The Martin Agency's Kristen Cavallo on being proactive during the pandemic
On Friday, March 13, the call came down from Interpublic Group of Cos. that all employees across its agencies would begin working from home on the following Monday due to the worsening coronavirus pandemic.
The Martin Agency CEO Kristen Cavallo immediately called the IPG shop's staff into in an open gallery space at the agency's Richmond Virginia home office where people could practice social distancing. Agency leaders broke out the flip charts and began going down The Martin Agency’s list of clients alphabetically, hypothesizing ways they could help each one. By end of day, the agency had emailed three ideas on how to manage the crisis to every one of its clients.
"It's our job to fight for our clients; that’s what we get paid to do," says Cavallo noting that The Martin Agency couldn’t be “paralyzed in that moment” or wait for briefs to come through the door. “We don’t have the luxury of coming across as invaluable right now. We are fighting for our own survival.”
And the agency hasn't stopped moving since. “We’ve just been operating on a much faster timeframe,” Cavallo says, equating the agency’s efforts to exercise: it’s hard to get started but once you do, it becomes routine.
“In the initial days of working from home, there was a lot of agency talk about the hardships of working from home,” says Cavallo, citing a plethora of grousing social media posts and reports in industry trade publications like Ad Age. “We felt it wasn’t the right time to talk about difficulties, but to lean into the client.”
This proactive approach allowed the agency to remotely produce work for 88 percent of its clients, the agency says—a feat considering that many brands have decreased marketing efforts or gone dark entirely during this crisis. To date, The Martin Agency has produced 20 ads for 11 clients, with 11 more spots in progress across eight brands. Out of all of its 18 clients, only two have not yet engaged the agency for a campaign during this time.
“In any six-week period, that is a Herculean effort,” Cavallo says. “I can’t tell you how proud and inspired I am of this company. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
And during a time when many hard-hit clients are cutting agency compensation, Cavallo says that not only have "a number of" Martin's clients held their fees, some have even increased compensation to the agency since the pandemic began.
Even so, The Martin Agency has realigned staffing in certain areas of the business, such as in production, due to the lack of shoots going on right now, and reallocated positions to other areas. But the agency says it has not gone through the type of layoffs that have hit a number of other shops. An agency spokesperson said: "We've pulled back in areas like production to heavy up in PR, animation, digital and strategy. We've cut some roles, hired others and have some open roles," according to The Martin Agency.
Leaning into clients
After sending emails out to all of its clients that fateful Friday the 13th, Cavallo says DoorDash, for which The Martin Agency won lead creative duties in August 2019, “was the first one to bite.”
Cavallo says conversations began with DoorDash the following day, and the agency sent 35 creative ideas to the company on the next day, a Sunday. By Tuesday, March 17, the final idea was locked in and the agency had an integrated campaign in market on Friday, March 20—one week after those initial emails landed in clients’ inboxes.
“We briefed Martin on March 14, right after the NBA had closed and Tom Hanks had announced he had COVID," says Kofi Amoo-Gottfried, VP of marketing at DoorDash. "Six days later we had a completely integrated campaign up on all channels: TV, online, digital, influencers, partnerships. The ability for The Martin Agency to turn that around in six days is extraordinary.”
DoorDash’s campaign highlighted the many restaurants open for delivery and featured local eateries as well as big U.S. chains like Baskin-Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings, The Cheesecake Factory, Chick-fil-A, Chili’s and Cracker Barrel, among plenty others. The campaign included a 30-second TV spot, “There For You,” and an #OpenForDelivery site aimed at promoting the various delivery options available to consumers during this time. A tweet promoting the campaign even tagged rivals Uber Eats, Postmates, Grubhub and Caviar, “or wherever your go-to happens to be!”
“Our view was, first and foremost, we are trying to help,” Amoo-Gottfried says, explaining the campaign and its decision to promote competitors. “It was not about DoorDash. This was a category and industry response. It was not about our sales; it was about restaurant sales.”
The campaign drove an 84 percent positive engagement rate with consumers.
As The Martin Agency cranked out that campaign for DoorDash, it was simultaneously producing work for its other clients. Cavallo says the agency shipped camera kits to talent to film from home; leaned on existing stock footage; and even used drones in certain cases to produce the spots remotely.
For UPS, The Martin Agency released a spot thanking its delivery drivers who continue to work through the pandemic. “We went from brief to creative in a little more than a week, which is really, really fast,” says Todd Wandtke, VP of digital marketing, advertising and brand management at UPS.
For Oreo, The Martin Agency churned out three pieces of work: a Trolls World Tour augmented reality experience, a #CookieChallenge partnership with TikTok, and its “Stay Playful” campaign, which as Ad Age reported, has become one of YouTube’s most-viewed coronavirus-related ads.
“Agility is more important now than ever. Having a partner who can adapt quickly to changes in consumer sentiment and understand how our brands can respond with authenticity and empathy is key," says Justin Parnell, a senior director at Oreo Brand and Mondelez International.
For Ritz, The Martin Agency put a branded spin on Instagram’s #KaraokeChallenge that encouraged people to sing together while staying apart, which helped raise funds for Feeding America. The campaign was produced in a week.
“I feel very close to the agency team and I think this moment has reinforced the level of trust and respect we have for them,” says Patty Gonzalez, senior director of marketing at Mondelez International.
A fight for survival
The Martin Agency is, of course, not the only agency firing on all fronts to survive during this time. Shops are having to prove their worth as a rising tide of brands pull back their marketing spend due to the adverse effects the pandemic is having on their businesses. According to an IAB report, more than one third of brands and media buyers have paused their advertising efforts altogether. Coca-Cola and Molson Coors are among major brands to pause or scale back marketing.
A recent Kantar report countered that while many brands consider “going dark to save costs,” it found that a six-month absence from TV would result in a 39 percent reduction in total brand communication awareness, “potentially delaying recovery in a post-pandemic world.”
“The role of creativity has never been more important,” says Devika Bulchandani, McCann North America president. “Creative is the only way to survival. This is where advertising as an industry shines.”
According to McCann, its Worldgroup network has produced 100-plus new spots since the pandemic began. Bulchandani says that didn’t happen by sitting around waiting for briefs. “In a moment like this, if we waited for briefs, we are not a true partner,” she says.
Still, an agency is made up of humans with lives and anxieties of their own to tend to. Cavallo says The Martin Agency has regular meetings to check in with its people, sends them lunches through DoorDash and tries to inspire them with personal, handwritten notes thanking them for their hard work.
“A few years ago I climbed Kilimanjaro,” Cavallo says. “We hit what we called the place of most resistance, where I lost the plot and wanted to quit. When we were in that space, our guide reminded us we chose to be here. That gave us permission to have control over our fate, one step over the other. So we did that. We’d take one step in front of the other. We did this on a frequent basis so we never felt lost or adrift. [As an agency], it hasn’t been easy [but that mantra has] been super inspiring and provided us fuel.”