IF LIFE IS ABOUT FIGURING OUT who you are and what you're doing here, John Norman was given fewer clues than most.
His first day offered him a clean, white page in a big, flat city. He was born in Terrell, Texas, squinting into the light of a psychiatric hospital room. Surely and slowly, his story unfolded before his young eyes. His mother wasn't his mother. His father wasn't his father. And John Norman wasn't even John Norman.
Considering what we know now, perhaps it makes perfect sense that Norman's life has led to this: a devotion to filling clean, white pages with unexpected beauty, seeing the simple insight in complicated stories, and asking again and again: Who are you and what are you doing here?
But more on that later. First a word from his sponsors: Nike. Coke. Benetton. Wal-Mart. Speed Racer. A man named Bubba.
And ... we're back.
Fade in on: Present-day. Exterior, close-up on a black leather sole hitting a cobblestone street. Pan up to reveal slick, brick headquarters of an advertising agency in a midsized Southern city. A cluster of motorcycles against an outside wall. We make out the words: The Martin Agency. Faint sound of a train on a nearby track. You can almost smell the beans roasting from the coffee shop next door.
Cut to: Small interior office, with glass walls, modern furniture, artistic touches. Orderly shelves holding books and tidy memories. The camera pauses on an uncluttered desk, where light glints off a gold-labeled bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne — a thank-you from the executives at Comcast.
And we meet: John Norman. He's the new chief creative officer of The Martin Agency, perhaps its most significant hire in more than three decades. He's a right-brained, espresso-loving dynamo, a visual storyteller who helps companies sell things. He's traveled the world and probably could be anywhere. After all, there was that meeting with Steve Jobs at Apple. The offers in Chicago, San Francisco, New York. ...
But he's here, in Richmond, where he moved from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to take this job 16 months ago. He's landed in a place where espresso comes paired with "y'all," where the bluest social circles are measured in rings on a family tree, where even if he doesn't exactly know why, people will find it mentionable that he lives in a house once owned by someone named Gottwald.
When Norman shows up at The Martin Agency in January 2010, it's the ending of what amounts to an 11-year search for just the right candidate. The interview process was conducted in secret. Under cover of night, Norman wandered the agency's hallways with Mike Hughes. More importantly, he lingered in the minds of his future partners for months.
Was he too much of an outsider? Too young? Too cool?
In a business driven by yes, the answers were no, no and no. Things clicked. Norman became the first person at The Martin Agency to be given the title of managing partner in nearly a decade. The two other managing partners — Hughes, the president, whose title of chief creative officer Norman has assumed, and John B. Adams, the agency's chairman and chief executive — have worked together since 1978, when they forged a 33-year-and-counting bond.
But this isn't a place to revel in titles and power structure. The Martin Agency is a place for team-bonding outings, brainstorming sessions, lots of coffee, hip creative veterans wearing black, enthusiastic up-and-comers and cool kids in hipster hats. This is a nice agency. And even Norman must share the spotlight on his first day. Because this is when employees will learn that Adweek has declared Martin as its U.S. agency of the year.
"That was a fun day," Norman says. He laughs, recounting what his wife asked him upon hearing of the agency's big Adweek accolade: "Well," she said, "what do they need you for?"
Just who is this shiny third wheel, and what is he doing here?
He is a bridge to "that next generation of management," Hughes says. The Martin Agency is on "a wonderful and exciting new path," Adams says.
To boil it down to a cliché, Norman marks the beginning of an era.
And as he notes during a meeting with his creative directors, referring to famed designer Saul Bass, clichés "are meant to be reworked and regurgitated till they don't become clichés anymore."
So bring on the guy from Texas. Bring on the melding of form and function, the converging of technology and teamwork, the big-picture conceptualizing and French-kissing fuzz balls and chewing-gum sculptures. Let the reworking and regurgitating begin.
Cue music (Ellis Paul on guitar):
You gotta get gone, you gotta get going
Hey, the world ain't slowing down for no one.
It's a carnival callin' out to you. ...
Norman is 44 and stands 5-foot-10 (shoes on), with youthful shocks of statement-making hair that Justin Bieber might envy in 30 years. He's a clotheshorse with an immaculate closet and a penchant for black, with a ring on his right thumb and a silver braided bracelet around his wrist. He's no stranger to airports, where he's experienced his share of being mistaken for Jon Bon Jovi — or is he more Keith Urbanesque? He's the husband of an effervescent former public-relations professional and the father of four children, ages 9 to 16. "I validate all my work with my kids," he says.
(Note: brand opportunities. Is there a social media tie-in here for an airline paired with Norwegian Cruise Line — a "You Be the Rock Star" trip contest on YouTube, perhaps? A "cool dad" Father's Day promotion where Bon Jovi makes surprise Pizza Hut deliveries to Twitter winners? Can a QR code be incorporated creatively? Let's chat.)
Back in his second-floor office at 1 Shockoe Plaza, it's a Thursday in March, a day after Norman took a last-minute trip to New York, where he met with executives at Wal-Mart. This client is, to put it mildly, a Very Important Account.
The Martin Agency, whose parent company is Interpublic Group, won Wal-Mart in 2007. And what happens when you get a slice of Sam Walton's pie? You say thank you, grab a fork and promptly proceed to fatten up.
Last year Forbes ranked Wal-Mart as the world's largest corporation with revenues of $408.21 billion. When Martin first grabbed the account, Adweek reported Wal-Mart's ad spending at $580 million, estimating that it triggered 130 new hires. While The Martin Agency doesn't release financials, it puts things thusly: Wal-Mart pushed the agency into its biggest year on record — until the following year, that is, and the year after that.
Yup, things seem to be going well on the ledger. Martin employs about 630 people. During this recession the agency has experienced its three most financially successful years, adding such heavyweight accounts as Pizza Hut, Morgan Stanley and Comcast. According to an estimate by Ad Age, in 2009 Martin earned $112 million in revenue, ranking it as the fastest-growing agency in the country — up 24.4 percent from the previous year.
But being fat and happy doesn't always last. Revenue is never safe, and the pitching never ends. Just ask, well, Wal-Mart.
With Norman's return from New York, Martin has sold a new campaign to the retailer, which is struggling with declining U.S. sales and dire headlines. Norman slides behind his MacBook Pro to play some of the new television spots the agency has produced for the company. The ads flip the attention back to lower prices — something that Wal-Mart wants to return after a flubbed strategy that changed the look of stores and commingled discount stuff with higher-priced merchandise, an attempt to become more fashionable, and blunt at Target's edge.
But the creative solution isn't just to highlight inexpensive stuff. This is stuff that helps you live better! These commercials illustrate modern family situations, and the pitch goes down easy with warm humor.
"The whole idea is, every cart tells a story," Norman says. He clicks play. The camera stares down at a checkout-line conveyor belt, and the viewer is presented with a riddle through a series of items, narrated by an announcer with a sly wink in his voice:
A fishing rod. A tackle box. A tent. And, an air horn.
Smash cut to a camping scene. It's morning. A grandfather sits with breakfast, waiting on his two grandsons, who still are snug in their sleeping bags.
"Come on boys. Let's go, let's get up. This is a fishing trip, not a sleeping trip!"
And then, the payoff: He triggers the air horn, sending their tent flying.
"Yup, that ought to do it," he says.
Announcer: Get whatever you need, for whatever reason. Thanks to low prices every day, on every thing. Save money. Live better. Wal-Mart.
Norman chuckles, getting a kick out of the spots, though he's probably seen them more often than Wal-Mart shareholders check their stock prices.
"I feel like Wal-Mart's trying to own middle America," he says — "that's what everyone keeps saying. But really, they're trying to own families. And it's the one differentiation between them and Target and everyone else."
Being different is good. Capitalizing on how you're different is better. Norman's primary aim is to pinpoint what a company stands for — its brand — and how to convey that to the consumer while sparking a change in behavior. That's no big revelation in the advertising industry, but its execution is make-or-break, money gained or lost, a message engrained or fleeting.
Executing a creative solution comes down to a gentle mix of art and craftsmanship, the science and mystery of persuasion and emotion. Those who know Norman say he stands at the intersection of these things. That he discovers the insight, understands a compelling story, knows how to show it and makes you feel.
Norman says creative problem solving should begin with asking simple questions — What are we doing here? — early on. "The creatives have to be involved in the original staging of what the challenge is," he says. "It's like an artist. An artist will find an issue, whether that's an internal issue ... or something that's going on in the world, and they will commentate on it. They'll create their expression of it."
Often, he says, the attempt stumbles when it's the result of an assignment — a missive to create a television commercial as opposed to zeroing in on a key business or brand problem in the beginning. "And that's where the creative process starts," he says — getting to the bottom of the challenge and how to go at it: "It seems really stupid, right? But the machine can take it over, you know?"
The mainstay of Norman's creative approach is that the work must visually tell a story. Imagine a commercial that connects with you no matter the language. For Norman, his visual acumen also seems to serve as something between a security blanket and a muse. "When I can't find the right answer," he says, "I can just go draw some pictures, or design something, and it will open up a lot more doors."
It's been that way from the beginning, since he was known as John Eisenberg.
... It sounds like a song,
It hits you like scripture
You paint the picture
With colors squeezed from your hand.
Weren't you the kid
Who just climbed on the merry-go-round
Hey look, the world ain't slowing down. ...
In the pictures of Norman's story, there are cars. Like the first commercial product that sold him — the gadget-filled, super-fast Mach 5 from the animated "Speed Racer." He drew it to make friends while moving from one place to another.
Then there was the inside of a much slower car, the scene of his earliest memory around age 6. He was riding with his grandmother, whom he called mom: "And I remember her telling me, 'Well, I'm not your mom, I'm your grandmother.' And I said, 'What's that?'"
It was a revelation explained simply. Through the years, the picture filled in.
His mother had given birth to him, John Eisenberg, in that psychiatric hospital room. She was physically unable to care for her son, and his father wasn't involved. So the courts placed him, at age 2, with his maternal grandmother. Her husband wasn't in the picture either, so it was just the two of them, John and his grandmother — a fan of bingo, catfishing and square-dancing, the daughter of a town doctor, one of eight children, a stoic, independent woman.
Norman's wife, Deirdre, imagines him in that quiet house among the meager Dallas suburbs of South Oak Cliff, drawing pictures and obsessing over comic books. "I think sometimes that the most creative people have the least amount of available visual stimulation," she says. "Your imagination has to do a lot of work to keep yourself entertained."
Norman is certain his creative side was boosted by his living situation, his mind's eye wandering the flat, sprawling landscape surrounding him. "There's nothing really there," he says. "So your imagination is really wide open."
While he created worlds, people helped to shape his. In addition to his grandmother, there were the art teachers who inspired him. The great-uncle he moved in with when his grandmother faced health issues. The family that took him in while he finished high school, led by Ralph "Bubba" Norman. And Phil Bailey, his high-school basketball coach.
Basketball? "I was 6-6 then," he jokes. ("He has a ridiculous outside shot," his wife confirms.) He was a star of Cedar Hill High School and an all-state player. And it was during these high-school years in the early '80s, taking the court as a Longhorn, when it sunk in that he was learning about more than sport. In Bubba Norman, whose family he lived with, and who had been his Pee Wee basketball coach, the young man named John Eisenberg had connected with a father figure.
Bubba was here; his biological father wasn't. "So why am I walking around with that guy's name?" he asked himself, says his wife. That's when John dropped Eisenberg and took the last name Norman. A symbol, a tribute, a piece of identity drawn in.
Who are you and what are you doing here?
A basketball scholarship helped Norman into Navarro Junior College, but it didn't take him through. He dropped the sport, lost the scholarship and headed for what is now Texas A&M University-Commerce, refocusing on his early passion. "I'm probably as dysfunctional as everyone else about stuff," Norman says. "I would be obsessed by something, I'd get into it. And I just threw myself into art and design."
It didn't hurt that he landed in a design class taught by Rob Lawton, who went on to found the esteemed design school Creative Circus in Atlanta. "He pulled out that I could draw better than I ever thought I could draw," Norman says. "And the biggest thing was that I could be conceptual, and I could actually think, and put together things that didn't go together."
He realized design was "a weapon that transcends everything," he says. "Everything you see and touch and feel is designed. And it just depends on how obsessive you want to be about it."
Just out of college, he was chosen as one of 18 young people by Champion Paper for a two-week national design seminar in Pittsburgh. It was the first time he saw a computer make something — "and it blew my mind," he says. Until then, even for a time after, he carefully cut type by hand, painstakingly crafting arresting images.
He got a job with the Richards Group in Dallas, where he met his future wife, a public-relations wordsmith who was asked to go help Norman's design for the company Christmas card make more sense to the abstract-challenged. First impressions? "I thought he wore weird clothes, and had weird glasses, and weird hair," she says.
They went their separate ways when she headed to Washington, and he got a call from Nike Design.
It wasn't where he expected his art career to lead. "I would never have done advertising at the time," he says. "I was very much a design snob." He ended up spending four and a half years at the place, creating posters in honor of basketball's 100 years. He helped design a Nike complex in Tokyo. More doors opened.
Here's where the animated dotted lines come in, zooming across an illustrated globe: to Amsterdam, for Wieden + Kennedy, with former Martin Agency standout Jelly Helm; to Italy, for work on Benetton; to Dallas, as he started his own business; to San Francisco, as group creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners; and back to Amsterdam, with Wieden again.
The dotted line was about to lead to Richmond.
Mike Hughes, who joined The Martin Agency as a copywriter in 1978, served as the company's creative chief for 28 years.
(Cue conveyor belt with Martin-born images: the Geico gecko, those cave men, the UPS whiteboard guy, band playing that jingle from freecreditscore.com. ...)
Hughes is acclaimed in the business. In March 2010 he became the 47th person to be inducted into the One Club's Creative Hall of Fame, a prestigious honor in the industry. And in October Virginia Commonwealth University christened its Brandcenter building as Mike Hughes Hall, where he's served as chairman since 1992.
Hughes has been The Martin Agency's vividly beating creative heart. But it was another organ that tried to mess with things. Diagnosed with lung cancer 13 years ago, Hughes started thinking hard about his future.
"I had to figure out a successor for myself," he says. "And that time I thought I had just a few years to figure that out. ... It ended up — thank goodness I was alive to do it — it ended up taking 11 years to find the person that I thought was right."
A headhunter pointed him in Norman's direction. He first met the designer at a restaurant in New York.
"I worried that he was — he came across younger," Hughes says, "and he comes across as so hip and contemporary." But once the two started talking, he saw inside the packaging. "Inside that art-director-designer-type, sleeves outside his jacket, there was a real beating heart," Hughes says.
"Nobody cares about the work product that our agency puts out more than I do," Hughes says, "but the fire that I have isn't as visible." Norman had it and Martin could use it. "We were growing so much, and I worried — maturity can be a cap in this business. And I didn't want to get too settled and mature."
Norman had something else Martin could use: an elevated design sensibility. There was his HP Picture Book campaign, featuring a commercial with the Kinks song, in which a man sits at his desk holding up one empty picture frame after another. What fill the frames become still images, which float across the screen like falling leaves.
Then there was the masterpiece for Coca-Cola, a Happiness Factory ad that aired during the Super Bowl in 2007. It emerged, in part, from Norman's imagination while he worked at Wieden + Kennedy. The premise: What goes on inside a vending machine before the Coke comes out of there?
"And let your imagination run wild like a little kid," Norman says. The important thing is to stay with one, solid insight all the way through, he says. "And then all that creative — whatever you throw at it — had to pay off, had to have a meaning."
The result was a flight-of-fancy animation featuring snow-covered scenes that chilled the soda, fuzz balls that French kiss, then start lip smacking the bottle to create effervescence, a gold-toothed critter being catapulted across the screen to put a cap on top. Fireworks-filled parades leading the drink to the exit. No words necessary.
The multiple award-winning ad, part of the Coke Side of Life campaign, is widely regarded as a global success, and more importantly, helped the beverage company's bottom line.
And now Norman is here to help Comcast, and Mentos, and Living Social, and Wal-Mart ... and The Martin Agency.
"I think he's probably exactly the right tonic for that place right now," says Kelly O'Keefe, a professor and former managing director of the VCU Brandcenter, who's been part of the Richmond ad industry for decades.
In the creative business, O'Keefe says, "you're always trying to push a little bit of chaos into a world that might get a little too predictable." In working with creatives, he says, "you have to push them beyond what they thought they were capable of."
"I think he's relatable and fair, but he has a strong point of view," says Group Creative Director Keith Cartwright, who was brought on board by Norman. "There's confidence in his direction because he's done it. For me, I've worked for people who are insecure, and you feel it. It's something very refreshing working for a guy who's already made his name, and he's trying to help you. And there's no ulterior motive."
The Martin Agency is trying to push itself too, Adams says — making sure digital is done right, smartly unified with other forms of communication; expanding the definition of advertising into creating other kinds of content; and continuing to grow. Martin also hopes to open a handful of offices outside of the United States during the next few years, to reflect the needs of clients.
And both Hughes and Adams are relying on Norman to take the agency beyond its traditional strengths of words and concepts. They're already seeing different approaches. Instead of layouts and copy for ads, Adams says, Norman goes into meetings presenting shapes, colors and forms.
And Hughes hopes to bolster both pop-culture success and industry accolades with Norman leading the creatives. "I have been thrilled and amazed at how quickly he has ratcheted up the contemporariness of our work since he's been here," he says.
The physical signs of change are here too. Norman offers a tour of a 30,000-square-foot renovation, spearheaded by Norman and grounded in his preference that the team work in an open floor plan: a living, work and social space.
White magnetic boards are walls, pinned with work that invites comment and suggestions. "It becomes like a living, breathing canvas," Norman says. "So that it's like an organic painting really. The work's always changing, you know?" S