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Mother (UK)

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With a long-standing reputation as London's coolest agency, independently owned Mother continues to make waves and win plaudits for its creative work, although it has largely abandoned the quirkiness for which it was once known, at least as far as its ads are concerned. In fact, since 2000 the agency has moved firmly into the mainstream, although what was once a much-envied roster of blue-chip clients (including Coca-Cola, Boots and Unilever) has suffered some significant losses. That success also encouraged the agency to open an office in New York as well as an affiliate in Buenos Aires. In all other respects, this resolutely independent company is just as determined to do things differently, as it was when it launched over 20 years ago, not least with the founding partners' strict policy of never being photographed together unless in disguise.

Clients

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Competitors

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Brands & Activities

Having spent the late 1990s and early 2000s as darlings of the industry, Mother subsequently had to buckle down to the rather harder task of servicing of its portfolio of major corporate clients. As a result, the agency has maintained a slightly lower profile than in the past, and has tended to build existing relationships, especially in the UK, rather than chase new accounts. However there's little question that much of the golden halo surrounding the agency has shifted elsewhere, not least to Adam&Eve DDB. Perhaps as a result of that, there have been signs in recent years - not least with increasingly bizarre creative work for MoneySupermarket - of a return to the sort of quirkiness for which the agency was once famed.

After a few wobbles in creative work in 2004, the general standard of Mother's output has remained strong since 2005 and often very memorable. Billings peaked in 2006 at over £160m, making Mother the UK's #14 agency that year according to Campaign/Nielsen rankings. However the following year witnessed something of a lull. Campaign/Nielsen placed Mother at #19 in 2007 after a 20% fall in billings to £126m, despite a series of account wins. The magazine commented "Despite the solid wins and strong work, there seemed to be something lacking from the agency [in 2007], and it's hard to define exactly what." That was apparently only a brief interlude before another storming year in 2008, in which the agency broadened its horizons dramatically, by diversifying into publishing, film and even stage musicals (see below). As a result it was named as Campaign's Agency of the Year for 2008. Billings recovered a little to £140m, pushing the agency up to the #18 spot. For 2009, billings were in the ascendant once again, touching £157m, before reaching a new high in 2010 of £165m.

In 2010, Mother was selected by Campaign as its Ad Agency of the Decade. "Mother has an indefinable magic," rhapsodised the bible of the British ad industry, "that infuses everything it does and inspires its observers." Perhaps inevitably life has been slightly more challenging since then. Most of the Coca-Cola and Unilever business drifted away during the early 2010s, but the biggest blow has been the loss of the mammoth Boots account in 2017. For 2016, Nielsen (in Campaign) estimated UK billings of £151m, putting Mother among the Top 15 agencies. Key accounts include Boots (lost in 2017), MoneySupermarket.com, Ikea and Halfords (also lost in 2017).

Between the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mother was undoubtedly the hottest creative agency in the UK, responsible for a string of eye-catching, tongue-in-cheek ads, usually tinged with a bizarre and off-beat sense of humour which often referred knowingly to kitsch culture of the 1970s. That approach was reinforced by an informal alliance with media strategy agency Naked, another start-up which shared its quirky worldview. Between them Mother and Naked set a style that was widely adopted by other agencies, and sometimes perhaps even occasionally surpassed. (WCRS's campaign for directory service 118 118 arguably out-Mothered Mother in 2002, and effectively marked the end of 1970s style in ads).

This counter-culture style was (and still is) reflected in Mother's corporate branding. The agency does little to market itself, and for many years had a minimal corporate website containing only a 24-hour webcam of its offices. A subsequent incarnation expanded upon that concept, offering a 360-degree visual tour of Mother's offices, complete with accompanying descriptive notes in absurd, fascinating, exhaustive and very enjoyable detail. The current version is rather more traditional, although the agency maintains one of its long-standing company quirks on its Twitter page, which is illustrated with a wall of photographs of each employee's mother.

Mother has also developed a small international presence. A New York office opened in 2003. It performed adequately but without setting the city's creative community alight as had been anticipated. That outpost suddenly seem to come to life in 2012, joining the rosters for both JC Penney and Burger King. An Argentinean office launched in Buenos Aires in October 2005 under the name Madre (which is of course the Spanish word for mother). It is a partnership with creative director Carlos Bayala. A first presence was established in the Asia Pacific region in 2017 in a partnership with The Secret Little Agency. TSLA's China office rebranded as Mother Shanghai, and there is also a separate TSLA-branded outpost in Singapore.

The agency established a digital offshoot in early 2002 with the launch of Poke, an interactive consultancy set up by the former directors of Deepend Group. Mother held a slender majority holding in that business until Sept 2013, when it was acquired outright by Publicis London. A New York office of Poke opened in 2007 but was later sold to management. In 2003 Mother took a significant 39% stake in fashion and luxury brands design consultancy Saturday (located in the same building in London). That business eventually morphed into Wednesday Agency Group, which was itself acquired by AMV BBDO at the beginning of 2016.

An experiential marketing division was established in the UK in summer 2008 to launch various live events on behalf of drinks client Pimms. There are similar units in New York and Argentina. A design satellite opened in New York in the mid-2000s, and in London as well in 2017. In 2015, the agency backed UK-based social media and PR agency The Romans. A new addition to the family in 2017 was Broody, a brand acceleration consultancy co-owned by former EE and Orange marketing chief Pippa Dunn.

Since 2007, Mother has also broadened its portfolio with the launch of a number of creative projects of its own which are not specifically (and sometimes not even remotely) related to advertising. That year it teamed up with US book publisher Blue Q to issue a number of humour titles including 18 Things You Never Knew You Could Do With A Small Stone and The Holy Bibel. In 2008, as a reaction to media concern over the environmental impact of supermarket carrier bags, the agency designed a range of "uncarriable" carrier bags bearing the logos of imaginary organisations such as the "Infectious Disease Centre" and "Flippers Fried Dolphins". The London agency also launched a serialised graphic novel, Four Feet From A Rat, for quarterly distribution with listings magazine Time Out.

Also during 2007, Mother's Robert Savile helped to conceive and produce independent feature film Somers Town, part of the funding for which was provided by rail service Eurostar. The idea for the film apparently emerged in a pitch made by Mother for Eurostar's advertising account, despite the fact that Mother failed to win the account. A theatre show, Pot Noodle The Musical, opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Autumn 2008. The group has even strayed into product design, with a bizarre line of offbeat scented candles (Mother Candles) and drinking flasks.

Financials

For 2013, Mother Holdings Ltd reported turnover (gross billings) of £120.9m, down almost 9% year on year. Gross profit (net revenue) slipped 15% to £57.8m, and pretax profits by 25% to £4.15m. The group blamed the slide in revenues and profits on the disposal of Poke and "a more competitive business environment in North America". Despite what it described as "another challenging year" it said "the group continues to successfully build relationships with its client base and continues to invest in quality staff".

For 2014, turnover fell by 27% to £88.0m because, it said, of the sale of Poke and demerger of Saturday. However turnover fell in all the group's declared markets, and turnover from Mother's continuing operations plunged 39% to £71m. Gross profit (net revenue) slipped 15% to £49.2m, and pretax profits by 8% to £3.8m.

The disposal of Poke and Saturday prompted a reorganisation of the company's legal entities, and the creation of what is now Mother Parent Ltd (previously MH Reco Ltd). For 2015, that business reported revenues of £81.9m, gross profit of £44.1m and pretax profits of £2.1m. It derived 56% of total sales (£46m) in the US, 34% (£28m) in the UK, 7% in Europe and 2% in Argentina. There were a total of 293 staff, down by a quarter on the year before.

There was a further improvement in topline in 2016, with turnover rising to £99.8m, and gross profit to £48.2m. However pretax profits halved to £1.1m. Filed accounts noted a deterioration in performance in US subsidiary Mother Industries, which made a loss of £124k, compared to £1.8m profit the year before. The company derived 48% of total sales (£48m) in the US, 35% (£35m) in the UK, 14% in Europe and 2% in Argentina. Total employee numbers rose to 307.

Founding partners Robert Saville and Mark Waites continue to run the business, along with Andy Medd (previously marketing director at Coca-Cola UK) and Matt Clark. Third founder Stef Calcraft sold his voting shares back to the agency (for £6m) in Sept 2012, and stepped down as a director, but continued to work for Mother. He finally departed in March 2015, though he retains a non-voting shareholding.

The London agency is 95% owned by Mother Holdings, jointly owned by the partners. As of May 2015, Saville was the biggest shareholder with a 60% voting stake; Waites had 20%, Medd 13% and Clark 7%. Dylan Williams and Stephen Butler were promoted to partnership roles in early 2010, as strategy partner and creative partner respectively. Williams left the agency in early 2014 to join Publicis Worldwide.

Mother Holdings also controls 62% of the New York officeIn May 2015, former Lowe & Partners chief executive Michael Wall was appointed as the first global CEO of Mother, overseeing all three offices. At the same time, husband and wife team Hermeti and Ana Balarins were appointed as executive creative directors overseeing the London agency. Chris Gallery and Katie Mackay are joint heads of strategy.

Background

Originally one of a clutch of London-based "new wave" advertising boutiques, the agency was conceived by former GGT creative director Robert Saville, who jumped ship in 1996 when he was offered the opportunity of handling the launch campaign for the UK's newest terrestrial TV broadcaster, Channel 5. He recruited three partners, creative Mark Waites from McCann-Erickson Worldwide's Amster Yard, New York; Stef Calcraft, previously account director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty; and Libby Brockhoff, an American art director also from GGT (who subsequently returned to the US to join Carmichael Lynch and later co-founded Odysseus Arms in San Francisco).

There are different accounts as to who chose the name. It seems to have been Brockhoff, as a knowing reference to both family and fearsomeness (as in the slang, "a mean mother..." or "mother of all wars". The traitorous computer in the movie Alien was also called Mother). At one point in the 1990s, Saville took credit for the choice, pointing out that your mother can be relied upon, creates things but also occasionally tells you stuff you don't want to hear. The agency's philosophy was "to do the best work you can, make a living and have fun". Adding to the agency's reputation for doing things differently, employees' business cards were for several years illustrated only with pictures of each staff member's mother. Now, the agency's rough equivalent of account executives are referred to internally as "mothers", while PAs are "nannies".

The striking and unusual campaign for Channel 5 worked well, although Mother subsequently lost the account in 1998. Shortly afterwards Mother launched Whitbread's vodka drink Source with a memorable TV campaign featuring two Swedish terrorist babes on the run. It seemed the agency could be relied upon to make even a dull brand seem fascinating. Mother also earned a reputation for getting clients involved in and "owning" the creative process. The approach worked. The shop had no problem attracting the best new creative talent, and was famed for winning every account for which it pitched. It was Campaign's Agency of the Year in 2001, and again in 2002, a consecutive achievement equalled previously only by AMV.BBDO. In 2002, Mother enjoyed an exceptionally good year, accumulating more than £80m of new business, including the much-prized Orange account. It also won its first piece of US work, producing a typically quirky safe sex campaign for MTV that began airing in the US in 2003 (and later won an Emmy Award).

In 2003 the group snatched the prized £90m Boots account away from WPP, its first mass-market retail account, and the biggest UK pitch that year. More importantly, the company extended its influence within Coca-Cola, after several years working on the group's brands in the UK. Mother's 'I Wish' ad for the main Coca-Cola brand was picked by the US company to run in more than 20 worldwide markets during 2004, and was the first Coke ad to run in the US which had been created outside the country.

Last full revision 7th April 2017

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