‘This is not based on us being friends’: lessons in integration from MullenLowe and 101

Mark Elwood (left) and José Miguel Sokoloff: "There’s a lot of new energy"

There’s deep history between the senior leadership at MullenLowe and that of its latest purchase, creative agency 101; but don’t expect self-congratulatory backslapping from this boys’ club. As the new team tells The Drum, the merger was never about recreating the good old days but forging a future as both struggled with creativity at scale.

The IPG-owned group’s buyout of the London independent hit the tarmac last week when the teams merged in the former’s Shoreditch offices. The Drum visits 72 hours in, and the move has gone well – remarkably well. What was once 101 has been seamlessly blended into the MullenLowe team.

Despite neither side publicly confirming the deal until the eleventh hour, the process of integration was meticulous planned. Take, for example, the seemingly insignificant choice of office decoration.

In the days before the physical merger, José Miguel Sokoloff, MullenLowe Group UK’s chief creative officer, visited 101’s sprawling Somerset House digs to pick out pieces of furniture and artwork to bring to Shoreditch. To him, these are welcoming non-verbal symbols of union.

“If you go up to the second [creative] floor at least, there are signs that something different has happened,” he says. “Yes, there’s a lot of new energy but we’re also communicating that. We wanted to make a point that things are different.”

From the moment MullenLowe and 101 came together on the “dance floor” (Sokoloff’s analogy), the two were in harmony, according to Mark Elwood, executive creative director. “All of the guys came to our office to present what each different department does,” he recalls.

Elwood, a founding member of 101, is surprisingly nonchalant about burying the brand of his startup agency – a business decision he claims took all of three minutes to make.

“This isn’t a ‘slash 101’ – this is a full-on MullenLowe London office and that’s the way it will be,” he states.

Perhaps any heartbreak that may come from retiring the name was alleviated by something of a family reunion that’s taken place because of the merger. Elwood launched 101 with fellow Fallon executives Laurence Green and Steve Waring, alongside their client, Cadbury marketer Phil Rumbol.

Alex Leikikh, global chief executive of MullenLowe Group, spent his early career with the trio at Fallon, while Green and Rumbol “earned their advertising spurs” as strategist and client at what was once Lowe and Partners alongside MullenLowe’s executive partner, Tom Knox.

It’s a reunion that’s hard to ignore, and in a press release confirming the deal earlier this year Leikikh admitted he was “thrilled” to “work with old friends.”

Working with old friends sounds great in theory, but the familiarities of a past relationship have the power to hinder boundary pushing creative. Is there a risk that chumminess will lead to a lot of back-slapping – and a lot of average work?

“The answer is a straight, massive no,” asserts Elwood. “I get out of bed every morning to make great work. I’m not interested in slapping anyone’s back. [Our] record speaks for itself enormously … we could have quite easily been slapping each other’s backs at Fallon, but we [launched a new agency] because we love the work.

“Look at the entrepreneurial spirit across each of the partners in the business – we’ve each done startups and all still have that DNA that doesn’t leave you.”

Sokoloff agrees, stressing that “this is not a relationship that’s based on us being friends”.

“I need people that I respect, but this isn’t about the work we admire, or the work we’ve done,” he says. “We haven’t bought each other’s reels or portfolio. What really brings us together is the work we want to do.”

It’s an honest confession and not the first of this interview, which is the first since the merger.

When asked why MullenLowe shelled out the cash for 101, Sokoloff bluntly explains the plan was to enhance the standard of creativity in its London office – a standard he admits has slipped in recent times.

“This is probably the only network left in the world where you can run the world from London,” says Sokoloff. “But London was not our biggest, most important, most creative office anymore and our responsibility was to make it better.”

The creative chief cites his agency’s global distractions as a reason for its local problems – namely, an exodus of senior management and finding itself a casualty of Unilever’s in-house drive.

On the other side of the coin, 101 was struggling to win and retain accounts in its final days largely due to the global servicing demands of its clients that it simply wasn’t able to fulfil.

“We needed more capability, it’s as simple as that,” says Elwood. “It’s so difficult to survive without being full-service, which we weren’t.”

Its former client, Costa, is an obvious example of that: “We gave them an amazing idea, every kind of asset they needed, and then at the end of the process they said: ‘great, now how can you service this globally?’ That was a question we couldn’t answer at the time. Now we can.”

Elwood says MullenLowe wasn’t the only agency to knock on its door as it mulled a sale. But in the end the deal succeeded quite simply because “the only conversations we had were about the work”.

“In some of the conversations we’d had previously, the work wasn’t the first thing on the agenda” he says. “And as creatives, that wasn’t acceptable.”

Logistically things have gone rather smoothly. Only two members of the 101 team (creative director Joe Bruce and head of strategy Clare Hutchinson) have, by choice, left, and there was not a single client conflict that had to be resolved. There is though, still work to be done culturally.

The senior team is blindingly male, and it’s no surprise that it’s taking everyone a while to get used to a new team.

“There are things that have created tension,” admits Sokoloff. “For example, something that Mark [Elwood] presented was questioned by the team, even though he and I had agreed that that was going to happen. But then it gets solved.”

One thing that will take some work is identity. When people talk about MullenLowe, what does the creative team hope they will say?

“That we’re really good,” laughs Sokoloff.

It’s a joke, but surely every shop wants to be known as the “really good” agency?

“We’re integrated…we’ve got a lot of things happening,” he says when pressed. “But the one thing that I really believe in is that we have a challenger mentality. We are not the biggest agency, and if we become the biggest we will always have this challenger mentality. That’s what we bring to the brands.

“It is out mind set, and we can never forget that.”

The revamped team is currently “producing like crazy”. Let’s see if the mind set can withstand the teething problems and empirically prove once and for all that for MullenLowe, it is really is all about the work.

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