Mulberry is 25 years old.
Twenty-five years is a long time.
Especially in the world of agencies.
Which is a blunt summation of one part of an industry that has its fair share of one-trick ponies, chancers and phonies.
Still here tomorrow – but not quite so motivated, creative or dynamic as yesterday – is perhaps closer to the reality of many agencies.
Mulberry’s accomplishment has been in retaining the strengths of founder Chris Klopper’s core values, while constantly refreshing its approach. This has sometimes been undertaken consciously, as clients with different needs and in different sectors have been taken on. Other times it has occurred due to unforeseen circumstances, either arising from within, or where an external force has proved irresistible.
On all these occasions, enduring values can be a source of both strength and weakness. It’s a fine line to walk. Being successful undoubtedly requires a certain amount of flexibility and resilience; qualities you would expect to find in all businesses that achieve the silver anniversary milestone.
As a substantial period of time, twenty-five years is long enough to give reassurance that a strategy is a viable one, and that the ‘idea’ – both as a philosophy, and in execution – remains relevant beyond the inevitable upheavals brought about by economic, social, cultural and political cycles. As well as in Mulberry’s gradual shift from a predominant PR identity to one embodying broader marketing.
Change is inevitable. Being able to successfully change with it is not. That in 1995, John Major, Paul Keating and Bill Clinton were the political leaders in the countries where each of Mulberry’s global network of offices are located gives those with longer memories a chance to recall a different world.
And yet, however many ‘worlds’ have come and gone in the rapid acceleration and globalisation that have been the predominant features of the last 25 years, Mulberry has retained its identity. In spite of operating in an industry where creating identities for clients is routine, there is no guarantee of an agency keeping its own.
Any agency laying claims to integrated, full-service capability needs a solid foundation. Having a strong thread is essential to hold every element together across all communication channels and in operating for clients throughout the world.
Agency identity is often no more than this year’s ‘big idea’ – with all the lack of permanence that implies. The annual lick of paint is designed to obscure as much as it illuminates. The personal strategy that underpins Mulberry is the very antithesis of this often deeply cynical approach.
B2B has certainly grown up in the last 25 years. From the distinctly down-home cousin of B2C, it has developed to incorporate its sometime envied counterpart’s swagger, preoccupations and methods. More importantly it has attained a similar sense of its own self-worth – although in this case applying the best use of the term. However, gaining self-worth alone is not enough; expertise is an equally essential ingredient for success.
B2B no longer views itself as some inferior option, with all the accumulated anxiety and apologetic shuffling that typified much of its previous output. There was a time it carried a psychological complex that undermined those making bold PR claims on its behalf. Although the industry has matured, nevertheless, it is still hugely uneven. Variations in quality – visually, or in the style of copy used – feel like a flashback to a prior age, with some still producing client work like its 1995.
You could present 25 in agency years as the equivalent of middle-age in human terms. In an era obsessed with youth, middle-aged is almost always a pejorative term. Many small agencies see the first burst of youth and then fizzle out; or if successful are rapidly incorporated as essentially another department of larger more impersonal global groups.
However, if anyone needs to feel sufficiently middle-aged a comparison of the number one single on July 9 1995 – when Chris started Mulberry’s journey – and 2020’s equivalent should do the trick.
In 1995 the Outhere Brothers sang: “Boom Boom Boom, now let me hear ya say wayoh.”
Which has probably not been used to create a sense of participation in any Mulberry client meeting – as yet – but has obvious potential for the current Teams and Zoom multi-screen extravaganzas that have become the kind of viral communication that none of us ever had in mind.
The Outhere Brothers were a House/Eurodance duo, one of whom had the name Keith Mayberry, which is over half way to Mulberry but still a long way from being ‘in’ here.
Twenty-five years on and Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s Savage Love (Laxed-Siren Beat) spread its smoother r’n’b across Mulberry’s anniversary day…
And includes the lyrics:
Every night and every day
I try to make you stay
Which could allude to our 24-7 client commitment but, err… probably doesn’t.
The internet provides a better contrast in measuring the impact of time.
With somewhere around 2 billion sites on the web currently – in 1995, the year AltaVista and Amazon launched, there were 23,500 – according to the Atlantic.
The global user base was less than 40 million. It’s now fifty times that number.
In 1995, the ‘information superhighway’ – which in comparison was more or less a dirt track with dial up – had more than its share of sites constantly broken down on the side of the road.
One of Yahoo’s promotional videos presented the dot com boom as a gold rush. In reflecting on the passage of 25 years, the images of the rolling wagons of the Old West provide a fitting counterpoint to the astonishing technical advances that we pretty much take for granted.
One of the greatest challenges of Mulberry’s existence has been incorporating new communication channels into its existing ways of doing things. Back then traditional PR – aka obsolete now – if some are to be believed; meant actually writing streams of press releases and sending them by post. However, as time has proved, there is no black and white absolute about communication – no matter what the market dictates – see radio, vinyl records, books, and various style formats which have also never really disappeared.
If you were asked about content in 1995 it was usually checking your happiness in writing those streams of press releases. Discontent? Well, that usually came later when the snail mail failed to deliver on time. Instant global reach and data has replaced what in retrospect appears just reaching out in the hope that someone was suitably impressed enough to reply, but the necessary elements of craft, commerce and connection echo across the years. Although then, as now, copy too often refers to a literal interpretation. A genuine drive for innovation and creativity has always been rarer than anyone would care to admit – in B2C as well as B2B.
Regardless of this, an agency is only ever the sum of its people.
Huge conglomerates have extensive HR departments and numerous other elements designed to convince employees and the broader audience of the importance of people in their business equation – despite this many are guilty of only paying lip service to the context. ‘Good’ PR and ‘bad’ PR are just a difference in perception here.
PR has always grappled with the realities of speaking to people. Presenting the best view – too often the surface of a situation – and where real divisive problems are presented as bland ‘challenges’, leads to communications that talk mainly to process and markets. It operates as a convenient escape clause from having to consider the messier stuff, or having and conveying opinions in true thought leadership style. Whether that is the case in the more product-oriented PR passed down from on high that was still prolific in 1995, or in the more solution-based customer slant of today.
However, in an industry as much about judgement as best practice, it is never simply that clear cut. Also people have their cycles too – as I arrived at Mulberry the end-game of one of these was taking place.
Which suggests that in those agencies that survive and thrive like Mulberry, something else has to endure.
The meaning of that something is then passed like a baton – irrespective of how it is pronounced in each of our offices – in a subtle relay.
When all is taken into consideration, and if you were to highlight just one thing; then that is surely the real triumph of Mulberry’s 25 years.
Michael White is the Head of Copy at Mulberry Marketing Communications, an award-winning full-service B2B communications agency based in Chicago, London and Australia. He has many years of experience writing and editing short- and long-form content for B2B and B2C audiences.