NYC needs 'A-list' startups, but Mother no sure success

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The prospective launch of London's Mother in New York has generated a degree of buzz unusual in "oh, yeah?" city. That is, at least among the ad community. By contrast, most marketers in the U.S. will still not have heard of Mother. That's not surprising, even though the agency has worked, almost from its 1996 birth, for clients such as Unilever, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup, not to mention famous European clients Schweppes, Egg, Orange and others.

Mother has created standout advertising for nearly all of them (even its Coke brands). But it's often English-kitsch in style, wordy and eccentric. It doesn't travel as easily as, say, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's glossy art direction. That said, Mother did win a silver at Cannes for Siemens cellphones.

It's clear there's something attractive about the agency's attitude to our downtrodden business. There's a belief in "doing the doing," and that's unquestionably the creative work. There are no suits, in the conventional sense of what an account executive has become. Instead, "mothers" look after accounts both strategically and practically. Creatives, unusually for the U.K., have plenty of "face time" with their clients.

Most noticeably of all, Mother appears to choose its clients. With its unique structure and quirky agency environment, Mother is not to every client's taste. The difference is it doesn't strive to be. The result? Bryan Buckley, the leading U.S. commercials director, told me he had never experienced a client-agency relationship like he did when he directed a series of Egg (Internet bank) commercials for Mother last year. It's a common thread throughout the agency's client list.

Small wonder that Mother co-founder Mark Waites says the agency has been inundated with inquiries from would-be staffers (while he insisted New York is not a done deal).

Of course, there's a history of British agencies finding success in the U.S. tough to achieve-even with the startup client(s) Mother lacks. Bartle Bogle has only really broken through in the last year. This column has explored before why the environment for startups is tougher in New York, where even small clients have favored large agencies, than in London, always on the lookout for the new new thing.

British-ness is not really the problem (as long as your name's not Saatchi!). John Hegarty, the Bartle Bogle co-founder, told me being perceived as a New York agency was more of an issue in the rest of the U.S. But that's the kind of insight it is impossible to glean from the other side of the Atlantic. What's more, the last thing New York needs is another ad agency, right?

Actually, that's exactly what New York does need: a slew of A-list start-ups willing to challenge a status quo that's largely existed since the mid-`80s. New York's status as the business center of the global ad industry is unchallenged. But it's been years since it was regarded as the creative hub, too. If Mother, and others, can at least try to re-establish that position and help heal the illogical, unhealthy schism between creative and business that has evolved in the industry, then that would be good for everyone who cares about and believes in advertising.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity.

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