a top-down management style. "We think that no one else should represent anyone else's point of view. If you have a question about something that was written you talk to the person who wrote it. That engages the people who work on an account."

People
And, true to both the Swedish influence and that original Mother ethos, it's those people that the partners say drive the growth of the shop.

"When you're growing a company it's a combination of vision -- where you think the business is going -- plus total opportunism, and, this may be the most important part, people. ... We try and find people who are aligned philosophically but have different passions. It's not, 'Oh we have a client, so let's start a company in China.' It's, 'This person would be a wonderful addition to this family.'"

One of those people who the partners thought might be wonderful to have on board was Nicke Bergstrom, a co-founder of Sweden's FarFar, considered by many to be one of the best digital agencies anywhere. That addition will doubtless have a huge impact on the agency's digital discipline and will likely put the agency in a wider competitive set in the coming years.

With its culture forming a thick gel, primary among the agency's goals now is just making every bit of the work better.

"There are some things that are fantastic and some things that can be better," said Mr. Malmstrom.

"It's a long journey, that's fine. We're proud of where we are but we're really just starting."

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