From Kiefer Sutherland’s macho cupcakes to a celebration of kitchen-lurking partygoers, Mother always seems to have a knack of pushing just the right cultural buttons in its campaign. LBB’s Editor Gabrielle Lott met up with the agency’s CSO, Dylan Williams, a man so strategically-minded that the Prime Minister has him on speed dial, to find out why Mother Knows Best.
LBB> Mother was named 'Stephen King Best Strategy Agency in the World' at the 2011 APG awards and you were crowned 'The Best Strategist in the UK' in 2008 – when you joined the agency, was there a strategy department? If not, how did you go about building one?
DW> There was already a group of strategists at Mother, who were very talented. I wouldn’t call them a department because I think everyone in the agency had good strategic instincts and capabilities. In my experience, most creative-minded people are pretty good at strategy; they just don’t necessarily like using that word. By that, I mean they have the ability to think ahead to increase the probability of success, and the ability to consider the representation value or story being communicated by a particular idea. It’s a gift that I feel is essential to any form of creativity.
So, I wouldn’t say that I introduced strategy to Mother when I arrived here. I would say, however, that around the time of my arrival, the agency looked to recalibrate how it applied strategy and what it meant by it. That was for two reasons. One was the changing complexion of Mother’s clientele; the second is just that the winds have changed through the industry and society at large.
Brands had been interrupting their way into culture – forcing and bombarding into the public’s consciousness through repeated advertising. It became increasingly apparent that brands needed to integrate differently. They had to be invited into culture. And that was more likely to happen if they could contribute positively in some way. Obviously, this required a change in the way that we developed strategy. It had to be much more culturally sensitive.
Previously and conventionally, Mother, like most agencies at the time, would start by identifying the critical commercial message that a brand wanted to convey. The agency would then look to sugarcoat that message with appropriate creativity, making it more relevant, distinctive and credible. We decided to start at the opposite end of the spectrum.
We would start by thinking about what type of culture this brand wanted to be a part of and what it could provide that would inspire that culture to invite it in. We’ve come to coin the phrase ‘culture back-thinking’. Instead of starting with commerce and working outward, we start with culture and work backward to the brand. It is still the case that brand ideas are the center of everything that we do and a campaign is a series of ongoing expressions of that consistent brand idea. It’s just that, that brand idea isn’t simply developed in the abstract by interrogating the founder of the company about their company production process. We develop brand ideas in a way that’s in stride with the cultural mood and need of that time.
LBB> We love Mother's recent work for IKEA... Still very much in line with IKEA's branding, but the last two campaigns appear to have a more mature approach with the tag line 'Make Room For Your Life'. Can you talk to us about the strategy behind the work?
DW> When Ikea came to us, anybody that had historically worked with the brand looked to pronounce its Swedishness. Much like IKEA as a business does, the campaigns spoke to different nationalities and cultures in very much the same way. We recognised that once a brand (or for that matter, person) has introduced itself, if you want to develop their relationship more intimately and get closer to people, you need to do more than just assert who you are and what you believe in. You also have to be mindful of what the other party is interested in.
Ikea needed to display a greater sensitivity to the unique relationship that the British have with their homes. From the very start of the relationship with Ikea we had to convey that they understood that. Slowly, but surely, we warmed to the task. We learned from our own early work what was really landing successfully. When we did the ‘Kitchen Parties’ spot, we realised that by revealing the feelings that Britons feel towards different rooms of their house, with music, we almost conveyed the happiness that British homes give their owners. Rather than asserting the happiness inside with an endline, we looked to convey that happiness throughout the piece. We feel like we’re really in a groove with IKEA at the moment.
LBB> You graduated from the London School of Economics and then joined BBH as an account planner. Why did you choose advertising?
DW> Well, given that I’m the only member of my economics class that hasn’t retired, that’s a great question! No, in truth, I studied economics at a time when frustrations about some of the naïve assumptions made around classical economic theories were just starting to bubble at undergraduate level. Those frustrations have now been harnessed and have blossomed into what we know as behavioural economics. At the time there was just a growing group of young kids thinking, ‘hold on a minute, individuals aren’t rationally minded economic agents who, if provided with perfect information, will make highly predictable decisions. Human beings make decisions for all sorts of crazy reasons; some of them rational, a lot of them emotional and many of them are hugely tangible’.
Upon graduation, I felt that the advertising industry had a better understanding of human beings as irrational agents than the economists who I once looked up to. Looking at guys like Stanley Pollitt and John Bartle, amongst others, they talked very convincingly about the power of emotional selling propositions and the tangible asset value of a brand on the balance sheet. That really struck a chord with me as I left academia.
LBB> After five years at Mother you were asked to become a partner and joined the five founders. What difference does this make to how you think and feel about the company?
DW> To be honest, it hasn’t made a jot of difference to me. I’ve always felt that I’m part of Mother, and we are all, in a sense, ‘partners’. There is a great atmosphere of collective endeavour here. We share in success and we take the hit when we fail, collectively.
The big difference I felt in my career came a lot earlier than becoming a partner at Mother; it was when I was first given responsibility for recruiting the next generation of strategists – first at BBH and then here. I think when you’re looking for the next group of talent, and aiming to convince them to come and work with you, you are making a commitment to them that you will look after the next stage of their careers. For that, you have to believe in the company that you’re representing which is why 95 per cent of my entire career has been at only two companies. I take the role of recruiting people and looking after them very seriously. I feel that people in this business nurtured me very well, and I’ll try and do just as good a job for the next generation.
LBB> You host MiniBar, the UK's biggest tech start-up meet - can you tell us a little more about it?
DW> It’s an absolute joy. It’s been going about seven years, but Mother, and myself, have only been involved for the last two. It’s one of a number of technology meet-ups, that have blossomed around the East End tech cluster over the last few years. It is nothing more or less than a gathering of young people who have a burning desire to make their business ideas happen, and are looking to the community to help them do so.
It happens on the last Friday of every month, and people get two minutes each to present their business idea to an audience of 350 coders, hackers, early-stage investors and sometimes, big venture capitalists. People have to explain what they’re looking for – and that can range from legal advice to money to developer talent. Business is done over Stella Artois and Beck’s, both clients of ours.
It’s been great for Mother because we just get a room full of incredible, naturally intelligent people. It’s also been good for us because our clients are gradually shifting money and energy out of emotional selling propositions, and back toward tangible service innovation. These kids are the driving force for innovation within this country.
LBB> You also work with 10 Downing street to help encourage entrepreneurialism in East London's tech cluster - can you talk to us more about the area, what you do to help 'encourage' and what it's like when the PM gets in touch for your advice?
DW> The tech city advisory board is a cross party gathering – it doesn’t form a coalition. It’s strange that I’m not entirely aware of each person’s political sway at that table. It’s just a group of people from across British commerce who have a similar interest at looking at what has naturally occurred in this area, in terms of entrepreneurial energy and endeavor. We want to further fan the flames of that success and replicate it across the country.
LBB> And what would you say has resulted from that meeting of minds?
DW> What’s of real interest to me - and the entire board - is how within a three mile radius the East End tech cluster is home to one of the richest areas within the western world, one of the most intelligent areas within the western world, but also a constituency with some of the most impoverished families in the western world. Our bid is to better triangulate those three constituencies of people. If we can do that, it will serve as a microcosm to build upon for future growth and prosperity. We can then take it to lots of different areas of Britain and the world.
It is very much a gathering of people that looks to nudge and coerce from below, rather than heavy-handedly intervene from above. Mother’s own contribution to that, beyond hosting the MiniBar and doing some coaching at local technology start-ups, will be pronounced more formally when we open up the Mother At The Trampery. This is a joint venture between us, and The Trampery - who are a local shared workspace innovators. We have a 7,000 square feet building, and half of that will be handed to local technology start-ups, and young venturers. The other section of the building will be taken up by big corporate clients, like Boots and Coca-Cola. It will be a shared environment where young start-ups will be able to learn from the bigger companies, and the bigger companies will be able to reacquaint themselves with the energy of these young collectives. It’s very much an open innovation facility.
LBB> When a piece of work from Mother goes out, you never credit it to an individual. Why is that? And how important are awards to Mother?
DW> I think we’re the only agency that still puts out all of our work accredited only as the agency. The reason for doing that is because we work collectively. On any particular task or problem, in all likelihood, about 25 different people will have taken a look at it, and so it becomes quite difficult to identify who generated a solution to a specific problem. It’s very rarely a single person, or group of individuals that complete a task nose to tail. We tend to solve stuff in groups, and so it’s actually easier to sign it off as ‘Mother’. It’s culturally beneficial as well because it reminds us that this is a collective endeavour – we help each other to solve stuff, and we benefit duly from it.
In terms of awards and how important they are, we’ve enjoyed a number of accolades and are happy when people say nice things about us, but we’re actually crap at entering them. In my first year, I remember the Orange Gold spots, which are some of the best ads in British cinema history, were mistakenly entered into the wrong category of a particular award scheme.
Joking aside, we know when we’ve done something that’s good. We know when we’re hot and we know when we’re flagging. We know that partly because we’re a pretty good judge of an idea, but also because we inherently believe in the taste of the public – we trust that a good idea will be duly rewarded. We don’t need an award to remind us how good a piece of work is, but saying that, winning one is a great night out, and the fact that they are one thing that pushes this industry to keep the bar high, is probably a good thing.
LBB> Acer, with Megan Fox was LBB's most popular story of 2012. Fox and the dolphins, Kiefer Sutherland and his cupcakes - where did inspiration come from and what was the direction that the brand wanted to take?
DW> Acer are a fascinating company. They played a massive part in democratising technology in Asia, and making it accessible to many different types of people. In places like Taipei, you often hear that Acer were one of the companies that helped address issues like literacy amongst children in rural areas.
It’s a hugely significant company with a hugely significant company mission – it helps human beings to explore beyond limits. There was a temptation in our creative work to showcase normal, everyday folk doing just that. In the end, we decided to use the power of celebrity to convey that message. We took the preconceived notions people have about particular personalities and use broadcast communication to help them reveal a different facet of their character using Acer products to help them do so. In the case of Kiefer Sutherland, he’s making cupcakes and for Megan Fox we show that she’s capable of communicating with animals and is interested in marine biology. We’ve got a new campaign coming this year that takes the idea further on, with a constellation of rich video tutorials that show normal people how to use Acer equipment to explore their own, personal heights. It’s not just going to have that funny, entertaining edge, but also provide genuine utility.
LBB> What does 2013 hold for Mother, as a whole?
DW> We’re moving further upstream where we will help clients earlier with creative solutions to their business problems. We’re going to be looking more at redefining brands and innovating around them as well as portfolio managing. This will begin much earlier than has been the case previously. We’ll step in before marketing: brand design, brand experience, storytelling and identity narrative. We want to help companies truly embrace brand transparency and recognise and capitalise on an age where everything is communication. We need to inform the public of a company’s labour market policy, tax stance, the tie that the CEO wears, what the team does on their away days.
Going forward, what Mother understands from being a creative company is much more akin to being an innovation company that helps brands communicate in the round, rather than a communications company that helps businesses advertise.