John by Mike.

My life is an open blog. 

I’m better at keeping secrets than my reputation would have you believe, but I don’t keep secrets about myself.  I can’t believe the wonderful life I get to lead—and I want to share it.  I’m inspired by the places I get to go and the people I get to meet.  I’m an unashamed namedropper who likes other namedroppers.  If you know Bono or Nelson Mandela, I want to know it: that sounds like the start of an interesting conversation to me.  

 If you’ve got a cause, I want to know about it. If you’re involved with a charity, tell me about it.  If you’re angry about the way things are in Washington or Syria, let’s talk.  I think conversations like that make our time together more interesting.  It gets us beyond the idle chitchat.

Of course, maybe that’s just me.  

John Adams isn’t like that. He’s modest to a fault. If President Obama called John Adams to solve the problems in the Middle East and John solved them, he wouldn’t tell you about it.  He wouldn’t even tell me about it and I’ve been his business partner for 35 years.

It drives me crazy. 

I recently took it upon myself to nominate John, the longtime chairman of The Martin Agency, for an industry honor he richly deserves.  All these years together, and I had to do research.


He’s chairman of a company of more than 500 people.  He’s a community leader.  He’s an incredibly accomplished guy.  But, I repeat, he’s modest to a fault.  He probably doesn’t know Bono or Mandela, but he certainly goes to interesting gatherings and meets interesting people. I bet there are at least a few thousand people out there in the world who’d like to know more about him.

So I’m not going to get his permission to do this.  I’m just going to share with you some of what I learned, some of the things I wrote in my nomination, some of the things Dean Jarrett has written about John.   This will ramble some, but our lives are rambles.  There’s just so much I want to tell you about the man who just celebrated his 40th anniversary at the company.  Here goes:

When The Martin Agency is at its best, it’s funny, smart, competitive, human, creative, resourceful, gentlemanly, lightly polished, hospitable, considerate, joyful, determined and civic-minded.

No one loves The Martin Agency more than I do, but even I have to admit we’re not always at our best.  Some days we’re just a little…off.  And every once in a while, we’re more than a little off.  Like a rocket ship aimed at the moon, we make constant course corrections to get back on track.

What amazes me most about John Adams after our 35 years (!) together is that he’s personally never off track. He’s always funny*, smart, competitive, human, creative, resourceful, gentlemanly, lightly polished, hospitable, considerate, joyful, determined and civic-minded.  He’s always The Martin Agency at its best.

John has worked at The Martin Agency for 40 years.  For the last 30 of those years—the 30 years in which John has had a leadership role—the agency has been on virtually everyone’s top ten lists of the best agencies in the world.

One big reason for that is John’s insistence that the agency blaze new trails in advertising.  Beneath his conservative business exterior beats the heart of a revolutionist.  Under John’s leadership, The Martin Agency has thumbed its nose at long-held industry “truths.”

Remember when every commercial and every ad for a client had to pound in one unique selling proposition?  Today, the most successful and groundbreaking marketer in the history of financial advertising—GEICO—runs five or six different campaigns at one time.  John’s agency has lead the way in showing the industry how multi-faceted brands are built.

Remember when other agencies were shedding their media departments as fast as possible?  John insisted on keeping ours.  At first, we were considered dinosaurs.  Now we’re visionaries.

When the “cool agencies” were shunning jingles, The Martin Agency was reinventing them.  (Think of the Free Credit Report guys—or the current OREO’S Wonderfilled campaign.)  When other “hot” agencies looked down their noses at “commercial critters,” The Martin Agency was making them funky.  (Pilgrims for StoveTop, a band for FreeCreditReport and a whole menagerie of geckos, cavemen, pigs and camels for GEICO.)  John Adams’ agency isn’t afraid to be different.

It’s now commonplace for agencies and marketers to talk about multimedia brand storytelling.  Maybe because he actually began his Martin career in the agency’s PR department, John has always had a broad vision for the possibilities for any client—always suggesting ways to extend ideas to new places

When local media name the most powerful people in Richmond, he’s inevitably on the list.  How could he not be?  His work in education and the arts alone would qualify him many times over.

Harry Jacobs and I have always received a disproportionate share of the credit for The Martin Agency’s creative reputation.  The truth is, we’ve had the unmitigated joy of working with dozens of incredibly talented people.  We take the bows for their achievements.  None of those talented people rank higher than John.  Our longtime agency policy is that the creative director makes the call on what work leaves the building.  The chairman and CEO have no more right to kill or change work than the receptionist.  So when John has a strong point of view—and John almost always has a strong point of view—he has to make his case to the CD.  (Damn, is he good at that.) Here’s what’s interesting:  unlike our CDs, John won’t accept the occasional argument from a creative team that “this work may not be award winning, but it’s right on target.”  John points out that the work will be more effective if it’s also award winning.  The fact is, he’s tougher on the work than I am.


1.      He makes it a point not to serve on a board or committee unless he’s an active member.  Which makes it astounding how many groups he’s served, including the The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, United Way, the American Cancer Society, the Salvation Army, the Virginia Historical Society, the Richmond Management Roundtable, Theater Virginia and the Boy Scouts of America.

2.     He’s currently active on at least four boards.

3.     He’s an education fanatic.   He’s served as a trustee, board member or high-ranking volunteer at Hampden-Sydney College, Longwood University, VCU and the University of Richmond.  He’s been an advisor at Randolph Macon, Randolph College and George Mason.  (He doesn’t tell this story himself, but one major university actually sent out feelers to see if he’d consider accepting the presidency of the school.  For all kinds of selfish reasons, I’m glad he didn’t do that.)

4.     He’s the chairman of the board of the VCU Brandcenter, arguably the finest graduate program in our industry.  Over the years he’s been one of the two biggest fundraisers for the Brandcenter.

5.     He gives the entire agency staff this instruction:  each one of them is to commit one act of kindness every morning and another every afternoon.  Compliment a coworker.  Help a subordinate.  Do something special for a client.  Thank a vendor.  Reach out to a student.  Make someone’s life a little better.

6.     On Glassdoor, the website on which anonymous employees rate their company—usually very harshly—John Adams gets 100% approval from employees (as of 9/10/13.)  How many top guys at companies of 500 or more get that?

7.     At the turn of this century, the oldest sitting government in the Western Hemisphere—the Virginia General Assembly – named John Adams and me “industrialists of the year” for bringing scientific insights into our marketing work.  You’re right in thinking that whatever got us that honor was much more John’s doing than mine.

8.     When Seiko created its leadership teams for its three top watch brands, two were headed by Japanese management executives.  The other was headed by John Adams.

9.     He is now board member and treasurer for the JFK Library Foundation.  Some names he could be dropping in that connection:  Caroline Kennedy, Sumner Redstone and Conan O’Brien (really.)

10.  Only one agency was on Advertising Age’s A List in each of the list’s first five years: John’s agency.  And during John’s time, The Martin Agency has been named Adweek’s Agency of the Year—regional or national – at least six times.

11.  He’s funny.*  In fact, after college he toured with a comedy and theatrical troupe.

12.  He’s a teacher.  He’s never too busy to take on one-on-one training with an employee.  When most agencies were abandoning their in-house training program, he continued to expand Martin Agency U.

13.  He’s almost always ahead of the curve.  (OK, I’ll admit he’s not the first person to call if you need IT help.)   In the early ‘90s, when Coca-Cola was commissioning its first website, the company talked to more than a dozen agencies and tech firms.  John led The Martin Agency team that won and completed the assignment.  (It’s not a coincidence that The Martin Agency has created two of the five most honored interactive projects of the past five years or that the agency won 11 Lions at Cannes this year for its digital work.)

14.  John is almost certainly responsible for bringing in more new business and creating more new advertising jobs than anyone else in his part of the world.  Who imagined that an agency in Richmond, Virginia, would represent Mercedes, Wrangler, Pizza Hut, Saab, Discover Card, Kraft Foods, Morgan Stanley and Mondelez?  Who imagined that it would ever create international work for Manpower, UPS, OREO and Coca-Cola? Today the two largest companies in the world—Walmart and Exxon–come to Richmond for advertising.

15.  John’s best friend?  Bunny.  Next in line?  Their sons John, Cliff and Nat—a musician, a strategic planner and an economist.  The only disharmony in the family?  Bunny’s desire to be a grandmother.  (She’s being very patient.)


In the early ‘90s, The Martin Agency was proud to partner with another agency on Mercedes Benz’s American campaigns.  But we longed to have “a car of our own.”  Saab called—and said it was willing to let the agency compete under the radar so no one would know of its involvement in the pitch.  John, the agency’s young, relatively new president, anguished over what to do.  He decided it wouldn’t be right to work behind a client’s back.  “Mercedes has been good to us.”  So John Adams called his biggest client and informed them that the agency would take part in the Saab competition, in effect resigning an account he loved.   When he told the Saab officials what he had done, they were astounded.  “You guys in Virginia are a real long-shot for us.”  Apparently there is something like karma in advertising after all:  John’s team won the Saab account.  (And to this day John has friends from both the Mercedes days and the Saab days.)


People in the creative department would sometimes roll their eyes when they’d hear Harry and me say that John might well be the best writer at the agency.  Some of the copywriters felt they deserve that compliment.   But Harry and I are convinced that nobody writes a better letter or a better introduction or a better speech than John Adams.  I get a lot of credit for the writing in a little red book the agency gives new employees.  The last half of the book was blatantly stolen from John Adams’ commencement address at the first Brandcenter graduation.


•    KISS.  One of John’s great strengths is that he helps simplify complex things and bring clarity to almost every discussion. When we’re working to boil down complex strategies for our clients, John has a way of bringing a defining clarity to the discussions. Externally, clients find that to be of amazing value as they articulate their brand. Internally, it helps our teams, strategic and creative, focus on the most important message. 

  • Consensus building.  John has an uncanny knack of being able to see issues from a 360-degree view. He understands multiple POV’s–and finds the common ground necessary to build consensus.
  • Boosting Creativity Confidence.  John believes that everyone can dramatically improve their own, personal, creative output — and you don’t have to be in the ‘creative’ department to do it. During the years, John has been a major proponent of internal employee training from Edward De Bono for all employees and external Hyper Island Training for company leadership. 
  • Master of Details.  John’s a stickler for rigorous preparation. Whether it’s for an internal staff meeting, held quarterly for 20+ years, or for a major new business pitch, John examines every detail. So when employees know how high his standards are, they rise up to meet them. This cerebral, thoughtful approach has become a hallmark of The Martin Agency. 
  • The Theater of Business.  John loves the theater. He’s a student of the dramatic structure of great plays and has used those frameworks to help The Martin Agency create compelling client and new business presentations. This innovative approach has helped The Martin Agency land some of the most well known brands in the world and sell in smart, distinctive, award-winning creative work.

One final thing in my too long, more-than-you-care-to-know-about-John-Adams tell-all.  The guy’s a softie.  Like me, he can’t deliver a toast without choking up.  He’s got the world’s biggest heart, a heart that has room enough for all of us.  Get to know him.  Force him to talk not just about you, but also about him.

 *OK, “funny” isn’t the first thing people think of when John’s name comes up.  To some people, he seems  too buttoned-up to be funny.  But those who know him best know his wit, which is very sharp.  That doesn’t mean he’s the funniest person in his family.  That would be Bunny.  But a guy can be funny even if he isn’t the funniest in his family.  My sister is the funniest person in my family.  [Of course, someone told me I’m not funny; what I am is goofy.  That’s kind of disappointing to me because I think I’m very funny.  I know I laugh at all my jokes. (My son Jason tells me that’s one of the things that makes me goofy.)]

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7 Responses to John by Mike.

  1. Jenine Holmes says:

    A beautiful ode to a great friend and industry leader, it warms the cockles of my creative heart to read such reviews of a CEO. Many thanks!

  2. Alex says:

    I love that you wrote this…we should all be so lucky to have lives worthy of, and a friend capable of, such a rich and loving tribute.

  3. Tim Murphy says:

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece. It says so much about both of you. I wish I had the opportunity to work with the two of you at The Martin Agency.

  4. (1) On top of all your regular funniness, your goofiness makes you extra funny.

    (2) John is wonderfully funny.

    (3) SOME ex-Martin Agency copywriters will agree that John is a great writer. Maybe too good.

    (4) Maybe some current Martin Agency copywriters should be watching their back?

    Thanks for sharing this Mike. It brought me a lot of smiles.

  5. Susie says:

    Great writing Mike about a great man.

  6. Mary Kathryne Swann - Trainor says:

    Mike, love your “great” post. Writing and creative skills/passions are gifts from our crazy best friend Fathers, who are founding “Fathers” of Richmond advertising. Thank goodness, I had the sense to leave fat rat Wall Street to become a writer/starving artist. I am sure when you finally reach heaven, my Father, Jimmy, will be waiting to cut off your tie. Best, MK Swann-Trainor PS: Edit, edit, and reedit!

  7. Mike,

    I want to thank you for all the wonderful (and true) things you wrote about John. There are a few of us out here who have always known these things about him, and it was super that you have written them down for everyone who has ever come in contact with him to know.

    He and I started at the Agency one week apart in 1972 in the PR Dept. It was a real privilege and a pleasure to work with him and we have remained friends all these years.

    All my best to you.


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