A commitment to relevancy—and diversity—helped it thrive in tumultuous times

Like many of us, The Martin Agency began 2020 with an optimistic outlook, blissfully unaware of the chaos to come. In fact, the agency kicked off the year with a hard-fought client win: Old Navy. After a lengthy pitch process, the relationship became official in February.

Weeks later, Covid-19 would force Old Navy to temporarily close its stores, and the campaign idea that won the pitch for Martin was shelved.

But it wasn’t long before the Richmond, Va.-based agency was making lemonade out of lemons. After learning that the retailer would be donating $30 million worth of clothing to families in need, Martin pitched another idea: To promote the charitable effort, what if the agency hired a local artist to create a massive installation made entirely of Old Navy clothes?

The concept was approved, turned into a time-lapse video and became one of the brand’s best-performing ads to date, according to Jamie Gersch, Old Navy’s chief marketing officer. To pull off the ad, the agency hired Richmond-based artist Noah Scalin, who used 1,000 pieces of clothing to create a large portrait of an American family. A two-person team filmed the process in five days using five cameras.

“They came to us with this idea and produced it in six weeks,” Gersch says. “They have just been incredible partners in making sure that we’re able to produce the best work despite the situation.”

In a year rife with crisis and uncertainty, Martin has managed to help clients grow and achieve milestones, all while winning new brands, including Axe. Despite daunting challenges that left most agencies in the red, Martin posted 30% net growth in new and organic revenue, securing its selection as Adweek’s 2020 U.S. Agency of the Year. The IPG-owned agency has only won the honor once before, in 2009. It stood out as the only 2020 U.S. Agency of the Year finalist to report double-digit growth to Adweek.

Kristen Cavallo, CEO of The Martin Agency, says no one thing can explain the agency’s success in 2020. “Strategy and hard work would be my honest answer,” she says, though she also takes pride in the fact that half of Martin’s eight-person leadership team are women, and a quarter are people of color.

“We are a living, breathing case study of what happens when you change the ratio of leadership at the top,” Cavallo says.

Building blocks

Martin was in a much different place a few years ago. Rocked by a sexual harassment scandal, the agency went through a leadership shake-up. Cavallo, who had worked at Martin earlier in her career, departed MullenLowe in 2017 to shepherd Martin as CEO.

“Circumstances landed me in this job,” Cavallo says, “but we have changed fundamentally.”

Even so, she says, many of the changes she’s implemented have “nothing to do” with what happened in 2017. A strategist at heart, Cavallo says much of her work as CEO has involved finding and honing the agency’s positioning and differentiation.

Cavallo points out that 84% of ads go unnoticed, at least according to a study from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, and under her leadership, the agency has embraced that insight via its de facto tagline, “Fight invisibility,” a mantra that guides Martin’s approach to client work.

“Committing to being part of that 16% gave us a bar, creatively, that we had to meet,” she says. In other words, she wants Martin to attract clients that consider themselves brave and aren’t afraid to wade into cultural conversations—even if it results in backlash, which, she believes, is better than no response at all.

“To be relevant means that you have the stomach to be talked about,” she says.

Less pitching, more winning

That mindset can be seen in many of Martin’s campaigns this year. An Oreo ad that ran days before the presidential election, for instance, preached unity and kindness in a country divided. Cavallo says it attracted its fair share of Twitter critics.

Other recent work promotes inclusivity. Old Navy’s back-to-school campaign proclaims, “Gender norms are so passé,” while a spot for Ritz Crackers shows why the holidays can be difficult for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“That pulse on the cultural zeitgeist, and what’s going on to really get a brand talked about, was why we hired them,” Old Navy’s Gersch says.

It’s also one of the reasons Geico, a client of more than 25 years, sticks around.

“The Martin Agency has helped us become a household name, in part because we took an approach early on of breaking the mold around insurance category advertising,” says Joe Pusateri, vice president of marketing at Geico. “One of their biggest strengths is understanding what breakthrough creative looks like.”

Michael Chapman, Martin’s chief growth officer, says the agency has evolved its approach to pitching over the past few years to reflect its ambitions, which sometimes involves passing on opportunities with brands that don’t share what he describes as the agency’s belief in the “power of buzz and talkability to drive business.”

“We worked very hard in 2018 and 2019 to vet and work with the right kinds of clients, and I definitely think that’s paying off, because I would say the most successful things that we’ve done this year were with clients that truly believe what we believe,” Chapman says.

As a result, Cavallo says, Martin is winning more while pitching less. This year, she says, the agency has enjoyed a 90% win rate, compared with roughly 20% in 2017.

“By not getting on that hamster wheel of pitching, not only did our costs go down, but our morale went up,” she says.

Future-proofing

No one could have been fully prepared for 2020, but Martin’s leadership claims the steps it’s taken, both internally and externally, in recent years helped soften the blow.

SuperJoy, a production studio that Martin opened at the end of 2019, proved to be a godsend this year. Cavallo says it has helped the agency produce work “at the speed of culture itself,” which has been especially important in 2020.

“In the first three weeks of the pandemic, we produced work for 90% of our clients,” she says.

“Open for Delivery,” a DoorDash campaign that began airing on March 20, encouraged viewers to order from their favorite restaurants to keep them in business while indoor dining was a no-go. Martin turned the campaign around in six days.

“I don’t have many examples in my career where we’ve been able to move that quickly to launch a fully integrated campaign,” Kofi Amoo-Gottfried, vp of marketing at DoorDash, says. According to market research firm Morning Consult’s Covid-19 Ad Tracker, the campaign scored high marks on key consumer perception metrics.

Internally, the agency says it’s prioritized DEI under Cavallo’s leadership, a topic that’s been at the forefront of the industry this year. In 2018, Martin established a talent and culture unit. Last year, the agency hired Abu Ngauja as associate director of talent and culture.

Martin was one of the first agencies to publicly share its workforce diversity data in June, revealing that roughly 24% of its employees are people of color. According to the agency, half of its new hires this year identify as BIPOC.

But the agency’s pride in its diversification is tempered with humility about how much more room there is for improvement.

“We’re not perfect,” says Carmina Drummond, Martin’s chief culture officer. “We’re learning every day.”

Martin named Danny Robinson chief creative officer in August following the departure of Karen Costello, who joined Deutsch Los Angeles. Robinson, who was previously the shop’s chief client officer after a 2018 promotion from svp and group creative director, is the first Black person to serve as CCO at Martin—and one of the only Black CCOs at a major U.S. agency.

Looking back on 2020, Robinson says having a leadership team that’s representative of various races and backgrounds has been a key aspect of Martin’s adaptability and evolution into an agency at the top of its game.

“When we come together and have conversations, we bring ideas that come from different perspectives,” he says. “We’re lucky enough to be a group of people who are willing to listen. Internally, we’re doing what we tell our clients they need to do.

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