The Martin Agency: U.S. Agency of the Year 2009

Pizza is Andy Azula’s favorite food. “I’ve been obsessed with pizza all my life,” jokes Azula, on location in Los Angeles shooting the agency’s first work for Pizza Hut. Azula, the longhaired creative director who has starred in about 50 of the agency’s “Whiteboard” commercials for UPS, is producing the work that won the shop its 14th piece of new business in 2009. “The work is going to be under a microscope,” says Azula of the campaign scheduled to debut next month. “The category is so competitive and results are measured in real time. I love that challenge.”

The Pizza Hut win capped off an aggressive new business run for The Martin Agency, Adweek’s U.S. Agency of the Year, as it posted an estimated 12 percent gain in revenue to $129 million. A double-digit gain would be noteworthy in most any year, but it’s particularly impressive in a year when “flat is the new up” became a common, if wishful, refrain among agency executives.

In addition to Pizza Hut, the Interpublic Group agency won Expedia, Sun Life Financial, the United States Tennis Association, Microsoft retail, ChapStick, 1-800 Contacts and Manpower. While continuing to turn out work that lent heart to Walmart’s money-saving strategy, laughs for Geico, memorable musical numbers for Freecreditreport.com and a minute-by-minute digital re-creation of the 1969 Apollo moon landing for the JFK Presidential Library and Museum and AOL, Martin’s creative prowess also attracted projects from ProFlowers, Moen and Rosetta Stone.

“I haven’t worked this hard since my thirties,” cracks Mike Hughes, the 61-year-old president and co-chief creative officer of the 45-year-old agency. Hughes, a soft-spoken, well-respected copywriter by trade, has served as the agency’s creative leader for the last 28 years and has proudly fostered a collaborative culture that is as supportive as it is dedicated.

The agency’s hard work has paid off. While the year began like it did for many others, with executives bracing for the worst and shedding staff (5 percent in the first quarter in anticipation of client cutbacks), the forecast turned brighter by mid-2009. CEO John Adams says the agency realized the shop’s outlook for the recessionary year was actually far better than earlier predicted.

The agency’s new business strategy was aggressive. Out of 70 invitations to client reviews, 18 were pursued and 14 secured. Attention-grabbing campaigns for long-standing clients like Geico and UPS have long been the agency’s calling card, but in 2009, it had lots to do “with our history with value brands in a recession and, more fundamentally, our ability to connect to a part of America,” says Adams.

The agency has managed to maintain its familial culture while absorbing new business. After winning Walmart in a do-over review in early 2007, the sheer size of the business could easily have consumed the agency. The account, with $580 million in ad spending, nearly doubled the agency’s billings that year and required the hiring of 130 employees in short order. “We absorbed it into the culture without changing our core values,” says Azula.

Instead of fracturing a culture centered on the belief that building an agency is about building a community, not a company, Walmart helped Martin prove that its accessible brand of creativity not only produces pop culture hits like the Geico gecko and the perpetually misunderstood cavemen, but emotive retail advertising that pushes personality as much as price. It’s a message that in difficult economic times resonates well beyond retail.

“There are value-priced suppliers in every category, but the exceptional success that Walmart and Geico has had has gotten a lot of people’s attention,” says Hughes. “There have been some threads through that work, an American sensibility, that was very timely, and I think it turned a lot of heads.”

The Walmart business — an account that now generates more than 100 spots a year — has given Martin a competitive confidence and catapulted the agency into “must-have” status on prospective clients’ review lists. Since winning the business, Martin’s added a corporate responsibility assignment and the task of reinventing Walmart’s in-store TV network. (Last year, the agency produced approximately 500 5- to 120-second ads for the network through a dedicated in-house production unit, Studio2.) “We have more confidence that we can do all kinds of things,” says Hughes.

“We are more resilient than ever,” adds Azula. “The scale and size of the [Walmart] business makes us very production savvy and efficient,” skills that will again be tested with the high-volume of production required on Pizza Hut.

Ken Robinson, co-founder of consultancy Ark Advisors that recently included Martin in a review, says the longevity of the agency’s work with clients is what attracts prospective clients. “Martin has done an outstanding job branding and keeping campaigns fresh and evolving over time,” says Robinson.

That’s exactly the agency’s intention. “We want to do creative that makes our clients alpha brands,” says Hughes. “To do that you have to win their heads and hearts.”

The agency’s Geico work, which includes multiple campaign messages and last year introduced an effort that had the Gecko join the action of viral hits like “Numa Numa,” demonstrated the agency’s ability to build brands, says Priscilla Brown, svp, head of marketing at Sun Life, a Canadian insurance company that hired Martin in August. “We were very excited about their history with creative. While we enjoy household name status in Canada, we only had 2 percent awareness in the U.S.,” she says. “We were all shell-shocked about this economy and they understood what the implications were for our products.”

The agency’s “Get to know Sun Life” campaign featuring two employees on a mission to make the brand a household name by asking K.C. and the Sunshine Band to change their name to K.C. and the Sun Life Band and Florida to the Sun Life state is a client-declared winner. “We’ve seen humongous gains in our Web site traffic,” says Brown. “We went from 3,000 hits a day to 20,000.”

Geico’s Ted Ward, vp of marketing at the client that has worked with the shop since 1994, says the agency’s work has managed to keep the insurance carrier “ahead of the pack.” The latest character in the Geico family is Kash, a googly-eyed stack of money that reminds people of the cash they can save with Geico. A car insurance business isn’t an easy one to grow, yet Martin has pushed Geico from No. 7 in the car insurance category to third since their relationship began. “They were the best during the selection process [15 years ago],” says Ward. “And they have proven they are the best ever since.”

Warm, ego-less, smart and strategic are adjectives clients often use to describe the agency, and subsequently, Hughes. “Chemistry is [an] important ingredient in their winning formula,” says Brian Niccol, CMO of Pizza Hut. “The Martin team meshed perfectly with our own. They get our audience, mirror our culture and have the right thinking to market our products.”

Clients point to the value of their results-driven creative, their data analytics capability and, just as often, their heart. “Right on down from John Adams to the individual people who work on the account, they believe passionately in what they are doing,” says Stephen Quinn, CMO of Walmart. “Friendship is really important to them too. They feel like real partners.”

The agency’s Richmond, Va., location, once considered a disadvantage when pursuing national business, has now become an asset in packaging Martin’s everyman brand. “It’s significant that these guys are in Virginia,” says Tony Rogers, vp of brand marketing and advertising at Walmart. “The people who are working on our business are our consumers. They are connected to this brand very directly and it helps when they sit down to create advertising ideas. It’s the difference between empathy and sympathy.”

That empathy has informed the agency’s work for Walmart. The “Save money. Live better” positioning has helped rebrand the largest American retailer with an emotional play that had previously been all about price. “There is so much rich emotional fodder around this brand and the role that it plays in people’s lives,” says Rogers.

That human touch resonates with the American public. Since introducing the platform in 2007, the company has seen its sales rise, from $280 billion in 2006 to $400 billion in 2009, according to company reports.

While agency and client are like-minded, the relationship is not without compromise. “There has been a level of conflict and debate that has impressed and surprised us,” says Quinn, who points to a recent holiday commercial that the agency fought to produce.

The ad, “Christmas Wish,” shows U.S. troops enjoying a snowstorm in the desert. “What did you wish for?” a mom asks her daughter in the spot. “Something for dad,” she replies, as the voiceover explains, “To all of our troops and their families. Thank you. Because of you we are all living better.”

The ad was on the table for a year, but Quinn says the company was skeptical of its “fantastical” approach. But Hughes’ passion in the concept convinced the retailer to make the ad. “They vehemently believed it was the right thing to do,” says Quinn. “What I hadn’t fully recognized was how important it was to thank people. They were right.”

The shop’s Walmart experience has attracted other megabrands. Pitching and winning the business with the agency’s 2-year-old design firm, Collins:, led by Brian Collins, Martin won the lead role on Microsoft’s retail business. Working with Microsoft’s brand and design teams, as well as its architectural firm and software developers, the agency helped Microsoft roll out its first concept store this fall. The agency was responsible for designing everything from the store’s visual identity and logo, packaging and collateral to the advertising for the store and a series of 10-minute films for an 180-foot digital display. “It was a once in a lifetime design opportunity,” says Collins.

The agency’s design capabilities have added another potent weapon to Martin’s arsenal and played a part in its successful bid for Pizza Hut. “Microsoft and Walmart have allowed us to be pioneering in the final four feet of the consumer experience,” says Kristen Cavallo, svp, director of business development at Martin.

To service West Coast-based clients Microsoft and Expedia, Martin has opened a Seattle office. It is also establishing a European presence with the hiring of London-based Ian Davidson as worldwide account director. Davidson, who splits his time between Richmond and London, previously held a similar position on UPS at McCann Erickson, a role he is now assuming for Martin’s Manpower business. Won in October after a review, the global business will help make up the loss incurred by the defection of UPS last year. (UPS, which had been working with McCann overseas, put its global business into review; Martin, which handled its domestic business, subsequently withdrew from the competition.) It was a loss that Adams describes as “a heartbreaker” but “out of the agency’s control.”
 
Manpower, a worldwide employment services company, will help Martin grow its global reach, predict agency execs. Emma van Rooyen, svp, chief marketing officer at Manpower in Milwaukee, says 85 percent of the company’s revenue comes from outside the U.S. “We hired Martin to help us take a fresh look at our brand,” she says. “We believe we have a great story to tell and we want to do a better job making sure that people inside and outside the company understand the value we bring to the world.”

The Martin Agency is evolving its story as well. After 28 years as creative leader, Hughes, who is being inducted into The One Club Hall of Fame this year, last November named his successor. John Norman, an art director with a design background who most recently served as co-executive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy, Amsterdam, begins as co-chief creative officer of the agency this week, a title he will share with Hughes for at least a year. (READ AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN NORMAN.)
 
“I’m 11 years behind in doing that,” says Hughes, referring to the year when he was diagnosed with cancer. For more than a decade, Hughes has battled the disease while building the agency and fostering work that he says “sells everyday products to everyday people in not so everyday ways.”

Although Hughes is passing the torch, he’s assured the staff he’s not retiring. “I’m exhilarated by the opportunities in front of us,” he wrote in a memo, “and I plan to work here forever.”