NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- One of adland's most respected creative leaders, Jeff Goodby, reckons that advertising is only good if its passes the "cab test."
If there's one shop capable of leading that charge, it's Richmond, Va.-based Martin Agency. From the Geico critters and cavemen to the FreeCreditReport traveling band, millions across America see -- and remember -- the agency's campaigns. Consider that even when Martin suffered the loss of its UPS client last year, it was really only the ad world that realized it, as evidenced by a recent "Saturday Night Live" skit spoofing Martin's long-running "Whiteboard Campaign" featuring agency creative Andy Azula.
"They are very customer-centric," said Stephen Quinn, chief marketing officer of Walmart Stores. "For us, it goes way back to when we chose them. The gut that we had is that they seemed like us, and like our customers," said Mr. Quinn, noting that Martin displays a knack for pulling consumer insights into every piece of creative so that it really resonates with not just certain demographics, but the country on a whole.
The agency also understands that buzz isn't static; in order to stay culturally-relevant, advertising campaigns have to evolve with consumers' sense of what's funny or cool. Car insurance giant Geico's top marketer, Ted Ward, said his team spends a lot of time with the Martin Agency making sure they are introducing the right characters in their ads at the right time. "Certainly the googly-eyed cash thing -- which is a little creepy and a little weird -- as opposed to the loveable green guy, was introduced at exactly the right time," when consumers were focusing on saving money in a down economy.
See work from Martin Agency on Creativity.
"I've tried to kill the Gecko three or four times over the years, but it's stronger than I am," conceded Martin's longtime president, Mike Hughes, who recently handed the creative reins over to Wieden & Kennedy alum John Norman. "The natural human tendency is to want to impress your peers. ... But rather than convince your peers that you are hip and cool and know how to wear all black, why not try to put yourself in [the work] and connect with people that way? The best work connects with people if it has its creators in it. I think that has worked for us."
While Mr. Hughes stands by his belief that it's more fun to be parodied on "SNL" than it is to collect Cannes Lions, he is still sensitive about going too far the other way and not paying attention to craftsmanship in its campaigns. That's where Martin is betting the shop's incoming chief creative officer, Mr. Norman, known for such work as Coca-Cola's "Happiness Factory" at Wieden, will help the agency improve.
To talk to John Adams, CEO of 500-person Martin -- a consistent star in the Interpublic Group of Cos. family of agencies, and the only agency from Ad Age's 2008 A-list to appear again -- understanding what consumers like is a requirement. "It is a specific criterion that these ownership teams are held accountable. ... It's simply a fact that when you get clients talked about, get additional exposure for a brand, it has a huge multiplier effect on brand awareness and sales results."
Indeed. The work isn't just memorable, it's moving the sales needle for clients. In 1998, Geico had 2.7% market share. In 2009, it was 7.7%. This year it's slated to pass 8%. While competitors have lost share, Geico can still claim the title of fastest-growing car insurer in the country.
And unlike virtually all its key competitors, Walmart's U.S. same-store sales grew every quarter in 2009, and it had over $400 billion in revenue last year, a 7.2% uptick from 2008. On the back of those solid numbers, Martin was handed more Walmart work: duties for Walmart's in-store TV network.
On top of keeping those key current clients happy, Martin managed to pick up a ton of new ones, leading to a 10%-15% revenue jump last year. A big coup was Microsoft, which tasked Martin to help it with its ambitious retail-store rollout to get it on equal footing with rival Apple. The assignment was the catalyst for the agency -- which also has a small office in New York -- to open its first West Coast location last year, in downtown Seattle.
Martin also quietly added creative duties for Chapstick, a division of Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, won a contest for Expedia's ad account, and closed out the year being named lead creative shop for Pizza Hut's $200 million ad account, succeeding Omnicom's BBDO, which had it for the past 20 years.
Asked why he tapped Martin to handle its creative advertising at the end of an agency review, Paul Leonard, top marketer at Expedia, said it was partly a desire to partner with a "world-class agency," and partly its vibe. "Their location in Richmond has enabled them as it relates to building the culture they sought to create, and its one that we saw as a great fit for Expedia. It's a very authentic, down-to-earth place."