"I think our location is being noticed again," says Hughes, a 28-year Martin Agency veteran. "It was a big story in the '80s because Goodby, Fallon and Wieden all started then, joining Chiat and us outside of New York, so that got a lot of attention. Then it sort of got overlooked in the '90s and now people are noticing it again."
But people—the general public and marketers in particular—are noticing other things lately, too. The Martin Agency isn't what one would call a hotshop and it doesn't typically cut a wide swath at awards shows. But from its Richmond vantage point, the shop apparently sees some important things clearly and has managed to do what many a sexier agency has only talked about. It's created pop culture fame for unlikely clients with work that's crowd pleasing yet smart. Indeed, its best-known characters have proved larger than commercials life—the well-drawn, watchable Geico cavemen famously have a TV pilot in development for ABC. In the past year, the shop has made enviable new-business gains, including, most notably, one big bauble that someone carelessly dropped under a table at Nobu—creative duties on the $580 million Wal-Mart account.
While the industry eagerly awaits the fruits of the Wal-Mart/Martin union, the agency keeps its focus on three principles, decreed from the top, that now guide all of its efforts. "A couple of years ago, Mike Hughes laid down a couple of things he wanted the advertising to do," says senior VP-creative director Steve Bassett. "He said, 'I want you to do advertising that's going to make a difference in your clients' business; I want you to do advertising that your peers respect; and I want you to do advertising that people will talk about.' And I think he means America, not necessarily the ad industry, but people out there in the culture. So I think we're aware of that when we start concepting." For Hughes, these principles are to ensure every piece of work aims higher than the client's basic requirements. "A lot of work out there is being done according to a creative brief, and my guess is that it checks off all the requirements, but it's not really changing anything in the world," he says.
With Geico, The Martin Agency has achieved this goal many times over. So what's the secret? Focus groups? Complex mathematical formulas? People just love insurance? Bassett, who heads up the Geico account, says there's no magic potion. "If your only goal is to get something noticed in pop culture, I'm not sure how to do that," he says. "It starts with a bigger idea that people can grab hold of. I don't think you can just say, 'I'm going to create a pop culture icon next week.' It's not going to happen, it doesn't work like that." Proof of this lies in the fact that most of the now familiar Geico characters were not expected to last this long. The cavemen were initially pegged for just one Geico.com spot. And Hughes didn't like the gecko when it was originally proposed because he thought it was a bit corny. But after repeated pitches, he came around, saying, "OK, it's one spot, how bad can it be?"
By diversifying its campaign for Geico, the agency appealed to different age groups and sensibilities—from "Good News" to a cockney gecko to Little Richard to the trio of Neanderthals. "If we stayed with one idea it would wear out fast," says Bassett. "Geico runs a lot of ads, so another worry was that the campaign would grow stale quickly. Also, Geico is talking to people with insurance. That's a pretty big demographic, it's not just 23-year-old guys who drink light beer. Different types of humor appeal to different types of people." The multitiered approach hasn't just been good for the campaign creatively, either. "I'm so thankful there's a 1-800 number and web address at the end of every commercial," says Bassett. "Because rather than trying to convince the client we're doing great work, they can see that it is and it works. We've found other clients asking us about using multiple storylines."
One idea Hughes did like right away didn't quite catch on. "Some years ago we created a campaign that said the reason Geico could do things inexpensively is because they had flying monkeys doing everything for them," says Hughes. "I thought those flying monkeys would be a big hit. But they ended up running for only a couple days before we pulled it." Hughes credits the agency's trusting relationship with Geico, a Martin client since 1994, for cultivating an environment to create memorable campaigns. "No agency does it day in and day out," he says. "We all have some successes and we all have some things that aren't that successful, so you better have a good relationship with your client because we can't promise that every spot will have that magic. We're going to try every time, but we can't promise it."
Established in 1965, the Martin Agency is no stranger to success. In 1972, the company launched the now familiar tourism slogan "Virginia is For Lovers," which led to key business with Wrangler and Mercedes-Benz. The agency was acquired by the Interpublic Group in 1995 and has since grown to about 400 employees, handling clients like Olympus, Barely There lingerie, the National Newspaper Association, UPS—Martin scored another pop culture hit with "What can Brown do for you?"—and TLC, with the popular "Life Lessons" campaign. Despite this growth and numerous successes along the way, the agency still feels it gets pigeonholed. "The Martin Agency is always best at whatever medium they say is dying," says Hughes. "When they said print was dying, we were the best in print. And now that TV is dying, we're the best in TV. I think what's underestimated about us is that we're certainly not the hippest agency out there but we are state-of-the-art in a lot of the things we do. Now we've got an amazing amount of online and branded content things going on and we're getting better at all of it and getting more opportunities to try new things."
While the agency boasts an integrated structure—with interactive, strategic planning, media planning, public relations, branded content and more in-house—Hughes maintains one of the keys to creating the best work possible is not restricting people to one creative cage. "I think what has been really gratifying is that a few years ago we made a lot of people creative directors and they've really stepped up," he says. "So now, you might be a creative director one day, but other days you're an art director on this other creative director's project, and the next day he might be a writer on my project. One of the most amazing things in our office is when we're working on something, the mentality isn't getting your own idea produced, it's about getting the best idea produced."
Among those ideas are a couple of TV projects in various stages of development. One is shrouded in secrecy; Hughes says only that "a couple networks have expressed interest" and "it was developed by three guys in our interactive side." The other is the much-ballyhooed cavemen pilot for ABC. Copywriter and art director Joe Lawson has been given a sabbatical from the agency to work on the project with original directing team Speck/Gordon, and the network recently hired former 3rd Rock From The Sun producers Bill Martin and Mike Schiff to executive produce. The venture is a prime example of what many agencies are trying to do—expand the horizons of their creative properties. Whether that means a TV show, videogame or a feature film, these opportunities also require a rethinking of the traditional client-agency business model. It's a process that many are experimenting with, but no standard has been established. The Martin Agency is no exception.
"Like a number of agencies, we're producing many different projects," says Hughes. "So we're all figuring out what is fair in the way of compensation. Geico's focus is not on making TV shows, it's on selling insurance and that's our obligation. Obviously there could be positives for them being associated with a caveman show, and we want to make it work, but not at all costs. It's got to be good for Geico. I think it would be good for our clients if they had some projects with us under value-based pricing, because that encourages us to do the kinds of things that get their message and their brand experience out there in a broader way. The industry, traditionally, hasn't been good with that because we're used to selling everything by the hour."
In this wired world, The Martin Agency's location doesn't pose a creative or competitive disadvantage (the shop does have two small New York offices for some of its broadcast media and interactive work); in some ways the company sees its Richmond digs as a distinct advantage. It's a notion that may garner more than a few industry sneers, but both Hughes and Bassett say because the minivan-and-mall lifestyle rules in Richmond, it puts them closer to the average American consumer. "If you look around, a surprising amount of the most adventurous advertising in America doesn't come out of New York or Chicago," says Hughes. "It's coming out of Minneapolis, San Francisco, Portland, Miami and Boulder—so I think it helps all of us that we live like our audience lives." Bassett adds, "If you're single, don't have a car and hang out in bars every night, you may not be in touch with a woman in Ohio who needs to buy diapers."
Indeed, many credit this sentiment as a significant factor in the agency's winning Wal-Mart in January. And though the retail giant has a reputation for a rather staid approach to advertising, Hughes doesn't see it that way. "They are an incredibly inspiring client, and if you just read the press reports you may not know that. I don't see any obstacles in our way" to creative work, he insists. Hughes also doesn't see any need to blast out of the gate trying to prove something. "I don't think Wal-Mart needs to go out tomorrow with a big, controversial ad campaign. I want to do something well received and effective, build some momentum, then do some things that might be a bit more surprising down the road."
With the success of Geico and a growing number of national accounts that includes the gargantuan likes of Wal-Mart, no one can accuse The Martin Agency of being small town. "I had no idea when I joined an agency in Virginia that we could do the type of advertising we've been doing," says Hughes. "I thought I'd be doing ads for the local car dealership. Turns out we can do just about anything."