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.