By Jameson Fleming – Adweek
The Martin Agency’s chief creative officer, Danny Robinson, knows the agency has always produced strong television work. Just look at the success of Geico’s “Scoop! There It Is!” spot featuring Tag Team. The remixed song bled into pop culture with the infectious lyrics “French vanilla, rocky road, chocolate, peanut butter, cookie dough—and sprinkles” (and after reading that, you almost assuredly yelled, “Scoop! There it is!” in your head).
It’s the latest in a litany of iconic Geico commercials The Martin Agency is most well-known for. But while “Scoop! There It Is!” is the perfect demonstration of what The Martin Agency has always been capable of, Robinson is proudest of what the agency has become: culturally focused and dynamic on social. And no work better epitomizes the agency’s evolution as a modern creative shop than what it has produced for Axe Body Spray in 2021.
Axe trudged through years of declining revenues and needed a new agency partner that could elevate the brand with Gen Z and drive new growth. “We love how culturally in touch they are,” says MC Gasco-Buisson, global vice president, Axe, explaining that the brand needed an agency that could empathize with a young audience and speak directly to them.
The resulting campaigns—a stunning 60-second ad called “The Walk” and a Dogecoin-inspired body scent—helped Axe grow its revenue for the first time in nearly a decade.
The work illustrates The Martin Agency’s recipe for success: stellar strategy, brand purpose-fueled creativity, a production team with rapidly expanding capabilities and a Cultural Impact Lab that helps brands not just enter the conversation, but also win it. The result helped The Martin Agency take home Adweek’s 2021 U.S. Agency of the Year honors for the second consecutive year, making it just the third agency to win the U.S. award in back-to-back years.“If 84% of ads are ignorable or not remembered, then we have to be in the 16% that are. That’s our responsibility to our clients,” CEO Kristen Cavallo says of the agency’s mission. Cavallo has steered the agency for four years, helping to revamp the agency’s culture to attract purpose-driven clients.
After growing at a clip of 30% in 2020, when many agencies’ revenues fell, The Martin Agency backed it up this year with an additional 15% growth in net new and organic revenue. The agency also followed up a year of strong client wins by landing a number of new partnerships in 2021 including Terminix, Snapchat, Coinbase, Busch Light and Sabra.
Standing against something
Cavallo, who leads a diverse executive committee—63% of its members are women and 38% are BIPOC—is also heavily involved with the agency’s clients, helping vet them to ensure they’ll want to do the kind of work that excites The Martin Agency.
“I don’t think every client has something interesting to say, and I don’t think every client has the bravery to say it. … My job is to find those and then protect that bravery,” Cavallo says.
Gasco-Buisson says it would have been easy for Axe to fall back on its typically funny creative about attraction, but the brand, in partnership with Martin, redefined the concept as attraction for all with “clear values around diversity, inclusivity and mutuality of attraction.”
Tapping into culture
One of the biggest investments Cavallo has made during her tenure as CEO is in the agency’s Cultural Impact Lab, which seeks to understand what consumers are talking about in the moment and enter those conversations in organic ways. Under the guidance of Jaclyn Ruelle, the agency’s managing director, cultural impact and brand communications, the lab has expanded from two members to 36 in just two years. As part of the expansion, Martin moved its social practice to live inside of the Cultural Impact Lab.
“Our social capability has skyrocketed,” says executive creative director Jerry Hoak. “We’ve been building that up for the last couple years, but now it’s completely solidified.”
The insights from the lab arrive daily in employees’ inboxes as a newsletter. The agency’s cultural analysts listen to online chatter to understand what consumers are talking about in real time, so the team’s creatives can inject these insights into the work in a timely manner, Paul says.
Ecd Ashley Marshall says the Cultural Lab’s findings are the top resource she has access to at the agency and emphasizes how valuable its insights are for the creative team.
“When you’re given permission to [gobble up culture], that’s when we get to these ideas that are so insightful,” Marshall says. “The value that we place on culture is, above all else, our biggest tool.”
And the results are often explosive. Martin recognized Axe’s target audience overlapped with Dogecoin enthusiasts ahead of “Doge Day,” so the brand promised to release a Doge-scented body spray if the price of Dogecoin hit $1. The stunt got Dogecoin’s loyal followers talking about Axe and drove up the price of the cryptocurrency. When Axe released the spray, it sold out in less than a minute, and the whole stunt generated 2 billion impressions without a penny of media spend. In total, the agency boasts that the 30-plus campaigns from its Cultural Lab scored more than 30 billion earned impressions.
“The Cultural Lab has been instrumental in shifting our approach from always on to always there,” says Gasco-Buisson of Axe which, thanks to Martin, has dropped its old-school approach to social of having a set posting schedule in favor of one that’s designed to be open, flexible and interactive.
If the Cultural Impact Lab is the rising star, the unsung hero within Martin is the production team, under the leadership of its head of production, Tasha Dean. Her team uses Martin’s in-house studio SuperJoy to bring much of the work to life, creating at lightning speed to match the pace at which the Cultural Impact Lab moves. The agency also participates in a number of initiatives, including Change the Lens, which ensures better representation for Black filmmakers; Double the Line, which provides opportunities for people of color to learn the ropes in production roles; and Green the Bid, which makes production more sustainable.
In addition to an array of capabilities, from print and social to AR lenses and the metaverse, what Martin does differently than most is elevate production’s role in the creative process.
Dean says the agency’s creative team brings production into the work earlier than she’s ever experienced. Because Martin puts so much emphasis on working with diverse talent behind the camera, the agency makes its work more inclusive by giving production a voice earlier in the creative process.
“There is a fair amount of production strategy that goes into every single job, and it’s all working towards this idea of engineering impact,” Dean says. “And part of that is the production strategy story.”
When asked what Martin’s ambitions are for 2022 as it continues to expand its capabilities, Robinson likes to quote former CCO Mike Hughes: “‘The work could always be better.’ That’s the answer. I want five [campaigns as good as] Axe.”