Joe Alexander of The Martin Agency - Making Advertising Great

October 11, 2017

Richmond Times-Dispatch

By Tammie Smith

Early in his 26-year career at The Martin Agency, Joe Alexander was on a team working on an advertising campaign for children’s clothing company Healthtex when he suggested they try something different.

The children’s clothing market was dominated by competitors OshKosh B’gosh and Carter’s, remembered Martin Agency president Beth Rilee-Kelley, who was an account executive at the time. The competition’s ads usually showed cute children in cute clothing.

“What (Alexander) thought was important was that we needed to be talking more to moms and acknowledging what moms are going through every single day,” Rilee-Kelley said. Alexander was a senior copywriter at the time.

The advertisement that the team came up with had a lot of text on the page, which was unheard of at the time, Rilee-Kelley said.

It was different and wordy, but had a cute and catchy headline.

“One of the things we talked about was new moms had so much on their plate, would they even read long copy?” Rilee-Kelley said.

“What we learned ... was that moms loved the copy, and it endeared the brand to them. It was a home run. He wrote it from a mom’s perspective,” Rilee-Kelley said.

The headline? “When you’re bald and toothless, you’d better wear cute clothes.”


That willingness to take risks is one of the traits that has landed Alexander at the creative helm of the Richmond-based but internationally recognized advertising agency.

As chief creative officer for The Martin Agency, it’s his job to lead efforts to come up with advertising for clients that have included national brands such as GEICO insurance, Oreo cookies and Benjamin Moore paints, among many others.

The Martin Agency in the past seven years alone has won 60 awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, company officials said, including the Grand Prix in film in 2015 for its “Unskippable” ad campaign for GEICO insurance.

Alexander was named chief creative officer in 2012. More recently, Alexander was named one of the 100 people who make advertising great by the 4A’s, a membership organization representing the marketing communications agency business. The Martin Agency is a member of the organization.

The awards were presented last week at the 4A’s 100th anniversary gala held in New York City.


“Since (the 4A’s) represents about every advertising agency and a lot of clients, it’s a very big deal,” said Helayne R. Spivak, executive director of the VCU Brandcenter, Virginia Commonwealth University’s highly touted advertising program.

“To be recognized as one of the top 100 people to make advertising relevant, fun or great is a very big honor,” Spivak said.

Alexander is quick to share the honor with the people he works with at The Martin Agency, which has its headquarters in Shockoe Slip and an office in London.

“I am only as good as the people in this place,” Alexander said.

“We are good to each other but really tough on the quality of the work. That’s what’s got me here,” he said.


Alexander came to The Martin Agency in 1991, hired by Mike Hughes, the longtime creative leader of The Martin Agency who died in 2013.

Before coming to The Martin Agency, Alexander, a Minneapolis-St. Paul native and a journalism/mass communications graduate of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, worked at agencies in his hometown.

Much of what he learned about advertising came from studying the works of the pros.

“There weren’t graduate schools you would go to and work on your portfolio book and get hired a couple years later,” Alexander said.

Instead, he poured over advertising recognized as the industry’s best and collected in “One Show Annuals,” yearly compilations from The One Club for Creativity.

“You learned from studying the ads. That was your textbook,” Alexander said.

“I was lucky to be in Minneapolis at the time when one of the best agencies over the last 50 years, Fallon, started. There were some great people there that I learned a lot from. I eventually was hired by one of those guys, Tom McElligott, who is in (The One Club Creative) hall of fame.”

McElligott had left Fallon and worked at Chiat/Day when he hired Alexander to help lead Chiat/Day Toronto.

Martin Agency president Rilee-Kelley said one of Alexander’s strengths is that he remains a student of the advertising profession.

“I remember when he started, he was one of those people who studied creative work. ... He admired the work that people did and he reached out to his fellow creatives across the country to talk to them about the work. He learned about the techniques that were different and were being used. He truly studied,” Rilee-Kelley said. “I think that is what has made him the leader he is today. And he hasn’t stopped. He has such an appreciation for this industry and creativity.”

Alexander’s role as chief creative officer at The Martin Agency includes being a coach and mentor to the people who make up the agency’s creative staff.

“A lot of people think we are in the creative business and the advertising business. I really think we are in the talent business. Talent is everything. We survive and we thrive when we have great people,” Alexander said.

Alexander said his work at times also includes battling misconceptions among outsiders that great creative work can only come out of such places as New York City and Los Angeles.

“Since 2010, I think we’ve started to get into more of the conversations of the best agencies in the world,” Alexander said.


“We’ve had a lot of success at Cannes, and that has helped us overcome some of that insecurity. But I think deep down, we are underdogs. We are scrappy. That’s our culture. We attract those kinds of people. We attract people who really want to overachieve and have a life, too,” he said.

The Martin Agency offices are set up to encourage collaboration. Alexander’s office has glass walls off of an open communal working space where employees sit at work stations set up on long tables. There are smaller rooms available for group meetings.

“When we have great work here, it starts with an assignment, a brief. Then, it quickly goes to some sort of insight, strategic insight that comes from somewhere on the team,” said Alexander, explaining the creative process.

In the case of the “Unskippable” campaign, for instance, the strategic insight was you have to hook people in the first five seconds before the “skip this ad” banner pops up on digital advertising.

“When the guys heard that, they said we are going to win the first five seconds. Sure enough they did,” Alexander said.

The guys in this case were creative director Neel Williams and associate creative director Mauricio Mazzariol, he said.

Another noteworthy and award-winning project was pro bono work for nonprofit organ donation advocacy group Donate Life. The ad features a scraggly dude with a nasty attitude. Dude redeems himself somewhat when he dies, and it turns out he is an organ donor. The tagline is “Even an asshole can save a life.”The ad has more than 2.4 million views on YouTube and more than 1,000 comments, many just as edgy as the ad itself. Some folks like it. Some folks don’t.

“Our business is a creative business, so it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s kind of messy. I think that’s OK,” Alexander said.

“The most surprising solutions in our business are often because of mistakes or accidents. It’s not science. ... There is a creative alchemy that happens between people and ideas and energy. My job is to foster that, to foster that kind of environment, and I think that starts with really talented people.”

Some of that willingness to see opportunities everywhere may stem from growing up in a household with nine children — six boys and three girls. Alexander is the sixth born. His father, who passed away nine years ago, was a high school teacher and principal. His mother, 88, is a homemaker.

His father, he said, brought a lot of consciousness about having a life outside of work.

Alexander is married to Sarah Rowland, a wallpaper designer. They live in Richmond’s Westover Hills neighborhood. It’s close enough to the agency that Alexander rides his bike to work about twice a week. He has three adult daughters — two live in New York City and one lives in Los Angeles.

He admits to being a lawn geek, actually enjoying getting out and mowing the grass. The Martin Agency lets employees individualize their business cards. His has the outline of a guy pushing a lawn mower.


“Work is really important to me but … family is obviously huge,” Alexander said. Equally important is helping the community he lives in reach its potential, he said. He has volunteered in political campaigns.

At The Martin Agency, Alexander shares the senior leadership with Rilee-Kelley and CEO Matt Williams.

The advertising industry, like other forms of communications, is being transformed by technology, Alexander said. Client companies want something different.

For a decade, The Martin Agency created ads for Walmart. Walmart ended the contract as of September 2016. The Martin Agency that month laid off 29 employees.

In March of this year, the agency laid off 21 people — 16 in Richmond and five at its New York office — which reduced the company’s total workforce to 450. Those layoffs were related to a restructuring. The agency closed its New York office and moved those operations to shared space with the ad agency’s parent company, Interpublic Group of Companies Inc.

“The business has been going through quite a transformation. I think it’s going to be like this for a long time where, not just us, but all agencies like us are changing,” Alexander said.

“It’s a reflection of the media that’s out there and the kind of choices our clients need to make about budgets and everything else. We’ve had to transform, too. We’ve had to adjust our staff and the way we work to be more social, to be more digital, to be more nimble, to be always on. That’s what the best clients are. The best clients are always ‘on’ now. They are not waiting to put out some fixed media unearned media solution,” Alexander said. “The best agencies now are creating earned media solutions where their work not only gets placed in incredible places that cost money but also grab attention outside of that.”


Posted By: The Martin Agency

Why is He-Man Fighting For The Power of GEICO? Thank 80s Nostalgia And Old School Animation

October 11, 2017

Clio Entertainment

By Christine Champagne

The idea that the GEICO commercial “He-Man vs. Skeletor” could introduce a new generation of fans to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe—an animated television series that first aired in syndication for two years in the mid-1980s and can now be seen on Netflix—delights Neel Williams and Justin Harris, VPs/creative directors from The Martin Agency, who created the spot.

“If just one child sees the spot, then decides to watch a He-Man episode as a result, well, we should probably just retire and become grape farmers or something. Our creative promise will have been fulfilled,” says Williams, who, like his creative partner, watched He-Man cartoons when he was a kid.

“I even had the action figures—He-Man, Man-At-Arms and a random character called Stinkor that actually smelled bad,” Williams recalls.

If you aren’t as versed in the He-Man universe, a quick primer: Although long rumored to have been an aborted Conan the Barbarian toyline (original toy maker Mattel refuted the claim and even won a lawsuit against Conan’s rights holders), He-Man was a muscular barbarian billed as the most powerful man in the universe, and he fought a rogue’s gallery of ghoulish baddies including main villain Skeletor. The toy line debuted in 1982, with the TV series following the next year.

Beyond tapping into their own nostalgia for the He-Man crew of heroes and villains, Williams and Harris were confident that other adults would get a kick out of seeing a new He-Man and Skeletor showdown, and they felt like adding an animated spot to GEICO’s “Great Answers” campaign, which until the release of this one, featured only live-action spots, would give it stylistic breadth.

In each of the commercials rolled out as part of the campaign since it launched last year, characters in sticky situations, including a thief on trial in one and a mole sitting in a car with mobsters in another, get out of trouble by bringing up how switching to GEICO can save you money on car insurance at just the right moment.

Before “He-Man vs. Skeletor” could go into production, The Martin Agency had to get Mattel to agree to license the characters for use in the spot. It turned out to be less treacherous than anticipated.

“You never know with licensed properties like this, but they were supportive from the very beginning. GEICO has great reach and a reputation for injecting ads into pop culture, both of which should be appealing to partner brands,” Williams says, stressing, “We try hard to respect the brand parameters we’re given so that everyone comes away feeling good about the end result.” Mattel also approved the use of live-action versions of He-Man and Skeletor in two ads created by Mother for the U.K.’s MoneySuperMarket.com this past year—and while they aimed for the same nostalgia button, they lacked the added element of the kitschy animation that defined the show and, in many ways, defined He-Man for a generation.

You hardly ever see 2D animation these days, and The Martin Agency needed to find an animator who could lovingly recreate the look of the original cartoon while making the humor pop, and the advertising agency hired animation director/producer J.J. Sedelmaier of J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, a go-to source for humorous animation for not just advertisers but also television shows including Saturday Night Live (Sedelmaier co-created The Ambiguously Gay Duo with Robert Smigel), The Daily Show and The Colbert Report among others.

The GEICO gig was right in his wheelhouse, Sedelmaier says. “One of the studio’s cap feathers is working with established character icons for advertising. In the past, we’ve done spots using [characters from] Speed RacerThe JetsonsSchoolhouse RockUnderdogRen & Stimpy, etc. So the idea of being able to add the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe crew to our list had all sorts of dandy potential.”

When it was produced in the 1980s by the Filmation animation studio, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was drawn on paper, the drawings were photocopied onto acetate celluloid, painted with cel-vinyl, photographed onto 35mm motion picture film and transferred onto videotape, Sedelmaier explains.

But he and his team at J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, including head animator Andy Friz, created the “He-Man vs. Skeletor” commercial in an entirely digital domain. “It’s drawn on a computer-based tablet, colored digitally, composed digitally and downloaded/uploaded as a digital file. It’s so much easier now and allows for more control over the work,” Sedelmaier says, adding, “I can’t imagine going back to the old process.”

While working digitally is less time consuming, care and finesse went into making the commercial look like it might have been pulled out of a time machine that went back into the 1980s in search of a lost He-Man and the Masters of the Universe episode. It was important to do that because many people watching this GEICO commercial will remember the characters from when they were kids.

"The bond you have with things you remember from childhood is pretty strong, and one’s personal nostalgia is like a narcotic. If you can recreate that for the viewer, you bond with them immediately,” Sedelmaier says. “But you have to be careful because these are people’s favorite memories. It’s got to be entertaining—humor always helps. But you can’t disparage the characters.”

Sedelmaier did add a fun modern touch to the commercial—Skeletor performs a celebratory “Yesssss!” arm jerk after he dupes He-Man and his crew.

Asked if making an animated spot is more difficult than working in the live-action realm, Harris answers, “Yes and no. Yes from the standpoint that you end up having to wear more hats with animation. In addition to creating the idea/script, we might help a little to plot out blocking and action and also help direct [voice] talent in the booth. But that was all under the watchful eye of J.J., so maybe it wasn’t quite so hard since he’d help steer us in the right direction if we veered off course too much.”

Expanding on the no portion of his reply, Harris muses, “And then I’d say it’s also not as difficult—from our standpoint, not J.J.’s—since there’s less moving parts in the form of casting, location scouting, permits, crew. Our agency producer, Brian Fox, also worked tirelessly to help bring this thing to life. It’s getting to work with such talented people on all sides that can make things so much easier.”

Sedelmaier says creatives and producers working in the advertising industry these days have a good sense of how to do animation. “It used to be that you had to indoctrinate your agency cohorts, and especially the client, into the animation process,” says Sedelmaier, who formed J.J. Sedelmaier Productions with his wife Patrice Sedelmaier in 1990. “But as of the past 10 years, creatives are very savvy. They’ve grown up knowing the process because animation is no longer a mysterious sort of craft.”

“That being said, each project does have its own aspects that need to be prepared for, and everyone has to be on board when it comes to schedules and budgets. One thing that’s terrific about a project like the GEICO one is you know that the agency has the support of the client, and they’re out to do stellar work—always. This means, I can look forward to more emphasis being on the work rather than other distracting logistics,” Sedelmaier says. “The priorities are sound.”







Posted By: The Martin Agency

The Martin Agency Hires Karen Costello to Lead Mondelez Account as Executive Creative Director

October 11, 2017

Adweek

The Martin Agency hired Karen Costello as executive creative director, tasking her with leading the agency’s Mondelez account, which includes brands such as Oreo, Chips Ahoy! and Ritz.

“Karen is one of the top creative leaders in the industry. But she is hardly one to brag. So I will for her. She’s already making a huge difference in the place,” said The Martin Agency chief creative officer Joe Alexander in a statement.

“I was drawn to Martin because of their reputation for being great people who do great work,” added Costello. “Great work is obviously important to me, but I’m a relationship person. In the end, it’s all about the people.”

Costello arrives at The Martin Agency from Deutsch L.A., where she served as executive creative director and helped grow the office from a team of 13 to over 400 while working with clients including Target, Georgia-Pacific, HTC, Expedia and Zillow. Over the years, Costello has won all sorts of industry awards and was named in Adweek’s Creative 100 list in 2016.

Costello’s arrival marks the latest in a series of leadership hires at The Martin Agency. Earlier this month, the agency welcomed back Chris Schumakeras executive vice president, managing director, growth and CMO. Last week, Michael Chapman succeeded 31-year agency veteran Earl Cox as chief strategy officer.

Posted By: The Martin Agency

Joe Alexander picks his favorite ads of all time

September 25, 2017

AdWeek

By Katie Richards

Fifty years after its founding, Rolling Stone magazine just put itself up for sale.But while it’s clearly the end of an era for the venerable music publication, it’s not its first identity crisis. Just look at what it went through in the mid-1980s.

At that time, the brand still had a large and engaged audience of readers, but ad buyers tended to dismiss them as dope-smoking hippies who weren’t a valuable target for ads. The publication disputed that, beginning in 1985, with a series of print ads from Fallon themed “Perception vs. Reality.” The idea was to generate more advertising revenue by using visual metaphors to show who the typical Rolling Stone reader actually was—not who he was thought to be.

One ad features a man with long, flowing locks standing naked (he’s even got a tattoo on his left butt cheek) on the “Perception” side of the ad. The “Reality” side shows a wealthy-looking, well-dressed man.

“For a new generation of Rolling Stone readers, expressing your individuality does not mean wearing your birthday suit to a rock festival. During the past 12 months, Rolling Stone readers purchased more than 80 million items of apparel, setting the trends and shaping the buying patterns for the most influential consumers in America. Your media buy looks conspicuously naked if you’re not exposing yourself in the pages of Rolling Stone,” the ad reads.

The ads were a huge hit for the brand. In their book 2006 book Juicing the Orange, Pat Fallon and Fred Senn said Rolling Stone’s print ad revenue increased 47 percent in the first year alone.

The campaign is a classic, and was one of three favorites chosen by The Martin Agency’s chief creative officer, Joe Alexander, who sat down with Adweek recently for our “Best Ads Ever” series. “It was such a simple idea,” he said. “My favorite thing about the campaign is that they did maybe 50 of them, and every one of them was really incredibly executed and surprising.”

See a bunch more executions here.

Another favorite for Alexander comes from advertising darling Volkswagen. Doyle Dane Bernbach created Alexander’s favorite spot, “Snow Plow,” in 1964. It’s all about how the man who drives a snow plow is able to get to that snow plow early in the morning.

The spot is black-and-white with very little voiceover, but the beautiful construction and direction of the spot makes it a favorite for Alexander. “One of the reasons I love advertising is that when it’s at its best, it’s a piece of art, in a way. It’s a persuasive piece of art,” he said.

His final favorite, “Subservient Chicken,” came from CP+B and Barbarian Group in 2004 for Burger King. Alexander said he admired how the campaign was able to take a “staid business” like “set media plans and blow it up and saying, ‘What’s the best way to communicate this out to the world?'” outside of TV, print or radio. For CP+B, that was the internet.

For the full “Best Ads Ever” series, click here.




Posted By: The Martin Agency

The Martin Agency Fills Its Chief Strategy Officer Role From Within

September 25, 2017

AdWeek

By Erik Oster

The Martin Agency has appointed a new chief strategy officer from within its own ranks, promoting Michael Chapman to the role.

Chapman, who will also get the executive vice president title, had served as senior vice president, managing director, strategic planning for the agency since 2014. He replaces Earl Cox, who recently retired after 31 years with the agency and two decades in the chief strategy officer role.

“Earl is a friend and mentor who has always believed in the importance of business, data and creativity coming together,” Chapman said in a statement. “I adopted that mindset from him and work to bring that thinking to every opportunity.”

Chapman joined The Martin Agency as a strategic planner on the UPS account in 2000 and also worked with Yoplait. After leaving for a two year stint as a senior planner at McCann London in 2005, he returned to the agency as senior vice president, group planning director in 2007 and led strategy for brands including Cruzan Rum, Norwegian Cruise Line and Fuze before being promoted to managing director, strategic planning in 2014.

“Michael has been groomed for this executive leadership role his entire career,” Martin Agency CEO Matt Williams said in a statement. “He’s an extraordinary coach, a great partner to our clients, and he’s not shy about lending his opinion, even if it’s contrary to conventional wisdom. There’s nobody better to lead our strategic capability in these changing and exciting times.”


Posted By: The Martin Agency

The Ad Agency Behind “Virginia Is For Lovers” Says “Virginia Is For Everyone”

September 25, 2017

Fast Company

By Jeff Beer

Back in 1969, a Richmond, Virginia-based advertising agency called Martin and Woltz created an ad campaign for the Virginia State Travel Service (now the Virginia Tourism Corporation) that would go on to become one of the most recognized tourism slogans of all time, and what Advertising Age called one of the most iconic ad campaigns in the past 50 years. “Virginia is for lovers.”

It’s a tagline that evokes the exact opposite emotions of seeing the images from Charlottesville over the weekend, and the president’s reaction since. And outside The Martin Agency (formerly Martin and Woltz), agency creatives put a new twist on the classic tagline, adding #standforlove and swapping it on social media with “Virginia is for everyone.”

What started as a sign outside the agency’s front door has been picked up by the Virginia Tourism Corporation on Instagram, aiming to promote a more positive image of the state as soon as possible.

“We know that Charlottesville and the state of Virginia are places we know and love, and we know they’re diverse, inclusive, and welcoming,” says The Martin Agency CEO Matt Williams. “We also know the violence we saw last weekend isn’t what that city or the state is about. ‘Virginia is for lovers’ has always been true, and it’s never been a more relevant message to send.”

The agency, particularly known for its work for long-time client Geico, and this year’s award-winning “The World’s Biggest Asshole” PSA for Donate Life, boasts a diverse group of 400 employees, most from out of state. Williams sent out a companywide memo to remind and reassure them that the terrible events happening just 70 miles away did not represent Virginia.

“We’ve got a 52-year history in Virginia, and we love this state,” says Williams. “When things like this weekend happen, it shakes everyone, and it was important for our people to know that we understand they’re affected by these things, and that we stand with them. We stand with being inclusive and diverse, and it was important they hear that from me.”

Asked if he thinks the events in Charlottesville will affect the Virginia brand, Williams says he hopes that despite all the global coverage, better voices will prevail.

“When something terrible like this happens, one of the reactions is often people who may have otherwise remained quiet about their own convictions around inclusivity and diversity find their voice,” says Williams. “We’ve seen it happen and it’s inspiring. This is not okay. This kind of violence is unacceptable. And these voices are getting louder denouncing it.”

Posted By: The Martin Agency