Clan of the Caveman

When the Martin Agency won the $580 million Wal-Mart account, it proved that smart advertising is about more than geckos–it’s about the numbers.

Clan of the Caveman

They may have discovered fire and invented the wheel, but Neanderthals have a tough time getting respect. People–Homo sapiens, that is–are always mocking their stone tools and dissing their loincloths, walking around all upright without giving them credit for getting there first.


Same thing if you want to run an ad agency out of Richmond, Virginia. People point out there’s no branch of Nobu there. André Balazs has yet to establish an outpost. The nearest Prada store is 340 miles away. As one Manhattan marketing executive sniffed after visiting a client in the city: “I did everything that was cool in Richmond–it took me an hour and a half.”

Despite those drawbacks, folks at the Martin Agency–the ad shop that has channeled Neanderthal angst so successfully for GEICO–have managed to adapt to their unlikely setting, just like their unibrowed mascots. They have developed new strengths. They have evolved. And this year, they showed those Zegna-wearing, saketini-sipping megalopolitan hipsters just how far they’ve come: In January, they landed the creative slice of the $580 million Wal-Mart account–snatching it from the competition like so much mastodon meat.

It’s not as if the Martin people have just emerged blinking from the cave. The agency was founded in 1965 by a couple of local ad executives, David Martin and George Woltz. Early on, they poached a rival’s brightest talent, Harry Jacobs, who, in turn, lured a young writer, Mike Hughes, to the company. Under the Jacobs-Hughes team, the agency quickly got noticed, with Advertising Age ranking it as one of the top-10 creative shops–in 1981.

By the 1990s, Martin had moved beyond regional advertising, landing national accounts on the scale of Mercedes-Benz and Wrangler jeans. But there were lean years, too. And in 2003, Hughes (now president and creative director) had a run-in with lung cancer that forced him to take a close look at his life and his legacy. Soon afterward, he recalls, “Andy Azula [an agency creative director] said to me, ‘Right now, we’re not feeling like a creatively driven company.’ That kept me awake, night after night.”

The conclusions he came to in those sleepless hours were clearly good ones. By the end of 2006, Martin had been named one of Advertising Age‘s top-five agencies of the year; Adweek judged its “Testimonials” and “Cavemen” campaigns for GEICO to be two of the top three for the year (trumped only by Chiat\Day’s Apple campaign); the agency’s “Life Lessons” spots on TLC drove some 1,450 MySpacers to post their own lessons on the social-networking site, even as its work was being posted–and knocked off–in droves on YouTube. In the past 18 months, Martin has won new business (totaling some $775 million) from BFGoodrich, Cruzan Rum, Sirius satellite radio, Discover Card, ESPN’s X Games, and Barely There bras, among others. Then the cavemen landed a pilot for an ABC sitcom. And then came Wal-Mart, which had just dumped its agency after allegations of improprieties between an agency exec and Wal-Mart’s marketing VP, Julie Roehm.

The story of how the Martin Agency got its mojo back is not one of some transformational epiphany or monumental business decision. It is a tale of adaptive success, the power of chipping away at a problem until a razor-sharp idea emerges. It’s about letting go of industry habit and doing what works now. That may sound simple, but only from the outside does it look so easy a caveman could do it.


Set on a quaint cobblestone square, with a fountain out front that once watered dray horses, the Martin Agency’s new red-brick headquarters mimics the narrow windows and Italianate style of its 19th-century neighbors. Inside, it’s all Wi-Fi, fiber optics, and fine art. Mike Hughes looks more Middle America than Madison Avenue, favoring a rumpled Big & Tall chic over the all-black cladding of his New York peers. But Hughes, a big, John Madden–like guy, is indisputably one of the creative giants in the industry. Adweek called him one of the “nine best creative directors in America”; The Wall Street Journal named him one of the country’s “Creative Leaders.”

Unlike many of his counterparts, however, Hughes is no autocrat. “Mike Hughes is one of the few creative directors I’ve ever met who will really listen to you,” says senior vice president and creative director Danny Robinson, who left Manhattan and Vigilante, the ad firm he founded, to come to Richmond. “He’s brilliant, but he has no need to be the guy in the front.”

Once Hughes had pulled through a course of chemotherapy and radiation in early 2004, he thought about retiring. Yet after taking a hard look at where he and his business stood, he decided to go back to work–but with a new mission: to transform brands, not just to build them.

“Historically, we don’t do well as incrementalists,” says Hughes’s comrade-in-arms, John Adams, Martin’s patrician CEO (and a distant relation to that other John Adams). “All of the clients who have shown up over the past couple of years seem to appreciate that we have a very strong sense of ambition for them.”

Under their new self-imposed mandate, the two had to evaluate every prospective account in terms of the aggressiveness of its agenda. But it also meant finding a way to amplify the company’s creative power. As Hughes studied Martin’s past performance, he saw that its best efforts often emerged from smaller, more-entrepreneurial groups that were closer to the ground. So in July 2004, he decided to back off, to devolve power to the teams below him. He restructured his creative department, hiring 8 new players and naming 11 people to creative-director posts–a move that was radical in an industry where one or two alpha dogs usually run the show.

Hughes decided that the new teams would get a chance to work on multiple accounts, parachuting in where they were needed, or where they simply had a good idea to offer. By freeing each team to showcase its ideas in a more individual, immediate fashion, he essentially multiplied the firm’s creative voices. “What we’re trying to do is let the personality of the people who are creating the work shine through in a way that reflects well on the brands,” he says. “So when you’re watching the cavemen, for example, you get a feeling for Steve Bassett, the account’s creative director, and Joe Lawson, the writer. When Bob Meagher does a spot for GEICO, it’s unmistakably got some of Bob in it. And Andy Azula is actually in the UPS commercial. Giving the brands that kind of voice is different than what usually goes on.”


It was as if Hughes had transformed Martin into a confederation of mini agencies, rather than a single midsize one.

The power of Hughes’s insight became clear only after he began applying it to one of his oldest accounts: GEICO, purveyor of that dullest of commodities, car insurance. Martin had first landed the account more than a decade earlier, when GEICO was morphing from a niche insurer of teachers and civil servants into one pitched directly to customers through an 800-number. By 1996, Warren Buffett had bought the company, and the Internet was beginning to goose its business model. Suddenly, GEICO was awash in marketing cash, with a URL to drive direct sales and a mandate to reach customers across all demographics.

It was the perfect petri dish for breeding a fresh idea and GEICO’s now-famous gecko was spawned on the proverbial barroom napkin in 1999. Ted Ward, GEICO’s marketing vice president, had been brainstorming with a Martin art director about how to get people to stop mispronouncing the company’s name; the gecko debuted in a one-off, 15-second spot, and nobody gave it another thought until the SAG talent strike later that year. “We had to scramble to see what we could do without high-priced talent,” Ward says. “Then we thought, ‘Let’s resurrect the gecko!'”

The little reptile suddenly got hot, and Martin began having fun: During the next few years, the gecko auditioned for the role of GEICO spokescritter (he beat out the Taco Bell Chihuahua), became GEICO’s “Employee of the Month” (with his own parking space), and got a girlfriend. Eventually, his accent changed from upper-crust Brit to working-class Cockney. (“It wasn’t totally logical,” Bassett says. “But people seemed to like it because it didn’t feel like it was tested on Madison Avenue.”)

But the success of the campaign raised a potential problem: overexposure. In flogging the gecko, the Martin team risked sending viewers screaming for their remotes. Plus, unlike, say, Bud Light or Whoppers, GEICO wanted to reach a broad demographic–from first-time car owners to grannies who loved their State Farm agents. One lizard could take the company only so far.

So Hughes took the next step: He’d already created multiple creative teams–now he would turn them loose to tell multiple, distinct narratives designed to highlight various aspects of the brand. The “Good News” campaign–a faux news report of some calamity followed by the punch line: “But the good news is, I just saved a lot of money on my car insurance”–first launched in 2003 and picked up steam with the introduction of the new teams. Then came the cavemen.


The brief from the client had been short: “Make people understand that is simple.” Both Lawson and Noel Ritter, the art director, had just finished reading a short story, “Pastoralia,” about people who have to play Neanderthals in a theme park. After a synaptic sizzle or two, a slogan was born: “ So easy a caveman can do it.” But they kept pushing, tweaking a simple concept into a brilliant one: A clutch of metrosexual cavemen, having somehow eluded extinction while developing a taste for racquet sports, plasma TVs, and “duck with mango salsa,” is insulted by the company’s advertising. The spots were an instant hit, spawning a trip down the red carpet at the Oscars with a hot babe on a caveman’s arm, and a GEICO-developed Web site,, showing the hirsute hominids at home with their iPod docking stations, glossy fashion mags, and hors d’oeuvres on toothpicks. In March, ABC said it was interested in a pilot for a sitcom to be written by Lawson and directed by Speck-Gordon, the same team that directed the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory.

As Hughes saw the parallel GEICO accounts play out in the marketplace, he realized he’d actually discovered a better way to do branding, perhaps even a new media strategy altogether. “Once upon a time,” he says, “an ad was about a company’s unique selling position. But people can now accept more complex brands, and I thought we might be able to build a deeper relationship if we built on multiple fronts.” Soon enough, the “Testimonials” campaign debuted, featuring actual customer endorsements embroidered by celebrity pitchmen–Little Richard, Burt Bacharach, and Peter Graves among them. The campaign was huge, culminating in a series of voice-overs for failed American Idol candidates on Leno.

Martin has since begun rolling out multipronged strategies for a variety of clients. UPS has spots directed at four different audiences with Azula’s whiteboard as a common thread. And, Hughes says, you may well see the same from Wal-Mart.

It’s a windy, overcast day in early spring, and the Martin Agency’s new friends from Bentonville have arrived in Richmond. The marketing team from Wal-Mart, and its Martin counterparts–the creative team, account management, strategic planning, and others–have been ranged around a conference table since early morning, hashing out strategy and reviewing work.

Tony Rogers, an earnest young Wal-Mart marketing exec, is bubbling with enthusiasm about the work and his new partners. “One of the really neat things about Martin is that a lot of the people who work here are Wal-Mart shoppers and they intuitively understand the brand,” he gushes. “It’s a combination of a pretty successful track record combined with a real humble approach that impressed us.”

There had been speculation in the trade press that one of the things Wal-Mart found attractive about Martin was that it wasn’t one of those snobbish New York agencies. But while it’s true the Martin crew is relatively down-to-earth, the fit probably has less to do with a shared love of low prices than with Martin’s proven ability to deliver the kinds of measurable results so dear to the fabled Arkansas bean counters. (Much of the meeting in the boardroom that day was about creating “a common set of metrics, a dashboard, so we’ll know what’s working and what’s not,” says Brad Armstrong, the agency’s senior Wal-Mart account executive.)


In fact, even though gauging ROI (return on investment) has become the advertising mantra of the moment, that has been a Martin strength since the agency bought a little New York direct-mail firm in 1986 and moved it to Richmond. As Hughes points out, “We do a lot of recruiting from places that don’t do general advertising: direct-marketing companies, interactive companies, places most agencies look down their noses on. But the world is moving toward a direct-response model.”

His direct-response team–traditionally at the bottom of an agency’s strict caste structure–has been in the thick of it ever since. Indeed, the lead work the agency showed Wal-Mart at the pitch was by a direct-response writer. Integrated teams “make our direct-response work more imaginative, and our nondirect-response work more accountable,” Hughes says.

Hughes points to the agency’s work for GEICO to illustrate how powerful that combination can be. “It may look like a branding campaign, but it’s really direct-response TV,” he says. “GEICO was not about to wait a couple of years for a brand campaign to take hold,” Bassett adds. “We’re measured on inquiries. And they check inquiries over there, well, every minute.”

The results have been astonishing: “Of the four significant players in our industry, State Farm, Allstate, and Progressive, we’re the only one that’s growing double digits,” says Ward, the GEICO marketing VP. “We’ve quadrupled the size of the company in nine years. Outside of our being technologically efficient, advertising is the most significant contributor to our growth.”

“Direct response” are words a Wal-Mart CEO can relate to. And it seems a safe bet that it was numbers like GEICO’s–not the misunderstood cavemen or lovelorn lizard–that made the Bentonville brigade take notice. After all, its initial agency choice, DraftFCB, made its reputation in direct mail. So when l’affaire Roehm blew up in its faces, Martin, with a similar granular discipline, became the natural replacement.

The question now is whether Martin’s special vibe can survive the onslaught of a juggernaut like Wal-Mart. With the agency hiring some four-dozen new people, rejiggering offices, and ramping up creative teams, even Wal-Mart had to wonder. Before it awarded the account, the retailer called CEO Adams with one question: “Are you afraid of what we might do to you?”


“Its biggest challenge with a behemoth like Wal-Mart will be to do work that doesn’t suck,” says Greg Stern, CEO of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in Sausalito, California, who knows what it’s like to win high-profile accounts including Mini, Priceline, and Greyhound Lines. He predicts Martin can meet the challenge, but warns that the nature of the category (retail), the client, and the high visibility of the product will combine to create enormous pressure.

“I hope Martin can manage the account in a way that lets them grow and retain what’s special about the place,” says Rob Walker, the former president of Fallon, “without turning them into another big, faceless agency.”

Of course, Hughes and company know how to avoid that trap: Just make like a Neanderthal–and keep evolving. 



About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.