Alumna MP Mueller tells stories that pay
January 19, 2012
By: Tamara Chapman
Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, DU alumna Mary Pat Mueller (BA ’83) learned how to upholster a simple story at a young age.
It’s a hazard of small-town life. When your setting lacks hustle and bustle, Mueller says, “you have to channel a part of yourself that knows how to make life more interesting.”
Start with the name. She’s known as MP to her friends, which is short, they’ll tell you, for “mostly punctual.” Only her parents invoke the first and middle names, and then, she says, “you know you’re in trouble.” Either way, there’s a story there.
In the two and a half decades since she claimed her DU degree, Mueller has plotted her personal story with a dose of determination and an eye for serendipity. She has peddled jokes as a stand-up comedian, taken up hay farming, blogged about business and marketing for The New York Times and launched her own company, an Austin-based boutique advertising firm known as Door Number 3.
In addition, she has tussled with breast cancer, survived a divorce and raised two children. If she knew way back when what she knows now — well, she probably wouldn’t have done much differently.
Her career kicked off with a soothsayer’s prognostication. After studying communications and public policy at DU, she landed a job in Corpus Christi, working as “a glorified administrative assistant.” Casting about for something more challenging, she sought advice from outside her family circle.
“I actually went to see a Mexican card reader, called a curandera, because I had no rudder,” she recalls. The curandera recommended that Mueller move to Austin, where she would — so the cards foretold — meet her husband and find fulfilling work.
For Mueller, the next step was obvious. “In the absence of any other direction, I said, ‘why not?’”
Once in Austin, she landed work handling advertising for an international contract research organization. That gave her the confidence to open her agency, named for the famous prize-concealing closed door on television’s “Let’s Make A Deal.”
With a host of awards to its credit and a client list that includes the Alamo, Habitat for Humanity and the Texas Rangers baseball team, Door No. 3 prides itself on “insight-driven storytelling.” As Mueller puts it, “One of our pillars is to give clients things they don’t think to ask for.”
Consider the case of Texas-based Cow Wow, purveyor of a liquid compost made from bovine excrement. Among other things, Cow Wow promises a green way to green grass. When the company approached Door No. 3 about developing a “different” campaign, the agency’s brain trust skedaddled all over the creative map.
“We could do giant chias,” Mueller says, reconstructing the Cow Wow brainstorming session. “What kind of chias? Well, there’s an election coming up.”
And so they arrived at a hare-brained scheme to produce 6-foot terra cotta heads of the two gubernatorial contenders. Each would sprout its own luxuriant crop, treated with Cow Wow and groomed to resemble the candidate’s do. One of the candidates happened to be the carefully coifed Rick Perry, nicknamed Governor Goodhair by the same Texas wag who once dubbed George W. Bush “Shrub.”
The chia “heads of state” were ferried from one event to another, earning notice from such faraway observers as The Village Voice. The promotion culminated with a vote to determine which chia pate could lay claim to the better head of hair. The Perry locks went down to defeat, though the terra cotta planter was later listed on eBay for $4,500.
Leslie Hearne, founder of Cow Wow and its self-proclaimed grand poo-bah, credits Mueller with delivering a campaign that reinforced her company’s essence — “which is not normal, and that’s the way I like it.”
Sure, Hearne says, the market is home to thousands of fertilizers, but only one Cow Wow. A conventional marketing campaign simply would not have expressed the product’s singularity. At one point, Hearne adds, she succumbed to second thoughts and canceled the campaign, fearing it lacked long-term branding appeal. But a conversation with Mueller restored her courage.
And she’s never regretted the green light she gave the effort. To date, the campaign hasn’t translated into revenue growth, but the product’s name recognition has increased significantly. “We got the notoriety,” Hearne says. “A lot of people now know about Cow Wow.”
In its 17 years of existence, Door No. 3 has parlayed its make of strategic goofiness into annual sales of $8 million and into campaigns that “reinvigorate brands.” For example, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a project for the Austin Humane Society transformed the nonprofit’s storytelling from grim to chipper. Where once the society trafficked in downbeat tales of animal abuse and neglect, a new campaign emphasizes the joys of pet ownership. The shift paid off for the society, with donations on the increase, adoptions on the rise and new volunteers clamoring to lend a hand.
Mueller attributes such success to her firm’s creative culture and its disciplined approach to storytelling. Designers and copywriters are allowed to pursue the wildest ideas they can conjure, but they’re held in check by rigorous adherence to a “creative brief,” a document outlining marketing objectives.
Mueller believes so fervently in the power of creative storytelling that she surrenders to it even in her personal life. Take the acquisition of her ranch. Seven years ago, she participated in a cancer therapy and recovery program that asked her to write her own obituary. When she reviewed her postmortem, she was amazed to stumble upon the following sentence: “MP enjoyed spending time at her ranch and riding her horse named Buck.”
What ranch? What horse? Not a word of that was true, she says, “but it just flowed out of me.” And so, a few years later, convinced that her preliminary obituary was really prophecy, she purchased a spread in the Texas hill country.
“We farm hay,” she explains, launching into yet another story. Well, if the truth be told, not we exactly. A hired farmer plants and sows. As for Mueller: “I make him cookies,” she says.