Mothers of invention: Ten years of the ad agency that rewrote the rules
It's 10 years since Mother came along and revolutionised advertising. And it happens to be the industry's coolest agency too. The founding partners grant Alex Benady a rare audience
Monday 27 November 2006
The reception area at Mother's loft-style offices in Shoreditch in London is a cavernous industrial hall measuring maybe 70 feet by 30 feet, all painted brilliant white. It is empty save for two refectory tables dwarved by the vasteness around them. From the double-height ceiling hangs an an ornate brothel-red chandelier, and to the right is a tiny reception desk.
On one wall a 20-foot projection of the film Dangerous Liaisons is showing. But no one is watching because no one is there. The effect is dazzling and exciting but it also feels profligate and showy-offy, with no clear commercial benefit.
Such criticism has often been levelled at Mother, the painfully- fashionable enfant terrible advertising agency which is 10-years old next month. Like much of their work, they tend to polarise opinion. Little known outside their industry, admirers say they are a force of creative revolutionaries who have pushed advertising to its limit and have been consistently the most daring, most original and most creative advertising agency in the world since they first opened.
They point to a body of work that includes the 2002 "Monkey" campaign for ITV Digital which saw a hand-knitted puppet became a cult hero in its own right, an ad campaign for Supernoodles which boldly redefined the category as unashamed junk food for slobs, a cinema campaign for Orange that portrays the client as repulsive corporate morons, an ad for Fanta Z which implied its predecessor product Fanta Light was undrinkable, and the best advertising Coca Cola has had for more than 30 years.
But to their detractors they are a bunch of pretentious, lightweight opportunists, latching on to every passing fad, before smothering it in ironic 1970s wallpaper and turning it into a commercial. Arrogant, precious and formulaic, it is only a matter of time before they are found out, runs the argument.
Such suspicions seem to be confirmed when climbing the longest flight of stairs in christendom you emerge into an enormous white chamber, the entire floor of the warehouse, housing one desk. But of course this isn't just a desk. It's the mother of all desks: a 75mm-thick eight-foot- wide reinforced-concrete slab tabletop that snakes for 300 feet like a skateboard ramp round the entire floor. And all of Mother's 120 or so employees work at it. Pretentious or what?
Stef Calcraft, one of Mother's five founding partners, seems used to such responses. As the agency's front man -they'd hate a title as mundane as "chief executive" - he takes it in his stride. It's a legitimate business tool he argues. They don't pay Soho rents, and besides, "the environment people work in has a profound impact on their creativity. Light, space, colour and music loosen everything up. Add in the occasional dog or baby from home and you have a Mother space, a home from home."
Although Mother is about communciation, often the agency seem not to care what the outside world thinks. You want an interview with Calcraft? Well you can't have one. You have to interview all five founding partners at once. You want a picture of said partners? Well you can't have one. Mother doesn't do "straight" photography, you see. It wants to supply its own funny pictures (hence the shots used for this article).
To journalists accustomed to people grovelling to have stories written about about them, this is dangerous stuff. It jeopardises editorial independence and threatens to turn the interview into, I can scarcely write the words ...a PR stunt. This leads to a robust exchange with the partners on the subject of who is in charge here, and who is doing whom the favour.
Apart from the sheer tedium of a picture of five middle-aged men sitting on a sofa, it's the exact opposite of not caring about what the world thinks, explains creative partner Robert Saville. It's about projecting and protecting the Mother brand.
"If your business was to be beautiful you'd hardly say to the press 'pop round and catch me at 5 in the morning when I'm putting the milk bottles out.' You try and create control over how you are represented. If your brand is creativity, why would you not want some say in how creatvity is defined?" This precious brand management has been a constant theme in the agency's history. In the early days, for instance, it used to send contacts a fresh apple pie after meetings.
By now we are sitting in an open-plan conference area furnished with second-hand furniture which carefully denotes that although Mother may work with global corporations like Unilever, Diageo, Coca Cola, Orange, and Johnson and Johnson, it is not itself corporate.
The five partners are sprawled around. After 10 years they clearly work well together, each having developed his own role. Calcraft is a public-school type, urbane, charming and probably able to sell the hind legs off a donkey. Were it not for his jeans and tee-shirt he would be a suit.
Andy Medd, who used to work for Coca Cola, is the most outwardly classless of the five. His role is to translate the wackiness around him into a language that conservative clients understand.
Then there's creative partner Mark Waites. With his big-agency background he's better known outside the UK. A bluff northerner, today he's the least talkative of them. But that may be because he's more engaged with his lunch than talking to waste-of-time journalists.
Matthew Clark is the money man, the fifth Beatle who is responsible for keeping the show on the road. Many in the industry say it is he, not his partners, who is actually responsible for the agency's success.
But if Mother has a leader it is creative partner Robert Saville, the high priest of the Mother cult - although he often debunks it as well. He set up the agency to work on a freelance brief from Channel Five. "I'd love to be able to say that there was some enormous gap in the market," he says. "But there wasn't. It was completely opportunistic. We just thought lets have a go and see whats comes of it."
Inspirational,and thoughtful, one moment he's scowling and withdrawn, the next he's smiling and engaged. But he is obviously the most creative and original thinker of the bunch.
He also emodies all the paradoxes and contradictions that make Mother fascinating, frustrating and interesting. For instance, he talks about equality and is on record as saying "equity shares aren't important." But then he owns 45 per cent of the business, Calcraft has 25 per cent, Waites 15 per cent, Medd 10 per cent and poor old Clarky just 5 per cent.
Despite the apparent flakeyness, Mother is a high-octane money machine. Last year it made pre-tax profits of £3.45m on a turnover of £49m - and they have £7m cash in the bank.
Hardly suprisngly they are continually being stalked by the big agency groups who would give their eye teeth for a business such as Mother - not so much for the cash generation but for the intellectual and cultural capital that lies within its whitewashed walls.
While more run-of-the-mill agencies producing a similar level profit might sell for £40m, such is the strength of Mother's brand that the partners could probably ask £80m tomorrow and have the likes of Publicis, WPP and Omnicom fighting for the honour of their hand. Perhaps that's why they are so difficult about pictures and interviews.
But that's really not the point. The partners have repeatedly said that selling Mother would kill it. "The one thing we did decide before we started was 'lets do it in the way we have done those very rare things in our lives that we enjoyed the most." He says that having to hit revenue and profit targets for an accountant in Madison Avenue or the Champs Elysée would instantly render it worthless. "Whenever you sell your independence it always goes wrong because the work ceases to be your focus."
Profit is simply the consequence of doing other things well, says Calcraft. "Our mission is to be the leading destination brand for creative people. Not just creatives but clients, (ad) directors and strategists, a meeting point for people who want to do interesting things."
The agency has been so successful that its problem has not been growth but limiting growth. "We often turn business away because we are only interested in clients with ambition who want to do something really great, who want work that really makes a difference," says Calcraft.
And he's right. Mother isn't important or interesting because it makes shed loads of money, or because it has a stellar new business record and is expanding rapidly with branches in New York and Argentina or because it controversially re-engineered the advertising process by doing away with account men. It is the work.
Sitting through a reel of 30 Mother ads is an undeniably delightful experience. You can't help be dazzled by the range of their wit, humour and endless inventiveness. There is no doubt that they, more than any other agency, have mastered the need for advertising to entertain and engage these days.
But apart from humour, the most striking theme in their work is a jaw-dropping cynicism - about their clients, their products and even their consumers. So Pimms drinkers are represented as upper-class twits. Fanta Light is shown as undrinkable. Orange executives are portrayed as crass buffoons, Supernoodle eaters are depicted as ugly idle slobs. Pot Noodle is extracted like slurry from deep underground mines.
Most clients would baulk at such ridicule. They certainly wouldn't pay top dollar to be trashed in public. But they miss the point, says Mother.
"Brands don't live in a separate world," argues Calcraft, "and modern culture isn't the safe old Eric and Ernie stuff anymore. Look at Little Britain, Catherine Tate, Seinfeld, Sex In the City. They are all sharp and disrespectful and often cynical. Consumers are more knowing and society just doesn't have that deference to authority. That is the environment and if brands don't tell the truth about themselves they'll just waste their money."
The trouble is that the ads are so entertaining aren't they in danger of simply producing gags without any definable strategy? It's a question that clearly touches a nerve. For the first time all the partners become animated.
One faction is appalled at the suggestion. "That's the cliché about us and it's complete bollocks," says Saville. "Take Supernoodles. For years it was good mums, twirly forks, fun in the kitchen, and all that crap. Our strategic insight was that the brand truth lay not in mums giving it to kids but with guys who were too drunk, too stoned, too lazy or too stupid to eat anything else. It wasn't merely a new strategy for the brand, it redefined the entire category."
Medd and Waites on the other hand are delighted that if all consumers can taste in their advertising is the sugar, the hard commercial medicine goes down unnoticed.
But looking at their work you can see that after 10 years perhaps things are changing. In the past they were often accused of being a one-trick pony with ads that invariably used retro irony. But the jewel in their crown this year is a beautifully polished Christmas film for Coke.
It's the story of a woman in small-town America and her life-long relationship with Father Christmas. Coke's brand has always been about the promise of plenty. The magic of Christmas is its promise of abundance. The ad brings the two ideas together in a schmaltzy but brilliant evocation of 1940s America.
For the first time there's no humour, no irony, no smart-arse post-modern references, just unalloyed emotion. It was difficult for Mother, says Saville: "The only way to handle the Coke brand is to embrace its values, which are very pure and not allow yourself to back out through your own lack of comfort with emotion. The temptation in the ad is for her to slip on a banana skin or for someone to throw a bottle at her. But we resisted."
So Mother is starting to grow up. By their own admission, they have specialised in helping ailing "tertiary" brands like Lilt or Supernoodles. The question is, can they deal with mainstream global brands like Coke and still retain their edge?
Watch with Mother: the secrets behind five key campaigns
Much of Mother's output has consisted until very recently of tightly-targeted campaigns for what they call "tertiary" brands. As a result they and their work remain more of a cult for the advertising cognoscenti than a mass-market phenomenon.
However one campaign has entered the mainstream: their brilliant series of ads for Orange that runs in cinemas during the "gold spot" - the 60 seconds after the trailers and ads, but before the start of the main feature.
The 12 commercials to date show major stars such as Steven Seagal, Darryl Hannah, Patrick Swayze and Carrie Fisher pitching ideas to the Orange Film Board, a group of hideous corporate lickspittles whose insensitivity destroys every idea put in front of them.
The ads may be about film but they tap into our fear of powerful unfeeling corporations. After all, we have all dealt with an Orange Film Board at some point in our lives haven't we? We've all come across corporate jobsworths and self-serving philistines whose crass ignorance tramples all over our creative dreams and aspirations.
Who will forget for instance Roy Scheider's pitch for a "film noir" project being subverted into "film Orange" by some time-serving putz of a brand manager.
Ostensibly the ads are simply public-service announcements. Each ends with the line: "Don't let a mobile phone ruin your movie. Please switch it off." But by ridiculing business they position Orange as a hip, socially responsible, corporation that understands us and has an almost unique ability to laugh at itself.
One of Mother's most daring ads is for Supernoodles, based on the plot of West Side Story. Two gangs, The Health Freaks and The Slobs, dance for supremacy. The Healthies have the better moves but The Slobs just slap them with their Supernoodle-fuelled bellies and win the day. "We couldn't have done it without the strategic insight that the product was actually a 49p sack of crap," explains creative partner Robert Saville winningly.
The poshness of Pimms gets similar treatment in Mother's recent "Pimms o'clock" campaign. The brand is personified as a friendly upper-class twit in an attempt to staunch the class fear of oiks like us, which apparently prevents us from drinking more of the delicious elixir.
One company not noted for its sense of irony is Coca Cola. Yet Mother's commercial explaining that Fanta light has been replaced by Fanta Z showed people spitting out the Light product in expressions of disgust. "It's not spitting, it's oral evacuation," insists Robert Saville, who is clearly more concerned about advertising regulators than the client. "I don't know how we got away with it," laugh the Mother partners.
And then there is this year's Coke ad shot in glorious 1940s technicolour. It's a Christmas sob-fest, (apparently women wept openly in research) without so much as a hint or irony, sarcasm, subtext or even humour. Robert Saville describes it as one of the hardest things the agency has ever done.
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