Odysseus Arms and Mother founder Libby Brockhoff talks a career that spans continents and eras

Libby Brockhoff
Libby Brockhoff

Marking the independent shop’s 10th year, Brockhoff shares stories and insights that only a woman in advertising could tell.

Libby Brockhoff seemed to kick off the industry’s trend for curiously named shops. 

One of the questions she gets asked the most was how she came up with the name for London-based independent agency Mother, which she co-founded in 1996. 

“The name was about encouraging, inspiring and liberating creatives, aside from being the most famous word in any language, and the first word you learn as an infant,” she told Campaign US.

At the clubby-sounding Odysseus Arms (OA), the agency she co-founded in 2010 with partner Franklin Tipton in San Francisco, Brockhoff has worked with a long roster of high-profile clients. 

She collaborated on image and messaging with Caitlin Jenner as she emerged on the cover of Vanity Fair and consulted with three Georgian prime ministers on a developing wine brand for the Eastern European country. OA’s campaign for Amnesty International helped convince the United Nations to pass the global Arms Trade Treaty. 

Because intellectual property is everything in Silicon Valley, Brockhoff, who is also creative director at OA, trademarked her own process this June called  Third3ye. It’s a proprietary research and development system that brings brand superfans, and even haters, into the creative process.

As a female founder of two renowned agencies, Brockhoff is a beacon for women in advertising. She’s also a pioneer of agile teams and remote offices, and a believer in performance-driven brand advertising fueled by pristine consumer insights.

Now celebrating its tenth year in business, Brockhoff reflects about her journey and milestones at Odysseus Arms.    

Campaign US: What’s changed the most in the ad business over the past decade?

LIBBY BROCKHOFF: A ton of cool new things are happening, and a lot of the old thinking is about to die within the next 12 months. 

CMOs are hunting innovation, agility and efficiency. COVID was the culling, and the bloat is more or less gone. The CMO job is sweaty these days and usually, their department is vastly underfunded. 

Large warehouse-size agency spaces may be a thing of the past. Renting space was so stupid expensive in San Francisco when we were starting out, I actually thought about renting a bunch of smaller spaces, connected via productivity apps, with team members scattered all around the city. That sounds a lot like today. 

What's changed for female business leaders in advertising and what still needs to happen?

It’s a much better climate for female leaders today. 

Ten years ago, when I tried to announce my new agency, nobody cared. Not one reporter thought the only female co-founder of Mother venturing into something new was worth ink. 

Even though 0.1% of all ad agencies are owned by women in the U.S. and women are known to influence 85% of all purchases, “women-owned” seemed to mean nothing, and probably projected some kind of weakness.  

I didn’t realize all this until #MeToo happened. The automatic deferral to white males for almost everything ended, and clients started giving us more chances to prove ourselves. 

How are creative agencies helping to push the culture forward? 

That’s a [big part] of our role in society and commerce: to envision and demonstrate the way things could and should look. 

Creative agencies have their fingers in so many aspects of “culture” these days, from partnerships between cool companies, to humorous product tweaks and content programming; we’re doing a lot of that. 

The big one in America, of course, is social change. The hour is upon us and we need to do everything we can to fix some long-overlooked problems. I’m most excited to see what agencies do with voting messages in the coming weeks.

What was it like being the only female founder of Mother?

Gender never really had much of a role in the agency world in Britain. Female creative leaders were everywhere in London, and my partners Robert Saville and Mark Waites never really brought it up. They were 100% about the creative idea, with no distractions. 

English men were brought up as gentlemen, so they treated women with a high level of respect. It was far less of a man mafia over there. 

What ultimately led you to start another agency in the US?

After years of building Mother, I stopped everything to become a mother. When I came back, I considered starting up in New York, but San Francisco is the world center of disruption and innovation. I wanted my creative company to be in the middle of that. 

Nobody moves to San Francisco for a bunch of rules anyway. To be creative, you do better on fresh ground surrounded by people who are unsatisfied with the status quo. 

When did you feel confident that Odysseus Arms was off and running?

It took me a year to capitalize OA, mostly from consulting and freelance work. 

Then Stephanie and Ernest Gallo [of Modesta-based E. & J. Gallo Winery] called me to pitch some alcohol brands in 2012. We won a Gallo brand later that week. Then Amnesty International called to ask for help with the global Arms Trade Treaty. That felt like the week we transitioned from white labeling freelancers to putting our logo in front of clients.

How does the Third3ye process work?

I eliminated the guesswork from campaign development, because we develop iteratively with the target. This is mostly because the tech clients in my neighborhood demanded it. They are spending someone else’s money, so the investors demand zero-risk marketing.  

Third3ye keeps you from doing something stupid, prevents tone-deafness and protects the brand by surrounding it with consumer supporters. Consumers are inside brands now and have been for a while, thanks to social media. So you better include them, rather than risk a blunder. If there’s anything this country needs right now, it’s elevated levels of empathy.

For a woman to trademark a process in this industry is, well, huge. 

How has COVID changed Odysseus Arms?

If anything, it sped us up. 

For years I [ran] a largely distributed workforce, and often people encouraged me to hide this fact. My main interest was in talent. I didn’t care where you lived or what you wore to work, I just needed your skills. 

Now, given the situation, we’re feeling all cool and kind of ahead of it all. People are coming to us for advice and guidance on how to run an agency this way. If you get what it takes to be modern, it’s a really good time to have fun and operate with grace. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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