What Makes an Ad Successful?

With over 30 years of experience in the industry, John Adams shares what it takes to make a great Super Bowl advertisement

The Martin Agency has created the jingles for Freecreditreport.com, "Peggy," the worthless customer service agent for Discover Card and the caveman, shown here, for Geico. (Courtesy of The Martin Agency)

The Martin Agency, based in Richmond, Virginia, has a knack for creating memorable ad campaigns. In the late 1960s, the group coined the now-famous tourism slogan, “Virginia is for lovers.” More recently, the ad shop has created the Geico gecko, Freecreditreport.com’s catchy jingles about the repercussions of not knowing your credit score and “Peggy,” the worthless (and despite the name, male) customer service agent of its Discover Card commercials.

In advance of the 2012 Super Bowl on February 5, and the inevitable buzz over its commercials, I spoke with the agency’s chairman and chief executive officer, John Adams. An adviser to the National Museum of American History’s “American Enterprise” exhibition, slated to open in 2015, Adams reflects on past Super Bowl ads and his agency’s creative process, now and into the future.

When it comes to the Super Bowl, many people anticipate the commercials more than the actual game. I imagine you watch with particular scrutiny. What is it like watching the Super Bowl with you?

We will occasionally invite people from the company to come to a Super Bowl watching party. It really is funny because all of the conversation goes on during the game and then everyone gets quiet during the commercial breaks.

The Super Bowl is a unique venue. I think the entertainment value, the distinctiveness, the breakthrough value of the commercials is dialed up a lot. USA Today comes out the day after the Super Bowl and ranks the commercials. There is a lot of editorial comment about the commercials. It is just different from doing a regular television commercial. There is a good side to that, which is that the commercials tend to be quite entertaining, and then there is a downside, which is that for so many advertisers the entertainment value can sometimes outpace the practical value.

This year, the price for 30 seconds is reportedly about $3.5 million. Is it worth it?

In general, I would say, yes, it is a good deal—if you look at the cost per 1,000 people reached. Last year, the Super Bowl set a new record for viewership. It was almost 163 million people.

Now, having said that, we have to put the specific cost of that one television opportunity within the context of the budget of a brand. So, if that cost is 5 percent of your budget, then that is a pretty good buy, because you are not putting too many chips on this one commercial. If however, it is 30 percent of your budget, then that is a big bet. During the dotcom boom, there were some Internet companies that almost bet the farm on a single Super Bowl exposure. In one or two cases, it worked. In most cases, it did not, because it wasn’t enough to really launch a company and to develop fascination with a new idea.

Last year, the Martin Agency created a 30-second pre-game spot for Living Social. How long did the agency have to make it? And can you take us through the process?

Looking back on it, it is hard to imagine. We had 18 days to put that together. When we began working for Living Social and the timing of their thought process and decision making about whether to run in the Super Bowl resulted in an outrageously compressed time frame. It was completely and utterly atypical for any commercial, let alone a Super Bowl commercial. The time that one typically is looking at for the development, approval and production of a television commercial is somewhere between 7 weeks to 10 or 11 weeks.


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