In the Studio With — Iconic ads, communal working and fierce independence: We meet the team at Mother London

Posted 13 March 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

After 21 years of growth across multiple continents and countless iconic ads that still stand the test of time – think Pimms O’Clock, Orange’s star-studded cinema ads or the PG Tips monkey – Mother has remained fiercely independent. Staying true to the principles that set it apart from the beginning, it has since become the UK’s largest independent advertising agency. Starting out in London’s Soho, with Channel 5 as a founding client, its four co-founders (Robert Saville, Stef Calcraft, Mark Waites and Libby Brockhoff) created a flexible, collaborative culture that eschews conventional agency hierarchy.

Now with offices in New York, LA, Shanghai and Singapore, the original London branch has since moved to Shoreditch and comprises a team of around 170 people. Embodying its communal approach, the space is defined by a huge concrete desk (big enough to seat the majority of its workforce) and includes an expansive wall dedicated to framed pictures of the team’s mums. We met up with two of the agency’s partners and longtime team members, executive creative director Ana Balarin and head of strategy Katie Mackay-Sinclair, to find out what it’s like to be taken in under the agency’s wing and create work that balances fun and purpose.

Mother London

Founded

1996

Based

London (with offices in New York, LA, Shanghai and Singapore)

Team

170 across strategy, creative, production, finance, design, IT, project managers and runners (1,000 globally)

Hours

9am–6pm

Clients

IKEA, Money Supermarket, KFC, Stella Artois, Vauxhall, Diageo, Greenpeace, Innocent, BBC, Nokia

Website
Social Media

Inside Mother in Shoreditch

Overview

We like to say we’re a destination for creative people, making work that would make our mothers proud. Mother is an independent company, which is really rare in our industry, and we are still most famous for iconic TV ads that get the world talking – along with our own projects for causes we’re passionate about.

Founders Mark Waites, Stef Calcraft, Libby Brockhoff, and Robert Saville opened Mother in 1996, to help launch Channel 5, and it started around a kitchen table. They set up an office really close to Channel 5, and by cutting out the middle man (which would be the account manager) they created a direct relationship with the client that reduced the chances of miscommunication.

Mother partner and head of strategy, Katie Mackay-Sinclair

Ana Balarin (left), Mother partner and ECD

We still hold this approach dear, and many other values from that time. Mother has three rules as part of our process that we’ll never break – the holy trinity. They are, in order: Do the best work you possibly can (which doesn’t necessarily mean winning awards, but making an impact on the real world); have fun (we work with people we really like, have great parties and share home-cooked lunches every day); and make a living (this means earning a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work). Sometimes our industry is guilty of chasing the money and not thinking about the people or the outcome, but the holy trinity means that’s something we never do.

Mother has offices in London, New York, LA, Shanghai and Singapore, and employs around 1,000 people internationally. It’s one big family, but each office is quite independent. We have one global CEO, so we’re like siblings, helping each other out where we can, and all with the same shared values and principles.

Mother’s ad ‘Odyssey’ for Lilt, made as a spoof of a Levi’s ad, 2002

One of Mother’s many ads for PG Tips, featuring Monkey and Johnny Vegas, 2002

Mother’s cinema ads for Orange, made between 2003 and 2009, featured the likes of Snoop Dogg, Patrick Swayze, Verne Troyer, Rob Lowe, Rob Schneider and Anjelica Huston

The Work

No client comes into our building unless we think they tick the holy trinity. If there isn’t an option to make great work that people care about, we aren’t going to have fun doing it. It’s about having open and honest conversations with our clients, having a shared objective and being able to have tough conversations, because ultimately we all want to make the best work. We also do pro-bono projects, which is more about soulful work, rather than making a living. 

Increasingly clients are coming to us for a big idea that galvanises a brand’s whole business, stretching from social and digital to experiential, print, TV, an in-store experience or longer-form content (we made two short movies last year). This idea will then inform a brand world and a tone of voice that internal teams can work on too. This means we might end up having a much bigger influence on the business than we’d even imagined.

Mother’s ‘Epic Lift’ for Money Supermarket, 2017

Mother’s Buy a Lady a Drink campaign for Stella Artois has now run for the past four years

A lot of agencies will say they’re specialised in advertising, creative, integrated, digital or PR, but we like to do whatever is right for a project. We talk about ourselves as a modern entertainment company, and entertainment takes many forms, so whatever it is, we’ll find a way. We’ve made gravy cocktails for KFC and put an inflatable boob on a roof [as part of a project created in support of breastfeeding mothers]. And while we aren’t cocktail makers, and don’t work in inflatables, we do know how to create impact and find the best ways to make it happen.

Since we’ve both been here a while [Katie for 10 years, Ana for 11], we can take the fast pace at which Mother works for granted. Everybody here is able to think on their feet, and we like to discuss everything. In a more traditional agency, you might have a planner, strategist and account manager sell the strategy to a client, then brief the creatives, and after that the account manager would present it. For us, everybody is involved from the beginning and no individuals are calling the shots. This mean that a lot of day is spent sitting on sofas having conversations about what good ideas look like.

“Getting the world talking is the most exciting part of the job.”

KFC’s witty full-page apology published in the Metro, following the store’s shortage of chicken supplies in the UK, 2018

We were really happy with how our work went down last year. Our ‘Buy a Lady a Drink’ campaign with Stella has been running for four years, and every year we see more and more markets adopting it. We’ve been working with KFC for about a year to help them transform their business, which has been super-exciting. Plus, IKEA is another great brand to work with – we’ve been collaborating with them for seven years now.

Most of us probably have ad-blockers on our computers, don’t sit down to watch live TV or read magazines in the same way that we used to. If we’re going to make things, we have to make them interesting, compelling and provocative enough that they create conversation. Getting the world talking is the most exciting part of the job – for example, the KFC bucket apology [a full-page ad placed in the Metro in response to KFC’s chicken shortage] went insane.

‘Lion Man’ for IKEA, 2017

Ahead of the new IKEA store opening in Sheffield, Mother helped the brand commission and install a locally made peregrine falcon sculpture, 2017

Ahead of the new IKEA store opening in Sheffield, Mother helped the brand commission and install a locally made peregrine falcon sculpture, 2017

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Mother’s self-initiated Free the Feed project, created in support of breastfeeding mothers, 2017

The Team

We are around 170 people in London. We have teams for strategy, creative, production, finance, design (who do everything from brand creation to product, service and experience design), IT, runners and the team we call the ‘Mothers’ (our versions of account managers). But departments aren’t cliquey; in a meeting, sometimes you might not be able to tell who’s the strategist or who’s the creative. Everybody contributes to an idea and to the way we work. 

Everyone sits together around the same table, and every six weeks, on ‘Move Monday’, we all change places. There’s a map at the top of the stairs where you learn where you’re sitting. There’s no rules in terms of seniority or discipline, and it means that everybody gets to know each other and ideas can be cross-pollinated. It’s definitely a collective spirit, and even our building is designed for us to be able to come together. 

“Departments aren’t cliquey; in a meeting, sometimes you might not be able to tell who’s the strategist or who’s the creative.”

The team at work

The big concrete desk, central to the Mother London office

We usually have two intern teams at any given time in the creative department, doing eight-week internships. They either come in through a programme called Jolt (which exists to open up the industry to people without formal education) or they will be students and people who bring in their books to be reviewed.

We also have our runners scheme, comprising more entry-level talent, without necessarily having any qualifications. There are five or six at any given time; some on a six-month or one-year contract, others come in on work experience. Without them the office wouldn’t function. A three-month stint here allows for good exposure to how the agency works and what the job is actually like.

Mother has a rotating seating plan, updated every six weeks, to make sure that the team get to know each other, and to increase collaboration

The team at work

We want new team members to inspire us with their view of the world, rather than trying to be the person you think we’re looking for. It’s as much about cultural fit and whether you’ll make us better, rather than just being good enough for the job. Because we meet a lot of people, we want someone to be interesting – tell us something we don’t know, make us excited about your holiday, tell us the next thing to binge-watch on Netflix. If someone only says “I”, never “we” during an interview, it sets off alarm bells, as teamwork is so important here. A desire to solve problems is something we look for – finding the brands that could do with your help, over simply doing the next Nike ad.

The runners’ area

The Culture and Environment

Our culture and our principles are important to us, so it’s essential that this is a place that people enjoy coming to. The more joyful we can make it, the better. This probably has a lot to do with why people tend to stay a long time, too.

In terms of studio initiatives, every six weeks we host Evening Mass, where the whole agency gets together to share things we’re excited about, including recent work, new joiners or pitches we’ve worked on. Then we have the Mother football team, the Ministry of Fun – a group who organise events and parties, Mother Earth – a team in charge of our wellbeing (they even created a plant nursery chill-out space at the back of the office), and the Fairy God Mother. If you’re working with someone you feel needs a little pick-me-up, you can email the Fairy God Mother, and that person will receive a little something to cheer them up. 

“It’s essential that this is a place that people enjoy coming to. The more joyful we can make it, the better.”

The office plant nursery, created by the dedicated Mother Earth team

Downstairs at Mother

We have our own event space, Downstairs at Mother, where we’ll curate events that range from a pop-up restaurant experience to an exhibition, or a magazine launch. This is also where we have free lunch every day, made by our two chefs – an event in itself. The menu gets sent out in a brilliant email every Friday that includes agency news, gossip and a guess-whose-mom-this-is.

Other benefits include contributions towards either a gym membership or a massage, half-price membership to Soho House, the cycle-to-work scheme and a £1,000 bonus if you stop smoking for a year. You get Mothers’ Day and your birthday off, plus we have a really good maternity package. Lastly, if we have a good year we take the whole agency skiing... We went to Bansko in Bulgaria last year. 

We make all of those decisions because we want people to enjoy working here. Work takes up a lot of your life, so if you’re having fun while you’re doing it, you get the best possible outcome.

A wall full of framed pictures of team members’ mothers

Posted 13 March 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Photography: Andy Donohoe
Collection: In the Studio With
Disciplines: Advertising
Mentions: KFC, Ikea, Stella Artois, Innocent, BBC, MoneySuperMarket, Vauxhall, Ana Balarin, Katie Mackay
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