John Adams on the Martin Agency's Long View

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John Adams
John Adams

At a time when the client-agency relationship is probing new depths, the Martin Agency has a reputation for listening to clients and being a good partner.

And in a time when the prevalent agency view is that each discipline, like media buying and digital, belongs in a separate house, Martin thrives by doing it all.

Why is listening and partnering so difficult these days, I asked John Adams, chairman of Martin, on the occasion of his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame last spring.

The agency business is a professional services business where "the tension is between giving counsel that you feel strongly about and being a responsive partner," John explained.

"And I think that's just the tension that an attorney would have or an accountant or perhaps an architect. … And I think our view and our history has told us that when we are good listeners and good partners, the work tends to be better."

I noted that the Martin Agency does things a little bit off the beaten path. It's got multiple campaigns going for Geico, the agency didn't spin off media buying when everybody else did, and it's very active in digital.

The advertising business has always had a strong sense of trends, John noted. On the one hand, Martin wants to stay current and follow them, but on the other, that makes the agency "vulnerable." So "we try to make decisions on the basis of what we see in front of us."

Sometimes it is very difficult to swim against trends that have gathered momentum in the industry, such as media spinoffs, John admitted.

"But maybe there's another piece of this. I've been here a long time. Mike Hughes, my business partner, was there for a long time. We've got a lot of people who've got tenure. And I think that tends to make one take a little bit longer view."

Mike, the former president of Martin, died in 2013 of cancer at the age of 65. He was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame posthumously in 2014, and there was considerable sentiment for John and Mike to be inducted together. John stepped aside in honor of his longtime friend and colleague.

Martin came up with the idea of using multiple campaigns for Geico from watching "The Sopranos." Agency people noted that there were multiple story lines going on at the same time "and you'd see characters that were well developed who would disappear for five episodes and then all of a sudden they'd be back. And the people who were interested in 'The Sopranos' found that fascinating. They didn't get confused."

That observation went against the grain of a message "standing for one thing and one thing only and hammering away at it." John said it turns out people won't get confused as long as the work is well organized and thoughtful. And, he added, a "broad-shouldered" brand like Geico has lots of different things to say.

It's not widely known that Martin has considerable digital savvy. It helped design Coca-Cola's first website, and John believes that the most transformational thing about digital marketing is "it changes the very nature of the communication."

Ever since advertising was invented, John said, its job has been one of presentation. But with digital it's all about start-ing a conversation. "And that is a really different assignment."

John said even if the conversation is started by the consumer, "you've got to be prepared to join the conversation and to think about yourself as a participant in the conversation not only as the presenter of a brand. It's a different mind-set."

How do you keep the conversation going? "Well, the same way you keep any conversation going. You do a lot of listening. You don't argue with people about their opinion about a brand."

John believes that operating out of Richmond not only helps agency people develop sensitivities about how life is lived in the rest of America but also is a big recruiting tool. "Life is easier, life is better" in Richmond, and "you can kind of live like a king on the money you make."

John is proudest of the way his team has fostered a "supportive, distinctly different environment." An ad agency is "a really great environment for fear because you have lots of people and very few customers. And the customers are all big and when a customer walks out the door or the customer might be coming in the door that's a time of a lot of anxiety. The stakes seem so high. If we don't do this the right way, the client's going to fire us. And you might lose your job.

"When you feel safe, when you feel not afraid you might fail. You tend to be more creative, more imaginative. And that's a conviction that we have and our people have and I think makes a big difference."

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