‘Creativity within constraints’: Martin Agency adjusts work, staff with the times

Martin Agency’s Shockoe Slip headquarters. (Jonathan Spiers)

A live-streamed version of the basketball game “H-O-R-S-E” using clothes and laundry baskets. An impromptu game of “Twitter tag” between brands. A karaoke session on Instagram.

The types of marketing work coming out of The Martin Agency of late are a far cry from the more traditional TV commercials for brands such as Geico for which the agency is perhaps best-known.

While those TV ads have continued, with five new spots for the car insurer alone, a greater emphasis on digital content, animation and social media represents a shift that CEO Kristen Cavallo said has been necessary as the agency, and its clients, adapt to a world of social distancing, working from home and restricted travel amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Many of Martin’s peers, including some of its sibling agencies under parent company Interpublic Group (IPG), are responding to the pandemic and economic downturn with sizable cuts in spending and staff. But Cavallo said Martin on the whole has held steady, both in its workload and staff count, as it shifts priorities in response to the times.

Changes such as shifting away from live-action productions requiring now-restricted travel to alternatives such as motion graphics and animation have required some adjustments to Martin’s workforce. Last week, it was reduced by a number of employees, primarily on its production side.

Despite the layoffs, the exact number of which Martin would not disclose, the agency also has been adding to other departments, hiring new staff that Cavallo said has offset the reductions so that, at the end of last week, Martin’s staff count was 10 positions fewer than it was pre-COVID-19. It now stands at 325 employees.

Cavallo described the net reduction in staff, representing 3 percent of its prior level, as comparable to fluctuations that Martin sees on average in typical years under normal circumstances. Where layoff rounds in past years have reflected a loss of a client or agency restructuring, Cavallo said last week’s adjustments should be viewed through the lens of a changing advertising landscape and not as an indicator of financial instability.

“Clients hire you to do specific things, and then you build your staff to reflect that,” Cavallo said, describing what’s referred to in the ad industry as client “scopes.”

Kristen Cavallo

Kristen Cavallo

“We’ve found in COVID that our clients are shifting the things that we’re making partly because, for example, no one’s hopping on a plane to fly to a location to shoot an ad,” Cavallo said. “We’ve pulled back on some of our production people in order to heavy-up in other areas like PR or digital and animation, because those are the tools we’re using right now.

“Normally scopes are decided well in advance, but in this case, scopes have pivoted quite quickly, because of the resources that are available to us as we work from home and during COVID,” she said.

Cavallo said the speed of that transition and shift in department emphasis has proven effective for Martin, which thus far has fared better than some of its IPG peers.

Bucking trends

IPG’s MullenLowe Group, where Cavallo was an executive before being named Martin’s CEO in late 2017, laid off 10 percent of its staff across multiple offices in early April, most of those reportedly from its Boston headquarters.

Executives there and at other IPG agencies have taken voluntary pay cuts, something Martin’s leadership has opted to do as well. Cavallo said its executive team has taken a 10 percent pay cut for three months.

In his quarterly earnings call last month, IPG CEO Michael Roth said further cost-cutting measures – to be determined by each agency – could include deferred merit increases, hiring freezes, furloughs, salary reductions and non-essential spending cuts. He also said staffing reductions are likely in agencies with clients in retail, hospitality and events.

While Martin’s client roster dips into some of those areas, Cavallo said the agency is leading many of its peers in terms of productivity amid the constraints of the coronavirus. Acknowledging that some clients have pulled back on their ad spends, she said others have maintained and in some cases upped their budgets, despite the uncertainties of the economic downturn.

“We had run various forecasts for our company based on best-case and worst-case scenarios of where we felt like our clients might cut their agency fees, and we are far closer to best-case scenario,” she said.

Snowball effect

In the past six weeks since employees started working from home, Cavallo said the agency has produced new work for 88 percent of its clients, representing 19 pieces of work for 10 clients with 11 more pieces in development. She said those numbers are due in large part due to a proactive approach that the agency took early on in the crisis.

Two days before employees went to work-from-home status, Cavallo said they held a brainstorming meeting that resulted in each client being emailed presentations, or “decks,” with at least three ideas of ways they could be putting out their message in light of the state of the world.

The next day, food delivery service DoorDash responded with a brief that resulted in its “Open for Delivery” campaign and TV spot. Within a week, the 30-second spot was airing on multiple networks, while the agency supplemented the campaign with what Cavallo called a game of “Twitter tag,” in which different restaurants tagged each other in tweets with suggested delivery pairings.

Cavallo said the game grew to involve about 40 brands, and similar efforts likewise have snowballed from one agency client to another. In one instance, she said Buffalo Wild Wings saw a karaoke game that Martin had made via Instagram for fellow client Ritz and, using that as inspiration, developed a virtual game of “H-O-R-S-E” through live-streaming platform Twitch with participants shooting baskets with laundry.

“These were ideas that were not on the table before COVID. A lot of these were ideas that happened because of or in the midst of COVID,” Cavallo said. “It’s been so encouraging for me and the leadership of the agency to see how creativity can thrive within constraints, and I’ve been so encouraged by our clients’ receptivity to saying yes to these ideas and running with them, especially during these times.”

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