peter and susan

Twenty Years of Making Mother Proud: Peter and Susan on their creative career

After two decades the international creative leaders are still shaping Mother's future

By Claire Beale

Mother has always been a lodestone for the best creative talent. Poke around the creative department of most good agencies and you’ll find many Mother alumni. But of course plenty of the best creatives never leave Mother. They stay…and stay.

Take Peter Robertson and Susan Hosking. The creative team joined Mother as youngsters fresh from New Zealand and twenty years later they’re still there; it’s home.

Few creative teams stay together for as long as Peter and Susan have, and few are as loyal to one agency. But their partnership is “a marriage” and Mother is “family”.

“It's fortunate that we've always wanted the same things on a life path,” says Peter. They’re both married to locals – “though we’ve been married to each other for longer,” Susan points out – and can’t see themselves ever leaving the UK. Well before they got here though, they both yearned to work at Mother, the agency whose future they’ve recently helped shape with their work on the new Make Our Children Proud framework that Mother has now adopted globally. MOCP is a wide-ranging, comprehensive operating system designed to ensure Mother has a positive impact on its people, the industry and the planet. And as its co-architects, Peter and Susan have ensured the agency will thrive into the future.

It's perfectly fitting that two such warm, generous and enormously inspiring creatives should play such a pivotal role. As Mother co-founder Robert Saville points out: "Our industry is often represented by self-serving egotists. Peter and Susan are the opposite, so will almost certainly be uncomfortable with this attention. But if anyone deserves it they do. And if anybody should represent the values we as an industry need to aspire to, it would be them."

So what drew them to Mother in the first place? “In those days back in New Zealand we used to wait for a VHS to arrive from Shots magazine – probably a year after everyone else had already seen it - and we’d scroll through looking for Mother’s work because it was for the likes of Dr Pepper or Cup A Soup or XFM and we just knew that was the kind of work we wanted to make,” Peter remembers. Susan adds: “And back then Mother’s work was often broadly geared around the sort of the funny side of things and that was one of the big appeals.”

But getting a job at Mother wasn’t easy. First they had to move to London and start freelancing.

Creative Salon: So you decided to move here without a job to come to. That suggests you were really confident slash brave slash, I don't know, crazy?

Susan: Maybe a bit of all of that. And that healthy dose of naivety.

Peter: We’d got to the stage where in quite a short space of time in New Zealand, we'd done quite well. We were working at Saatchis in Wellington, which at the time was the best agency there. So you go ‘where to from here’ and I guess we were young and naive enough to think we'd got nothing to lose. So we hotfooted it over here.

CS: What was it like working at Mother back then?

Peter: It was slightly daunting because you were surrounded by the people who were making such great work, but at the same time Mother was very small at that point. All the reviews happened on a round sofa that's still upstairs now. And people would just throw ideas and suggestions in for ads, so it was genuinely collaborative and there was a sense that everyone was in it together, everyone was willing you on to do the best work.

CS: OK, so there you were, twenty years ago, taking a massive leap of faith together, emigrating, landing a job at your dream agency. What is it about your personalities and your approach to work that means you managed to protect your relationship through all those challenges? Where does that bond come from?

Peter: I do think that helps that at the heart of it we're best friends. We spend more time with each other than we've spent with anybody on earth. So starting from this solid friendship and respect is definitely a massive part of it.

Susan: I also think transplanting yourself to the other side of the world with someone, you know we weren’t just making a living together, we were also making a life. And that really solid base of togetherness just gives you a sort of a bravery, you know that you can do anything because you've got each other at the heart of it.

Peter: We definitely have our different strengths. Susan's much better at the hard conversations, she’s much better at being tough I think.

Susan: Really? I’m a bit surprised by that. I do know you have a lot more clarity than me. I’m sometimes a bit ethereal and you will always make it much clearer.

Peter: There's something really nice about the longer you're in relationship obviously the more at ease you are but I really notice it when Susan's not around, because it feels like I'm not acting at total strength.

Susan: I actually genuinely think all roles in the whole world are best when you have someone you know beside you, because it really is an incredibly helpful sounding board. And also just giving you that sort of base that you can build your confidence on. So I think we're really lucky.

Peter: Which is not to say that we don’t have arguments. But because there’s a friendship at the heart of our partnership, that’s more important than any disagreement.

Susan: And because we have got that sort of friendship, we’re able to have the honest conversations and maybe sometimes the difficult conversations, you know, you're not afraid to say anything, and that’s so helpful, isn't it?

CS: How has your approach to creativity changed over the years that you’ve been here?

Peter: We were drawn to Mother because the work it was doing was funny and populist. But over time, Mother's changed and its work has matured and so our view of what a good idea is has changed.

Susan: It’s definitely broadened. The more people that you get in an agency, of course, you're going to get more perspectives and everything evolves.

Peter: But the work here is still populist, I think that the writing still really resonates in culture but I think it probably touches more parts than just the funnybone.

Susan: You still need a good idea and a good story at the heart of everything, no matter what.

CS: What’s really kept you at Mother for so long though?

Peter: The main reason people move on is because they want to progress and they want to be challenged. And we've been lucky, really lucky that we’ve always been given interesting challenges here, from stepping up to run Boots or when Bob and Michael (Wall, the global CEO) came to us and said we need help building this family of companies and pulling them together. I guess because Mother is coursing through our veins that was a logical role for us. So there hasn't been a reason for us to kind of go elsewhere.

Susan: We've worked on more and more international business as well. Because we were from the other side of the world those sorts of holistic viewpoints have always been something we've been interested in. So when Mother was expanding internationally, it made a lot of sense that we were involved in it.

CS: What have been your creative highs over those twenty years then?

Peter: One of the first would have to be the Orange ad that we did for photo messaging. We'd only been at Mother for two weeks and we went straight into production and we ended up shooting with Chris Cunningham. And it was all such a whirlwind. Chris was such a superstar at the time and I remember being at his house at 3am having a conversation about music because he loved the property meetings and we walked past his bedroom and the Bjork robot legs were sticking out from under the bed and we just thought “Oh my god, we're living the dream”.

Peter: Here Come the Girls has been career defining as well, it was just it was such a step-change for Boots. I think probably, once again, coming from the New Zealand from the outside looking in, we arrived and we saw things that other people didn't see. This ad was based on the insight that we saw our finance department head into the bathrooms at like 10am in the morning and come out at 2 in the afternoon not looking like anyone we knew. They looked amazing. And you're like, ‘Oh my God, this happens all over the country’ and the idea of taking seemingly true insights and playing them back for everyone was amazing. Before that Boots was all about the white coats. And that work had such an impact, to the point that you had the Williams sisters walking onto Wimbledon for the finals and that song being played. I don't know if the Boots staff loved it as much because they had to listen to it in their stores 24/7 for about three years. But that was an amazing piece of work for us.

Susan: No7 was an amazing brand for us to work on too. It kind of felt like at the time we turned the beauty industry on its head. The industry was all about how you look, but we made that whole campaign about how make-up and skin care can make you feel; it was all about the person wearing it rather than, you know, for something that people can look at, which felt really original and fresh at the time.

Peter: We used Alexandra Ferri, who was the youngest ever prima ballerina at the Royal Ballet at 19. And at 52 she was still dancing. We found the original footage of her dancing with the Royal Ballet at age 19 and created a hologram of that so she could dance with her young self. That was an amazing way of reframing the beauty industry.

Peter: Although we have this global role, we still make sure that we get the chance to work on actual work, as real practitioners. So we did a spot last year with the charity Bloody Good Period, which is was like a music promo about period shame.

Susan: We really like making work that has a really interesting and important message, but doing it in an entertaining way so that it can be picked up more easily.

CS: How do you spend most of your time now though?

Susan: It’s a mix of the global role and the Making our Children Proud work. That's where the majority of our time is definitely spent. We’re like part caretakers of the Mother brand, and part shepherds. We help to make sure that we're protecting this institution.

CS: So you’ve recently been instrumental in shaping Mother’s new Make Our Children Proud philosophy, moving the agency culture on from the Make Our Mothers Proud approach. How is this changing how Mother runs as a business, how it looks after its people, what it stands for in our industry, and the impact it hopes to make in the wider world?

Peter: Mother’s always broken the rules: we all sit around the table, we all take the brief, we don't have account people. Now the industry has taken on a lot of those ideas and I think the industry is better and stronger for it. But now what are we going to do for the next 25 years? We've looked at the industry and it’s just not the shining light for young talent that it used to be, right., it doesn’t hold as much of a draw anymore. So what are we going to do to reframe it and shake it up? It’s really important for us to make our mothers proud, both in the work we do and how we behave. But the idea now is to be more forward-facing and changing just one word – from Mothers to Children - has reframed everything.

Susan: But it's not going to amount to anything, unless everyone adopts it across all of our offices. We need to make sure that everyone's on board, understanding it fully, helping to shape it and steer it in the right direction. Every office, and every individual, even within each office, has something different to contribute so that we can all live up to this mission. If someone from one office has a great idea, then others can steal bits and adapt it.

Peter: And there's an innate kindness about Mother. I think that when you work here, you feel like other people have got your back. There's none of that kind of self-serving career-progression nastiness that you get in some places. And I think that by having that as the base, you also attract people that are like-minded, who care and who have a bigger vision than just themselves. And so therefore, making our children proud resonates with the people here, and certainly with a younger generation who question why they should invest their time with a company unless it shares their values.

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