creative5In the advertising world, perhaps not even “Mad Men” is as consistently entertaining as The Martin Agency. Known for steady and creative execution of Fortune 500 accounts, Martin helped bring GEICO out of the stone age (or into it, rather) with its caveman campaigns, and re-energized Walmart’s image with a clean and modern approach.

Named as the 2009 Agency of the Year by Adweek, The Martin Agency may be headquartered south of the Mason-Dixon Line in Richmond, Virginia, but it’s not considered a Madison Avenue outlier or scrappy underdog in terms of its work or talent. (The agency has offices in New York and London, too.) It’s a top-flight outfit that’s fueled its success with strong leadership and even a little help from the young talent generated by the VCU Brandcenter, where faculty, students and professional talent form a unique ecosystem in the up-and-coming creative community of RVA (that’s what the kids call it).

The Martin Agency’s best work always comes when it can throw punchlines, both subtle jabs and laugh-out-loud haymakers, which humanize brands and go viral on YouTube. This is especially evident in the agency’s work with Discover, where a tacky-sweatered, Bob Villa-bearded phone jockey named “Peggy” rudely answers bank customer calls in broken English and evasive responses. It was an iconic enough character to emerge as a cheap Halloween costume. And after the snickers settled, viewers still got hit with the key messages: Discover offered the No. 1 cashback rewards program and customer loyalty ranking.

 The Way I See It:

  • Discover Card is the first major credit card company to return to the Super Bowl airwaves in years. In its 2015 ad for the It Card, “Surprise,” a card holder and his customer service rep doppelgänger connect over the phone in impressive fashion. And then there is an unexpected pay-off punchline – a surprise party complete with a goat. This is just the type of work that’s buoyed Martin’s success – it’s accessible, different and memorable.
  • It’s so much easier for clients and agencies to make that leap of faith together in trying something new when there is a proven track record of success. One only needs to look at the success of the GEICO ads in creating brand awareness to see how crazy the idea of sensitive cavemen or gecko mascots might be. But they worked. And so this other seemingly crazy idea will likely work, too.
  • The “Peggy” ads for Discover proved that you can still ride that fine line of politically correctness in advertising to generate more laughs than dropped jaws and finger wagging. Another agency operating without Martin’s careful hand and smart choices could have generated more outcry than accolades with the cheeky campaign. Foreign call centers and broken English aren’t the most forgiving commercial elements.
  • Part of Martin’s success is its eclectic portfolio of client work. It’s hardly a one-trick pony. With clients ranging from Chips Ahoy! to ExxonMobil, the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Hanes and Experian – as well as GEICO, Walmart and Discover – The Martin Agency has demonstrated impressive range and versatility in supporting a number of consumer-facing verticals.

  The Way the Industry Sees It

John.adamsI sat down with John Adams, the chairman and former CEO of The Martin Agency, to talk about the company’s rarified success and its well-received campaigns for client Discover Card:



You have done some world renowned creative work in the form of commercials. What is the future of TV advertising? How do you see video content today?

As long as there’s a need to reach enormous numbers of people with a cohesive message and do it efficiently, television advertising will be strong.  In the past 25 years it’s flourished in part because it’s become easier to reach audience segments through television.  We all keep waiting for digital media to supplant television but it hasn’t yet.  Audiences are moving, but not nearly as rapidly as we all thought they would. Other kinds of video have proliferated.  That’s good news for us because so many of them are longer form options.  They also range in production values from popular “low-fi” videos to highly produced films. More options will mean a broader range of opportunities.  A $750,000 television commercial isn’t the only video option any more.[/a][q]How do you manage to be successful in so many avenues? What’s the key to having creative work that resonates with consumers from such a diverse range of industries?[/q][a]The variety of industries is greater than the variety of marketing problems across those industries.  Advertising solutions can travel.  The particulars of a given industry are fundamental, of course, but no industry is immune to great advertising ideas.  Good advertisers see possibilities everywhere.[/a][q]You’ve done so much for the industry, a commitment that culminated in being named just the second recipient of the David Bell Award for Industry Service. Why has it been so important to contribute to the advertising community in addition to championing top-notch creative work? What should others do?[/q][a]As in most industries, there’s never enough first-class talent.  I’m deeply involved with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter, widely regarded as the best graduate program in the country.  Our company also is involved with the Robertson School of Media and Culture and we send speakers into colleges and universities through the Advertising Educational Foundation, all for the same reason: to bring the most talented people into the business.  It’s an important job for all of us.

How is today’s creative talent different than that of the past? What can we learn from them, and vice versa?

Today’s talent is more digitally agile, of course.  That’s a plus for the obvious reasons, but there’s a deeper value.  They know how to start and participate in digital conversations with friends and strangers. So often, that’s the brief for marketers today.  Not just, “How do we tell our story?” but also, “How do we start a conversation with our customers and potentials?”  Those are two very different skills, and we all need to learn from the young people who have them.

What is the most interesting object in your office?

The most interesting thing is a life-size, carved wolf wearing a sheep’s hide; the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.  My wife gave it to me.  She was telling me something about myself.  The wolf often startles both people and dogs who visit the office.