Michael Wall isn't just taking the role of global chief executive at Mother, he's joining the family — becoming the first new partner in 16 years. Claire Beale talks to him and co-founder Robert Saville about Mother's independence and ambitions.
LONDON — It’s worth beginning with where we are. We’re in a Knightsbridge restaurant called Amaya, and it’s where Robert Saville likes to bring his family. So it’s special.
Tonight, Saville is breaking paratha with Michael Wall (and me), and it’s like an initiation into the Mother/Saville family. Symbolically, this is a good start.
Wall has just been announced as the new global chief executive of Mother. Sure, global chief executives come and go in this business, but Mother has never had one before. Wall’s brief is sketchy. The official blurb says: "He will lead the Mother business across all existing offices in London, New York and Buenos Aires, as well as developing Mother into new markets and new sectors." But, for now, the most important thing is that Saville and Wall have already become comfortable working on it together – there’s camaraderie here among the Punjabi chicken-wing lollipops.
Actually, the pair have been circling each other for years — first as rivals when Fallon, the agency Wall helped found, and Mother, the shop that bears Saville’s DNA, so often went head-to-head for business or creative accolades. Then, when Wall cut the umbilical after Fallon’s earn-out with Publicis Groupe and joined Lowe and Partners as its global chief executive, he bagged a whole new set of experiences that Saville knows will help move Mother along.
Saville has been talking to Wall not for months but for years. When news finally broke on Campaign US last month that Wall was quitting Lowe, only a handful of people knew that the announcement signalled the imminent consummation of a bloody long courtship and engagement.
So Wall steps away from the networked, holding company machine in which he actually did pretty well, creating a new purpose around what had been a messy, unfocused and deeply bruised Lowe and surviving the inevitable politics and bureaucracies of its parent, Interpublic.
Leaving means an unburdening, a freeing up, a detox from frustrations. Perhaps he’ll find new ones at Mother but, for the moment, he’s breathing more freely. "I want to make sure where I work and with whom I work brings out the best in me," he says. "And that is usually related to like-minded people, creative thinking and working with clients. All of which are the mainstay of Mother." So Wall’s choosing entrepreneurialism again, taking an equity stake in the Mother Holdings business; he’s buying in, and it’s a great investment, he says.
Of all the things about Wall’s appointment, this is perhaps the most important: Wall isn’t hired help, he’s becoming family. Mother Holdings hasn’t had a new managing partner for 16 years. Saville’s clear about why it’s happening now: "To protect our family, Mother needs like-minded leaders who can help us realise our potential. In Michael, we have found a true partner in that mission. And, hopefully, the mission won’t end like Bruce Willis’ in "Armageddon." Is it just me, or do they look similar?"
Talking of looks, one of Wall’s first initiations into "Motherhood" was being photographed for Campaign. Mother likes to do this sort of thing themselves — they’re rather precious about the way they’re seen.
Which explains the picture that accompanies this piece. Looking at it now – Wall prim and proud, with a duck tucked under his arm – you can see how suited he is to his new role. He doesn’t appear in the least uncomfortable with the silly, contrived pose; instead, there’s a playful glint in his eye where, sometimes, I know, there’s a steeliness. Wall is definitely game for this Mother thing.
Wall joins Mother Holdings’ existing partners: Matt Clark, Andy Medd, Mark Waites and, of course, Saville – the man who started it all when he was invited to come up with the launch campaign for Channel 5 and needed to create an agency to handle it. The other managing partner, Stef Calcraft, left the agency earlier this year, and though Wall is not a direct replacement for Calcraft, he will inevitably take on some of Calcraft’s new-business focus and public representation of the brand.
When Calcraft quit, Mother bought out his multimillion-pound share in the business without having to take on another investor. It was a hugely significant gesture, underlining the company’s determined independence. Mother is now one of a very, very few number of agencies with an international reputation and footprint that remains in private hands. Not all of the managing partners have always felt so protective about independence, but the idea that a sale might just kill the brand remains a totem.
Later, after the dinner, when I seek other Mother voices for this piece, Medd chips in with this: "Our independence is a strongly held belief and a driving force for our success.
Michael not only embraces this philosophy but understands how we will use it to make our business better."
And, just in case I was in any doubt that Mother was resolutely determined not to sell, here’s the official line Wall sent me ahead of writing this feature: "In our industry, privately held companies are a rare and precious commodity. They are vital to the health and well-being of the creative industries. They are a haven for talent and for freedom of expression. Their very nature allows them to make decisions and to take risks that are pure and uncompromised. They push boundaries and they drive all of us to want to be better.
"It’s unfashionable to build businesses for the long term in this industry, with startups often preparing their exit plans before their business plans. Mother’s independence allows it to build a brand that will be important long after we have all hung up our boots." So there. As investments go, this is not one that’s likely to make Wall suddenly rich any time soon.
It’s that confidence in independence, though, that has allowed Mother to always be different, to follow principle and passion without worrying about finessing a financial performance that would make it attractive to a potential purchaser. Saville says: "If Mother is anything, we are a symbol that you can chart your own course without having to sell out. You can create a culture that will stand the test of time."
It’s true that Mother has always set a creative benchmark for the industry. It’s an agency that puts creativity before pretty much everything, believing that creativity is what makes the difference to a client’s business, not expensive but indistinct tools or network mission statements or PowerPoint presentations on big data.
Saville says, a little disingenuously I reckon: "I don’t know how it happened that Mother became an iconic creative brand around the world. More luck than plan. Over the last 18 years, it has come to define a contrarian option to the conformity of our industry model." It wasn’t luck, of course. It was an instinctive but conscious insistence on creativity and on not following the rest of the market.
Saville tells a story of coming into Mother at Christmas to find that a perfectly nice, perfectly bland and perfectly ordinary Christmas tree had appeared in reception. It made him instantly angry, disappointed, frustrated. He called the team together, sat them down and asked them to look at the tree. "What is wrong with it?" he asked. Well, to most eyes, absolutely nothing. But Mother doesn’t do perfectly nice, perfectly bland, perfectly ordinary. The tree didn’t last the day.
So, yes, Mother has been a fabulously successful creative agency (Campaign’s reigning Agency of the Decade, in fact) and, though it had its share of financial challenges through the recession, it has continued to invest in talent and creative resources when bean-counters at rival agencies would have said no. Turnover for Mother Holdings, the parent, was £121 million ($185 million) in 2013, while that for Mother London was £46.8 million ($71.7 million).
And since its launch in 1996, Mother Holdings has made shrewd investments in some of the more exciting startups in the UK — the digital agency Poke, the strategic media company Naked Communications, the design company Saturday Group. Mother’s business instincts are pretty sound, then.
Clark, the money man in all of this, says: "Our ability to invest and incubate companies like Naked, Poke, Saturday Group and The Romans, as well as create our own brands like White Pike Whiskey (from Mother New York), is directly related to the independent creative strength of the Mother brand. We attract like-minded, smart people and help them realize their entrepreneurial ambitions in a way that recognises the specific nature of creative people. It’s a fine balance."
Again, the company’s independence is a touchstone. As Saville puts it: "More than ever, our independence is not just relevant but essential in attracting the next generation of creative people – the lifeblood of any agency. These smart young people are orchestrating their own revolution in all areas of the creative world. The bloggers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, technologists, designers, writers and inventors who are shaping the future."
What Wall – in many ways a rather more conventional agency man – brings to this approach is a set of skills that will help focus the agency back on international growth, expansion into new specialisms and new-client business. Exactly what Mother has in mind with regard to the first two of these ambitions is, as yet, a little fuzzy, though; there are mutterings about Asia, but nothing specific.
Wall has a good perspective on the opportunities. "In the last decade, the global and network landscape in our industry has changed dramatically in terms of what clients want and how talent operates," he says. "We can build our global reach and capabilities in our way and likely a different way to how it’s been done by others in the past. We now have global insight and perspective on how networks and global clients are managed without having to be part of a group."
And, as a mark of his full initiation into Mother, he adds: "We can and will plot our own path."
This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.