The Martin Agency Hits the $10 Million Billings Mark, 1978
The Martin Agency hits the $10 million billings mark in 1978 with the addition of Mobil Chemical Company (now part of ExxonMobil). Pictured, Client Clifton Long with agency founder David Martin and Harry Jacobs. (Photo courtesy: The Martin Agency)
On an upper floor of the Italianate headquarters of The Martin Agency, Kelly Smith reaches out to rub behind the ears of her dog, Ivy, a black-and-white pointer, lying languidly beside her desk.
Smith, an executive assistant, is in jeans. It’s not because it’s casual Friday; it’s casual nearly every day.
“Everybody is very cool about you having a dog. Keeps you calm. It helps; it helps a lot,” Smith says
Another dog is with its owner in the agency’s media planning services area.
“There’s a lot of hard work here,” says Chris Mumford, account services director. “It’s kind of a work hard, play hard kind of atmosphere.”
Mumford also has a guitar propped up against a desk. He left it in an attic too long, and part of it rotted. But now it’s OK.
Andy Azula, a creative director for the agency who won fame as the guy in the whiteboard commercials for UPS a few years back, took it one day, made repairs and returned it in perfect condition, without saying a word.
Azula’s LinkedIn profile tells you a lot about his personality, and the agency’s creative crew.
Here’s Azula’s list of specialties, real and imagined: “Union negotiation, purchasing, government liaison, branding and identity, server architecture, mergers and acquisition, salary arbitration, international law and bs.”
But Azula really does play and rebuild guitars, and his office wall is lined with them.
The Martin Agency has been in the ad business for 50 years this July, and it operates in a fashion alien to most of the corporate world — 25-cent soda machines, visiting rock bands such as O.A.R., and inspirational lectures from authors and inventors, including Mick Ebeling, whose book Not Impossible details efforts to use 3D printers to make prosthetic arms for children of war in South Sudan.
The sodas, the musicians, the guest authors and all the rest are part of an often unconventional but demanding culture, where the CEO is also the lead singer in a rock cover band.
If you have seen Wal-Mart’s slogan — “Save Money. Live Better.” — you know Martin.
If you have ever put a “Virginia Is For Lovers” bumper sticker on your car or truck, you know Martin.
The Martin Agency, which Creativity magazine ranked last year as the fourth most creative firm in the world, is the common denominator that links Richmond with the ad communities in Chicago, New York and Paris.
The agency is the only company in Richmond where the board chairman can use the words “cavemen” and “free-range chicken” in a sentence, and everyone at the table knows he’s talking business with the insurance firm GEICO.
“It’s the most fun business there is,” says Martin Chairman John Adams, who joined the agency in 1973 and was recently inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Fame.
Martin CEO Matt Williams seemed to cringe at the word “fun.” He didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.
“It’s a general misconception about the business: that it’s a bunch of people sitting in a building having crazy ideas, throwing pencils at the ceiling, with ping-pong tables and beers [nearby].
“It’s not that,” Williams says “It’s a business. There’s a strong strategic and business rationale for every ad that goes out the door.”
Martin is part of the Interpublic Group, a marketing powerhouse with 48,000 employees worldwide, and has long been one of Interpublic’s top performers.
Adweek named The Martin Agency the “U.S. Agency of the Year” in 2010.
Advertising Age in 2013 ranked it among the top 10 most decorated agencies in the world, and listed Alexander as the No. 4 creative officer in the world.
Today, Martin is the 23rd largest advertising agency in the country by revenue, and recently opened its first international office, in London.
That’s all a long climb up from where The Martin Agency began on July 5, 1965.
It made its first splash in 1969, when the “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign for the Virginia State Travel Service, now the Virginia Tourism Corporation, entered the American vocabulary on its way to Madison Avenue’s Advertising Walk of Fame.
"Virginia is for Lovers" (The Martin Agency, 1969)
This iconic print ad, entitled "Virginia is for Lovers," was created in 1969. It's known nationwide as Virginia's motto. (Photo courtesy: The Martin Agency)
In 1977, David Martin hired Harry Jacobs, now chairman emeritus of the agency, and Jacobs, in turn, hired the late Mike Hughes a year later.
Jacobs also is infamous for creating a recruiting poster that said, “To Hell With New York,” to counter the sentiment that New York was the only place good advertising could be made.
Martin Agency Legends Harry Jacobs and Mike Hughes
In 1978, Harry Jacobs (left) joined The Martin Agency as president and chief creative officer and brought on Mike Hughes as a writer and co-creative director.
Over the next few decades, The Martin Agency became a regional powerhouse competing for the most sought-after ad accounts in the country.
Martin wanted more.
In 1981, Don Just, a former bank president, was hired as a consultant to develop a plan to push the agency to another level.
Presenting his plans to David Martin, Just says he received an unexpected reaction.
“Dave was fairly impulsive,” Just recalls. “He said, “’OK, hotshot, you’ve got this plan together. How about coming on board and implementing it?’”
After a bit of thought, Just accepted.
He became president of the company and says he received a percentage of the agency itself as an inducement.
Just realized that the upcoming agency needed business discipline when a financial officer found boxes of old travel cash-advance forms in a basement storage room.
“All the remaining cash from the cash advances was stapled to the forms. There were several thousand dollars down there,” Just says.
With a team in place, The Martin Agency began lighting up the advertising industry at a time when most of the best ads were still coming out of America’s great megacities.
Luke Sullivan, chair of advertising at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia, recalled the frenetic high energy and rapid growth of the agency.
“All the right people were there, matched up with the right clients. In my 32 years in the business, my five years at The Martin Agency were my best anywhere,” Sullivan says.
And Mike Hughes was the best boss that Sullivan ever had, citing Hughes’ critical skills as the agency’s creative director, but also his willingness to value everyone’s ideas.
“We worked so hard because we wanted Mike to be proud of us,” Sullivan says. Hughes, who passed away after a long battle with lung cancer in December 2013, served as its creative director for 30 years.
In his obituary in AdAge, the publication credited Hughes not only for shaping Martin into a national powerhouse, but also for producing work that became famous not just in advertising but in popular culture.
“We are a family, and we’ve just lost our dad,” Alexander said then.
Adams says that one of Hughes’ gifts was that he was able to sum up Martin’s philosophy of looking at life and work in ways that were elegant and beautiful.
He did it at the very end, too.
“You will only find joy in the work itself,” Hughes wrote in one of his final postings to his colleagues. “It can’t just come from success at the end of the day. It must come from the work. Not just from reaching the peak, but also from making the long hard climb.”
The Martin Agency’s growing reputation as a creative shop in the early 1980s is what caused many prospective clients to take a look.
“They started stopping in Richmond occasionally to see what those cute guys down there were doing because they heard a little noise,” Just says.
But when prospects came to Richmond, Martin executives didn’t talk about creative possibilities; they talked about business and how to make brands more valuable.
Because he had never worked in advertising before, Just says he did things largely on instinct.
One of the first big accounts Martin landed during his tenure was Barnett Bank, then the largest commercial bank in Florida.
Just sent Martin employees throughout Florida to open accounts at Barnett or start a loan or ask about transferring their accounts from another state, all in an effort to gather information about Barnett’s strengths and weaknesses.
“When we made the presentation, we knew more about the bank than the chief marketing officer who had been hired a couple of months earlier,” Just says with a laugh.
He recalls that the agency’s leaders pushed hard for bigger accounts as they went after more new business. “At the time, I would guess most agencies were spending $5,000 to $10,000 on new business presentations and preparation. Our cost was close to $80,000 to $100,000,” Just says.
The entire decade he was at Martin, Just says the goal was not to make big profits but to increase the value of company.
Just left the agency in the early 1990s, after helping negotiate its sale in the mid-‘80s to what was then a legendary ad company, Scali, McCabe & Sloves Advertising of New York. Adweek credited him with helping to grow The Martin Agency from billings of $15 million in 1982 to $165 million by 1991.
He attributes the success to a remarkably talented team, willing to take enormous risks and not to be cowered by the huge ad agencies that regarded Richmond as a backwater where nothing good would ever happen.
“There was almost nothing we wouldn’t do or consider doing,” Just says.
Diane Cook-Tench began working at The Martin Agency in the 1970s. Employee rolls grew from 50 to more than 400 during her time at the agency.
She rose through the ranks to become a senior vice president and creative supervisor. “I was the youngest and only woman on Martin’s board of directors — nine guys and me,” Cook-Tench says. “We were less culturally and racially diverse than it is now.” Cook-Tench left Martin and later began working at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she founded The Brandcenter, a graduate advertising program, with the backing of former VCU President Eugene Trani and Martin’s leadership.
Stability is one of the secrets to The Martin Agency’s success, Cook-Tench says. “Martin’s leadership has always been down to earth, and there were fewer politics than the norm in the industry.”
As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Dean Jarrett, Martin’s chief communications officer, says the agency will display its best ads of the past five decades at its downtown headquarters.
On Sept. 30., the agency plans a big anniversary event for all employees at One Shockoe Plaza.
The agency moved into its three-story, 118,000-square-foot headquarters in Shockoe Slip in 1997, as the area was beginning its revitalization.
Martin’s landlord has acquired rights that would allow the agency to expand over a portion of Canal Street.
The Martin Agency's Atrium
The atrium was designed to be the agency’s town square. All corridors lead to that space. The agency’s quarterly staff meetings are held here and are broadcast to satellite offices in New York City and London. (Photo by: Ash Daniel)
Richmond BizSense reported that Martin is considering a $15 million expansion that would enable its headquarters location to accommodate up to 675 employees by 2017.
But Jarrett said the company has no plans to expand at the moment.
When the agency was eyeing a possible move outside of Shockoe for future expansion, Venture Richmond, which promotes downtown vitality, created a multi-media “love letter” to try to keep the firm in Shockoe.
“They are really an anchor for downtown,” says Lucy Meade, Venture Richmond’s director of marketing and development.
She said if The Martin Agency hadn’t decided to move to Shockoe from its previous location in the city’s Fan area, a lot of downtown renewal might never have occurred. “They built and look what came,” Meade says.
The people who opened The Martin Agency 50 years ago might only vaguely recognize the advertising industry as it exists today.
“The forms that advertising takes now are not even remotely what I started doing. A tweet can be a great ad,” Alexander says.
The ways in which upcoming generations are interacting with friends on social media, and how they hear things, and what turns them on is of perpetual interest to advertising agencies.
“The 30-second commercial is very much alive and well. But the new ways we communicate are unbelievable. So, that’s going to be the big challenge for us,” Alexander says.
John Adams says that ever since advertising was invented, the fundamental job was to present something.
“Present an idea, and to hope that people remembered the idea and went into the store and found [a product] on the shelf. It was all about one-way communication,” Adams says.
But today, he says, when the agency is contemplating an ad campaign, it must look beyond what it wants people to know, understand and feel about a particular product.
“The additional question is how do we start a conversation? That’s a profound change,” Adams says.
Matt Williams says ad agencies are laboring under a double whammy that begins with speed and moves to something even more challenging: selecting from thousands of possible options to put an idea into the world.
“It was really easy 20 years ago to come in and say we’ve got an assignment from a client, ‘Let’s do two TV ads, four print ads and six radio spots,’ “ Williams says.
“Now, you think in terms of form first.”
Conference Room Creativity
Beth Rilee-Kelley, chief operating officer; Matt Williams, chief executive officer; and John Adams, the agency’s board chairman. (Photo by: Ash Daniel)
Even though the forms advertising takes will continue to evolve and change, Williams is confident of one constant.
“Creativity and the power of creativity and creative ideas will always be the coin of the realm in this business,” he says.
Williams, a William & Mary graduate, is now the guiding hand at The Martin Agency, succeeding Adams in the CEO spot in 2013.
In some ways, Williams began preparing himself as a teenager when his father, a senior marketing officer for DuPont, would bring home tapes of ads for the company, and later would introduce him to ad agency principals.
“I was never pushed into the field,” Williams says. “But I was around it, and in that way came to understand it. It appealed to something in me that was fascinated by creativity and business.”
The 47-year-old Williams helped to pay his way through college singing lead and playing with a band known as The Flannel Animals, which he says still performs at William & Mary reunions.
A natural introvert, Williams says being in the band and being out front as the lead singer gave him confidence.
He also performs in a band, the Dixie Riders, which plays Southern and classic rock, and he’s never thought about quitting even as his responsibilities at the agency have grown.
“One of the risks of being in a job like this is that it can define the sole thing that you are,” Williams says. “Having those outside interests definitely makes me more than my job, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing personally, and it’s a good thing professionally. It keeps me fresh.”
Over the next decade or so, Williams hopes to establish Martin offices in Asia and South America, and maybe double the agency’s size in the world market.
“This is an amazing place,” he says, “and it’s the great honor of my professional life to be entrusted with this place. I want [it] to be better than it’s ever been.”
The Martin CEO says that when people talk about The Martin Agency, they talk about two things.
“They talk about the creative work, which they can see all around them, and they talk about the culture of the company, which is much more intangible,” Williams says.
The culture of the agency was discussed a lot inside the shop over the years, he says. The sense was that everyone was talking about the same thing, but they were articulating it differently.
So, the agency’s big thinkers condensed the agency’s culture to a single phrase.
“Good to each other, tough on the work,” Williams says.
“Good and tough,” Williams reiterated.
If there is anything that keeps Alexander awake at night, it’s this:
“I worry about recruiting and retaining the very best talent we can find. Where’s the next great idea, and are we going to have it this year?” he says.
Adams says The Martin Agency is not only in a talent war with other top advertising agencies, but now with Silicon Valley.
“Creativity is now the primary competitive advantage of every company, which by definition means you’re going to be competing for creative talent with every company in the world.
“And those companies include Google and Apple and you name it,” Williams says. “So, yes, it is a talent war. That’s where companies are going to succeed or fail.”