The Martin Agency charged ahead during the pandemic
Last March, a crisis was looming. A mysterious illness widely known as the “novel coronavirus” had spent months tearing through China, then Italy, and had finally trained its sights on the U.S., sending alarm bells ringing throughout an advertising industry that was blindsided by the pandemic’s sudden arrival in this country.
“We got wind, maybe on a Wednesday, that we’d be going to a work-from-home on Friday,” says Kristen Cavallo, CEO of the Martin Agency, who remembers scrambling to prepare ideas for their roster of clients that might help them stay relevant amid an impending shutdown. The approximate goal: deliver three ideas per brand by end-of-day Friday.
“For DoorDash we had 72 [ideas], and DoorDash called first thing Saturday morning,” she says.
That responsiveness and adaptivity—coupled with its location in Richmond, Virginia, which wasn’t throttled by the virus as rapidly as New York, for example—helped shield Martin from an early fate of furloughed employees and shrunken budgets that befell many U.S. creative shops at the same time. In fact, the Interpublic Group of Cos.-owned agency flourished during the spring of 2020 thanks to what Cavallo calls “a combination of fear and strategy”; in the first 90 days of the pandemic alone, Martin produced 20 new ads for 11 clients. Nor did it miss a beat following the departure of then-Chief Creative Officer Karen Costello to Deutsch Los Angeles as CEO in August.
From previous crises like the Great Recession, Cavallo and her staff recognized brands that continue to advertise throughout such emergencies fare better on the other side, partly because competitors tend to retreat, and partly because of a glut of cheap ad inventory.
So she encouraged clients to stay the course with relevant messaging that would pay dividends post-pandemic—“We fight invisibility” is the agency’s mantra, after all—and brands heeded that advice. The result? “A stronger body of work than in the previous year when we had time and everything at our disposal,” she says. “When we went to those clients and said ‘do not pull your spending,’ they met that challenge because they trusted the teams that worked on their business.”
The Martin Agency deserves a little room to brag. The integrated agency closed out 2020 without losing a single client, instead winning 10 new accounts that were often secured in formidable head-to-head pitches with top shops; since February 2020, Old Navy, Axe, Century 21, Terminix and more have all handed the Virginia agency their creative duties. The new business contributed to Martin being able to project at least 11% year-over-year revenue growth, according to the Ad Age Datacenter, in a time when most of its peers struggled.
The COVID-19 pandemic allowed the agency “to flex new muscles,” says Chief Creative Officer Danny Robinson, who notes that Martin landed plenty of work in 2020 that wasn’t necessarily in its typecast wheelhouse.
For example, last year the agency was assigned experiential duties for Buffalo Wild Wings and took the lead on social for CarMax and Hanes—two creative areas where its staff have plenty of expertise, Robinson says, but areas where it was historically underutilized due to clients who can sometimes “compartmentalize agencies.”
Looking back on last year’s work, it is almost remarkable that the 56-year-old agency was able to produce so many effective (and headline-grabbing) pieces of creative, although it makes a little more sense given Martin’s recent $1.5 million investment in SuperJoy, its in-house production hub.
For Buffalo Wild Wings, the agency set about changing hearts and minds in the boneless wing debate by enlisting legendary hip-hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, who briefly changed their name to Boneless Thugs-N-Harmony in a buzzworthy push that garnered north of 450 million impressions from the likes of ESPN, Rolling Stone, Vice and more. For Geico, Martin created nearly 100 different spots that played on everything from literal aunt infestations to the catchy “Whoomp! (There It Is”) tune. And for Oreo, the agency partnered with visual effects studio Framestore to create a short animated film in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election that weighed in with themes of unity and togetherness. (Plus, who could forget Martin’s neon pink-and-green creation that was Lady Gaga-branded Oreos.)
“The [Martin] team is masterful in how they translate our brand purpose and creative vision into authentic, well-crafted stories and pitches,” says Justin Parnell, senior director of brand for Oreo. “What’s really unique is their understanding of which angles of a story will be most relevant to certain publications and audiences. Having a partner that can dive into the various angles with us and decide what is most meaningful in the current climate, or to a specific audience, is incredibly valuable.”
Contributing to that understanding of what audiences hope to get from ads is the agency’s staff, who Cavallo says are often both “their agency and, in many respects, their target audience.” The Martin Agency proudly reports that of its 70 new hires recruited over the past year, half identify as people of color, with 24% of the shop’s 354-person staff—and 37.5% of its executive leadership team—currently hailing from multicultural backgrounds.
And in addition to raising the bar on its in-house representation, the Martin Agency also felt a desire to assist the slowly diversifying ad industry at large, creating what it has dubbed the Visibility Brief as a means of checking “bias blindspots” and inspiring more racially representative work.
Launched in August as an open-source tool, it has since been distributed to more than 25,000 strategists worldwide and has been adopted by a myriad of agencies, brands and even universities across more than 30 states. Martin will also shortly be launching a workshop version of the Visibility Brief in partnership with the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The fact that nearly one-quarter of Martin’s staff identifies as persons of color represents a major uptick for the formerly white male-dominated agency, but Cavallo, who has been a champion of diversity since signing on as CEO in 2017, emphasizes that there is no set goal for the agency’s diversity of staff. “Our goals are to surpass whatever the industry uses as a marker,” she says.
“We’re not really paying attention to the industry goals,” adds Robinson, “because we don’t work in ‘the industry.’ We work at the Martin Agency.”