By Yash Egami

When Mark Wenneker first joined Mullen as its chief creative officer five years ago, the idea of working out of the agency’s old headquarters—a stately mansion 30 miles outside of Boston—was nearly a deal breaker for the former Goodby creative.

“I remember back when I was in school I was like, ‘Wow, Mullen did the work for Swiss Army knives,’ but I never really wanted to work there because I didn’t want to work in the woods,” recalls Wenneker. “And I never really considered Mullen, but then I read an article that was about how they were thinking of moving to Boston, which I thought was interesting. So I went out there in this huge Nor’easter storm and drove an hour and a half out into the middle of the woods and it was like this castle. It was cool from the outside, but when you got inside, you would see these long hallways. It was really bizarre, it was like The Firm.”

It took some convincing, but eventually he accepted the agency’s offer with the promise that he would only have to put up with the building for a few more months. “There were all of these talented people there, but it was super-hard because you had to go in each person’s office to see the work,” says Wenneker. “I just remember the first meeting I had there and there were probably 40 people in the room and I was like, I just can’t even think. So I asked everybody to put their work in the hallways so that the work was always exposed.”

These days, Mullen’s new downtown Boston address feels much more like home to the Lexington, KY native with influences from one of his favorite movies, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Employees who use their key card to get onto the creative floor are greeted with the same music viewers hear when the chocolate factory door opens in the movie. Quotes like “Inspiration is part inspiration, part perspiration and part butterscotch ripple” are scattered throughout the office as a reminder to people to have fun.

“If you ask my creative department what I do, I think a common answer would be that I just like to be stupid,” he confesses. “I try to go in rooms a lot and not have 20 people waiting outside my office like a Baskin-Robbins.”

The change to a more open and collaborative environment has yielded palpable results. After a few bumpy years during the recession, the agency, which was started in the 1970s, has upped its creative game recently with fresh work for clients like JetBlue and Google Play.

The turning point for the agency came in 2009 when the online shoe retailer Zappos selected Mullen as its AOR after a highly-publicized review.

“I just remember everybody thinking, ‘There’s no way in hell we’re going to win Zappos, there’s 120 agencies doing an RFP, there’s no f-ing way,’” says Wenneker. “And Alex [Leikikh] and I were like, ‘We gotta win this, because if we do, then we’re immediately on the map. Right now we’re not on the map, dude, nobody gives a shit about us.’ So that was a huge win for us, and I think it was the beginning of something pretty interesting and we’ve never let up since then.”

Soon after, Mullen won the coveted JetBlue account, which was another game-changing moment for the agency. It was also an emotional win for Wenneker, who at the time was experiencing the loss of his father.

“[Winning JetBlue] was a big personal win for me because I was pitching against Goodby Silverstein in the finals,” he says. “At the same time, my dad was dying, he had about a week to live and it was one of the hardest times in my life. That pitch came down to the very last day and we won that thing, it came down to minutes. I got a call from Jamie Barrett, who was my old partner and a really good friend of mine who was in my wedding and knew my dad really well. He goes, ‘This is a tough time for you and this is a really hard time for me to call you, but I knew your dad and I know you and as tough as this is, I wanted to tell you two things. Number one, I’m really sorry about your dad. Number two, you beat us, you beat Goodby.’ I dropped the phone.”

Since then other A-list clients have followed, including FAGE Greek Yogurt, American Greetings and more recently, Google. His strategy to go after challenger brands and the agency’s renewed focus on how they pitch clients have been key to its recent successes.

“We have a tight group of pitch people, we don’t like to switch up the players. Clients like to get what they’ve bought so we never switch out the team unless somebody doesn’t like the team. That consistency in how we pitch and who we pitch is key. We don’t go in there and shove an idea down the client’s throat, we usually come in there with a few really different ways to think about their brand.”

With all the new business, the creative department has grown from around 30 people to over 100 since his arrival, including technologists and developers. The agency has also added new offices with a San Francisco location opened last year to service Google and other Bay-area clients.

Says Wenneker: “It’s been pretty awesome to watch that start to grow and figure out how to work with an office that’s so far away but feel like you’re really close. It’s been an awesome experiment and it’s really starting to pay off.”

As if there was any doubt that Mullen has landed on the map, the agency recently participated in another high-profile review for Honda of America and wound up landing its luxury division, Acura (RPA retained the Honda account). But Wenneker prefers to think of the agency as a family business, a reminder of when he was growing up and his family owned a shoe store in Lexington.

“We always joke every time we win a piece of business that it almost feels like a real agency here,” he says. “Obviously we are a real agency, but we never want to feel like we’re bigger than 120 people. Our motto is ‘However big we grow, don’t ever feel like you’re bigger than 120.’ Because you’re going to start getting a big ego, you’re going to start pitching things for the wrong reasons and start acting like a big agency. To us, it’s not about winning a giant piece of money. If the creative is awesome, then the money comes, and that’s been our thing.”

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