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A Fascinating Interview with Earl Cox, CSO Emeritus at The Martin Agency

minute read

"I am very excited to share my conversation with Earl Cox

Earl is the Chief Strategy Officer Emeritus for the Martin Agency, an ad agency based in Richmond, Virginia, and a legendary one at that. Earl presided over the strategy department at Martin for the creation of some of the best ad campaigns in history for brands including Geico, Walmart, and UPS, to name just a few. 

Martin was named U. S. Agency of the Year in 2009, 2021, and 2023, and I've known Earl for many years as a supporter of the VCU Brandcenter's graduate program, where I, and many Martin employees over the years, studied advertising.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In my conversation with Earl, we cover:

  1. The Process of Co-Creation with Clients: A significant portion of our conversation revolves around the process of co-creation with clients. Earl highlights the importance of breaking down the invisible wall between strategy and creative teams through rapid prototyping and iterative feedback loops with clients. This approach not only involves clients in the creative process but also treats them as consumers, focusing on their needs, wants, hopes, dreams, and fears. The goal is to develop work that is a product of both the agency and the client, fostering a sense of co-ownership and collaboration rather than a traditional vendor-client relationship.
  2. The Role of Listening and Relevance in Persuasion: We discuss the critical role of listening to clients and ensuring that creative work is relevant to their needs. The conversation touches on the broader industry perspective, where agencies often struggle with being perceived as vendors rather than partners. Earl argues for a consultative approach to selling ideas, where solutions are framed as answers to client problems, thereby positioning creativity not just as an artistic endeavor but as a strategic tool for business growth and differentiation.

Jen Clinehens:
Today we want to give you [Earl] the spotlight and talk a little bit about your long and storied advertising career. I would really like to get specific about a document that you sent me, which was the speech, I believe, that they gave when you retired from the Martin Agency a few years ago now.

They talked about learning from you that any idea can be presented as a triangle, and there was no further explanation. Could you talk more about what that meant? 

Earl Cox: 
Well, that was probably more sarcastic than fun of me, but I have always felt that finding a graphic way to visualize strategies and ideas really helps people understand it, and make it memorable.
Often strategies have multi dimensions, three legged stool, if you will. How do those things come together in a single idea? So, there was nothing terribly special about that.

Probably the reference to my nickname, Swirl, Earl the Swirl, is a more important one, because that was a process thing, and it was based on the observation that there's this not so invisible wall between strategy and creative.

The strategist - they do their brief, and it's like they throw it over a wall. And a week or three weeks later, the work comes back, and you go, where did that come from?

Then it's off the rails quickly, so that process it's about rapid prototyping, going back and forth across the wall.

Write a brief, maybe alternative ones, then let creatives shoot a graphic prototype, different directions and ideas and circle back with clients, maybe research and back and refine that big part of what I believe is great work.

And a lot of that is founded on the notion of treating clients as our consumers and to even do research on them, what are their needs and wants and hopes and dreams and fears.

And then the other part of it is clients are people too, and they don't want to be sold. They want to collaborate. The way I think great work gets developed and sold and produced and everything else is co-creation.

"The way I think great work gets developed and sold and produced and everything else is co-creation." - Earl Cox

I don't mean co-writing ads or art direction, but to very much involve clients every step of the way. And selling can happen along the way. But I mean literally to have a good work session - a facilitated workshop. First about the business goals and problems then about research.

And I have found that this kind of co-creation results in co-ownership. Nothing better than when work is also the product of the client and they feel they were part of it and own it. 

Jen: I love the way you put that. Now you and I have exchanged a few emails lately about this topic of how selling ideas to a client. How do you get a client to feel like an idea is theirs and they're part of the process?

To me it's that they don't want to be sold. And I think the focus should be more on developing the right idea, and that is multidimensional. Of course, it's insightful. And I would go so far that most categories have become commoditized, which is the subject of that book I told you I'm working on.

One of the chapters in my book is, "If you can't be different, be more relevant and therein lies your difference." That is the reason for planning to exist. The right work, it needs to have the business benefit, and it can't be hidden.

And, by the way, consumers don't want hard sell either. And of course, creative gets noticed, gets liked.

I'm a big believer in likeability being one of the most powerful levers of persuasion.

Interestingly, there's been a lot of folks on “marketing Twitter” saying saying advertising's job is not to persuade. What is your, your thought on advertising's job is to, or to not to persuade?

I think great advertising has EQ. And EQ demonstrated, persuades.

I think cultural relevance and buzz, well, that can be pretty damn persuasive, too, even though it might involve intermediaries doing it for you.

A lot of advertising tries to imitate culture, persuade culture. And I think that's stopping short of the potential to shape culture.

To use an overused example, but "Just Do It." That was an insight about relevance. Anybody could have said that. But not after Nike got there first. 

And that reflects on EQ to me, of knowing that people feel bad about falling short of their fitness goals. And there's a brand that's kind of empowering people. It drove millions to buy a shoe that was no different than any of the competitors.

You're right, that is like a well worn example, but I think for very good reason. I mean, we look at these brands like Nike and Apple, but it's because they do something extraordinary.
When you say clients don't like being sold to, what is being sold to in your experience? What's the wrong way to get an idea accepted by a client? 

Unfortunately, too many agencies try to force ideas down their throat. And really what they should be doing is more consultative selling. If I had used the word selling, I'll use it in that context.

Consultative selling essentially means problem solving. The idea solves a problem or helps the client realize an opportunity. Ideas that fly tend to be positioned as a solution to a client problem.

And agencies need to practice active listening. That reflection of listening might be the most persuasive thing we could do.

I really agree with that. And what's interesting to me, having been on the other side of those pitches, so having been a client, what always used to infuriate me is feeling like the agency wasn't listening. And to be frank, I felt like that a lot.

I worked in an agency that had 30 years of rapid growth. And I think virtually all of it was because of actively listening to clients and addressing their problems.

Now, one of the things that has frustrated me about our industry is an either or mentality. We can solve the problem OR we can do great work and never the twain shall meet.

I have always believed and seen it over and over again, great work works now. That needs to be demonstrated specifically, but you know, clients, and I think rightfully so, they're suspicious of agencies' motivations.

And think we want to be self indulgent so we can win awards and have our peers say, oh that's cool. So we're right on the edge of no credibility. The agency complains about being treated like vendors. Well, I think agencies started that, not openly being partners.

I've seen this debate come around a lot where you see certain folks in agencies who like to complain about the McKinsey's and the Baines and the BCG's, the Deloittes, and they like to say things like, well, their work is not as good as ours.

They'll never do creative work like we do. So why can they charge ten times what we charge?

I think what those big consultancies get right is the growth piece. And this is where I see sort of the agencies diverging from the consultancies.

I would love to hear your thoughts on kind of where the industry is going. In terms of being valued, how they feel like they're undervalued, and how creativity is undervalued.

Unfortunately, I think [creativity’s] not presented and positioned in a way that's relevant to the needs and wants of clients. And the reason why the big consultants have traction and can charge what they charge. It's because they're speaking very much to the client's needs. Sell more shit, period. So I can keep my job, by the way.

So it's a personal need as well as a business need.

We used to love to start a pitch with reflecting back the client's business needs and wants and showing we appreciate them. And that doesn't mean we did shitty creative work. We did everything we can. And, you know, for me, there's a hierarchy going on.

Business, brand, communication, experience. And unfortunately, those four things are often not linked. Because there's different people doing them. But we would try to draw a straight line through those things, as well as Consumer Insights and Briefs.

I used to have a creative director, a partner in pitches, and he used to love to say that the way we win is when we can draw a straight line from the client through the consumer to the strategy to the creative. He was right. Not easy, but in a way, it's kind of simple. Isn't it?

It's so funny that you say simple as well, because I feel like so many pitches that I've been a part of get so overcomplicated.

People spend so much time trying to polish this like, diamond of an idea, that they don't spend enough time doing, pulling that straight line, creating a story very clear to the people that they're pitching to, and also very relevant for them.

I'm interested in your thoughts on the pitch process, and how it might be improved, or how it works when it works well.

What you observe is true, and we made that mistake a few times, but thankfully not all the time. It's agency, nature, and maybe even human nature. Let me impress you with all the homework I did and all the things I learned.

Much of this is not connected with where I'm going, but You know, they think, uh, they need to impress with that homework and knowledge and that somehow buys them credibility. We had a great run in new business in the 90s because we would ask for our own strategy and in our own creative work session.

This was before the Pitch Consultants mandated it. So we were the only ones doing it. So we would win before we got to the final. Because people forget this, that pitches aren't about the client buying the creative work 90 percent of the time. Pitches are a trial experience for the client to see how an agency thinks and what they're like to work with.

That, to me, is what the pitch should be all about.

Totally agreed. What I would love to do is to take a slight little detour, and I would love to give you the opportunity to talk a little bit about the book that you're writing.

Let me just quickly give you the premise, and I mentioned it a little bit earlier, but in my long career, I think the vast majority Of the categories or brands that I was working with, there was no rational, logical benefit differentiation and, and really clients were panicking.

I think it fueled to some extent that the creative became the differentiator. The title of the book is Impossibly Unique: Brand Strategies to Beat the Commodity Trap. But one chapter, as an example, is to "be more relevant" and therein lies you're difference. Define your enemy, which is often a really good one. And it's not always a competitor.


Superficiality is Dove's enemy, and it has built a long term brand strategy and differentiation on defining that enemy. And I would even go back to Nike. The enemy was people not "just doing it." There are more examples like that. If you can't have a USP - a Unique Selling Proposition - try a USP - a Unique Selling Personality.

One client that I will mention is our 30 years of work for Geico, which is mostly a personality differentiation. It's also got multiple storylines, so to keep the brand and the world fresh.

Jen Clinehens:
I'm looking forward to reading it when it comes out! If there's one idea you could leave our listeners with, what do you think it might be?

Earl Cox: In the pre-interview questions, one of the things you sent me as possible topics was soft skills.

What I have found that the best planners tend to be hybrids of sorts, or mashups if you prefer, people that are both analytic but also intuitive, who are strategic but also inventive.

People that are good collaborators, but also good independent thinkers. And I probably could go on and on. So, I think our business needs very dynamic, diverse skill sets. And sometimes in one individual.

Jen Clinehens:
Through this conversation, I've definitely been able to peer into your mind and get a little benefit from your experience and our readers have as well.
Thank you, Earl, so much for allowing me to have this time interviewing you!

About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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