Brand Shift: The Martin Agency’s John Adams Starts a New Chapter

For nearly 25 years he led the Martin Agency through a revolution, leaving an indelible mark on advertising in Richmond and beyond.

Among the Martin Agency’s many successes is an ad for insurance company Geico featuring a computer-generated image of a lime-colored gecko with a voice-over by an anonymous actor.

“This is my final plea: I am a gecko, not to be confused with Geico, which could save you hundreds on car insurance. So, stop calling me.”

The reptile licks its eye.

The Geico ads, which began in 1999 and include the Cave Man and Maxwell the Pig, are regarded as one of the most successful series in the history of the branding industry. Even Warren Buffett, the investing Sage of Omaha, says the Geico ads are so brilliant that he’d pour billions of dollars into more of them. His Berkshire Hathaway group owns the insurance giant.

Yet the ideas for the ads, and many others, didn’t come from the skyscraper canyons of Madison Avenue with “Mad Men” panache. They evolved from a middle-sized agency tucked away on a cobblestoned roundabout in Shockoe Slip.

From 1992 until the end of 2015, the Martin Agency was led by John B. Adams Jr., a tall, gray-haired man with a soft, Lynchburg drawl. He studied history and English at Hampden-Sydney College, a men-only private school not known for producing flashy, creative types.

“No, I didn’t take art,” Adams says, sitting in his blond-wood office at Martin. “It was a neutral. At first it wasn’t a disadvantage, but later in my career it might have been.”

Not that it matters. In the spring of 2015, Adams was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame. He’s also chairman of the nationally known Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University and teaches at the business school of the University of Richmond.

But the accolades kept coming even after he stepped down as chairman of the company at year end. This week, Martin is celebrating Adams’ tenure and will unveil a tribute to him in Shockoe Slip. And last week, the influential trade journal Advertising Age feted the company with its Campaign of the Year Award for its ultra brief (32-second) Unskippable Geico ad spots.

The ad gets the message across before viewers have time to click ahead to online content. Martin also won the coveted film grand prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for advertising.

Adams eased into his role as an advertising leader just as the industry was starting to expand into new dimensions, aided by ever-expanding communications technology and new and quicker ways of generating art for sharper, more demanding customers.

He steered Martin from an advertising style that had relied upon one product and one message into a new era of multiple story lines and back-and-forth “conversations” with customers.

When Adams was coming into the industry, it was going through a massive expansion, especially on television. In Chicago, pioneering firm Leo Burnett had invented Charlie the Tuna for Star-Kist and made Marlboro, then a women’s brand, into the best-selling cigarette ever by introducing cowboys and the catchy Elmer Bernstein overture from the smash-hit Western movie, “The Magnificent Seven.”

After Hampden-Sydney, Adams went into public relations in Richmond at Chesapeake & Potomac telephone company, now Verizon. There, he got to know David Martin and George Woltz, who headed an ad agency named after them.

“It was a fairly small agency, maybe 20 people,” Adams recalls. But it boasted of much-heralded successes as the Virginia Is for Lovers ad campaign for a state travel agency in 1969. Adams was invited to join Martin & Woltz as a public relations man in 1973, working on such accounts as Virginia Electric & Power Co., predecessor to Dominion Virginia Power, Colonial Williamsburg, and Anheuser-Busch, which was building a brewery, the Kingsmill on the James high-end housing community and the Busch Gardens theme park.

In time, Adams made the shift from PR to advertising account leader. It was a significant change and took some education. “A practitioner of public relations is expected to do an awful lot of things himself or herself,” Adams says. “You represent the clients, you write the press release, you organize and stage the press conference.”

Not so on the advertising side. Adams says that he once saw some ad copy and immediately took out a pencil to edit it. A co-worker asked him, “What are you doing?” When told he was editing it, she said, “No. No. No. You tell me what your concerns are and I will take care of it,” he recalls. The ad side had a lot more money and much tighter chains of command.

One of his early accounts involved Colonial Williamsburg. David Martin had recruited noted American realist painter Norman Rockwell to come up with a number of images in historic settings. The ads ran for several years. Another effort involved boosting the Virginia bicentennial. In the meantime, Adams became director of account management, where he worked with clients, guided strategy and organized the agency’s efforts.

While Adams was gaining experience, Martin and Woltz, and then the Martin Agency, was growing past its initial identify and was ready for a major expansion onto the regional and national scenes.

Adams recalls that David Martin, who split the agency up with Woltz in 1975, began to understand that the firm needed fresh leadership. 

“Dave was a classic entrepreneur, and one of their characteristics is that an entrepreneur can’t let go of responsibility,” Adams says. “Dave was wise enough to know that if the company were going to grow, he’d have to relinquish some of the responsibilities.”

So in 1982, the company brought in veteran Bank of Virginia executive Don Just, who took the Martin Agency far from its Virginia roots. It landed national and regional accounts such as Wrangler blue jeans, Mobil Chemicals and Barnett Bank in Florida.

As the firm grew, so did Adams’ career. When Just left the presidency in 1992, Adams slipped into his job. The company’s owners had been changing as well. David Martin had sold a chunk of his stock shares to New York-based Scali, McCabe, Sloves — which, in turn, was owned by publicly held WPP. The group also owned such advertising marquee names as Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson and Young and Rubicam.

Such national growth added to the Martin Agency’s reputation and set it up for more difficult challenges.

One of them involved luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz, an icon of high-end automobiles. In 1992, the German company was suddenly faced with serious competition in its North American market. Japanese automaker Toyota, previously known for inexpensive, reliable vehicles, had rushed into the U.S. market with its Lexus brand, which Adams recalls was “a bona fide luxury car that cost dramatically less than a Mercedes-Benz.”

In short order, Lexus was taking over 40 percent of Mercedes-Benz’s U.S. market share and presenting the Germans with a ticklish, if not unique, branding problem.

Mercedes had built its image as a conservative, high-quality brand that wasn’t for the adventurous and flashy — just the kind of people who might like the Lexus models.

Working with a partner company in New York, the Martin Agency tried to come up with a new image that would make the brand youthful and exciting while also highly engineered and substantive. They need to attract new buyers while not alienating the over-50 crowd that was “perfectly happy” with the old Mercedes-Benz.

The solution? The creative staff came up with an idea for a dramatic video of a Mercedes-Benz approaching at an extremely high rate of speed. The vehicle then comes to an abrupt halt, right on a time. Then the words “Haul Derrière” appear.

Car sales had been 100,000 when the Lexus models showed up. They fell to 60,000 after their arrival. Post-ad, they went to 120,000. “I don’t remember who wrote that line,” Adams says, “but I wish I did.”


Such experiences served as teaching tools when the Martin Agency moved to its biggest accomplishment, with Adams’ help.

By the 1990s, ways of storytelling in popular culture were becoming more sophisticated. Rather than having story lines on a television show being confined to 50 or so minutes with a clear-cut beginning, middle and end, they were expanded into a more novelistic approach with multiple characters and stories.

“We’re used to ‘Dragnet’ — one crime, and the whole story is devoted to solving the crime,” Adams says. But then on Jan. 10, 1999, “The Sopranos” aired, a multitextured television series about a New Jersey organized crime family. Besides becoming enormously popular, it changed both television and advertising.

“In the ‘Sopranos,’ you have multiple story lines going on at the same time,” Adams says. “You have the Tony Soprano story, the psychiatrist’s story, and you have Uncle Junior’s story all weaving in and out of each other as it would in a novel, not in a television show.”

“You might see something and then nothing of these characters for weeks,” Adams says. “He would reappear. He would give a look to somebody and you would remember it from three weeks ago.”

Creatives at the Martin Agency pondered the phenomenon. They’d seen it on cable television as well — CNN often had 16 news stories streaming at any one time. “It showed that people were indeed capable of absorbing stories all at the same time,” Adams says.

A light bulb went on.

The Martin Agency was considering a new campaign for Geico, which was using the Internet to sell car insurance and wanted a new way of telling its story.

“It’s a big, broad-shouldered brand, and it is inexpensive,” he says. “It is easy to buy insurance online. That’s the message when you have a company that sells online and doesn’t have agents. The questions customers want to know is if customers are really happy with this insurance.”

Enter the gecko, the cave men and others all reiterating how easy it is to sign up for Geico policies and how good the policies are. “The gecko will go away for a while and then the gecko will come back again,” he says. “Another campaign will go away for a while and then it will come back.”

The campaign has won numerous awards. In a 2009 New York Times story, Allen P. Adamson, the managing editor of the New York office of Landor Associates, part of WPP, called them “a sign of our times.”


The Martin Agency experience also shows how midsized regional centers such as Richmond can become attractive places with international clout in the creative field.

While major cities such as New York and London dominate the advertising field, there are “less than 10” midsized firms “of our ilk,” Adams says. They include ones in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Portland and Dallas. There was one in Providence, Rhode Island, he says.

In the early days of the Martin Agency, being in Richmond was a disadvantage. The airport was small and too close to Washington and Baltimore to draw much traffic. Richmond wasn’t recognized as a sophisticated place.

“Why would I want to go to a backwater place in Virginia when I have 100 agencies in New York,” Adams says. “It was a disadvantage for half of our history.”

Cost and creativity changed the equation. Adams says that when Harry Jacobs became creative director, his talents and teaching abilities were known so well that plenty of advertising people wanted to be with him, regardless of the location. “They will go anywhere good work is being done,” Adams says.

Next, the low living expenses of Richmond and midsized cities like it became known in such big-city places as Manhattan. You can buy a lot more house in Richmond.

The word spread. Add to that the introduction of the Brandcenter, an advertising training institution at Virginia Commonwealth University, which has had a strong reputation for arts and graphics education for decades. Adams is now its chairman.

“There’s a creative, innovative revival that’s going on in Richmond right now,” he says. “We have a few incubators. And it’s become a livelier, more interesting city. It’s very livable. New York is a wonderful, wonderful city and people love it although they do say it is a tough place to live.”


Adams stepped down as chairman of the Martin Agency on Dec. 31, but he continues to live at his house in a leafy section near UR, where he teaches advertising at the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business.

He’s come far from Charleston, West Virginia, where his father took his family from Lynchburg after he graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with a degree in engineering.

His father had wanted to find work in the burgeoning chemical industry along the banks of Kanawha River but became a successful financial executive instead. “He loved the wild and woolly times there,” says Adams, who graduated from high school in Charleston.

He’ll teach and track advertising trends in the relatively new social media sphere, which involves another iteration of the ad business.

This time it involves not just telling a story, he says, “but starting a conversation” with a customer. And the Martin Agency will continue the expansion of its contemporary global network outside of London. It plans about 15 new offices in Latin America, Asia and Europe. Currently about 90 percent of the Martin Agency’s work is centered in the domestic U.S. market.

Adams has three sons in their 30s. One is a musician in Nashville. Another is an advertising strategic planner who studied at the Brandcenter. A third is with the World Bank in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Adams and his wife, Bunny, have been married for 43 years, a year longer than he’s been at the Martin Agency. He says he wants to spend his leisure time taking pictures, painting with watercolors and perhaps writing a play as well as music.

“My wife and I have talked about writing a novel together,” he says. “She reads fiction and I read everything but. She can tell me how the story needs to unfold and who are the characters.”

“My wife and I have an absolute ball together,” he says, joking, “I wonder if the book project will end our marriage?” S


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