The chief creative officer of The Martin Agency speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper, in association with Adobe, about the importance of vetting potential clients, monetary and emotional investment during Covid, and the work of the agency’s Cultural Impact Lab
Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the ‘5 Minutes with…’ channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry.
Today, we're pumped to get the opportunity to speak with Danny Robinson, chief creative officer at Virginia's The Martin Agency. Promoted around one year ago, Danny has been with the agency since 2004. His appointment to CCO - from his previous role of chief client officer - came amidst big change at the agency, as much of the executive committee that he is a part of was either promoted or appointed to their roles around the same time as him.
Danny started his career in marketing but will fully admit that he wasn't very good at it. Luckily, he found his home in advertising instead and launched his own agency, Vigilante, in New York City. He was one of the brains behind one of the most famous and talked about brand activations ever: the Oprah Winfrey Pontiac G6 car-giveaway show. Outside of work, he's also a painter and has had his work shown in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
LBB's Addison Capper chatted with him about the importance of vetting potential clients, why the agency actively invested when Covid hit, and how a dedicated team at Martin is intentionally trying to impact culture instead of just hoping it happens.
LBB> You've been a creative for most of your career except your stint as chief client officer. Almost a year into being CCO, how are you finding having your brain operating purely in that creative space again?
Danny> Well, it doesn't have to work as hard to figure things out. That first year [as chief client officer] I was trying to figure out what that role was. I didn't really have a vision of it because it was a completely new thing for me. Coming back to the creative department, I came in with at least an understanding of how things work and it was pretty quick to figure out what I wanted the department to look like. So it was familiar. It's like Mr. Rogers putting on the sweater, taking off the shoes. I understood it and I felt familiar. It was perfect timing for me too.
LBB> On top of your appointment as CCO, much of the Martin management team is new. Can you tell us a bit about how you operate as a team? What opportunities - and challenges - come from being a full management team that began working together roughly at the same time?
Danny> I don't really know that there are challenges outside of any challenge that most people have. Kristen Cavallo is the CEO - she's new to the role, but she had been at Martin for years before she joined again so it wasn't like she was an outsider. It was certainly a different Martin than when she left, but she wasn't an outsider. Our chief strategy officer, Elizabeth Paul, was also in Martin before. Our president Chris Mumford has been at Martin for a while. Carmina Drummond is the talent and culture officer and has been at Martin for a while. Janet White, the CFO, trained under the previous CFO. So while the entire executive committee with two exceptions are new, we have familiarity with each other.
We had to figure out how we wanted to operate and how we wanted to run the company. We are a great team. I think the thing that makes a great team is that everyone has the same notion of what the goal is but everybody's skill sets are different. This started when we were all working from home in 2020, but we would meet every morning at nine o'clock for an hour, just to talk about the day. We'd talk about what happened before and what was going to happen that day. This was in part because everyone was working from different places and that we would be going off to our respective corners. And so we wanted to make sure that no matter who was talking to who, we were all singing from the same hymnal. We loved those meetings. I know some people would probably hate the idea of meeting every day, with the same people, for an hour. But we loved those meetings because we really, really like each other. And beyond respecting each other and having trust, it's one of the things that has kept us working well together. And we've kept it up, although we meet three times a week now.
LBB> Do you think it's a rarity that a management team meets that regularly?
Danny> When we talk to people at other places and we tell them, you can see them thinking "oh, that's a good idea. Maybe we should do it" which leads me to believe they don't do it. I don't know for sure but I have found with the people I've talked to that it wasn't a thing that they did, but they may do it now. And maybe they didn't feel the need to do that. I'm not sure how we would have gotten through 2020 without those daily conversations. A lot of it was unknown and we had to talk it through. We made some pretty big, bold moves and decisions. And I think part of it is because we were really dedicated to keep pushing through it. I know a lot of companies slowed down or stopped and waited to see what was going to happen, maybe with the expectation that it would be a month and then we'd be back to normal. We didn't start right away, but we realised pretty quickly that this may be a long haul and that we needed to find a way to work as a team.
LBB> How have those decisions that you made back at the start of Covid set you up well for the present and the future?
Danny> The decisions made then were based on the belief of working after the pandemic. The brands that people saw either were providing utility or were in front of them with the right message were the brands that people were going to remember a year or two years later. It was important for our clients to be in front of their customers. That also meant that we were going to bet on ourselves. We were going to invest in Super Joy, our production facility which we just opened a month or so ago because we didn't know how long or difficult it would be before we could produce out in the world. So we invested in animation and production in-house so we could get control of that. We invested in hiring because we were sure that there were going to be clients who'd say, "OK, now it's time to get back to where we were" (whatever that is) and we didn't want to be on our back foot trying to staff for the coming work. So we placed bets on ourselves. We had faith in our ability. A lot of it was also done out of fear because we didn't know what was going to happen but we wanted to be ready. We didn't wait for the rain to hit our heads before we started building the ark.
LBB> The main word I really took out of that answer was ‘invest’. Not many businesses did that last year.
Danny> We did physical investment, monetary investment and we also made an emotional investment. It would have been easy to sit back. But we had responsibilities to our clients. We didn't believe that sitting back was the thing to do.
LBB> You also mentioned the new production facility, Super Joy. Tell us a bit more about that.
Danny> It's going to be an amazing facility for us. We have full audio capabilities. People are constantly animating. And once people start shooting again, they can come back home and edit here. It's gonna be fantastic. It's also going to allow us to do work for our own brand, which is good because agencies are their own worst client. We miss our deadlines, we're horrible. But it does make it easier when we want to make something and we can just walk down the stairs and into Super Joy.
LBB> I've really enjoyed your DoorDash work this past year - which must have been a huge year for the company with people ordering more takeout. Southside Magnolia is such a deep and personal story and produced in such a beautiful way. It doesn't feel like advertising - in a good way. You also just released Soul of the City for the brand too, which was nominated at Tribeca.
Danny> 'Soul of the City' is the most recent film. It's seven-plus minutes. Those films and that campaign came out of the idea and spirit that DoorDash could do more than just deliver food and maybe they could help resurrect the restaurant industry, one business at a time. That's all out of the spirit of the marketing team at DoorDash. In fact, they're expanding beyond delivery to anything local - drug stores, pet food, florists, you name it. But particularly at the time of Southside Magnolia launching they had a responsibility for their message to be about everyone being welcome - all ethnicities, American food is food from everywhere.
As part of the restaurant business they felt that they should find ways to help, not just deliver food. So the idea for them was not a heavy branded thing, they wanted to just show the spirit of those immigrants who've come to create something for themselves. When they do, they become part of the community, but look at the rest of the community they serve and the community that they employ. It would be a tragedy if we just let these businesses disappear. So they wanted to showcase those people who have worked hard to fulfil a dream and show how the heart and soul of places like Brooklyn and Harlem is in the food and how those businesses need our support.
LBB> Generally, what has business been like for Martin since you stepped into the new role? You've been quite specific about the new business that you pursue - what can you tell us about that? What new business have you won and what does that client say about those particular morals?
Danny> We worked out how to clearly articulate to ourselves and to the world what we stood for and what our brand is - to fight invisibility. Our CEO was a former strategist and our senior strategy officer is obviously a strategist. A lot of their thinking comes straight from that world and the idea that 84% of all advertising is ignored, either passively or deliberately, and that means that 16% of work is getting noticed and that's the work we want to do. We believe that impacting culture is how you break through. So once we could articulate who we are as a company, it made it really easy to start thinking about what kind of work we wanted to do.
We believe in the power of PR and talk value and relevance in work. So we've started to look at those CMOs - not the brand, the CMOs - who have a shared ambition. CMOs who believe that you need to impact culture to get noticed. You need to use the power of PR for that work to break through. You need to not be afraid of work that gets talked about, even if sometimes it's negative. Not that we court controversy intentionally. But if you're going to do something that gets noticed, there are going to be some people who will find fault. It's easy to walk down the middle, but that's where the 84% lives. So we started to look at the CMOs out in the world and what kind of work they were doing. A lot of brands say they want work that gets noticed but not every brand has the stomach to put that work out into the world. The same way clients are trying to figure out whether we're right to work with them, we do the same. We vet clients in initial meetings, we see how they are talking about the work they want to do and if our conversation is scaring them. And if it scares them a bit but they're intrigued, that's fine. But if you can tell that they don't want PR to drive the work or they're afraid of choosing a side, those kinds of conversations are important to us. Brands like Snapchat or Coinbase, which we most recently won. And Terminix
, they have an interest in doing the kind of work and using the tools that we want to use to get the work into the world.
LBB> It seems obvious to say but having such a clear strategy must be really useful?
Danny> It's freeing. We did really great work as an agency even before we had this clear point of view. And at one point we had brands like Walmart and Tylenol and Pizza Hut, mass brands that everybody knew and used, and we did some good work for them and we were successful. Now we're working with companies who are interested in working with us because they have a shared ambition to impact culture.
LBB> You mentioned PR a lot in your previous answer and one aspect of Martin that I find really intriguing is the Cultural Impact Lab, which I believe is essentially a PR department but involved in the earliest parts of the creative process. Can you tell us more about the department and the inspiration behind working in this way?
Danny> Corporate communications is a part of that department but in terms of how it works for clients, it includes former publicists and writers and PR experts that are part of our greater process. They're there at the briefing stage, at the strategy stage sometimes, and absolutely during the creative process to help creatives think about what would amplify their work and what kind of tactics they should consider. Even at a broader level, when they're developing work, it's not enough to hope the work gets out to the world and is shared and talked about. It's not enough to hope that it gets picked up by a publication, we believe you can manufacture impact. Part of that is having people who know the news cycle, who understand what publication writers are looking for and understand how PR works, because creatives typically didn't have to. I think we got lucky with Geico because year after year we did work that became part of culture. It wasn't deliberate. It was just guys making really interesting work that people liked. But we believed we could do that for other brands, intentionally. That's our mantra - impact culture to impact sales.
LBB> You also won Talent Management Team of the Year at Campaign US awards 2020, which feels particularly notable given the difficulties employers and employees faced last year. Can you tell us about some of the efforts you made to attract and retain talent?
Danny> For me, that award is the most deserved of the things we've won. It's been four years now, but we very deliberately took on the challenge of changing what our agency looked like. When I took over as chief client officer, I said, "I think I'm the only person of colour in my department and that's not going to work." When Kristen started we significantly increased our hiring of BIPOC talent, we instituted pay equity across the agency and that was the beginning of all the things that followed. That department is charged with a lot of things, but the thing I think they're best at is taking care of our people. I believe the reason that we've made it through the last year the way we did is because there are people who are constantly thinking about the work environment, the mental health of people, the kind of people we're hiring, caring for under-represented communities in the agency and looking to expand the aperture of the kind of people we hired. They were the glue that held it all together. The list of things that the department did and has been doing is ridiculous. We don't have an HR department anymore, at least we don't call it that. We made it Talent and Culture because HR seemed to be just about being a place to go if there's a problem, as opposed to being ready for the fact that every single day, somebody's dealing with something.
There are so many things that the group has done to make working here better and to make our interaction with each other better. I know a lot of this is typical training that companies do, but I don't think companies do it with as much frequency as we do. People know that there are other places to go, but people who've spent enough time here know that there are not very many places you can go where people care about you the way they care about us here.
LBB> How did you wind up in this industry in the first place? Was it a planned adventure or more a happy accident?
Danny> It wasn't planned. It was what happened when I failed at my first job. I was a client, I started out in marketing on the brand side. And I was really not good at it. I got my MBA because I thought I wanted to work in marketing but I didn't realise that my perception of marketing was really advertising. What I forgot was the finance and the projection and the yearly plans and the stuff that I don't like. But what I realised at that time was that I got most excited when the ad agencies came to present work. I knew how to look at work and evaluate work and talk about work. So I figured maybe I should look at that as a career. I didn't really know it was a career option when I was young. I stumbled into it. I am a painter but I decided that I would try my hand at writing.
LBB> Why did you decide to be a copywriter? Would it have ruined your love for art and its enjoyment as a hobby?
Danny> I’m an artist, but I wasn't sure that would translate into a good art director. And the thing I loved about art was that I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, if I wanted. I knew that wouldn't be true if I were an art director. I'd have to do what other people wanted me to do and I didn't want those worlds to collide and ruin my love for art.
LBB> Like an amazing home cook becoming like a line chef...
Danny> Exactly. Now they're cooking on command.
LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you happy and entertained?
Danny> During most waking hours I paint. I decided to learn to play the piano about four years ago and now I'm obsessed with that and do that actively. And I'm a Prince fan so I spend a lot of time going down Prince rabbit holes. Discovering things; every podcast I can find, every bootleg album, every concert I can download. I’ve spent a lot of time in the purple world. Between those three things that's pretty much all I’m doing when I'm not sleeping.
Additional reporting by Josh Neufeldt