Oct 1, 2017
Early in his 26-year career at The Martin Agency, Joe Alexander was on a team working on an advertising campaign for children’s clothing company Healthtex when he suggested they try something different.
The children’s clothing market was dominated by competitors OshKosh B’gosh and Carter’s, remembered Martin Agency president Beth Rilee-Kelley, who was an account executive at the time. The competition’s ads usually showed cute children in cute clothing.
“What (Alexander) thought was important was that we needed to be talking more to moms and acknowledging what moms are going through every single day,” Rilee-Kelley said. Alexander was a senior copywriter at the time.
The advertisement that the team came up with had a lot of text on the page, which was unheard of at the time, Rilee-Kelley said.
It was different and wordy, but had a cute and catchy headline.
“One of the things we talked about was new moms had so much on their plate, would they even read long copy?” Rilee-Kelley said.
“What we learned … was that moms loved the copy, and it endeared the brand to them. It was a home run. He wrote it from a mom’s perspective,” Rilee-Kelley said.
The headline? “When you’re bald and toothless, you’d better wear cute clothes.”
That willingness to take risks is one of the traits that has landed Alexander at the creative helm of the Richmond-based but internationally recognized advertising agency.
As chief creative officer for The Martin Agency, it’s his job to lead efforts to come up with advertising for clients that have included national brands such as GEICO insurance, Oreo cookies and Benjamin Moore paints, among many others.
The Martin Agency in the past seven years alone has won 60 awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, company officials said, including the Grand Prix in film in 2015 for its “Unskippable” ad campaign for GEICO insurance.
Alexander was named chief creative officer in 2012. More recently, Alexander was named one of the 100 people who make advertising great by the 4A’s, a membership organization representing the marketing communications agency business. The Martin Agency is a member of the organization.
The awards were presented last week at the 4A’s 100th anniversary gala held in New York City.
“Since (the 4A’s) represents about every advertising agency and a lot of clients, it’s a very big deal,” said Helayne R. Spivak, executive director of the VCU Brandcenter, Virginia Commonwealth University’s highly touted advertising program.
“To be recognized as one of the top 100 people to make advertising relevant, fun or great is a very big honor,” Spivak said.
Alexander is quick to share the honor with the people he works with at The Martin Agency, which has its headquarters in Shockoe Slip and an office in London.
“I am only as good as the people in this place,” Alexander said.
“We are good to each other but really tough on the quality of the work. That’s what’s got me here,” he said.
Alexander came to The Martin Agency in 1991, hired by Mike Hughes, the longtime creative leader of The Martin Agency who died in 2013.
Before coming to The Martin Agency, Alexander, a Minneapolis-St. Paul native and a journalism/mass communications graduate of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, worked at agencies in his hometown.
Much of what he learned about advertising came from studying the works of the pros.
“There weren’t graduate schools you would go to and work on your portfolio book and get hired a couple years later,” Alexander said.
Instead, he poured over advertising recognized as the industry’s best and collected in “One Show Annuals,” yearly compilations from The One Club for Creativity.
“You learned from studying the ads. That was your textbook,” Alexander said.
“I was lucky to be in Minneapolis at the time when one of the best agencies over the last 50 years, Fallon, started. There were some great people there that I learned a lot from. I eventually was hired by one of those guys, Tom McElligott, who is in (The One Club Creative) hall of fame.”
McElligott had left Fallon and worked at Chiat/Day when he hired Alexander to help lead Chiat/Day Toronto.
Martin Agency president Rilee-Kelley said one of Alexander’s strengths is that he remains a student of the advertising profession.
“I remember when he started, he was one of those people who studied creative work. … He admired the work that people did and he reached out to his fellow creatives across the country to talk to them about the work. He learned about the techniques that were different and were being used. He truly studied,” Rilee-Kelley said. “I think that is what has made him the leader he is today. And he hasn’t stopped. He has such an appreciation for this industry and creativity.”
Alexander’s role as chief creative officer at The Martin Agency includes being a coach and mentor to the people who make up the agency’s creative staff.
“A lot of people think we are in the creative business and the advertising business. I really think we are in the talent business. Talent is everything. We survive and we thrive when we have great people,” Alexander said.
Alexander said his work at times also includes battling misconceptions among outsiders that great creative work can only come out of such places as New York City and Los Angeles.
“Since 2010, I think we’ve started to get into more of the conversations of the best agencies in the world,” Alexander said.
“We’ve had a lot of success at Cannes, and that has helped us overcome some of that insecurity. But I think deep down, we are underdogs. We are scrappy. That’s our culture. We attract those kinds of people. We attract people who really want to overachieve and have a life, too,” he said.
The Martin Agency offices are set up to encourage collaboration. Alexander’s office has glass walls off of an open communal working space where employees sit at work stations set up on long tables. There are smaller rooms available for group meetings.
“When we have great work here, it starts with an assignment, a brief. Then, it quickly goes to some sort of insight, strategic insight that comes from somewhere on the team,” said Alexander, explaining the creative process.
In the case of the “Unskippable” campaign, for instance, the strategic insight was you have to hook people in the first five seconds before the “skip this ad” banner pops up on digital advertising.
“When the guys heard that, they said we are going to win the first five seconds. Sure enough they did,” Alexander said.
The guys in this case were creative director Neel Williams and associate creative director Mauricio Mazzariol, he said.
Another noteworthy and award-winning project was pro bono work for nonprofit organ donation advocacy group Donate Life. The ad features a scraggly dude with a nasty attitude. Dude redeems himself somewhat when he dies, and it turns out he is an organ donor. The tagline is “Even an asshole can save a life.”The ad has more than 2.4 million views on YouTube and more than 1,000 comments, many just as edgy as the ad itself. Some folks like it. Some folks don’t.
“Our business is a creative business, so it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s kind of messy. I think that’s OK,” Alexander said.
“The most surprising solutions in our business are often because of mistakes or accidents. It’s not science. … There is a creative alchemy that happens between people and ideas and energy. My job is to foster that, to foster that kind of environment, and I think that starts with really talented people.”
Some of that willingness to see opportunities everywhere may stem from growing up in a household with nine children — six boys and three girls. Alexander is the sixth born. His father, who passed away nine years ago, was a high school teacher and principal. His mother, 88, is a homemaker.
His father, he said, brought a lot of consciousness about having a life outside of work.
Alexander is married to Sarah Rowland, a wallpaper designer. They live in Richmond’s Westover Hills neighborhood. It’s close enough to the agency that Alexander rides his bike to work about twice a week. He has three adult daughters — two live in New York City and one lives in Los Angeles.
He admits to being a lawn geek, actually enjoying getting out and mowing the grass. The Martin Agency lets employees individualize their business cards. His has the outline of a guy pushing a lawn mower.
“Work is really important to me but … family is obviously huge,” Alexander said. Equally important is helping the community he lives in reach its potential, he said. He has volunteered in political campaigns.
At The Martin Agency, Alexander shares the senior leadership with Rilee-Kelley and CEO Matt Williams.
The advertising industry, like other forms of communications, is being transformed by technology, Alexander said. Client companies want something different.
For a decade, The Martin Agency created ads for Walmart. Walmart ended the contract as of September 2016. The Martin Agency that month laid off 29 employees.
In March of this year, the agency laid off 21 people — 16 in Richmond and five at its New York office — which reduced the company’s total workforce to 450. Those layoffs were related to a restructuring. The agency closed its New York office and moved those operations to shared space with the ad agency’s parent company, Interpublic Group of Companies Inc.
“The business has been going through quite a transformation. I think it’s going to be like this for a long time where, not just us, but all agencies like us are changing,” Alexander said.
“It’s a reflection of the media that’s out there and the kind of choices our clients need to make about budgets and everything else. We’ve had to transform, too. We’ve had to adjust our staff and the way we work to be more social, to be more digital, to be more nimble, to be always on. That’s what the best clients are. The best clients are always ‘on’ now. They are not waiting to put out some fixed media unearned media solution,” Alexander said. “The best agencies now are creating earned media solutions where their work not only gets placed in incredible places that cost money but also grab attention outside of that.”