There’s a lot to look at when you walk into Mother New York, the three-story ad shop on 11th Avenue in Manhattan. There’s the fire-engine red telephone booth, a nod to the company’s London roots. There’s the massive cluster of frames on the wall, all portraits of the actual mothers of the people who work there. (The same portraits decorate the back of individual staffer’s business cards.) And there’s the foyer-turned-art gallery, which showcases a rotation of work from outside artists and friends of the company.
The founders–not some decorator-for-hire–did all this. Unlike other advertising agencies that have a creative team on deck, Mother has a fully realized design practice that works both independently—on graphics and branding projects for clients—and in tandem with the ad and business side. “It’s not a typical setup where the design group becomes the ‘make it pretty people’ at the end of a project,” says Mark Aver, a design director at Mother. Instead, “they have a crucial voice from the beginning of a project briefing.”
Mother New York opened in 2003 when a handful of partners, including one from Nike, set up shop on Bond Street in downtown New York City. At a time when social media and the internet were challenging ad men to rethink their work, Mother rightly realized that they needed to create an agency that could deliver the unexpected. “Being one-dimensional is suicide,” says Christian Cervantes, also a design director. The partners hired Michael Ian Kaye to create their in-house design studio. Kaye, Cervantes says, gets credit for making sure design is a priority and not “trivialized at the hands of the agency.”
That dogma is reflected throughout the agency, and not just on the walls. The Mother staff works on laptops at desks they rotate out of every four months. It’s an office practice designed to prevent a parochial approach to work. This way designers will sit next to a sound guy, one of the partners, and then later a PA throughout the course of a year. This lets things “get blurry in a wonderful way,” Aver says.
Thinking like this frees Mother up to produce work that’s way outside the box from a standard 30-second spot. Take for instance, a 2014 project for CB2. The sister brand to Crate & Barrel wanted Mother to cook up a campaign that would raise some consumer awareness around CB2. That was it, just to get the company on people’s radar. An open brief, with no real preconceptions.
“That’s kind of a perfect brief for Mother because we were able to assemble a team of all these really interesting thinkers where the emphasis was just on an idea, not a TV spot, or print campaign, or a new logo,” Aver says. “It started as two people from the design team, two advertising people, and a strategist, and we cranked out three different ideas. One was an interactive ongoing design exercise that would travel the entire country. Another one involved taking over an Airbnb and turning it into a live CB2 catalog. Then the other was the first apartment designed in real time on Pinterest.” CB2 picked the last idea. Over five days, five designers with Pinterest followings curated a mix of CB2 and vintage homewares, and let their fans vote on their favorite items. The winning pieces decorated a real five-bedroom apartment in New York.
One of the Mother design teams even worked on their own liquor brand. From conception to recipe to the branding, White Pike is an invention that completely belongs to the agency, who agreed that your typical keep-it-simple beer and whiskey drinkers could still use a few more options at the bar. White Pike is a clear whiskey made for mixing that’s both a good booze and a good project for Mother’s designers, who got to flex their branding skills to create it. “When we’re developing brands it’s all about what something smells like and looks like. We live and die by these mood boards,” Cervantes says, “and we create a world.”