Co-founders MD Tom Maberly and ECD Matt Carroll on the innovative evolution and globalisation of Mr. White to &FRIENDS – which is turning marketers’ heads
The best work is often done in the company of friends. People you trust – people who ‘get’ you – and with whom you have a good mutual understanding. Not only does it usually lead to better results – but you’ll have more fun along the way.
It’s a sentiment that managing director Tom Maberly and executive creative director Matt Carroll hold close, and the reason why they recently rebranded their company Mr. White to &FRIENDS
. While their global production offering is a solution aimed specifically at brands’ marketing departments, they tell us this business is neither in-housing or outsourcing – it is what they are calling ‘FlexSourcing' – something they believe will combat the ongoing industry challenge of tighter budgets and an increased demand for content.
Having proved the concept of the production partner model over the last four years, with some of the world’s most exciting brands, as Mr. White, &FRIENDS is taking the model a step further. They now operate with a proprietary in-house platform that enables the business to create bespoke teams of specialist makers, on an any-size, any-time basis. The underlying belief being that technology, clever thinking and a desire to do better makes the ‘impossible triangle’ – of cost-efficient, fast and high quality – suddenly possible.
“There's a lot more value in being a partner or friend, rather than just a transient supplier,” Matt says. “You’ll go the extra mile for people you trust and respect, which ultimately leads to long-term, high quality relationships – and better quality work.”
“Clients get the best use out of us when we’re around the table earlier, in conversations with their other agencies – creative, media buying, PR teams, and so on – supporting them from that early stage, as true partners in the process,” Tom elaborates. While Mr. White was the proof-of-concept stage on the way to &FRIENDS, the duo developed a proprietary in-house platform that enables them to create bespoke teams of specialist makers for clients to tap into, as and when required. This ability to harness a worldwide creative community of ‘friends’ – who are used to working as a team, onboarded into the client’s brand and underpinned by key in-house functions including strategy, creative and post-production – is what underpins the &FRIENDS name. And it’s what Matt and Tom believe true production partnership should be about – working as an extension of a client’s team, with the ability to scale up and down, as and when required – minus the set-up costs and hassle of in-housing.
“Our focus is around understanding our audience – and building our objective around what they want – whether that audience is the client or the end consumer,” Matt states. “When you're a partner, you're plugged into the client the whole time and you can react more quickly. From a client's perspective, that's absolutely crucial. You can't have the ‘need’ happening on one side – a middle person at an agency managing – and then expect your suppliers to react efficiently… it just doesn't work in today’s fast-paced, reactive world.”
To illustrate, Matt refers to the sudden spike in bookings that holiday brands recently experienced, when the plan for coming out of lockdown was announced: “They needed to react instantly and put the right content out there, fast. You haven’t got time to get your agency to do three days of thinking over it – you need to be out there, responding instantly. So if you’re someone like TUI, you need a production partner who's plugged into your business to help you achieve that – but who also has crews on the ground everywhere you can create content without flying.”
With a growing global community of over 2,000 diverse creative specialists, &FRIENDS are able to provide clients with bespoke teams – comprised of true experts in their fields. It allows brands to create premium quality content campaigns at costs that were previously unthinkable.
“The big debate at the moment is around in-housing versus outsourcing,” Matt says. “What we do is give clients the option of both these solutions – interchangeably – with access to our network, but without charging them for it the whole time. Because, if you look at any budgeting cycle for a brand throughout the year, they're not going to need the same amount of people all the time. What they do need is the right people at the right time, and in the right places. We give our clients the ability to switch those teams on when and where needed.”
Tom details: “Every specialist is trained in the &FRIENDS way and can be on-boarded into each respective brand at a moment’s notice, fully up to speed. Think of it as a creative football squad – and we’re the ‘manager’ picking the ultimate dream team for each particular brief. We believe it’s the antidote to agency models of the past.”
“On top of this, we've got a core in-house team who cover a huge amount of ground – from strategy and concept, through to delivery and project management,” he continues. “This central element means we remain agile – while operating at scale – giving us and our clients the ultimate flexibility. It’s something that works really well on the work we’re doing with Vodafone Smart Tech
As well as the partnership model and emphasis on specialists over generalists, &FRIENDS place huge importance on quality – and it’s thinking like a publisher that helps them achieve this.
“There's a big cut-through challenge that brands are facing right now,” highlights Matt. “Everything has to happen faster, be more efficiently produced – and it's got to cut through. And so, as much as you need someone who really understands your brand, you also need someone who understands your end consumer too.”
“Our ‘publisher mindset / premium production’ approach is very much geared around audience – whether that audience is our client and delivering against their business objective – or whether it's the end user and what they want or need from the brand. The more connected you are, and the deeper the relationship with your client, the more effective you can be in delivering that.”
With an editorial background, Matt and Tom are well placed to understand these nuances. Having worked as a travel and automotive journalist, Matt has written for the likes of GQ Magazine, National Geographic Traveller and The Telegraph. “At GQ, we were creating a lot of content with a commercial objective, so it was very much about balancing that with an editorial mindset. At the same time, I also worked as a creative for agencies so I’ve always had this varied diet of editorial and commercial – it’s been part of my creative approach throughout my career.”
Co-founder Tom went down the traditional route into production, starting as a runner and working his way through the ranks at IMG – one of the world’s biggest sports production and marketing companies – managing some of IMG’s top tier clients along the way. “We generally didn’t have brands or clients telling us what to do (well sometimes!), so my role there was in creating engaging brand stories with an authentic editorial hook. We were broadcasting to fans, so it was all about the audience,” Tom says. “With &FRIENDS we’re translating this mindset into the advertising and marketing space – helping brands to think more like publishers.”
“It’s about understanding what your audience actually wants from you and giving that to them,” Matt adds. “If you get that right, you don't need to sell and yell. There are much more effective ways to talk to people.”
The Important Questions
Thinking of content as assets that add value, and consumers as audiences, means that &FRIENDS approach all briefs with their client’s business objective in mind. “We want to help our clients solve the bigger objectives they have, whether it's building brand preference or selling more products,” Tom stresses. “We're not simply here to make great brand assets, do things more cost efficiently, or faster. We drill down into why we’re creating something – not just how.”
Matt agrees: “Being anchored in the why versus the how is absolutely crucial. It's about having smart people who understand audiences – while simultaneously understanding the key business objectives. We believe we have that.”
“I think brands are increasingly waking up to this way of working,” says Tom. “A lot more people within brands now have an understanding of creative – whether it's filmmaking, photography, writing, and so on. We want to work with those brands who have that awareness – and passion – but who are also looking for a more collaborative break from the agency norm. By that, we mean greater transparency, greater value, more flexibility, more efficiency, and having all those things – without compromising on premium quality.”
Matt agrees: “We're seeing a really exciting generation of marketers, directors and brand managers who have appetite for collaboration. There's so much more knowledge now in marketing departments, of how equipment is used, the post production process, and more. And because we speak the same language – we can directly collaborate much more easily.”
He concludes: “I’m so excited about where the world is at right now. Brands are facing a really interesting – albeit alarming – post-pandemic challenge. There’s huge pent-up demand and spending power, with people who are itching to get back out there and live their lives. The challenge – particularly for retailers and travel brands – is that they can't afford not to market to people right now. But at the same time, they can't afford to market to people in the way they did before. So my question to them is, what are you going to do? How are you going to take advantage of this huge opportunity with these shrunken budgets? You need a new way of working.”