POV: Interview with Dan Sutton, Director of Business Development at The Martin Agency
Dan Sutton is the director of business development for The Martin Agency, a Richmond, Virginia-based agency owned by Interpublic that is best known for creating the GEICO Gecko and handling the $580 million Wal-Mart account. During the last four years of economic instability and marketing budgets cuts, The Martin Agency has been one of the fastest growing agencies in the country, winning work with Pizza Hut, FreeCreditScore.com and Mentos. Sutton joined Martin in 2008 and was named Director of New Business in December of 2011. He has worked in advertising, branding and graphic design for the past 11 years, on both the agency and client sides.
The list of brands you have worked on throughout your career is stellar, including Apple, Nike, MINI, Coca-Cola, Pantone and Electronic Arts. What attracts you to a brand as the SVP and Director of Business Development?
The thing that attracts me to a brand is the team behind them — they show courage, purity, restlessness and a commitment to progress. There are too many brands/brand managers who have relied on what has always worked and too many who are afraid to go where they need to.
Business development is arguably one of the toughest roles in the marketing industry. What personality traits and professional experience should agencies look for when hiring a business developer?
I think the traits that you need to have or be are:
- Being thick skinned
- Having perseverance
- Being outgoing
- Having amiable qualities
You collaborated with Brian Collins to manage The Martin Agency’s experiential design firm COLLINS earlier in your career. What led you to leave Apple, Inc. to work on what some would consider a startup?
I have been very fortunate in my career to have a lot of amazing opportunities that I have been able to pursue. When the opportunity came up to start an experiential design firm with Brian Collins (formerly of the Brand Innovation Group at Ogilvy Worldwide) that was financially backed by The Martin Agency and IPG (Interpublic Group) — I couldn’t resist. I was really drawn to working in the design field, and I felt that there was a unique opportunity to start an agency that solved brand problems from the inside out versus the outside in. Our intent was to work with brands to uncover and develop new value versus the typical advertising role of messaging or selling existing value.
Leading a smaller team than the other agencies at which you had previously worked, what did you learn throughout your time as the firm’s managing director?
As the managing director I learned a lot about running a business from an operational standpoint and all the things that come with it: P&L, staffing, billing, legal, HR, etc. But on a more personal note, I learned a lot about myself: how I want to be managed, who I want to partner with, and how I want to grow and develop talent to foster a unique creative culture.
Many brands have created large in-house marketing departments over the years and have learned to collaborate directly with specific vendors. Why do you think organizations still need agencies? What is the value proposition?
I think there will always be a need for an agency. Does that agency look like it does today? Probably not, and many of today’s agencies will not be in business or will have radically different ways of making money than they do at present in order to survive. Even the best in-house teams, like the ones at Apple, Nike and Google, still see the need for multiple agencies and are finding new and more collaborative ways to work with them. The in-house teams typically cannot afford to keep enough top-level talent busy enough to justify the costs. Working with agencies gives the brands access to so many different disciplines and talent, at all levels, without having to pay for the downtime.
A perfect example of this is the Google Creative Lab, which partners regularly with BBH and Mullen.
By industry standards, The Martin Agency is big. What is your opinion on size as it relates to the marketing field? How has your organization collaborated with other organizations in the industry, large or small?
So, you are asking if size matters?
I think it’s a double-edged sword these days. For the better part of the last 40 years in advertising, I think size was very important. It gave clients confidence; it allowed agencies to take on more and more scope and hire more specialized individuals. However since roughly 2000, I think things have changed. Many of the greatest agencies today are small, nimble and changing the way that they work, get paid and service their clients. That said, being big today means you can still do great work. You just need to be open to change and adapt to what the needs are today — such as analytics, community management, digital strategy and digital production.
Martin collaborates all the time, as we want to deliver the best results for our clients as possible, and there are some areas where we need to bring in the “best of breed” agencies to help in areas that we may not offer or are still developing. We partner with many different types of agencies and size is really not one of the determining factors. The key for us is finding the right people and the right relationship.
As a business developer, what is your opinion of AMC’s “The Pitch”? Reality or exaggeration for your agency? Better yet, what’s your approach to the pitch process?
To be honest, I am not a big fan of “The Pitch” — the show basically makes the entire industry look like assholes. The part that I really don’t like is how much it devalues the process and how it minimizes all the many roles and people who make a new business pitch really come to life. They really seem to show no regard for the strategy that goes into it. No offense to the agencies that have participated; I know and respect all of them and understand the appeal for some agencies in today’s economic climate. That said, there was a rather large list of agencies that decided against participating and The Martin Agency was one of those.
Our approach to the pitch process is to learn as much as we can about the client’s business — not just what their advertising messaging has or has not been able to accomplish. We want to go into a pitch knowing more or as much about their business as they do. We want to talk to the people who work behind the scenes or on the front lines, the consumers who use the product or services, how the world perceives them, etc. Then you can find a real insight and develop your work from there.
What trends and tactics are your clients excited about this year in comparison to 2011?
Overall, I feel that the clients we speak with in 2012 are starting to really look at more measurable business results and analytical modeling. The pressure is to deliver “guaranteed” effective work. What my dream would be is to see more clients wanting to put more faith in letting agencies deliver and develop the “big idea” and stand behind that instead of hiding behind numbers.
Favorite ad of all time: Two answers for this: one is a traditional ad and the other is what some may not have viewed as an ad.
Y2K for Nike. Nike has no fear and they are never afraid to take on a relevant and timely topic and just go for it. Everyone was freaking out in 1999 about what would happen on Jan 1, 2000, and Nike decided that that day might be like every other day and that you would get up and go for a run regardless. That kind of ad is not going to run for weeks and months; it’s going to have more impact for running at the right one or two times and then it’s done.
The other is the Livestrong bracelet. Go back to 2004 and these things were selling for $10 a piece when the supply ran low – that’s $9 more than they sold for in stores. Look at the landscape today and how many people are still wearing them. How many people have copied or tried to copy this medium?
One reason that you love what you do: I answer this question often, and it has not changed since I started. I love that every day brings something completely new and that there are generally always new things to get involved in, read about or research. Advertising is no 9 to 5, but it’s also completely unpredictable and that keeps things interesting.
Mentor: I have a few: my father, who never let me take the easy path and always pushed me harder than anyone; my former boss at Apple, Allison Johnson, who continues to tell me the things that I need to hear and has never held back; and my current boss John Adams, who has shown me that you can continue to be who you genuinely are throughout your career and not be affected or changed by the success or industry status you may achieve.
Must read book: The book that has made the most impact for me is “Differentiate or Die” by Jack Trout. This predates “Purple Cow,” “Eating the Big Fish” and most of the other big books from the last 12 years that say a lot of what all of us have seen unfold in the past five years or so. Look at Blockbuster, Circuit City, the state of Best Buy, Yahoo!, AOL, etc.
Another one that I just finished and highly recommend is Grant McCracken’s “Culturematic.”
Music that gets you in your zone: Depends on the my mood, but it’s nothing that is ever played on Hot 97, I can tell you that much for sure. I like a lot of music, but getting into the zone would most likely be New Order or Cut Copy (the Australian group that wants to be New Order).
Anything else you’d like to add? Advice that I give most: Don’t judge yourself based on what your peers are doing, what your age is or any other silly measure of equality that this industry is known for. Put in the effort, respect the people around you and contribute to making great work. You’ll get where you want to go.