So there is a gecko sitting in a big comfortable chair. He is a fairly conventional gecko. He has a green body, a bumpy white belly and bulgy eyes. The one exception about this gecko is that he talks -- with a working-class British accent. Oh, and he's giving an interview on a television talk show.
What he has to say in the next 30 seconds tells a lot about how a gecko -- a lizard! -- that sprang out of the creative minds of a Richmond advertising agency far from New York City could help snag a big-city advertising deal from Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. The gecko is asked why Geico -- the District-based insurance company -- would hire a chatty gecko.
"Well, entertainment," the gecko says. "You can't just tell people that Geico can save them money. It's true, yes, but a bit boring. So you have a little gecko entertain -- play a little guitar, whatever. They think they are watching entertaining television, but they are really watching" -- and now his voice lowers -- "a commercial."
The commercial is a decidedly self-referential effort, not just about the process of creating icons that sell products but also about the commercial's maker, the Martin Agency. The firm has risen to the highest ranks of the advertising world not from New York or Chicago but from its base in Richmond, mostly by following the gecko's method of entertaining audiences while subtly and creatively slipping in the message.
"It's more cerebral than slapstick," said Steve Bassett, who oversees the firm's Geico account. "It's a little more David Letterman, a little less Benny Hill."
Wal-Mart is tapping that approach. Last month it handed the Martin Agency a large but undisclosed piece of its $580 million-a-year advertising budget. Wal-Mart is attempting to expand its business beyond its core customer base by becoming a marketer that doesn't just promote weekly low prices, but does so with a certain flair.
"Wal-Mart has always been a company that's been operationally driven," said Mike Hughes, the Martin Agency's president and creative director, sitting in his office at the firm's downtown headquarters. "I don't want to change what Wal-Mart is. I want the world's best retailing company to also be among the world's best marketing companies."
Formed in 1965, the Martin Agency, which employs about 400 people, has created marketing campaigns that took hold in American culture. In 1972, the firm hatched the "Virginia Is for Lovers" tourism slogan, which helped it later land accounts with Wrangler jeans and Mercedes-Benz. It began working with Geico in 1994 and has produced campaigns widely praised in the ad industry.
Besides the self-aware gecko, there is a caveman who promotes the insurer's Web site -- the slogan is, "So easy a caveman could do it." The campaign had its origins in trying to illustrate the idea that even a dumb person could use Geico's Web site. Bassett said the agency asked, "So who is historically dumb that we won't offend?"
Another Geico campaign features stars (including Little Richard and Burt Bacharach) who team up with real Geico customers giving testimonials about the company's claims service.
"Denise Bazik is a real Geico customer, not a paid celebrity," one such ad begins. "So to help tell her story we hired a celebrity." Little Richard is sitting next to Bazik at a kitchen table. Bazik said she called Geico after hitting a deer, expecting to get just a recording. "Help me," Little Richard screams, as Little Richard typically screams. "Somebody help me!" You guessed it -- Geico did.
The Martin Agency also works for UPS ("What can Brown do for you?"), NASCAR, the Discovery Channel, Discover Card, Hanes and Barely There bras. (Warren E. Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns Geico; Buffett is a director of The Washington Post Co.)
"They are an integral part in helping us grow," Ted Ward, Geico's vice president of marketing, said of the Martin Agency. "They have helped drive our success."
In recently ranking the agency No. 5 on its A List, Advertising Age said Martin "firmly thrust marketers into pop culture, often using little more than top-quality traditional media." When the agency won the Wal-Mart account, the magazine declared in a large bold headline, "Martin bests adland bigs to nab Wal-Mart."
Senior executives of the Martin Agency said being based in Richmond, more than 300 miles from New York City, has in many ways helped shaped the company's creative ambitions and successes, and the executives also think their location played a key role in landing the Wal-Mart account.
"We have an advantage in living like most Americans live," Hughes said. "There are a lot of TV commercials where people are taking the subway to work. Some people in Washington take the subway. But a lot of people in New York take the subway, so that's how they" -- the New York ad community -- "thinks people live. It's not how we live. The people in New York don't know Wal-Mart on an intimate basis."
He added, "I think we are a little less cynical than the New Yorkers." Which is not to say the firm has no New York connections. In 1995, the Martin Agency became part of the Interpublic Group, a New York-based communications company. But John B. Adams Jr., Martin's chief executive, said: "We live on cul-de-sacs rather than in high-rises. And we shop at Wal-Mart. It does affect the sensibility of the work that comes out of here."
Hughes acknowledges that his team has a big task ahead in working for Wal-Mart.
For starters, Wal-Mart's marketing operation is coming off a tumultuous period. Last year, it jettisoned two ad agencies it had worked with for years and hired Julie Roehm, an executive with a razzmatazz reputation, as chief marketing executive. She oversaw the selection of a new agency, DraftFCB, a Chicago subsidiary of Interpublic, in October. Then, in December, Roehm was dismissed and Wal-Mart reopened the selection process. In January, Martin got the contract.
And then there is, of course, the well-organized criticism of how Wal-Mart treats its employees and a perception, true or not, that the company spells doom for mom-and-pop businesses in small-town America. Hughes said Wal-Mart's ad campaign will not be a response to its critics, but he acknowledged that opposition to the company kept him up at night.
"It's not just enough that we tell the truth," Hughes said. "The truth has to be unassailable. And that's a harder thing to do."
The Martin Agency has a few initial ideas about how to approach the campaign, Hughes said, though he was not ready to divulge them. In general, though, he said: "Wal-Mart needs more joy in its persona. It has that in its heritage."
"As Wal-Mart got bigger, people started thinking about it as a more serious kind of operation," Hughes said. "But some of the joy that gives this huge company its vitality -- that's not coming through to people these days. We want that to come through."
Whatever advertising campaign emerges for Wal-Mart, it is likely to be sprung not through focus groups or market research but organically, with a bunch of creative people sitting around talking about ideas and trading lines. The Martin Agency has sort of bumped into its most successful commercials that way. The gecko is just one example.
He came about because Geico found that potential customers were having a problem pronouncing the company's name. So somebody at the agency suggested using a gecko in a commercial. The gecko held a press conference asking people to stop calling him, because he was a gecko, not Geico. The Martin Agency intended to use him in just one ad, but an actors' strike followed and left the firm no choice but to keep the lizard employed.
It is not clear when Wal-Mart's new ad campaign will begin, but Hughes said that by late summer "you will see some things that hopefully give a deeper impression of Wal-Mart." He was asked whether there was something down the road as big or bigger than the Geico campaign.
"I hope so," he said.