Dave Martin, Founder Of The Martin Agency

Dave Martin's portrait by Luis BrielAs a young copywriter, I was lucky to fall in with a good crowd: The Martin Agency, founded by Dave Martin in 1965. 

Dave passed away Tuesday. I didn’t know him well, other than he was a gentleman, a good father, humble and respected by all.

But I want to share some observations about how he set his small ad agency in Richmond, Virginia, on a course to become one of the world’s greats. (You know their work for Geico, Walmart, Discover Card, FreeCreditReport.com and the “What Can Brown Do For You Campaign” for UPS.)

I was hired as a rookie copywriter at The Martin Agency a few years after college, just before Christmas 1981. It felt like the big time, though the agency only had about 25 employees. 

But to this rookie, they were all great teachers. They taught the agency’s values, through words and deeds.

The work – all the work – had to be compelling.

Every agency is proud of certain work that hangs on the walls. The Martin Agency staff was proud of the work they produced every week. It made the place seem bigger, and the work more important. 

Here’s a quote from John Adams, now The Martin Agency’s CEO, and an account supervisor in the early 80s:

“[Dave Martin] was devoted to the belief in his business that the fastest way, the best way, to succeed for clients was to develop advertising that hadn’t been seen before, that was different, that was striking, that was compelling, that was very creative.”

Dave was an accomplished creative, but he focused on business development.

He hired Harry Jacobs and Mike Hughes to run the creative department. Great creative was their mission in life. They wanted to prove that Richmond could produce work that was as good or better than work from New York agencies. The staff followed suit. There were no excuses, no “we did the best with what we had” mentality. 

Mike told me when I was hired that at The Martin Agency, no job was small. There were small ads, small pieces of collateral, clients with small budgets, but no small jobs.

To prove the point, my first assignment was a “tent card” for an historical attraction, Tryon Palace. I lost my copy of the finished product long ago, but I still have the local Addy award it won. Mike had a point.

The Martin Agency also reflected Dave Martin’s old-fashioned Virginia graciousness.

There was none of the excessive ego that was rampant in the industry. It wouldn’t have been tolerated. Maybe that’s why employees seem to stick around forever. (I’m hoping a few of them who have been there more than 30 years will read this entry.)

In a touchy-feely section of “The E Myth Revisited,” Michael Gerber writes about a business really being about love.

The Martin Agency was all about the love of  great creative, and the belief that advertising was a great calling.  They even loved great creative from other agencies. There was no sniping at competitors, especially local ones.  Their love and leadership helped build a creative community, eventually helping to create a leading advertising school, VCU Brandcenter. (Diane Cook-Tench, a Martin alum, was the driving force in its creation.)

From what I’ve seen, the love is still there, after all these years. 

Dave Martin built more than a successful agency.

He promoted a way of working and treating clients that should make everyone in the marketing business proud. 

His legacy will last a long time, and impact people far beyond his agency’s walls.

12 thoughts on “Dave Martin, Founder Of The Martin Agency

  1. When our mentors pass, a piece of us is lost, too. I’m an agency brat, too, Barrett, and I know the influence these leaders had on we newbies.

    My agency days were fraught with more nightmares in leadership than mentoring, but nonetheless, the cut-throat competitive world taught me well.
    Jayme Soulati recently posted..This Business of Breasts

  2. Good question Bill. It was a rare hiring of a completely inexperienced rookie. I was simply lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time – a Richmond native, when the economy was just starting to pick up under Reagan. Apparently my naive student portfolio was just good enough for Mike, Harry and Dave to think I was worth a shot.
    barrett recently posted..I Need Some WordPress Advice

    • It was dumb luck for me to get a first job with such a great organization, and great people. It could just as easily have been with (1) a company that made a lot of money but did bad work (there were a lot back then) (2) a company that did good work with people who weren’t so patient and giving or (3) good people who let a gap develop between what they knew to be good and what they actually produced.

      I really lucked into the best of all worlds.

  3. Hey Barrett

    That sounds like it was a great place to work; a place where newbies were mentored and nurtured.

    I remember when I started in the pensions business it was a bit like that but as budgets have been squeezed it tends to now be do as little as possible for as much money as possible!
    Tim Bonner recently posted..The New Creative Me

    • I hear what you’re saying; so many companies are so “efficient” these days, there’s no room for doing things the right way. They even have an efficient name for it now: “onboarding.” The more I think about that word, the worse it sounds.

      When I started, I think they looked at student portfolios every so often. Today, I’d think looking at student portfolios is a big part of someone’s daily routine.
      barrett recently posted..Why We Don’t Plagiarize

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