Mother is the Holy Trinity according to creative director Mark Waites: "We do the best work we can, make some money and have fun." Rob Carney meets the agency that's redefining the advertising rulebook.
"When you go home at Christmas, you'll meet all of your aunties, uncles and cousins and they will say: 'You work in advertising, what do you do? What ads have you done?' And at that point, have an answer."
Mark Waites, founding partner and joint creative director at Mother London has an answer alright; a sprawling list of some of the most creative, thought-provoking and original campaigns ever to have graced the small and large screen. "I think that's a really good challenge to set yourself," he says, referring to his opening statement, "because this thing is called 'advertising'. It's not called 'hiving' or 'wallpaper' - what we do should be very, very visible. And absolutely memorable."
Mother's campaigns are certainly memorable, and it was the most nominated UK representative at Cannes Lions 2009, the international advertising festival. Formerly at McCann Erickson, Waites founded the agency in December 1996 alo ng with Robert Saville, Stef Calcraft and Libby Brockhoff. Out of the four founders, Brockhoff is the only one to have left, and two new partners - Andy Medd and Matthew Clark - have since joined.
So what makes Mother different to other London agencies? Well, for starters you could look at its often surreal, edgy and at times dark output. Campaigns like Rubberduckzilla and Cactus Kid for Oasis combined the risqu© with the downright bizarre - the latter being banned by the ASA for "condoning underage sex and pregnancy".
Secondly, the agency is a smaller, more intimate affair. Account managers don't exist, the tasks of liaising with clients divvied up amongst the team of creatives working on the project. As Waites says in an interview with advertising community site ihaveanidea.org: "There are a whole bunch of old-school creatives who like to sit in their offices, close the door, give their work to the account manager and never meet the client. That's not how we work here."
Instead, creatives who are working on the project sit down and talk to the clients - it makes perfect sense to everyone but those in the ad industry, it seems. Mother is a refreshing, young agency that does things differently. Its offices, for instance, in the heart of London's trendiest Shoreditch, feature chainmail dividers, antique furniture and, best of all, pictures of every employee's mother framed on the wall.
At its core, though, Mother sets out to do what every other agency needs to do to survive. "It's all about solving clients' problems," says Waites. "It's all we ever do, and they [clients' needs] can be quite varied these days. Traditionally it would be 'make a TV commercial to tell people about this product or this service', but increasingly it becomes not just about that - integration is becoming the key." By integration, Waites is referring to a more complete, digital solution - everything from website to TV commercial to iPhone app. "The media landscape is changing all the time," he says. "Even television isn't what it was a few years ago - it's high definition and it's interactive."
So does this make it easier or harder for creative agencies? "You could argue," he pauses, "and I'm not going to say this, but it should be easier to come up with new ideas because these media or those applications have never existed before." He quickly backtracks: "But of course it's not, it still has to be relevant and engaging. It's about how quickly and easily we adapt. A few years ago the whole idea of doing an iPhone app, an application on a telephone that benefits a client - no-one would have understood what you were talking about."
"One of the biggest challenges for us at the moment is convincing our clients that we're not the 'ad agency'," Waites continues. "If people see us as the ad agency they'll just come here for the advertising, whereas we've always billed ourselves as an agency that's capable of doing far more than just an ad, and like to think we've proved that rather successfully. We'll do the ad, but we recognise that this comes as part of a bigger world and we can integrate various other types of communication."
Mother's lust for memorable, different takes on advertising can prove quite threatening for some clients. Waites is quick to tell us that the agency wants to work with people who share the same sense of what good communication is, and if Mother is excited about an idea, the client should be too. You get the distinct feeling that Mother is not an agency that's fond of compromises. "There have been a couple of uncomfortable partings over the years, when we've realised we can't work with a client because our views on good communication and good marketing are so vastly different," says Waites. On the flipside, Mother has been known to do jobs for free. Yep, you heard that right.
In fact, one of Waites' favourite jobs at Mother was a project back in 2002 for Britart.com. A controversial campaign at the time, the poster industry was in uproar due to it seemingly promoting illegal flyposting. "We went around and labelled street furniture as though it were a work of art," says Waites. "We won a Gold Pencil at D&AD, but made no money." Another example of Mother's intelligent take on advertising is spin-off brand Mother Vision, which was started last year.
"We wanted to start developing longer-form content for clients - a good example of which is a short film or a movie such as Somers Town, which we made for Eurostar last year," explains Waites. "Dipping our toes in the water of creating TV or film is keeping it really interesting." Said movie Somers Town is a tale of friends living near King's Cross, and feels like any Shane Meadows gritty flick. But it was in fact the first film to come out of Mother Vision, and funded by Eurostar. With no overt branding for the train company, the film relies on the central theme of the station and train to get the message across. It's not as big a risk as, say, getting an unknown filmmaker to direct a movie (Meadows obviously has a large following), but nevertheless, it's a different take on promoting a brand.
On the subject of takes, Mother recently worked with Unilever to bring Pot Noodle - the delicious snack for students and single men - to the stage. Pot Noodle: The Musical was, would you believe, a critical and theatrical success.
At this point we're introduced to Damien Eley - one of the creatives on the account - who runs us through the idea. "Steve and Digger are two singing flatmates who profess their love for Pot Noodle, while always dreaming of bigger things," he begins. "Instead of just ads, we wrote a feature-length story of their life, their relationships and a quest to save the world from the evil head of the Pot Noodle Factory Empire." He continues, outlining the process in more detail: "After the success of ads based on this idea, we took the long-form script back to our client. Mother had recently had success making the award-winning feature-length movie Somers Town, and Unilever, after much understandable nervousness, embraced the long-form idea to the hilt. We gave the script to renowned comedy director David Sant, who brought in a stellar cast of professional theatrical performers. We booked a slot at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Pot Noodle: The Musical was born."
So what was the reaction? "People loved it, people hated it, but it played to sell-out audiences the entire run of the festival," says Eley. "It is now the bedrock of all Pot Noodle advertising and a new flavour, Kebab, was developed after featuring in the musical." Plans are afoot to one day tour the world.
Changing tack considerably from flogging that archetypal student snack, Mother's launch campaign for Stella Artois 4% oozes Continental class. "Although Stella Artois has a great cinematic heritage, the commercials were set in rural towns and villages, so it felt wrong to try and sell a smooth beer in this environment," explains Mother's Gustavo Sousa, creative director on the campaign. "We wanted to bring the brand into a more contemporary setting, and we thought the 1960s French Riviera would be a great place for it to live."
"1960s cinema is a very rich place to get inspiration from - especially Jean-Luc Godard and Fran§ois Truffaut's Nouvelle Vague," Sousa continues. "Once we established that as a tone of voice for the campaign, we started writing television scripts, web films and print. It made sense to us that the print should feel like the film posters from that era."
The print ads had to look genuine, as though they could have run in the 1960s. Sousa and his team considered various options before eventually deciding to approach the iconic American artist and illustrator Robert McGinnis.
Such is the power of Mother, McGinnis came out of retirement to do the job. "We called Robert up - in fact, we sent an email to his son Kyle, and to our surprise Robert said that he was retired, but still willing to do it," says Sousa. "It was an absolute pleasure working with him and a real honour. Robert is the real deal: he did the illustrations for most of the 1960s James Bond posters, plus Barbarella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and so on. So getting him to illustrate our print is really just like getting Godard to direct one of our TV spots or web films. If we didn't have Robert on board, I think it just wouldn't have looked as genuine."
While we're discussing beer, Waites has a few things to say about his favourite ads: " I grew up in the 1970s, watching Heineken adverts. Essentially that was the stuff that got me into the industry. They were just incredible little films. Amazing little stories. I watch them now, and they are so beautifully shot, and so beautifully cast. People like Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and Hugh Hudson were making them. These directors went on to be world-class filmmakers, and it shows."
Just as Mother is synonymous with ground-breaking formats and astonishingly good ideas, Orange's Gold Spots are pretty much synonymous with UK cinema. Although this account has since been scooped by Fallon, Mother made these mickey-taking shorts into a phenomenon - once again finding a new, innovative way to reach audiences.
"The client loved the idea of using a fictitious board to show that Orange not only understood the film industry very well, but were also prepared to laugh at it," says Stephen Butler, creative director on the campaign. The fictional 'Orange Film Funding Board' interrupt, insult and generally interfere with celebrities such as Snoop Dogg (changing his lyrics), Rob Lowe (not being able to get past his good looks) and Macaulay Culkin (turning his prison movie into a Home Alone-esque farce).
"Film-goers are typically a really nice audience to target," says Butler. "They're savvy and appreciate irony, so using engaging and self-deprecating humour wasn't too much of a risk in this case. In fact, the aim was to show that Orange understood film, and in that sense the campaign proved to be a huge success."
As Waites ducks back in and then dives into a taxi to head to New York to iron out some potential problems with the Stella account, he leaves us with a few choice words - further enforcing the fact that this is an exciting agency to work at.
"We don't want to compromise on having fun - it's hard enough as it is," he laughs. "And we certainly don't compromise on the work. All we are and what sets us apart is our belief in doing great work. After that we try and find the kind of people who want to do the kind of work we want to do. It's the easiest thing in the world to be a mediocre ad agency, let me tell you that."