Forgive me if I use space on my personal blog to celebrate Mullen’s most recent accomplishment. But we just made Ad Age’s A-List, coming in third place behind well-deserved winner Wieden and Kennedy and second place McGarryBowen. It’s a pretty cool accomplishment given that Ad Age conducts a rigorous review of the nation’s agencies and picks only 10 to be on the list.
“When Mullen last year scored JetBlue’s creative and media account after a highly competitive pitch, it was a confirmation that its late 2009 win of customer-favorite Zappos account wasn’t a fluke. Mullen had successfully evolved its reputation from a safe choice for marketers into a contemporary, forward-thinking shop valued by challenger brands.” via Ad Age.
I get asked a lot how it is that Mullen transformed itself over the last couple of years, evolving from a “traditional” ad agency into a firm that blends digital, social, media, creative, mobile and DR in a way that actually works, albeit with a bit of occasional tension and pain.
Here are what I believe has worked for us.
A philosophy summed up in a single word: Unbound
It was at an offsite a few years ago when our management team challenged itself to re-invent the company for a future filled with all kinds of changes — technology, social media, consumer behavior. We came up with the word Unbound to declare that we would not be restricted by our past, by the conventions of advertising, or even by our current skill set. Instead we would embrace — even more aggressively than we already had — the idea that the answer to how we build a client’s business wasn’t necessarily advertising. It might be a new product, or the way we gather a community, or how we construct new tools, apps and platforms.
An obvious emphasis on talent
We made an aggressive investment in new talent and got out of their way. We brought in a new ECD, now CCO. We hired a new leader for our account group. We added experience in our analytics group. We also created bigger opportunities for our existing stars. One of our key criteria was how hungry they were. Those of us who’d built the company from a small regional boutique into a national agency knew how far determination and passion can take a company. We wanted the same qualities in the next generation of leaders.
A relentless focus on the work
It should go without saying, but the fact is that everything from deadlines to approvals to expediency can get in the way of a relentless focus on great work. But Mark Wenneker, the agency’s creative leader, has taken the work up more than a few notches and more importantly gotten the entire company aligned with the mission. We’re not where we ideally want to be, but anyone who’s any good never is. The fact that creativity, in all of its manifestations, has the organization’s collective attention is likely to yield even better work in the coming year.
A willingness to push responsibility down
Mullen has always prided itself on a culture of “collective entrepreneurialism,” an oxymoron I coined years ago to describe our culture. When you’re a small company it’s a lot easier to recruit people who share the same mindset. The best way to find out of folks still have that quality is to give them rights and responsibility then hold them to it. The best people want that, even demand it, and the benefits to both clients and the agency are quickly apparent.
An environment that forces collisions
I can’t put enough emphasis on this. When we moved to Boston we intentionally designed an open environment that forced people to crash into each other. More importantly, despite three floors and multiple departments, we embedded a broad range of capabilities in the creative group, including social, connection planning, mobile, tech, UX, digital design and production. It helped foster a new kind of team, more diverse working sessions and an increased respect and understanding for every discipline.
A openness to experimentation
Finally, we made a commitment to trying more things for ourselves, in anticipation of client needs. John Moore, our media chief, built an emerging media lab and filled it with every new gadget, technology and platform. We created projects and reasons for everyone in the company to embrace social media, conceiving Brand Bowl (originally Trash Talk from the Twitter Section, which introduced much of the advertising industry to Twitter), turning our own site into a blog open to all employees, and experimenting with crowdsourcing.
I can’t say enough about all the people who worked so hard over the last two years to achieve this. Thank you Ad Age for the recognition.