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 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.”