In the run-up to this interview with Mother, colleagues warn me not to be too soft. Soft? I'm positively squishy about Mother. I try to stiffen my sinews by reminding myself of its "hard-nosed businessman" commercials for Orange, which the company's former chief executive, Hans Snook, described as "absolutely the worst things I have ever seen". I think about the Lilt ladies wrestling, inexplicably, with weatherman Ian McCaskill. I think about the new-business consultant who tells me Mother is chaos to work with. I think about Mother's precious attitude to its own brand.
Oh, balls to all that. Mother is living proof that an agency can be original, creative, innovative and successful; proof that there is a growth model outside the "build a 'mini' big agency, wait to get bought" formula. In honour of its tenth birthday, we arrange the first-ever interview with its five partners at a single time. Step forward Robert Saville, 45, Stef Calcraft, 43, Mark Waites, 44, Andy Medd, 40 and Matthew Clark, 40.
Mother, meanwhile, is being precious. First, the partners agree to be interviewed, then we nearly have to cancel because they won't be photographed together by Campaign.
Saville calls and I talk fast, declaring that if a group shot is good enough for every other agency in Campaign's history, then it's good enough for Mother. Saville counters that he's never sanctioned a straight shot of the partners, because he cares so deeply about everything being "true to the brand". He says that the US magazine Creativity shot five near-naked models instead of the partners ("a tribute to vanity"). Even the FT showed them sitting in their old Sprite caravan sporting huge handlebar moustaches.
We have a long philosophical ramble about issues of editorial control and "protecting one's brand", and somehow we agree that they will be photographed. But they will be made up as grumpy old men, the joke being that "the first ten years have aged us by 40". We are all a little shaken, but the interview date has arrived.
The reception at Mother's HQ in Shoreditch feels normal enough for an ad agency. Toughened, tinted glass doors, a stainless-steel desk, terribly beautiful and terribly friendly staff. It's only when you climb two steep sets of stairs to reveal a huge open space dominated by a concrete slab tabletop, at which more than a hundred people can sit, that the differences emerge. The table is a metaphor for what Mother holds dear - open communication, dialogue and equality.
Mother was born in December 1996, when the founders Mark Waites, a creative at McCann Erickson's Amster Yard in New York; Stef Calcraft, an account director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty; and Libby Brockhoff, an American art director from GGT, got a call from Robert Saville. The former joint creative director at GGT had been given just two weeks to complete the creative presentation for a huge media spend by Channel 5's marketing director, David Brook, and he needed good people around him.
The team prepared the British public for Channel 5's launch early in 1997 through 270 press ads, 50 posters, three TV ads and a sea of below-the-line activity, all created in four months. By then, Mother had a name, coined by Brockhoff, with its contradictory undertones as the macho mother of all agencies, as well as a family firm and a nurturer of good, sensible ideas. Its philosophy from the start sounds equally homespun: to "do the best work you can, make a living and have fun" - in that order.
People wondered, was it wise to set up for a single client? Wasn't this the less ostentatious 90s version of Kevin Morley Marketing, which set up to service Rover? Saville argued that he had plenty of approaches to start up agencies with no clients, and it must be better to set up with a client, "especially if it is a client who wants to do all the things I want to do".
From the outset, Mother wasn't about creating a traditional agency that would be hungrily hunting down new business, or seeking out a prestigious property in Golden Square. It did away with rigid roles. It recruited from abroad when the practice was uncommon, so that today, its London agency of 120 staff is more than 50 per cent foreign. The partners pair up to lead projects and pitches, and there are no account managers or planners in the traditional sense.
"We tried to take our references from a broader palette, from writers in the US, Scandinavian designers and so on. Shoreditch wasn't about pounds per square foot, it was us saying from here, you can see further," Saville says.
Above all, Mother wanted clients to feel involved in its output to an unprecedented degree. The principles of this sound trite but, together, they encapsulate what has attracted clients of varying sizes and across most product categories to the agency.
Famously, everyone sits around that big table - creatives, strategists, producers, "mothers" (as they are called, equivalent to suits elsewhere), finance and "nannies" (PAs). Clients, when they come in, sit alongside these staff and pitching is no different."We've always approached pitching as if a client is already working with us," Calcraft says. "No red carpets, no stunts, and none of the normal schmoozing. We believe the best clients don't have time for this, and are not interested in it."
From the outset, it seemed to work. A year from opening its doors in Soho Square, and before it had headed east to Clerkenwell, campaigns and wins snowballed. Early output included work for Magic FM, Batchelors Super Noodles, Virgin.net, Coca-Cola's Lilt, and Kickers - all funny, entertaining campaigns. Critics, as ever, when faced with another agency's success, sharpened their knives.
In the formative days of an agency, a successful campaign can exert an influence on its overall output. Was Mother's early knockabout style on most things, from Magic FM to Lilt and Vodka Source, overtly influenced by its work for Batchelors Super Noodles?
The background is that the agency joined the Unilever roster in May 1997, when it won the Super Noodles pitch against M&C Saatchi and Still Price Lintas. The work repositioned Super Noodles from a side dish eaten with meat and veg, towards a snack food for adults. Featuring "real-life-on-a-sofa" vignettes, it tapped into the subversive culture of the target market, and set the tone for an unashamedly populist reel.
The highlight spot came in 2001, with a pastiche of West Side Story where, instead of the Sharks and Jets, the rival gangs comprised health nuts, such as Lentils and Brown Rice, and slobs, including Lager and Fried Eggs. The healthy foodies danced beautifully, the slobs were hopeless. Using their huge bellies, however, the slobs won. It worked - and people loved it.
This kind of work certainly allowed people to dismiss Mother as a gag factory, but Waites says: "We were never afraid to do populist work, and in that we were doing nothing new, we were copying John Webster and others."
Medd adds: "The reel is broader now, but it wasn't a conscious decision on our part, it's a symptom of the clients we have now."
Given his role as creative director at an agency where the work is everything, and his dominant shareholding (of which more later), does Saville wield undue influence? No, the partners insist. The company is run on a consensual basis - "one man, one vote" - on all issues. They haven't gone to a shareholder vote in ten years.
In fact, Mother seems to be based on moving partnerships - Saville and Calcraft, Saville and Waites, Saville and Medd, and so on. In other words, varying partnerships depending on the issue(s) at stake.
What's true is that like most good, enduring partnerships, it comprises wildly different characters with distinct roles - all apart from Saville, who admits he "meddles in everything". He and Calcraft, more bullish than the others, need reining in on occasion, but espouse the values of the agency to the outside world with genuine passion. Medd, the former Coke client, keeps close contacts with the marketing community and focuses on the internal culture. Waites, better known than Saville outside of the UK, travels the globe on behalf of Mother. Clark - known as "Mr Money" - is far from the pushy or confrontational finance guy.
Based on the rules set by large American agencies, Mother would have grown internationally on the back of clients whose budgets were big enough to justify opening a branch office. Instead, and here goes another sacred cow, its strategy has been to "create a ripple" in a market where like-minded staff could be found to grow a business domestically. Thus, in New York, at Mother Inc, the biggest clients are Virgin, Coke, Miller, LVMH and Johnson & Johnson - only two of which, Coke and J&J, are with Mother London. In Buenos Aires, at Madre, the clients include Camper and Banco Hipotecario, both domestic accounts.
Over a decade, the agency's clients have powered Mother to consistent and substantial growth. A rummage through the accounts for Mother Holdings (which comprises the three ad agencies and stakes in four subsidiaries) reveals that turnover in 1998, when detailed numbers were filed for the first time, was £6,251,321 and pre-tax profit was £336,576.
By 2005, turnover was £49,490,367 and pre-tax profit was £3,452,610. Its operating margin of 14.74 per cent in 2005 is good (but not exceptional, AMV's is 18.2 per cent), and Mother is good at keeping the ratio of staff costs to income stable.
Expansion outside the core agency by discipline and internationally has been the key factor to Mother's growth, which it has never borrowed cash to fund. It took a 25 per cent stake in the media strategist Naked, then 59 per cent of the new-media specialist Poke, a stake in the design agency Saturday, and 7 per cent of the TV production company Monkey.
The partners' individual stakes in these companies vary according to which one of them brings the deal to the table. According to Calcraft: "The point is creating a number of 'best-in-class' businesses around us. We share a minority of business, but they are all destinations in their own right."
Saville adds: "There's loads of areas to fill, we aren't through the full set."
Bob Willott awarded Mother maximum marks in his Marketing Services Financial Intelligence Awards in 2005. He says the agency is highly saleable - if ever the partners wanted to do so. He said: "Their unconventional style belies sound business sense underneath. Their balance sheet is strong, with no debt and £6.9 million of shareholders' funds retained. This indicates that Mother has a prudent and persuasive hand at the financial helm."
Saville and his partners insist that independence is key. All feel that Mother's destiny is to be the best agency in the world in the wild, the worst in captivity. "Hands up who wants to sell!" Saville says, as his partners pointedly sit on their hands.
"If you sell Mother, you'd kill it," Calcraft says. "We want to keep our culture clean and pure."
"Simply by resisting the gravitational pull to sell, we've ended up looking like radicals," Waites reckons.
"People sit me down and poke me in the chest, demanding to know when we're selling," Medd laughs.
Ritual denials dutifully recorded, we proceed to discuss other routes forward for Mother, ones that might preserve the culture, allow the founders to venture further, take out some cash and retain independence.To do this, we must bring up the issue of who owns what, a subject that provokes Saville. "Equity shares are irrelevant," he says. "You're not going to make a big thing of it, are you?" Anyway, he owns 45 per cent of Mother Holdings. Calcraft has 25 per cent, Waites 15 per cent, Medd 10 per cent and Clark 5 per cent.
Meanwhile, Mother Advertising, comprising the London agency, is 90 per cent owned by Mother Holdings. In 2001, 10 per cent of the agency was given to the staff in share options, these based on performance and tenure.
This was replicated for Mother's two international offices - Mother Inc in New York, opened in 2003, and Madre, in Buenos Aires, opened in 2005. Four local partners and staff own 49 per cent of New York, with Mother Holdings owning the rest. Three partners and staff own 40 per cent in Buenos Aires.
With the staff holding only 10 per cent of the London agency, extending that stake seems to offer a chance to let some young blood through. The founding partners show no desire or intention to leave, but may wish to move on from their current roles. "One day," Clark says, "Mother London could become 50 per cent employee-owned, and then we'd have a lot of equity to play with."
So much, so different. And yet, on occasion, Mother has proved itself subject to the same old advertising laws, beginning with: If you grow too fast, your quality suffers. "We've never eaten anything bigger than the size of our head," Saville says. "And when we did, it took us a year to digest it."
He is referring to 2003 when Mother won the enormous Boots and Orange accounts and, in the process, lost its edge. "We had to make tough decisions," Saville says, "to shed people who weren't right for our culture. We weren't at our most competitive."
"We were like a python that had eaten two huge meals. As we digested that business, some of the work suffered," Medd says.
How does the agency that set out to put the work first feel about its output in 2006, a year when it lost Orange, excluding the cinema brief, to Publicis Groupe? "Really good," Medd says. "It feels vibrant again."
Saville, always Mother's sternest critic, sums it up: "Our highs could be higher, but we have far fewer turkeys than we used to, and fewer than most."
Is it inevitable that Mother will become more serious with age? Will it turn into JWT when the partners are 40 years older? The signs are against this. As I finish this piece, a "round-robin" e-mail pops up, giving an account of a largely useless greyhound called Jus for Christmas, which Mother has bought and issued shares in. Why? Who knows, but that love of entertainment (juvenilia? - you decide) around the Mother brand endures. And work this year for Amnesty, Orange and Boots reeks of the old magic. If Mother is going to turn into JWT, then it had better get cracking. But that would be a great loss to the world, or at least to advertising's little corner of it.
PEERS AND CLIENTS ON MOTHER
"Mother is passionate, it really cares. It forces you to rethink your whole brand and customer focus, not just the advertising." - RICHARD BAKER, chief executive, Boots
"I think of Mother as a genuinely different business, with strong beliefs, a different way of working and an irreverent approach that debunked a lot of conventional thinking." - NIGEL BOGLE, worldwide chief executive, Bartle Bogle Hegarty
"The thing I have always loved about Mother is that it tells you how it sees it. It has an opinion and a point of view which it will argue passionately, whereas other agencies I have known would rather hang on every word the client has to say and agree with your 'insightfulness', however wrong it may be.
"The only thing that ever matters is the work. And that is how it should be - a strong desire to create the most effective, cut-through advertising possible." - JEREMY DALE, vice-president, global retail and channel marketing, Motorola
"I'm not sure I could point to any genius bit of planning output, but I think that's testament to Mother's ability to create work where the strategy and the creative are inextricably linked." - RUSSELL DAVIES, founder, The Open Intelligence Agency
"Mother never stops challenging, surprising and pushing the boundaries. Over the years, it has shown real versatility, delivering work for Coca-Cola brands, ranging from humour (Dr Pepper - which everyone expects), to poignancy and emotion ("I wish" for Coca-Cola) and tongue-in-cheek sophistication (Schweppes).
"Working with Mother is a bit like the creative process itself - not too much process, but lots of passion, debate and a sense of conviction and co-creation. It's not afraid to take risks; that's exciting for its clients." - JULIA GOLDIN, division marketing director, North-West Europe, Coca-Cola
"Mother is one of the main reasons that it is no longer assumed that the future of our business lies with the multinationals." - PAUL HAMMERSLEY, partner, The Red Brick Road
"Mother doesn't take a brief, go quiet and come back with work two weeks later. During this process, you will find yourself thinking about your problem, brief or brand as never before and, as a result, you feel you have helped find the answer together. Then it turns the thinking through to superb creativity." - PAULA QUAZI, business group director, Unilever UK
MILESTONES AT MOTHER
1996: Robert Saville, Stef Calcraft, Mark Waites and Libby Brockhoff open Mother's first office in Soho Square.
1997: Mother's first campaign for Channel 5 - "Have you been retuned?" (pictured above). First TV campaigns: "As if by Magic" for Magic FM, and "Jack Docherty" for Channel 5.
Joins the Unilever roster with Batchelors Super Noodles win. Joins Coca-Cola roster, winning Lilt from McCann Erickson, and later creating the Lilt grannies, who went on to feature in a Levi's "odyssey" spoof.
Joins Whitbread roster. Wins Vodka Source new brand assignment.
1998: The Coca-Cola marketing director and fourth partner, Andy Medd, joins. The agency moves to St John Street, Clerkenwell. Brockhoff leaves to return to the US.
1999: Matthew Clark, the finance director and fifth partner, joins.
2000: Wins ITV Digital pitch against Leagas Delaney and creates "Al and Monkey" campaign (pictured below).Creates work for Cup-a-Soup, Organics, Dr Pepper and Schweppes.
Wins D&AD black Pencil for Britart.com and Cannes Gold for Dr Pepper "emergency". Backs John Harlow, Jon Wilkins and Will Collin to start Naked Communications.
2001: Backs Poke launch. Wins Campaign Agency of the Year 2001.
Loses Harvey Nichols and Typhoo after the company was bought by Premier International Foods. Creates acclaimed "West Side Story" spot for Super Noodles (pictured above).
2002: Wins Orange pitch against Bartle Bogle Hegarty, M&C Saatchi and WCRS. Wins Campaign Agency of the Year 2002. Asked to design the D&AD Annual cover (pictured above), Mother creates a journey into the bizarre for D&AD's imaginary Victorian cousin, Dulverton & Asquith-Drake.
2003: Backs design agency Saturday. Wins Coca-Cola. Wins the communications brief for Boots' UK retail operation and brands (pictured above) after a battle against a WPP Group team led by the incumbents, J Walter Thompson and MindShare. A Mother-led group pitches under the name of "Los Galacticos", after the football superstars playing for Real Madrid. Mother New York opens.
2004: Mother London moves to the Biscuit Building, Shoreditch. Mother's "I wish" spot for Coca-Cola (pictured below) becomes the soft-drinks giant's first ad created outside the US to run in the US.
2005: Madre opens in Buenos Aires.
2006: Mother reunites "Al and Monkey" to be the face of PG Tips, winning the business from DDB. After losing to Publicis in France Telecom's Orange pitch, it retains the "goldspot" cinema campaign (pictured below). Jonathan Mildenhall, the strategy director at Mother, is appointed as the vice-president of global marketing at Coca-Cola. Mother New York launches a hotdog stand, Dogmatic. Mother London partners with Nick Jones of Soho House to create Shoreditch House in the Biscuit Building, opening in 2007.
Mother now has 12 partners (pictured below) covering its three offices ... (from left to right) Andrew Deitchman (strategist, NY), Gabriela Bayala (creative, Buenos Aires), Linus Karlsson (creative, NY), Rob DeFlorio (strategist, NY), Robert Saville, Alejandro Dominguez (strategist, Buenos Aires), Paul Malmstrom (creative, NY), Stef Calcraft, Andy Medd, Matthew Clark, Mark Waites and Carlos Bayala (creative, Buenos Aires).