Mother at 25: a retrospective from a proud and loving parent

It was on 13 December 1996 that Campaign broke the news that Robert Saville and Stef Calcraft were setting up Mother. Along with two other founders, they built one of the UK’s most admired, independent ad agencies, described as “Disneyland for creatives” in our special feature in the Autumn 2021 issue to mark the 25th anniversary. Here, Calcraft recalls what makes Mother unique.

Stef Calcraft: co-founded Mother
Stef Calcraft: co-founded Mother

Much has been written over the years to celebrate Mother as she has grown up and come of age. But as she has reached her first quarter century, here is one story that has not yet been told.

This is the story of getting to the truth of things, of how Mother turned convention on its head and how it invariably paid off.

And hand in hand with this, it is the story of the other ventricle inside the beating heart of Mother: the most exceptional generation of thinkers and entrepreneurs who linked arms with Mother’s extraordinary writers and art directors to make the remarkable happen.

But to tell this story we need to start where every story starts.             

The beginning

The day had finally come. It was December 1996 and I sat at my desk in Kingly Street and wrote out three separate letters – one to each of the knights of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Fate was on my side. Sir John Hegarty, Sir Nigel Bogle and John Bartle, a knight in all but title, all happened to be in the agency that day.

I called my new partner-to-be Robert Saville and said: “Shall we do this?” He replied straight away: “Yes, let’s do it.”

As I resigned to B,B and H in turn, they all asked me why, wished me luck and then did something I have never forgotten.

Each said that if I ever needed anything, all I had to do was ask. The most honourable and decent of men.

For the last time that day, I walked out of the Ferrari of world advertising – as BBH was at the time – and went straight to Heathrow.

Three hours later, I landed in Amsterdam. It was bitterly cold. I took a taxi to a budget hotel and walked into a deserted restaurant.

There, waiting for me was Robert. I asked him how Gold Greenlees Trott had gone. He had done the same as I had – resigned and left that afternoon. He said it had been fine, no recriminations.

We ordered a drink, clinked glasses and let what we had just done sink in.

Campaign was going to press that evening and news of our departure was about to be public.

Led Zeppelin meets McKinsey 

We spent the next day at KesselsKramer, a Dutch start-up that was selflessly helping us get up and running. The experience of that day left a lasting impression. 

They were maverick creatives but it was their gut-driven strategic thinking that stood out most to me. Led Zeppelin meets McKinsey. Radical, smart and visceral in their logic.

This was the strategic blueprint we took forward for Mother. Strategy and creativity as a team sport. Everyone around the table. Involved. No bookish, sequential, reductive thinking. But the truth of people and brands laid bare.

Created seamlessly with business and creativity welded together. To inspire work that people would find impossible to miss.

To enshrine this, we also famously removed “suits” from the equation. This was seen as heresy at the time. But it made everything work faster and better. No translated conversations. You had to have a “product” to sit at the Mother table – whether a writer, art director, strategist or producer, client brief owner or media partner.

The only thing that mattered was that you could make a positive contribution to the collective conversation. The strategy and work leapt forward organically in real time. Today this is called “agile working”. Back then “agile” was a term used to describe cats.

We did all this because it made instinctive sense. We were in a hurry. New. We didn’t fit the mould. We even had a ridiculous name. At least that is what many thought when we chose to call ourselves Mother rather than “put our names over the door”, which most new agencies were still doing at the time.

But we were on a mission. And in all this newness we found the best collaborators and partners to grow the model. Clients.

The truth of things 

We described our clients as “people who want to make a difference”. A new and inspiring generation of marketers.

They came to us and found they could get much more intimately involved in the work – its inception and realisation. And because they were more plugged in, the work shone as a consequence.

More often than not, people asked us privately, and some publicly, how did we “sell” the work that made the impact it did?

The simple answer was that our clients felt it was their work as much as ours. We invariably went on shared journeys of discovery to unlock the briefs we had to solve together. In truth, we never had to “sell” anything.

We had to work harder instead, to find the truth of things – of audiences and the brands that we needed them to care about.

This collective endeavour was behind all of Mother’s greatest work. Here is the briefest of retrospectives: 

Super Noodles. We catapulted the previously sad, unloved and anonymous noodle from kids’ tea time oblivion into the ultimate hangover munchie food for young adults. Featuring some of the UK’s most entertaining work ever, “Shirt” was among the very best and gave Martin Freeman his first big TV break. The business exploded.

Boots. We injected “girl power” into the “matron of the British high street” to celebrate the 80% of Boots customers who mattered most. In unashamedly turning the brand female, "Here come the girls" rocked mid-noughties marketing.

Stella Artois. We airlifted the infamous lager lout’s favourite pint out of a sodden, 19th-century, French peasant quagmire and transplanted it into the glamour of the 1960s French Riviera. “Fall” kick-started the brand’s return to fame, fortune and sophistication.

GREAT. Starting as a small design brief, submitted among 200 other agency responses, we took the superlative in our name to celebrate all that makes the British Isles the most creative and inspiring place in the world. The GREAT campaign has gone on to become the most successful and longest-running global marketing campaign run by any nation, anywhere on the planet.

Ikea. We worked with this most brilliant of clients to put their purpose, “To create a better everyday life for the many people”, at the heart of Ikea’s advertising in the UK. Over the previous 25 years the business had not done this. With this, The wonderful wveryday was born. Among the pantheon of stunning Ikea work, the glorious and incomparable Beds sits rightly above all others in the clouds.

Look inside everything Mother does and you will see the same truth of things shining through.

The other ventricle

To orchestrate the conversations, the leaps in logic, the research programmes and business cases, took a different type of thinker and operator. A breed who would actively choose to sit behind the screens in research groups, alongside their creative partners and clients to identify and understand what would make the biggest difference and impact. To then galvanise everything and everyone to make whatever was needed happen.

These leaders made up Mother’s other ventricle and worked arm in arm with the creatives to fulfil Mother’s Holy Trinity:

1. Do the best work we possibly can.

2. Make a living.

3. Have fun.

Collectively, they represent one the most successful groups of creative entrepreneurs to have ever emerged from a single agency:

Jonathan Mildenhall, strategy director (2005-06). Vice-president global advertising, Coca-Cola ; chief marketing officer Airbnb; founder 21st Century Brands

Natalie Graeme, head of business development (2009-2012). Managing director, Grey Advertising; founder Uncommon Creative Studio

Sara Tate, managing director (2007-2017). Partner, Lucky Generals; chief executive TBWA; business mentor, London & Partners

Dylan Williams, chief strategy officer (2005-2014). Global chief strategy officer, Publicis Groupe; partner and chief strategy officer, Droga5

Jessica Lovell, strategy director (2002-2013). Executive strategy director, Adam & Eve; founder and chief strategy officer, Wonderhood Studios

Lisa de Bonis, strategy director (2003-2007). Founder, Work Club; global chief experience officer, Huge

Britt Iversen, strategy director (2001-2010). Founder, Fabula; executive strategy director, Havas London

Nik Upton, head of Mothers (2004-2012). Founder, Joint; chief operating officer, Lucky Generals, Dark Horses and Wild Things

Zaid Al-Zaidy, strategy director (2004-2008). Chief executive, McCann London; founder and group CEO, The Beyond Collective

Garbhan O’Bric, head of business development (2005-2008). Global brand director, Baileys; president, Ridley Scott Creative Group

Andy Bellass, strategy director (1999-2007). Partner, Splendid Communications; founder, Purpose-INC

Sophie Lewis, strategist (2006-2008). CSO, VMLY&R; CSO, DentsuMB; CSO, M&C Saatchi

A quarter of a century ago, none of us thought we would be writing retrospectives on something that turned out to be so remarkable. But, thanks to those above, their amazing creative partners, our clients, partners and countless others, we built something that has stood the test of time. Something that has inspired a generation of thinkers, creators and entrepreneurs to believe in building something good. Something better.

And that story continues today.

Stef Calcraft co-founded Mother with Robert Saville, Mark Waites and Libby Brockoff in December 1996. He stayed for 19 years until she came of age in 2015. Stef is now global CEO, creative transformation, at MediaCom.

Read UK editor Maisie McCabe’s feature on Mother at 25: ‘It’s like Disneyland for creatives’ from the Autumn 2021 issue and our original news story about Saville and Calcraft setting up the agency from December 1996.

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