By Randy Hallman, Richmond Times-Dispatch
When John Adams joined The Martin Agency in September 1973, it was still going by Martin & Woltz. The ad shop had about two dozen employees in offices at 311 W. Franklin St.
Adams, the agency’s former longtime chief executive officer, now is preparing to bow out as chairman and migrate to emeritus status. He is handing over the reins of an ad industry powerhouse that is celebrating its 50th anniversary and pondering a vision of further global expansion.
His move to the background is set to take effect Jan. 1 — though he still will have an office to inhabit on occasion. The agency hasn’t yet named a successor.
His retirement is the final piece in a wholesale shift in agency leadership.
Since 2012, The Martin Agency has appointed a new CEO to replace Adams, a new chief creative officer, a new chief operations officer, a new chief financial officer and a new managing director of account management.
Every one of the new executives is a longtime employee of the agency — and Adams is proud and pleased with that.
Ad agencies, he said, tend to have problems when there’s new leadership. “We have tried to do it in a way that is as seamless as it could ever be.”
Andrew McMains, a senior editor for industry publication Adweek, and former New York Times reporter Stuart Elliot both said they are confident The Martin Agency will not suffer as a result of its change of top officers.
“The agency has gone through transitions before,” Elliott said. “When they move people up from within, they continue the traditions and service their clients have experienced.”
McMains said Martin is “an agency that knows who it is. They stay true to their values. ... They treat employees well from top to bottom.”
The agency’s résumé includes two decades of iconic ads for Geico.
The current client roster includes Walmart, Discover Card, Hanes, Oreo, Stolichnaya, Benjamin Moore and other widely known brands. Among the company’s past clients are UPS, NASCAR, Mercedes, Saab, Wrangler and Pizza Hut.
McMains said Martin’s status as a sought-after U.S. agency is demonstrated by its lyrical work with the Oreo brand since 2012, by its succinct ads for Walmart since taking the retail giant on as a client in 2007, and by its two decades-plus of making Geico a household word.
Some advertising, he said, “becomes sort of an inside game of cat-and-mouse — who can be the most edgy.”
Martin, on the other hand, is “the opposite of pretentious ... not too slick, not too hip.”
The Geico ads, McMains said, “breathed new life into a whole category” of vehicle insurance, pushing other agencies to change their approach, too.
Elliott, who wrote for The New York Times for 23 years until December, said Martin “popularized the idea of multiple campaigns, all running at the same time.” He cited Martin’s Geico ads — from a cheeky gecko lizard to touchy cavemen to a camel hailing “hump day” to a series of “everybody knows that” observations.
“When you have a client who does so much advertising,” Elliott said, “if you use one campaign, people will soon be sick of it.”
Adams and Mike Hughes took a thoughtful look at the company’s future several years ago.
“Mike and I looked around and saw that several of our top people were going to retire about the same time,” Adams said. “We wanted to be sure the agency kept its personality and its commitment to great work.”
Hughes, who died of cancer in December 2013, was the agency’s longtime president and creative soul. He and Adams are members of the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame.
They didn’t have to look far to find new people to fill the leadership positions.
Hughes gave up his role as chief creative officer. After a relatively brief tenure in that position by an outside hire, in 2012, the job went to Joe Alexander, who now has 24 years with Martin.
In 2013, Adams stepped aside as CEO and the agency promoted 24-year Martin veteran Matt Williams to that position.
Also in 2013, Beth Rilee-Kelley became chief operating officer, replacing Paul McKee. Rilee-Kelley has been at the agency nearly 32 years.
Two other top positions also went to agency veterans. Janet White (23 years) became chief financial officer in 2012. Chris Mumford (14 years) took over as managing director of account management in 2012.
The agency’s headquarters is a 122,000-square-foot building in Shockoe Slip, and it has offices in New York and London.
CEO Williams hasn’t forgotten his early experience at Martin as an account executive.
One of his first client meetings included Adams and other company heavyweights.
“I’m 24 years old, still wet behind the years,” Williams recalled. “I’m there with John Adams and everybody else — I am being very quiet.”
When the meeting was over, Adams asked Williams to stay. “He told me, ‘If you don’t say much, you can’t add the value the client is paying for. ... You have good things to say. I want to hear you say them.’ “
Chief Operating Officer Rilee-Kelley, too, remembers how she got started with the agency in 1983, just a few months out of the University of Virginia. At first there was no opening, but she was determined to get a job at Martin after talking to several local agencies.
“The joke was that I stalked The Martin Agency,” she said. “I had decided I had to be with this company. I was on a first-name basis with a receptionist — so I popped by a lot.
“She’d see me and call and say, ‘Beth Rilee’s here,’ and I’d have another conversation with somebody in the company.
“Eventually, they hired me as assistant account executive, and Mike Hughes said, ‘You know why you got the job, don’t you.’ I said, ‘Because I’m smart?’ He said, ‘No, because you’re persistent. If you’re this persistent in getting a job, you’ll be this persistent in doing a great job.”
Rilee-Kelley said it was immediately apparent to her that in an industry dominated by men, Martin was a place where women excelled and advanced to leadership positions.
“I never thought, ‘This is going to be a slog,’ “ she said. “I looked around and said, ‘This is where you do it.’
“If anything, there were times when Mike and John would give me a push ... and I’d say I wasn’t ready. They’d say, ‘Yes you are. Go!’ And I’d be off to the next thing.”
Rilee-Kelley worked across company departments en route to her current position, where “I’m responsible for everything our employees need to do their jobs,” she said. “Every day is different. That’s why I like it so much.”
Contributions from employees, even at the lowest level, have deep roots at The Martin Agency.
For instance, the initial version of the “Virginia Is For Lovers” campaign, which propelled the agency toward international fame, came from a $100-a-week copywriter, Robin McLaughlin, in 1969.
McLaughlin’s idea was to say “Virginia Is For History Lovers” — a phrase that could be changed to say mountain lovers, beach lovers and other fill-in-the-blank lovers.
David N. Martin, the industry giant who founded the agency with George R. Woltz in 1965, suggested striking out the various categories. Soon thereafter, Virginia’s all-purpose, provocative “Lovers” slogan was recognized nearly everywhere.
In 1975, Woltz and Martin split and the company became The Martin Agency. In 1986, Scali, McCabe & Sloves Advertising of New York bought majority interest in the company from Martin, who left the agency in 1988. Martin remained an industry figure until his death in 2012.
In 1994, The Interpublic Group of Cos., also based in New York, bought controlling interest in The Martin Agency.
Through its ownership changes, Martin has operated as an independent agency.
“Interpublic has been utterly faithful to its commitment to our autonomy,” Adams said, “and we’ve done really well for them.”
That independence includes Martin’s policy to steer clear of some clients.
Martin doesn’t push tobacco products because there’s no appetite for that category among company leaders, Adams said.
And the agency has had a policy of no political campaigns since it worked for a client running for a statewide office decades ago. The candidate lost, his campaign committee evaporated and Martin was never paid.
The agency’s trophy room has shelves full of hardware.
One of the whimsical “Unskippable” pre-roll video ads for Geico won the agency’s first Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last month.
That award rivals the prestige of the agency’s 2013 Emmy for “Clouds Over Cuba,” an in-depth, interactive documentary about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The film was created for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
And in 2010, before those honors, Adweek named The Martin Agency its U.S. Agency of the Year.
As proud as the agency is of its awards, that’s not what drives the company, said Alexander, the chief creative officer. The primary mission, he said, is “to grab an audience and hold it for the brands we work for.
“Is your work working for your clients? That’s the first question. Then you can ask — Is it winning awards?”
Alexander is gung-ho about the next step the agency is contemplating: more international offices.
Martin has had outposts elsewhere — for years the locations across the country depended on the needs of major clients. In 2005, the company opened a permanent New York office. And last year, London became home to the agency’s first international office.
Adams, Williams, Rilee-Kelley and Alexander all talked with enthusiasm about what they called a “micro-network” extending the agency’s reach to offices in South America and Asia, exponentially increasing the pool of potential clients. None of the company officers offered a timetable, but all spoke of a need to expand.
“The key is to have a great leadership team,” Alexander said, “a team that can work on its own with a very light touch from us.”
He said the foreign offices would operate with a heightened understanding of custom and culture abroad.
“It would be crazy to replicate Richmond” on other continents, Alexander said.
Nevertheless, Richmond may be one of the agency’s greatest assets.
Helayne Spivak, director of the Brandcenter, Virginia Commonwealth University’s advertising graduate school, said The Martin Agency feeds on being away from traditional advertising centers, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Scores of Martin employees have studied at the Brandcenter. The building that houses the school is named for Hughes, who helped establish the school and was its longtime board chairman. Adams succeeded his partner as chairman.
“Martin doesn’t do things the traditional ad agency way,” Spivak said. “They’re always a step ahead.”
The prize-winning “Unskippable” pre-roll video “is aimed at the most cynical audience in the world,” she said. “The Martin Agency did something fresh and different that nobody else has done. It works, even with that audience.”
Adams said the Richmond area offers a clear picture of the way most Americans live — different from the intense pace of major cities.
Moreover, he said, Richmond is a great place to live, which helps the agency keep its talented staff.
He’s an example himself, having turned down an offer earlier in his career to move to Nashville, Tenn., and take over an agency there. Richmond had a hold on him, and things at Martin were at an interesting stage.
“Ultimately, I decided I’d rather stick around here and see how things turned out,” he said.
“People visit from New York, London, Amsterdam — and they kind of fall in love with Richmond,” Adams said. He pointed to the city’s relatively easy rush-hour traffic, its vibrant outdoor life, its arts and entertainment opportunities.
“I know it’s trite,” he said, “but it’s easier to have a rich family life here than it is in many other cities. When you look back on your life ... family, friends and a sense of community are the things that really matter.”
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