Ask around, and marketers who know the Martin Agency will tell you that in a lot of ways, the 43-year-old shop based in Richmond, Va., hasn't changed much. It still exhibits the same down-to-earth attitude, fosters enduring client relationships, and puts a premium on churning out the consistent, quality creative it has for decades.
|Illustration: Robin Eley|
Dig a bit deeper though, and it's clear that in other key ways, the agency has evolved. Its biggest claim to fame may have once been the state-tourism slogan, "Virginia Is for Lovers," but Martin has steadily amassed an enviable roster of big-name, global marketers. Once pegged a great print and TV agency, Martin is today much more, having bolstered the capabilities under its roof to include offerings such as a media agency and an entertainment arm.
The Interpublic Group-owned shop's biggest success story from 2008 was work for its most high-profile client: Walmart.
As consumers grappled with thinning wallets, Martin's "Save money. Live better" repositioning for the retailer proved timely, helping the retailer post store sales that regularly outpaced competitors last year.
"They understand what Walmart is about," said Steven Quinn, exec VP-chief marketing officer. "They demonstrate a real commitment to the purpose of our company and our brand, and they've really embraced the culture of retail, which is fast-paced; there's a huge quantity of work going out the door on a weekly, daily basis. ... They've shown to be incredibly good at being flexible, fast and efficient."
Those abilities led to the retailer handing the agency more work in 2008, including marketing duties for Walmart's in-store network and the retailer's corporate-affairs account.
"That was at the time a very big and, of course, controversial change we had made," said Mr. Quinn of the appointment of Martin as its lead creative agency following the most dramatic review process in history, otherwise known as the Julie Roehm saga. But "what felt like a risk for us a few years ago has turned out to be exactly right."
What Martin has helped Walmart do is transcend an image associated solely with low prices to being a way to help families save, and thereby improve their lives. "Our creative today is connecting much more on an emotional level and not just on a rational level. If you were to ask me in as short a sentence as possible how they consistently delivered this kind of inspirational advertising, I'd have two words: Mike Hughes," Mr. Quinn said, naming Martin's longtime president-creative director. "It feels like he is one of us. But I imagine he is that for each one of his clients, and we don't all have the same kinds of business problems."
Take Geico, for instance. When the car insurer first struck up with Martin 15 years ago, it was a relatively unknown brand in an unsexy, hyper-regulated category. Geico charged Martin to assist it in becoming a premier direct-to-consumer insurer, and today, it has grown from 2.5 million policyholders to one that's pushing 9 million, passing Progressive last year to become the third-largest auto insurer.
"A long time ago, we decided that our category had a position for at least one company to use humor to differentiate themselves," said Ted Ward, VP-marketing at Geico.
"We are a little quirky in the approach," he said, adding that "the creative work continues to be right-on strategy." In 2008, Martin executed more of the same multipronged, pop-culture-busting work using the Cavemen, the Gecko, and its newest character, a little bundle of bills with googly eyes named Kash, to underscore the money consumers can save by buying Geico's coverage.
Said Mr. Ward, "They are able to keep people a pretty long time ... a lot of the faces are the same; certainly the principals' are," referring to Martin's Chairman-CEO John Adams, who along with Mr. Hughes has spent some 30 years at the shop. Indeed, the average creative director clocks 12 years at the agency.
At the same time, with the agency now up to 500 staffers, "We've brought in a lot of new people that are breathing new life into the place ... I think the best agencies are always those that have a mix of senior people and new people that are anxious to show what they can do," said Mr. Hughes.
"They're very collaborative," said Maureen Healy, VP-customer communications for United Parcel Service, whose spots famously star Andy Azula, the creative on the account, doodling on a whiteboard.
"The whiteboard campaign has been running for a few years, and it's continued to prove successful in terms of awareness and recall ... and we've made a more concerted effort to extend that campaign into direct marketing and other channels."
The agency quietly picked up additional work in 2008, winning the Hoover vacuum account and taking on projects from Coca-Cola's Fuze brand and language-learning-software marketer Rosetta Stone. It did, though, say goodbye to its Sirius client amid its merger with XM.