Martin Agency's on the shortlist-again

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Thugs touting Vanilla Coke, geckos and "spongmonkeys" have helped make the Martin Agency a hot shop despite a low profile.

Headquartered in Richmond, Va., the geographically challenged Martin has grown from a decent regional advertising shop to a well-respected national presence, winning constant inclusion on review shortlists thanks to much-discussed creative wrapped around strong strategy.

"They bring big-agency [qualifications] in terms of resources, skills and impact, but they do it ... with a small-agency feel. It's a very nimble, very responsive organization," said Roger VanDersnick, Nascar's managing director-brand and consumer marketing, a client since July.

Though it has a handful of public relations and interactive employees in New York, most of Martin's 329 employees are in its retrofitted headquarters, down a cobblestone street in the hip Shockoe Slip district near Monument Avenue, the leafy avenue studded with statues of Confederate heroes. Its future plans, however, include expanding its New York office into a full service shop within a few years and opening a West Coast outpost that eventually will become a full-service shop.

Last year, John Adams, chairman-CEO, and the much-admired Mike Hughes, president-creative director, launched Martin's Marketing Ventures and Properties Group for sports, entertainment and event marketing as well as BrandInside, a unit to help companies with internal communications, so that all employees buy into the brand promise.

team atmosphere

"They don't just take what you give them and churn out a couple of spots. They really do take your business objective [and think about it] and help guide and come up with advertising platforms" that help move or evolve a brand, said Larry Bloomenkranz, VP-brand management and advertising at UPS, which Martin won in 2001. He said teamwork pervades the down-to-earth agency, where creative and production teams have worked together for years.

When Martin was sold to Scali McCabe Sloves, New York, in 1986, it was the country's 75th-largest advertising agency with gross income of $13.5 million, according to Advertising Age figures. Eight years later, when Scali was sold to Interpublic Group of Cos., Martin was No. 74, with $26.5 million in revenue. Last year, it ranked 35th, with $52.5 million in revenue.

"They excel at work with challenged brands because they are one themselves," said Hasan Ramusevic, Hasan & Co. consultants in Raleigh, N.C. "They have to prove themselves just a bit harder."

Martin executives are salivating over the $150 million Subaru of America account, and they are quick to note, subtly, that Martin is the best auto agency without a car account. It held the Maserati account from 1987 to 1989, Saab from 1997 to 2002 and shared Mercedes-Benz with Scali from 1992 to 1997. Also on its wish list: a consumer-electronics account and a video game.

The agency approaches new business with a surgeon's precision, ascertaining a marketer's goals and personality while gently digging on its review team, histories and accomplishments as it tries to design the perfect pitch team.

pulling out

"They go one layer more and one layer more. Sometimes they don't even know why they ask-but the extra information always seems to help," Mr. Ramusevic said. He noted that if Martin encounters a pitch for which it may have deficits, it points out those issues early so it doesn't invest too much, just to be edged out in the finals. Martin pulled out of nearly $100 million Circuit City Stores account review this spring when it felt it had better prospects on its dance card.

Trey Hall, Quizno's Corp. chief marketing officer, said Martin stands apart because of its responsiveness as well as its ability to make even the mundane edgy. "They listen really, really well. They are and have been very creative in solutions, not just in things that everybody sees but in other ways that people don't see-like how to get a piece of production done," he said of the agency that linked the restaurant to its new icons, known as spongmonkeys.

quick turnaround

Before Martin pitched Geico in 1994 as a sensible way to save money, it requested a pre-review meeting where the Geico team spent a day at the agency. Within two weeks of pitching, Martin was producing ads, said Ted Ward, VP-marketing. Geico hadn't planned on having a decision so soon, Mr. Ward said, but Martin's initial work was so dead-on that it framed the creative for three years and helped double the number of policyholders. Geico is running two Martin campaigns, one with its gecko and another with inappropriately timed boasts of "but the good news is I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico."

Martin's other decade-long client relationships are with Seiko Corp. of America and the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum. Last year, the roster added another seven accounts, including $30 million Quizno's in October; furniture company Thomasville's $24 million account in September; and UPS's media planning and print buying in November. Martin won JPMorgan Chase's $14 million media and creative retail review in December but saw the business go into review last week as Chase prepared to purchase Bank One. After years of courting Miller Brewing Co., the marketer this year approached Martin about its struggling Miller Genuine Draft. In February, it ran with a campaign that has people jilting Anheuser-Busch Cos.' Budweiser in favor of MGD.

Martin has lost out on its fair share of business, but generally to creative powerhouses: sibling Deutsch on McNeil-PPC's Tylenol in November; WPP Group's Berlin Cameron/Red Cell for the Coca-Cola Co.'s C2 launch; Havas' Arnold for the Amtrak review last summer; Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day won Pennzoil in April 2003; and MDC Partners-backed Crispin Porter & Bogusky in May 2003 won Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Even when it loses, Martin can be hard to forget. When Nascar chose WPP's Young & Rubicam, Chicago, over Martin for its $20 million review in 2002, Martin remained so top of mind that when Nascar wanted a new agency one year later, it went to Richmond without a review.

That's not a surprise, said one competitor. "You don't get the New York standard guys-in-black-turtlenecks attitude. What you get is a good, solid creative shop that focus on selling products, not on making beautiful ads."

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