Mother’s U.S. Hopes Rest With Swedes

Mother’s new prodigal sons will soon find out if it’s a good time to open an ad agency in New York.

After contemplating the U.S. market for several years, the London-based independent hot shop has found the creative talent to anchor an outpost in New York. The 6-year-old agency last week hired Linus Karlsson and Paul Malmstrom, Fallon’s award-winning creative team, known in the industry as “the Swedes,” as partners.

They are the second and third hires for the much-anticipated New York office. Andrew Deitchman, former director of business development and marketing communications strategy at WPP Group’s Red Cell in London, signed on earlier this summer as a partner. (The agency maintains a fluid organizational structure and eschews operational titles.) The shop is looking for a fourth partner and possibly more.

The partners, all of whom will have undisclosed ownership stakes, said they have not set a launch date or even secured office space. But the hires suggest an opening is not far off.

Agency co-founder Mark Waites said he and the other London partners—Robert Saville, Stef Calcraft, Andrew Medd and Matthew Clark—have been eyeing the U.S. casually for three years and in earnest for eight to 10 months. “No one says it is a better time [to open an agency] now,” Waites admitted, but he said that taking the time to recruit the right talent greatly improves the shop’s prospects. “We want to make sure we have all the necessary complementary skills that give us the best chance of success. … I’m glad we waited,” he said.

The London office claims approximately $200 million in billings from clients including Coca-Cola, Unilever and Diageo, as well as U.K.-centric companies such as wireless marketer Orange, financial firm Egg and media company Emap. No clients have signed on in the U.S. yet, sources said, and it is unclear if any London-based client have expressed interest.

Some observers may see the launch as risky, given the economy and Mother’s unorthodox creative style and organizational structure. (There are no account directors, per se—client contacts tend to be strewn across an account team.) Others say the office will have more than a fighting chance. Steve Gardner, who co-founded the independent Gardner-Nelson Project in New York in 1999, said startups generally do not require a huge cash investment, given their low overhead and ability to outsource media.

Andy Berlin, CEO of Berlin Cameron/Red Cell in New York and a veteran of several startups, said the reign of the holding companies creates opportunity for independents. Now is the right time for them to open, he said, “because the [ad] business is so consolidated and because there are clients who distrust that.”

Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, said it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to a unique perspective like Mother’s. “There are indications that people are starting to believe in spending again,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of smaller, brave agencies right now. I think the world is ripe for one.”

Karlsson and Malmstrom, whose eccentricities include a preference to be quoted as one, said they are “excited to be joining the Mother family. … We would have been OK with a position as janitors.”

Karlsson, 35, a copywriter, and Malmstrom, 37, an art director, were plucked from Stockholm’s Paradiset DDB in 1996 by former Fallon president and creative director Bill Westbrook. They burst on the U.S. scene in 1997 as creators of the Minneapolis agency’s “Dick” campaign for Miller Lite. With its tales of evil beavers, robot love and spastic behavior, the effort was criticized by some as inscrutable and indulgent—but it won three gold Lions at Cannes.

They also did MTV’s “Jukka Bros.” work (also a gold Lion winner) and, most recently, Virgin Mobile’s “Live without a plan” spots and Georgia-Pacific’s new Brawny Man campaign.

Karlsson and Malmstrom cast their relationship with Mother of late as an elaborate mating ritual. “We have been admiring each other from a distance for some time—years, actually—and always had a mutual respect for each other’s work,” they said. “And all of a sudden, like two peacocks madly in love, they showed their beautiful long swaying feathers. And we were like, ‘That’s it!’ ”

They declined to comment on the business challenges ahead of them.

Mother and the Swedes share an appreciation for ads that offer a sly wink with a sell as well as branding opportunities beyond the 30-second spot. “They seem to have a handle on what modern communication is, and they are prepared to give clients solutions they feel are right for their particular problem—not just a stellar 30 execution, which they are perfectly capable of producing as well,” said Waites.

Goodby creative director Jamie Barrett, who worked with the Swedes at Fallon, said, “It was a genius hire by Mother. They are one of the few creative [teams] in the industry who are brands themselves.”

“Fallon’s values and ethics is in our DNA,” Karlsson and Malmstrom said. “But this next step with Mother is the right thing to do. And everyone knows that—even our DNA.”