36 Essex Street
Our mission is to apply relentless creativity to build brands and businesses in a rapidly changing world.
Mullen Advertising Inc., a division of advertising conglomerate Interpublic Group, is a $640 million, full-service agency that in addition to advertising offers its clients such services as design, public relations, direct marketing, interactive marketing, field marketing, and strategic planning. Despite having its headquarters in Wenham, Massachusetts, Mullen has long resisted the idea that it is a regional shop. Since joining Interpublic in 1999, Mullen has merged its operations with other agencies owned by the parent corporation, in the process adding offices in Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, and becoming the 24th largest agency in America. Since the departure of founder Jim Mullen, the agency has struggled to retain the iconoclastic, innovative spirit that brought a small Boston-area firm to national prominence.
Mullen Advertising Established in 1970
James Xavier Mullen never intended to become involved in advertising. After graduating from college in the early 1960s, he planned on going to medical school, changed his mind, and attended art school instead. A painting career never materialized, forcing Mullen seek employment in another field. He worked several years at the Harvard Biophysics Research Laboratory before growing restless and turning his attention to the sea. He sailed across the Atlantic in a small sailboat, became the skipper of a Caribbean charter boat, and learned the craft of sail making. Mullen, entering his 30s with no clear career path, finally took stock of his career possibilities. "Unburdened by either money or commercial experience, I considered my skill set," he reflected in a 1990 Inc. self-profile. "I could write; I had once drawn pictures; I owned a dictionary; I was adventuresome. What was there to do but start an advertising agency?" In 1970, Mullen started his new business, which at first he called Superfine Productions, out of his two-room apartment in the coastal town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. For the first few years, the agency was a one-man shop, doing the bulk of its business with area marinas and boating suppliers.
The prospects for the tiny agency improved significantly with the 1974 addition of Paul Silverman, who would become Mullen's long-time creative director. Like Jim Mullen, Silverman had taken a less conventional route to the advertising industry. He grew up in Boston, the son of a deli owner, and attended the University of Massachusetts and Boston University, studying history and government as an undergraduate student. He went on to earn a master's degree in the history of ideas from Brandeis University. Deciding to become a literary writer, he supported himself as a waiter in Boston while working on poetry and short stories. He published several of his stories as well as a short novel, but to make money with his pen he turned to news writing. He worked as a local reporter for the Beverly Times and the Quincy Patriot-Ledger, then moved to New York to work two years for trade publications Chain Store Age and Discount Store News. Returning to Massachusetts, Silverman renewed his fiction writing, paying the bills by doing freelance work for Chain Store Age publisher Lebhar-Friedman. He wrote trade publication "advertorials" for major companies like DuPont and Armour and began to shift his focus to advertising. It was then that a space salesman for Lebhar-Friedman introduced him to Jim Mullen. The two advertising amateurs hit it off and Silverman joined the agency. They pitched clients together and slowly built up the business. Unfamiliar with the ways of other advertising firms, they followed their instincts, becoming unconventional almost by default. According to Silverman, "There might have been a lack of knowledge but never of energy, so things were done, even when it meant working all night, all weekend."
Mullen Advertising's first major break occurred in 1978 when it helped launched Inc., a magazine devoted to small businesses. With the shop now well established in the New England market, Jim Mullen was still the chief copywriter, but as Silverman began to win area advertising awards he began to rethink his role, a process he detailed in his Inc. profile. "Each passing year saw the talent pool grow and my substantive contributions erode," he wrote. "In short order, everything I ever did even passably well was being done better by someone smarter, more skilled, and damnably younger. ... As inexpert as I was at making and managing advertising, I still had the unique opportunity to influence the quality of every piece of work that came out of our company, as well as the quality of every client relationship we formed. While my business card describes me as Mullen's president, in fact it lies. What it really should say is 'Director of Environment and Standards.'"
While rival agencies worked in urban office towers, Jim Mullen opted for a more bucolic setting and located his offices on the grounds of a former estate. The choice set Mullen Advertising apart, but to a large degree it simply satisfied Jim Mullen's preference for nice property. He was difficult to pigeonhole, a man of varied interests who just happened to run one of the hottest ad agencies in New England. Not only an accomplished sailor, he also became a world class professional endurance race car driver. In 1983, at the age of 43, he and his co-driver won the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring. This hobby worked to Mullen's advantage in growing his business: clients could follow his exploits in the sports pages, and potential clients were impressed by his competitive spirit.
Mullen Advertising Almost Devastated by 1987 Fire
No matter what title Jim Mullen cared to adopt or how he chose to spend his spare time, the agency he founded was on an upward swing in the 1980s. A 26-person firm in 1983, Mullen Advertising grew to become a 65-person agency by the end of 1986. The following year, however, the company was almost put out of business when an early morning fire ravaged the Beverly, Massachusetts, mansion that housed its offices, destroying all the furniture and equipment, as well as every file. Mullen had purchased the 90-acre Loeb Estate just 16 months earlier at the cost of $2.2 million and spent another $2 million in renovations. Within hours, Mullen summoned his top managers, Silverman and director of client services Joseph Grimaldi, to map a strategy for keeping the agency operational. Early that afternoon, employees set up makeshift work stations in another home located on the estate and went back to work, aided by donations of office supplies and equipment from rival ad agencies. Clients were quickly informed of the fire and assured that Mullen Advertising would meet its commitments. In some cases, Mullen staff worked out of clients' offices, but more importantly the clients provided copies of all records so the agency could reconstruct its files. Fortunately, much of the creative materials were at the printers, separaters, or engravers. The agency appeared to have suffered its most critical loss when photographs for one of its clients, boat builder Boston Whaler Inc., were destroyed in the fire. However, by sheer chance, a Mullen art director and photographer were in the process of re-shooting the company's catalog and simply stayed on in Florida to reproduce the file photographs. Mullen Advertising lost no clients because of the fire.
To replace the Loeb mansion, Mullen purchased a larger manor house in Wenham to serve as the agency's new headquarters. While the cause of the blaze was under investigation, a second fire occurred seven months later at the new location, causing extensive damage. Because both fires exhibited signs of multiple points of origin, state investigators concluded that each was an act of arson. According to Adweek, "Suspicion was cast upon Mullen himself, for he is majority stockholder. Mullen says that his own private investigators found both fires to be accidental, adding that he and other company officers passed lie detector tests ordered by his insurance companies. ... Employees had no choice but to question whether Mullen himself set the fires in order to claim the insurance, or whether an unknown enemy was out to destroy the company. 'It was the worst time in my life,' says Mullen, 'worse than my divorce.'"
Despite the turmoil, Mullen Advertising began to make its mark on the national scene during this period. Especially important was the campaign it created for Timberland, a company that had been focusing its advertising on work boots despite also offering a wide range of upscale apparel. Rather than directly sell the wares, Silverman tried to establish Timberland as a place rather than a product. Print ads were shot in Scotland, scenic vistas and Timberland items complementing one another. This campaign and another for Smartfood established Mullen Advertising as a creative and versatile agency. Although Mullen and his staff disliked the label, Mullen Advertising was still considered a regional agency, one with a strong print portfolio but lacking in broadcast work. To meet the challenge of the 1990s, it had no choice but to broaden its scope. The agency scored a major win in 1993 when it landed a $30 million BMW account, especially satisfying to Jim Mullen who because of his racing experience probably knew more about cars than any advertising executive in the world. However, two years later it lost the account as well as the $20 million Timberland account. With potential New England clients looking to national ad agencies, Mullen Advertising expanded into integrated services in a diversification effort. The shop also began to focus on adding broadcast work, which proved to be a key element in raising Mullen Advertising's national profile.
Jim Mullen Sells Business in 1999
An agency with less than $100 million in billings at the start of the 1990s, Mullen Advertising topped the $250 million mark by 1999, making it the largest independent shop in the Boston area. It was responsible for a number of successful, memorable campaigns and as a result was courted by a number of larger suitors. Knowing that his agency was one of the last midsize independents in the industry, Mullen freely admitted that it was inevitable he would sell the business to one of the larger holding companies. In addition to the personal financial benefits of such a transaction, the backing of a parent corporation would allow the agency to broaden its international reach, an important consideration when so many of its clients had international scope as well. Mullen's search for a suitable buyer of the business came to an end in April 1999 when he agreed to an estimate $40-50 million stock and cash sale to London-based Lowe Group, part of the international stable of advertising agencies owned by Interpublic Group of Companies. According to the terms of the deal, the shop would be able to keep its name, management team, and estate headquarters.
Mullen agreed to head the agency for another year or two, but by October 1999 he turned over the CEO position to Grimaldi, electing to direct his attentions to his new duties as vice-chairman of Lowe and its North American operations. As part of a succession plan, Silverman also turned stepped down as chief creative officer in favor of his long-time associate Edward Boches. Despite a smooth transition at the top, the agency soon faced difficulties when it lost a pair of top clients, Monster.com and L.L. Bean, and was unsuccessful in landing the business of Goldman Sachs and General Motors' Hummer. Grimaldi dismissed the setbacks as the normal ebb and flow of the advertising business. There were no staff cuts as a result of this rough patch, although the new hire list was trimmed. To bolster the operation, Interpublic merged Mullen with another agency, Long Haymes Carr, with Grimaldi tabbed as CEO of the combined business. The move was intended to strengthen both companies, LHC's retail advertising work complementing Mullen's strength in creative and public relations. As a result of the merger, Mullen grew to be a 500-employee agency with multiple offices and annual billings of $620 million.
Mullen's slump lasted well into 2001. In particular, the LHC Winston-Salem, North Carolina, office suffered a significant blow when it lost the Winston tobacco account, as well as such important clients as Hanes and Thomasville Furniture. The office was forced to cut staff, and a new president was installed. In the meantime, Interpublic underwent some changes of its own, reorganizing into four divisions. As part of this restructuring, some of the operations of another ad agency, Bozell Kamstra, were folded into Mullen, which inherited staff and clients from Bozell Kamstra's Danvers, Massachusetts, office as well as adding the shop's Pittsburgh office.
By the autumn of 2001, Mullen regained its footing and began to win important new accounts, including wireless company Nextel Communications, eyeglass manufacturer FosterGrant, and clothier Eddie Bauer. The agency was especially optimistic about generating new business from a new consulting unit, Frank About Women, created in March 2002 by two of its Winston-Salem executives, Jennifer Ganshirt and Carrie McCament. The concept, developed over the previous year, was to create a specialty-marketing service to help clients target women. In the early months of 2002, the new unit was responsible for most of Mullen's major wins. The creation of Frank About Women reaffirmed Mullen's reputation for innovation even as the shop continued to find its place as part of a corporate giant.
Principal Competitors: BBDO Worldwide; GSD&M Advertising; Havas.