Mother Of Invention

Three of the four founding partners of Mother’s New York office take turns gently strumming an acoustic guitar as they review the work they’ve done in their first year in business here.

Clustered around a viewing area in the sparsely furnished loft on Bond Street, the partners, each of whom is building an agency from scratch for the first time, are cautious in discussing their year of living dangerously. A stuffed chicken, a leftover prop from a shoot, decorates the coffee table they’ve gathered around. Hand-picked by the principals of the independent London hot shop to recreate their philosophy on American soil, the four men are proud of what they’ve achieved but well aware of how much they still have to prove.

Starting an agency in New York isn’t easy, and starting one with a brand name like Mother is both a blessing and a curse, in that it brings very high expectations. But in a city where many agency imports—even ones from other U.S. markets—have struggled and failed, Mother has managed in just over a year to cultivate a client list that includes Miller Brewing, Coca-Cola, the NBA, Miramax, Target, Chipotle, The Children’s Place and LVMH. As its London parent did in 1996, the ambitious startup has cracked open some significant doors with projects and brands it can grow with. And it has begun to show early signs of fulfilling the Mother brand promise.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve started to do,” says Linus Karlsson, who, with partner Paul Malmstrom, was wooed from Fallon to launch Mother in New York last November. “We’ve built a really interesting foundation for doing really interesting work for a lot of different clients.”

That work includes an entertaining corporate video for Mexican-style fast-food chain Chipotle about a woman who’s in love with a burrito; humorous NBA Finals spots about “trophy love”; Milwaukee’s Best’s first advertising in years, with ads that embrace the manly lifestyle with the tagline, “Brewed for a man’s taste,”; and a charming campaign for The Children’s Place in which kids make funny faces at the camera. The shop has also served as a creative consultant on Mercury’s “Meet the Lucky Ones” series of Web films out of Young & Rubicam in Detroit.

Yet its biggest success story to date was the “Wake-Up Call” promotion for Target. The multimedia campaign used TV, print and viral ads (and phone calls) to promote a post-Thanksgiving sale. Heidi Klum, Ice-T and Darth Vader man the phones in a fictional call center, alongside agency characters like “Heartbreaker,” “Woman With Cat” and, of course, a rooster. Although the client and agency decline to reveal numbers, Minda Gralnek, creative director at Target, which works with Mother on projects, says, “We’ve gotten a lot of buzz and had a successful sale.”

“This is the first work for all these clients,” says Rob DeFlorio, who spent 11 years at Nike before diving into Mother. “Now we have new goals—to do it better than the first time.”

Last year, the New York creative community was abuzz with rumors that Mother, a creative trailblazer in London known for its unconventional creative work and structure (which is fluid, with no operational titles and no account directors), was expanding to the U.S. Naysayers quipped that American clients would never go for the daring approach. Believers hoped the agency’s presence would create a ripple effect, spreading a new creative energy through an industry often trapped in conventions of its own making and those of its clients.

After Mother’s London partners—Robert Saville, Stef Calcraft, Andrew Medd, Mark Waites and Matthew Clark—chose the team to lead its U.S. expansion, some observers scratched their heads. Why had they entrusted it to a Swedish-American foursome that had never worked for Mother and had no experience running an agency?

“The guys in London are very special. That’s a rare thing they have over there,” says Andy Berlin, chairman of WPP Group’s Berlin Cameron/Red Cell in New York. “There is a kind of angry rejection of the status quo with those guys. Individual credit should never get in the way. There should be no account directors. No matter what happens to it, that’s an interesting idea. Is it possible to create that here? It depends on the creative people and the way the clients respond to them. The agency is not the name. The agency is the people.”

Waites says the agency recruited its U.S. partners based on their work and philosophy about the business. “We chose like-minded individuals,” he says. “But after that, it’s like, ‘Here’s the Mother brand. Now go away and do your interpretation.’ ”

Waites had tried to bring Karlsson and Malmstrom to London many times. “We were just massive fans, which makes a huge difference,” Waites says of the New York creative chiefs. Karlsson, a 36-year-old copywriter, and Malmstrom, a 38-year-old art director, are a strong creative brand unto themselves. They’ve been in the U.S. for nearly a decade but are still referred to simply as “the Swedes” and have a reputation for breakthrough, multiplatform creative. “I just looked at their work, and all of it I wish I had done,” says Waites.

The pair have known each other for most of their adult lives. They met in an ad school in Stockholm in the late ’80s and have worked together ever since. They began at Paradiset DDB in Stockholm in 1990, and by 1996 their work for Diesel Jeans had attracted the attention of Bill Westbrook at Fallon. They moved to Minneapolis, and they wasted no time stirring things up.

Their “Dick” campaign for Miller Lite featured robot love affairs, oddball magic tricks and beer drinkers dancing with Great Danes. It was America’s introduction to a unique sensibility—an odd brew of American pop culture filtered through Swedish television and refiltered back to America. Although the Dick work was polarizing, it won several creative awards, including three gold Lions at Cannes.

Soon the pair moved to Fallon in New York, where they continued to turn heads with work for Lee Jeans (“Buddy Lee, Man of Action”) and MTV (“The Jukka Brothers”)—even for packaged-goods brands like Brawny paper towels. “We were very happy in the States,” says Karlsson.

When Mother called again, this time with a proposal that would keep them in New York and let them build their own agency, they listened. “They were very clear, saying to us, ‘You guys go set it up the way you think is right for the States,’ ” says Karlsson. “Mother in London has given us a great brand, a way to think and a lot to live up to. And more than anything, they keep giving us inspiration.”

DeFlorio, a 43-year-old New York native, began his career in the agency world but spent more than a decade at Nike, most recently as global ad director. Those who have worked with DeFlorio describe him as tough but fair. At Mother, he offers a frequent reminder of a client’s point of view. Asked about upcoming projects (which include next year’s launch of Coca-Cola energy drink Full Throttle), one team member tries to respond, but DeFlorio cuts him off. “I used to rip my agency’s head off when they would say shit like this— partially just for fun, partially because it was really true,” he says, in the name of discretion on behalf of his clients.

The youngest of the four, Andrew Deitchman, 35, who once worked with Waites at Amster Yard, spent time in account management for New York shops such as Euro RSCG, Saatchi & Saatchi and McCann Erickson. Most recently, he had been in London as part of Red Cell’s worldwide management team.

They’ve stuck to many of Mother’s proven methods. Like London, New York is centered around one long table where the 20 or so employees, including the partners, work side by side. (Interactive shop Kirt Gunn & Associates, which brought Mother into the Mercury project, also shares the space, which the agency is quickly outgrowing.) And as in London, creatives make up half of the staff, and everyone inevitably contributes to the creative process. “It’s about being open-minded about creating constellations of people,” says Karlsson.

“This is a great opportunity to start something that we could shape and form,” he adds. Another community-building strategy has been to hold informal gatherings at a local bar to listen to jazz. Yet ultimately it’s about building clients’ businesses. “We want to be the most creative agency and also the most buttoned-up agency,” says Karlsson.

Competitors in New York say they’ve heard little from the agency, which has won most of its business through direct client contact rather than consultant-run reviews and has even turned business away. It did prevail in reviews for Full Throttle, Milwaukee’s Best and Children’s Place but lost the Converse pitch to San Francisco’s Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners. The agency declines to reveal its billings figures, even to new-business consultants, says Deitchman. “We measure things by the work we do and if people are happy working here,” he says.

DeFlorio adds: “We are ahead of where we thought we would be. So we’re pleasantly surprised.”

Mother’s clients, from Target to Chipotle, say the nontraditional setup that critics predicted would scare off clients has not been a hindrance. “We could see there wasn’t a lot of bureaucracy, and the partners have been very accessible and very open,” says Dave Dixon, director of economy brands at Miller. “They are a lean organization that I find very easy to work with.”

Cindy Gallop, chairman of London-based Bartle Bogle Hegarty, stresses that it takes a long time to build an agency in New York, even with an established brand name. Only in the last few years has BBH really broken through in New York, she says, with the 2002 win of Levi’s (the office opened in 1998). “I really empathize,” she says. “Because we have such a good global reputation, the expectations were sky high.”

With work like Children’s Place and Target, the shop has made a bright start, Gallop says. “Target was a fantastic concept, a really brilliant marketing idea,” she says. “I found it tremendously engaging and entertaining. It’s very much in line with what we expect from Mother.” Plus, she adds, “Our industry wants to see more innovative solutions. It helps us all.”

Mother London is the fifth partner, says Karlsson, and has been as supportive as, well, a mother. But it’s up to the U.S. partners to prove themselves. “Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to my parents and I’m in college,” says DeFlorio. “Ninety-five percent of all the conversations we have with them is, How are we doing? How is the culture? How are we feeling? Are we happy? Are we motivated? Do we need anything? It’s never about money. A couple of times we tried to bring it up, and they said, ‘Don’t worry about that stuff. It’ll all come. Just make sure you get along, do good work, and the rest of it will come just fine.’ In an interesting way, what it does is you don’t want to let anyone down.”