On Felix Richter’s first day at Mother London as chief creative officer and global creative partner, he saw that his diary was filled with meetings. He was preparing to go to the first one when he was told that the ridiculously busy schedule was a joke. It was 1 April.
The new kid in town is still laughing about it some time later when Campaign pops into Mother’s office in Shoreditch. After 12 years at Droga5 New York, German-born Richter has crossed the Atlantic to run Mother’s creative department, replacing Ana and Hermeti Balarin, who made the reverse journey to Wieden & Kennedy Portland last year.
Adland is intrigued by his arrival. As one creative chief puts it, “London has been a bit of a one-man show lately” [a reference to Uncommon Creative Studio’s co-founder Nils Leonard].
Richter is relatively unknown in London’s creative circles, although everyone is aware of his work and the craft behind it – campaigns for Under Armour, Google and Hennessy are among his best. “He’s David Droga’s prodigy, who is very good at picking out talent,” another creative leader says.
At 36, Richter has risen through the ranks pretty quickly. Having learnt his craft at the Miami Ad School in Hamburg, he joined Young & Rubicam in New York as a copywriter in 2009. In 2011 he moved to Droga5 New York in the same role, became creative director in 2014, executive creative director in 2017 and chief creative officer in 2019.
But if it wasn’t for his cousin, Bjöern Rüehmann, a director through Smuggler in the US, advertising may never have occurred to Richter as a career. He started out studying law but quickly realised it wasn’t for him, having enjoyed life outside Germany as a windsurfing instructor in Turkey and Venezuela during a gap year. German law meant that it would be hard for him to live elsewhere.
“I didn’t have the confidence to pursue something creative,” he recalls. “In Germany, we have this Mozart syndrome, where if you say you are a creative, you better be a prodigy. If you aren’t, then it looks like you are a bit of a bullshitter.”
That’s the thing about Richter – he doesn’t have a big ego that takes over the room, unlike some of adland’s creative leaders. Instead, he comes across as quiet and reserved. He really comes to life only when talking about creativity or his 20-month-old daughter (“I’ve become one of those obsessive dads”).
“I definitely don’t want to be a big personality and I don’t think that’s necessary,” he says. “My focus is on the work.”
“Humble, considered, inquisitive”
Chris Gallery, partner at Mother London, adds that this was not something the agency was looking for when hiring. He says that staff were “fearful” of a shouty and bossy person coming in and describes Richter as “very humble, considered and inquisitive”.
“Our brief was to find someone who was not Mother,” Gallery adds. “You can’t stay great by hiring a good version of yourself.”
Vicki Maguire, chief creative officer at Havas London, points out that Mother is very good at spotting talent. “If Mother has chosen Felix, then he’s going to be next level,” she says.
A considered approach is also the plan for the creative leadership at Mother – an agency Richter says he has always admired and wanted to work at. He is not one to go in all guns blazing. “It feels like I’m arriving into a great role at a good time,” he says. “Where you can build something on top of a lot of lovely things that are all already there.”
Richter has “big plans and big dreams” for Mother but isn’t planning a huge overhaul right away “because [it] is an incredible agency”.
“For now, it’s really more about having a quick look and seeing where there is an opportunity to add or help or experiment or try something different,” he says. It would be “really strange” if he were to come in and change everything immediately, because the UK market is very different from the US, he adds.
In his short time at Mother, Richter has noticed that there is more of an emphasis on craft in the UK than in the US. Of course, a lot of this is based on what he has witnessed at Mother. “It’s really incredible the level of artistry among the creatives here,” he says. “It’s not only about how you craft an ad but artistry on the whole unique voice, sharpness, design, writing.
“In the US, people get excited about different things but here I feel there is a lot of love for the making of the craft and how something is done and the details and the nuances. It seems to be maybe from everyone – like the creators, from clients, but maybe also the general public even are a little bit more appreciative of it. But to be completely honest, this is a guess and I don’t know if that’s all true.”
The power of difference
Richter is well known for the craft he puts into his work, as demonstrated by his awards haul. Two pieces of work for Under Armour, “I will what I want”, featuring model Gisele Bündchen, and “Rule yourself”, featuring former Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, landed a Cyber Grand Prix and the Film Craft Grand Prix, respectively, at Cannes.
When asked to describe his style, he says this can be a “dangerous” term – mainly because it can pigeonhole creatives.
“The best work always has someone putting themselves into the work, and I don’t mean that it’s humorous versus cinematic,” he explains. “It’s more like a specific kind of humour or a specific way of seeing something. So when personality comes into the work, then I think work goes from a good, clean, smart communication source to something that really can move people or make them laugh or be really interesting.
“As a consequence, the best departments are polyphonies, where there are as many strong voices as possible that make as many different kinds of work as possible. I would feel awful if my last output looks a lot like the work I’ve made in the first five years of my career. It should be as many different things [as possible] that work for clients [as] clever solutions.”
Richter also argues that the notion of an idea having to be succinct can be detrimental to creativity in advertising. “I love ideas and strong concepts and that is the most important thing in the industry,” he says. “But I also feel that the sort of dogma or very specific understanding of what an idea is and that it has to sound good in one sentence can hold advertising creativity back.”
Richter uses high-end fashion house Balenciaga as an example, saying that there is a concept there but it would be “very hard to fit their work in an advertising deck”.
He adds: “We sometimes have to embrace and celebrate things that aren’t very catchy in one sentence but are nonetheless very beautiful and very effective.”
Client budgets will also be different for Richter. In the US, he’s worked with millions, whereas here in the UK, as a smaller market, it is more likely to be six-figure sums. But he likes to work with new talent.
“The best experiences I have had are from working with up-and-coming directors,” he says. “The appreciation of the craft in production also applies here.”
Richter is one of the best creatives in adland, so to prise him away from competitor Droga5, Mother had to stand out. It was a LinkedIn message, written in German, from Katie Mackay-Sinclair (partner at Mother London) that piqued Richter’s interest. Responding half in German and half in English, he initially declined the invitation to meet Mother.
A couple of days later, he had changed his mind, saying that he couldn’t stop thinking about the opportunity, Mackay-Sinclair recalls. “We decided we would look around the world [for a new chief creative officer] because although I admire the creative leaders in London, I think that we can be quite introspective,” she says. (Some industry sources say this approach ruffled a few feathers among creatives at the agency.)
“We were told it would be highly unlikely [to get Richter] because he was David’s chosen one. We felt a bit fed up about how tough it might be. So we decided we would go upstairs to Shoreditch House and after a couple of drinks I was, like: ‘Why don’t we just try? Why don’t we just message Felix and just see?’”
The appointment took some time, not least because of various lockdowns but Richter managed to make it to London to meet Mackay-Sinclair and Gallery in person, after speaking over Zoom. He visited Mother’s office at 7am before anyone else was in and the trio took a walk down Columbia Road and through London Fields to Mackay-Sinclair’s flat, where they spent the morning at her kitchen table talking about how they could work together.
Richter says that he got on so well with the pair, it made it easy for him to say yes to the job. “I’m very aware that I’m a lucky bastard, in the sense that I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. “I had about 10 really amazing years at Droga and I was very happy. It’s really tough [being questioned] on why or how you make a move, because you can come up with a slick narrative but it’s just not true, there’s not just one reason – it’s emotional as well as rational.
“I really did love speaking with Katie and Chris and it felt immediately like there was a connection. Sometimes in the industry you do the same thing but you can have totally different vocabularies about how you talk about things, but with them I felt like there was a human level but also a technical level of understanding and that was a big thing for me.”
Richter adds that Mother’s new philosophy, Make Our Children Proud, also helped draw him in. The agency is aiming to make adland more relevant and attractive to the next generation of creatives.
For Mackay-Sinclair, there was the added pressure of picking the right person to fit into the strong working relationship that she and Gallery have built over the past 13 years (she was “best man” at Gallery’s recent wedding alongside his brother).
As partners (each has a stake in the Mother London business, although co-founder Robert Saville remains the majority shareholder), the trio is now responsible for every facet of the agency, Mackay-Sinclair explains. “[This] stretches from everything about our core values to the performance of our business to our outputs to where any ventures or innovation could come from, which I think is something that is unique in London,” she says. “I feel like a lot of the stuff that we collectively decide as a three-part would probably sit with a CEO and MD and anybody whose background was strategy or creative would never even engage with it.”
The plan now is to figure out “what we need to do to genuinely be undeniably the most creative company out there”, Gallery says. “We do a lot of things really well but we definitely would like to be more spectacular and more surprising. [Richter] definitely thinks about ideas in a very media neutral way and about how digital can be inspiring creatively, rather than just a boring six-second thing.”
Mackay-Sinclair says that Mother’s creative output in London will be less traditional. “[There will be] more of an activation approach to ideas rather than TV-led, which I think no matter what we all say in the UK, most of the ideas are still quite TV-centric.”
Maguire agrees and is looking forward to what Mother will be doing next: “Post pandemic, the doors have been blown off on how we communicate, so that’s exactly what I expect them to do. What I love about Mother is that they never stand still and steadying the ship has never been the Mother way. They are provocateurs.”
With Richter on board, the team is already working in different ways and “doing lots of little experiments”, Mackay-Sinclair adds. “This was never just about finding a new CCO. It was about finding a partner [with whom] we can imagine what the next 25 years of Mother could look like.”