Mullen makes Ad Age’s A-List; comes in third

Unbound is mindet, a philosopy, even the artwork in our lobby

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.

15 comments
rnadworny
rnadworny

Just stumbled across this today. Edward, those were all important and critical steps. But the biggest difference, in my opinion, is that you stepped up and changed. You not only embraced the digital/social/collaborative, you lived and breathed it. I'm not saying you did it on your own, but when people in a company see their leadership lead by example, rather than by words, memos and pep talks, it makes a huge impression.

You didn't talk much, though, about some of the pain points, although there had to be more than few. Such as: what did you do with the people who couldn't or wouldn't adapt?

Congrats and keep up the great work.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Edward I saw the article tweeted by Ben Kunz. Congratulations. Well earned and deserved! They don't always give out recoginition for best work. Hope 2011 is even better for you all at Mullen!

arafatkazi
arafatkazi

I was sending you email anyway (for selfish reasons), and I just wanted to congratulate you here too. I like how just a few months ago AdAge was talking about the JetBlue NYC stuff with skepticism. Shows just how far ahead of the curve Mullen is.

And you're absolutely awesome. I just finished school and I gotta say, I consider this blog to have been my most important course. I've learned so much from following you on blogs and Twitter.

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

Congratualtions. Your blog is the only adblog I read, and I am both happy for you and relieved that AdAge saw value in what you're doing. I'm very much looking forward to another year of Unbound!

Tom_Matte
Tom_Matte

Congratulations are due! You guys are an inspiration. Thanks for landing Jet Blue and proving it wasn't a fluke but a sign of the future. Thanks for taking all those risks. Thanks for shaking up expectations in the industry. I am so sick of reading about how the business is changing for the worse. It's just changing. Get out if you dont like it. From the recent press it appears that some very creative people have left the business. So what! The ad world is changing and I for one am glad to be a part of it. Opportunity favors the bold. Be Bold!

mitchjoel
mitchjoel

Congrats, Edward... you deserve it! Plus, you still owe me a conversation for the Six Pixels of Separation Podcast ;)

Enjoy this moment... it is well-earned... and well-deserved!

KellyFerrara
KellyFerrara

Edward, Congrats! I first met you guys @Mirren last year and enjoyed learning about you then. Best of luck on a fabulous 2011.
Kelly

KrisGrazier
KrisGrazier

Congratulations! Thanks for the insight on your agency's transformation.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@Tom_Matte Tom, you are right on. This business and these times are what you make of them. We can hold on to the past or hold on tightly to the reins dragging us forward at breakneck speed. Having lived through a lot of years where not much happened, I'm finding this far more exciting and stimulating.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@mitchjoel Thanks Mitch. Would love to do that. Some time in next few weeks or whenever. Also, are you at Radian6 Boston sessions in April?

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@edwardboches @LFJeremy Jeremy it seems you stalk all the blogs that I list on my blog as must reads. Seriously you need to stop this. You will wind up being too smart and putting us all out of work! Hey Edward I think Jeremy would be a kickbutt contributor to TNGG considering he is starting at the ground up in his work and with a really cool start up. Just a thought.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@LFJeremy Thank you for that. As you know from doing a start-up, creating anything new (or changing anything old) is hard. But worth it. A combination of pain and fun. Glad you picked up on the challenger brands comment. Those are our favorite kinds of brands because they share our mindset for making something happen rather than preserving the status quo. Not sure anyone does that by intention anymore, but rather by habit. In some ways we would all be better off thinking like a challenger brand.