Let this be a lesson to us all: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The ad gurus at Martin & Woltz did some of their best work after failing. Perhaps you’ve heard of “Virginia is for lovers.”

That is surely one of the most memorable tourism slogans in history, despite the fact that it’s hard to pin down exactly what it means.

The slogan debuted in 1969 but our story actually begins a couple of years earlier, when Richmond ad agency Martin & Woltz was invited to pitch for the state’s travel promotion account.

“We didn’t get it,” George Woltz told Answer Man. It was the first time they’d lost a bid, and it stung.

When Woltz and his partner, David Martin, went back to pick up their rejected portfolio, Woltz asked a member of the selection committee what the winning idea was. The man couldn’t remember any details, beyond that it was a colorful ad across two pages.

Said Woltz: “On the way back, I said to Dave, ‘If we ever get a chance to do this again, I’m going to give them a damn idea they will at least remember.’ ”

It was better, he reasoned, to fail memorably than succeed forgettably.

They got their chance the following year when the account came up again. Martin & Woltz scrambled the jets, assembling a group that included copy writer Barbara Ford, art director Libby Phillips Meggs and Helen Lloyd, a researcher who ordered travel brochures from across the country for comparison.

“They were all the same, more or less,” Woltz said. Each touted some tangible aspect of their locale.

The adfolk brainstormed, throwing out the elements of Virginia that people loved. Some loved the state’s history. Some loved its beaches. Some, the mountains. Virginia was a place for history lovers, for beach lovers, for mountain lovers . . .

“It ended up we had taken the lovers concept about as far as you could take it,” Woltz said.

And then somebody said, “Why not just ‘Virginia is for lovers’?”

“Frankly, I was kind of afraid that it was a little too risque,” Woltz said. But another participant at the meeting, Robin McLaughlin, Lloyd’s assistant, thought it sounded great, assuaging his doubts.

Woltz was the firm’s creative director, the risk-taking Don Draper to president David Martin’s more prudent Roger Sterling. Martin didn’t want to put all the firm’s eggs in a basket made out of a double-entendre.

The partners decided to pitch two ideas. Martin would pitch “Virginia: State of contrasts.” Woltz would pitch “Virginia is for lovers.”

You know which one came out on top. The first ad ran in March 1969 in Modern Bride magazine. The photo was a recreation of a Colonial wedding, shot in Jamestown. Meggs said patients from the state mental hospital were hired as background models.

“It was not an easy photo shoot,” she said.

Inspired by fencing shirts that featured a red heart on the chest, Meggs designed a button and a T-shirt bearing the slogan. When Gov. Linwood Holton brought buttons to the 1970 Republican Governors Association conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, attendees snatched them up.

California Gov. Ronald Reagan reportedly displayed his button and said, “If Virginia’s for lovers, let’s go.”

But what exactly does that mean? Is Virginia more romantic than any other state? Perhaps the key is that the slogan appeals not to the brain, but to the heart.

Said Meggs: “People want to say, ‘Yeah, if it’s for lovers, that’s for me.’ I just think it appeals to people’s egos, too, in a way.”

Whatever it means, it was a hit. Said Woltz: “You’d go out on the street and see a little old lady had knitted a scarf with ‘Virginia is for lovers’ on it. My father-in-law had a place in the Keys in Florida. One of his neighbors was named Virginia. She went crazy about the thing.”

For a while, T-shirts that Martin & Woltz sold bearing the slogan made more money for the firm than their account fee.

“We had no idea that it would become as ubiquitous as it is,” Meggs said. “In advertising, things come and go so quickly that you’re kind of afraid to anticipate what will happen.”

Rita McClenny, president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corp., said people still ask what the slogan means.

“I say it means: Whatever you love in a vacation, you can find it in Virginia,” she said. “It means you travel to Virginia to do the things you love doing with the people you love doing it with.”

Today, 300 gateway signs welcoming visitors from bordering states are emblazoned with the slogan. The largest is at Dulles International Airport.

Woltz said that after winning the account, the agency was ordered not to do anything off-color with the ads. They strayed only once, running an ad in a business publication with the headline “Plan your next affair in Virginia.”

Said Woltz: “I don’t think anybody ever caught it.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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