Michael Lee: Martin Agency creatives reveal the secrets of long-running GEICO campaign

While the vast majority of advertisers in the country bounce erratically from campaign to campaign, strategy to strategy, agency to agency, a few advertisers appear to have cracked some sort of code.

A code that helps them to keep coming up with great campaigns, year after year, selling a product, building a brand, engaging an audience, and yes…winning awards.

Advertisers like GEICO, Apple and Nike, spring to mind for consistent quality work over the years and Old Spice and Direct TV more recently are building a fine body of work (I’m sure there’s a number of others).

So, what’s the secret?….Is it simply the sign of a great agency? A great client? A great working relationship? Just simple common sense?

GEICO is the best example of this to me.

For years we have been hearing the ‘15 minutes can save you 15%’ message delivered by geckos and cavemen, from a screaming Little Richard to humpday camels, from squealing piglets to a shuffling Ickey all the way to the ingenious Unskippable work, GEICO have been getting it right year after year, campaign after campaign.

Oddly enough, the GEICO product is not particularly sexy. It’s not a stylish pair of running shoes or a gorgeous new piece of technology. It’s good old-fashioned car insurance. And definitely not the first place to look for consistently outstanding advertising.

I spoke with Steve Bassett and Wade Alger of The Martin Agency in Richmond VA, the creative directors of the GEICO account (below) to try and get some pointers.

They opened with a simple couple of facts: The Martin Agency and GEICO have been partnered for 21 years. Steve has been running Geico since 2000 and Wade since 2009, and Ted Ward the CMO of GEICO has been there since day one.

Pointer one. Simple personnel consistency. A group of people on the business, both on the agency and client side who know the brand, its needs, it’s ambitions, strengths and weaknesses. Makes sense to me.

And then there’s consistency with the message. Steve and Wade added: “The 15/15 message has been with us since the beginning and the teams keep finding ways to re-invent the savings messages. It’s quite remarkable to have something stay around that long and still have fresh ideas. That’s a testament to a great brief.”

So. Pointer two: keep the message simple, memorable and consistent. The GEICO way is not about keeping your audience interested in your brand by coming up with a bunch of fresh messages. It’s about delivering a consistent message in a fresh and engaging way (How many brands would benefit from following that advice).

How about the way GEICO works with The Martin Agency? Is there anything in how they work together? Steve and Wade give a little insight into that: “As to how we work together, it really is a round table where everyone has a voice, as trite as that may sound it really is true.”

And it’s a direct response business. Historically the idea of DR advertising has met with frowns from people like Steve and Ward. “Our job is to generate inquiries for GEICO,” they explained. “To get people to call or click so by definition it’s direct response, however when you look at the body of work it really feels different than most DR advertising.”

So, how do you structure the team on an account like this? “Our creative is structured as one large pool of writers, art directors, designers, producers and technologists. We’re strategically selective as to which resources will be needed depending on the nature of the project. And we always like to mix it up to keep the work fresh and current.”

After years of successful campaigns one of the obvious questions is, how do you decide what campaign to produce next? Focus groups? Calculated hunches? Evidently it’s none of that. It’s much more simple, “Ted Ward does,” says Steve, “The decision to run a campaign resides with GEICO, and Ted hasn’t missed with one in the 21 years we’ve been working with him.” (Ted, we’ve never met, but congrats on all you’ve done with the GEICO brand. Let me know when you’re offering the master class, I’ll be there in a flash).

So it sounds like you’ve built up a pretty special relationship with GEICO? “Yes, and to be honest it’s more of just a great relationship in general. Work just happens to be one aspect of it all. After 21 years we still like hanging out with them and they still like hanging with us, so perhaps special isn’t a strong enough word.”

Maybe that’s it. As simple as ‘we like hanging out together.’ Maybe that’s it. As simple as ‘we like hanging out together.’

Makes sense to me. For all the data analysis, research, focus groups, presentation decks, insights, performance reviews, conference calls, and Venn diagrams, it’s probably what’s most important.

And maybe the one question every agency and client should ask themselves.

Every 21 years or so.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

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