In the midst of an extremely difficult year, increasing recognition for Richmond creative organizations like The Martin Agency, Arts & Letters Creative Co, and VCU Brandcenter have shown the rest of the world what locals have long known — that Richmond is one of the top creative cities the US has to offer.
In a dark year, Richmond’s creative scene is shining bright.
It’s no exaggeration. For the first time in over a decade, The Martin Agency has been awarded Adweek’s U.S. Agency of the Year, one of the highest accolades in the advertising industry. Newcomer Arts & Letters ranked #5 of Fastest Growing Agencies in the World, along with being named one of the Top 50 Best Places to Work in the U.S. And the VCU Brandcenter reported a record 26 alumni who contributed to 18 different Super Bowl commercials this year, solidifying the school’s reputation as the preeminent graduate program for creative problem solving.
The achievements are remarkable given the backdrop of a global pandemic, a politically divided nation, and a resurgence for social justice. While many have been simply trying to survive, Richmond’s top creative entities have found a way to thrive.
According to Adweek, Martin was the only agency finalist to report double-digit growth this year. The agency won nine new accounts and created work for over 90 percent of their clients, involving 400+ productions. Kristen Cavallo, Martin’s CEO, attributes the success to a conscious decision to invest.
“We played offense. The choice was intentional and required nerve,” states Cavallo. “In 2020, lots of things were in flux – this was true regardless of your industry or business model. If you didn’t harness the wind, you missed the lesson.”
Their core investment: People. Specifically, people who spanned a wide range of perspectives, backgrounds, beliefs – and yes, genders and races. In total, Martin welcomed 70 new hires, including 50 percent BIPOC talent.
“In nearly every study, diversity in leadership results in higher profits and engagement,” adds Cavallo. “It doesn’t matter whether you are a feminist, equalist, or capitalist, it’s to your benefit to change the way you run your company… Moreover, it’s riskier not to.”
Martin didn’t waste any time in their efforts to “Fight Invisibility.” Beginning at the top, they comprised their leadership team of 63 percent females and 38 percent people of color. They overhauled their candidate interview and talent onboarding experience to center the individual, rooting out exclusive aspects like language, bias, and hiring manager expectations. And in agency-wide conversations, they consistently spoke up around racial reconciliation, white supremacy, and injustice against Black and Brown Americans.
“We force ourselves to be honest with ourselves, no matter how much bravery it requires,” states Abu Ngauja, Martin’s Associate Director of Talent & Culture. “Honest in our capabilities, in our weaknesses, in our ambition. We cannot be a place that lies. Our bar is too high.”
In short, Martin has become a living, breathing case study for a commitment to overdue structural change in advertising and beyond.
“We were not awarded Agency of the Year because we were lucky,” states Cavallo. “We built ourselves for growth. Diversity, by race, gender, and thought is a not-so-secret ingredient. We made it a priority three years ago.”
Indeed, when Cavallo assumed leadership, alongside Karen Costello, the first female Chief Creative Officer in Martin’s 53-year history, the agency’s evolution began. In an industry notoriously known for being a boys’ club, having two women at the helm of Martin’s new chapter was a powerful, visible change. One of the first actions taken was conducting an internal audit of salaries to correct the wage gap and enforce equal pay.
For me, the transition was personal and poignant – not only because it was taking place in Richmond, but because Costello, a highly accomplished, well-respected industry leader, was my former creative director and mentor at Deutsch LA when I first started out in advertising. Having a big ad star, not to mention one of few female CCOs, in little RVA was proof our humble city was making headway.
In August, Martin celebrated another milestone with the appointment of Danny Robinson, the agency’s first Black Chief Creative Officer, following Costello’s return to Los Angeles. Having been with the agency for 16 years, Robinson attests to the progress they’ve made.
“I am so proud of the work we’ve done this year,” states Robinson. “But I am even more proud of the way we did it – with impatience and perseverance, and with support and belief in each other.”
Like Martin, Arts & Letters credits much of their success to people – employees, as well as client and production partners.
In 2017, Arts & Letters opened as a small agency in Scott’s Addition. Founder & Executive Creative Director Charles Hodges, once a former Creative Lead at Google, retained the tech titan as a client, and later acquired ESPN and NBC News. With the increased work, the agency grew. This year, it doubled in size, expanding to a second office in Shockoe Bottom, with the majority of people starting remotely.
“For the most part, we’re really a group of strangers who recently met and have had to come together in a very real way to navigate extremely challenging circumstances and find a way to still move forward,” states Hodges. “Our motto has always been ‘We’ll figure it out,’ from when we were eight people to now 145. As people, as companies, as communities, we’re all a work in progress. We’re excited that we have the chance to build something.”
Hodges believes Richmond plays an integral role in bringing that vision to life. He intentionally chose The River City as the agency’s headquarters for a variety of reasons – among them, the vibrant creative community and incomparable quality of life.
“People can do major market work with global impact, but not live in a major market,” explains Hodges. “This allows people to really build their career around their life, instead of their life around their career. It’s an important distinction that we think would have been hard to find anywhere else in this part of the country.”
No doubt about it, Richmond is on the radar of top agencies, brands, and tech companies looking to recruit the best graduates coming out of the VCU Brandcenter. In 2018, Richmond native Vann Graves returned to his hometown to serve as the Brandcenter’s fourth Executive Director.
“Richmond isn’t the same city that it was 20 years ago. The community has really rallied behind its arts district, food scene and the vast array of outdoor activities. It’s a cultural hub and a desirable place to live,” states Graves. “Plus, with the growth of employment opportunities – yes, at top-tier advertising agencies, but also at smaller creative shops, or major companies like Capital One, CarMax, Dominion, and SunTrust — Brandcenter alumni can build a challenging and rewarding career right here.”
Caley Cantrell, Professor of Strategy and Creative Brand Management, agrees. “I believe RVA is absolutely right up there with what would have once been considered the only places to work: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and LA. Richmond has a stellar advertising reputation wrapped up in an affordable and enjoyable city.”
“More and more people are seeing the wisdom of living in a smaller market,” states Tom Scharpf, Professor of Creative and Brandcenter alum. “You don’t need to live in a big city to do big things. Martin has been proving that for decades, but back then, they were the exception. A lot has changed.”
The VCU Brandcenter (formerly the VCU Adcenter) opened its doors in 1996 and quickly gained recognition as one of the leading advertising and design programs in the country. Today, it continues to successfully prepare its students to work for some of the world’s biggest, most influential brands, all while adapting to a constantly evolving industry – even amid a global pandemic.
This year, the school launched three new endowed scholarships in support of a more diverse industry and maintained diversity and out-of-state numbers in its enrollment. Over the past two years, there’s been a 73 percent increase in diverse students, specifically more BIPOC and females.
“I think the Brandcenter has done a great job recruiting strong, diverse candidates,” states Ashley Sommardahl, Director of Student Affairs and Industry Outreach. “We need to work on raising more scholarship funds to help support them because we know that the biggest barrier to attending is the financial commitment.”
In addition to a focus on diversity, VCU Brandcenter Professor and Creative Director KT Schaeffer (also an alum) believes the school’s ongoing success can be attributed to the program’s multi-faceted approach to learning.
“We hold this polymathic view and know, based on experience from our faculty, staff, and alumni, that you don’t wear just one hat in your future job(s),” explains Schaeffer. “There are Strategists who shoot and edit films. Copywriters doing cinema 4D. Creative Brand Managers learning Adobe Illustrator. That crossover learning makes our students better creative problem solvers.”
The Brandcenter is one of 20 colleges, schools, and centers that make up the greater Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the nation’s premier urban, public research universities. Among a host of impressive rankings, VCU, Richmond’s largest employer, reports that 40 percent of its alumni opt to live and work in the city.
Clearly, Richmond is doing something right.
And yet, we always have been. For years, everyday Richmonders have been working to help this city come into its own. You can see their efforts in our incredible street murals, artisan stores, craft breweries, top-notch restaurants, and buzzing entrepreneurial scene. Creativity abounds.
Like many, I believe Richmond has always been creative, but its potential has yet to be fully realized by the rest of the country – in some cases, not even by the people living here.
Finally, there is an awakening. Richmond is becoming known, not merely as a backdrop for creativity, but the inspiration for it. Our history less of a burden, and more an impetus for change. Just look to the events this summer.
Amid BLM protests rising up and Confederate statues coming down, Richmonders got creative.
One of the highlights was the transformation of the Robert E. Lee Memorial into Marcus-David Peters (MDP) Circle, an extraordinary graffiti-laden sanctuary dedicated to victims of racial violence and police brutality, created by the people of RVA. The reclaimed space received nationwide press and the iconic projections by artists Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui landed on the cover of National Geographic, putting Richmond front and center – no longer the Capital of the Confederacy, but of creativity.
For Richmond transplant R. Anthony Harris, it’s been a long time coming. He believes we’re seeing the final stages of the city’s 15-year rebrand. He should know. Back in 2005, he instigated Richmond becoming RVA when he founded this publication.
“RVA Magazine has always been a platform for creative and progressive thought in Richmond,” states Harris. “I am proud of what we have accomplished, with limited resources, for so long by encouraging everyone to be proud of who they are, the way they live, and how they work.”
Like countless others, Harris has played a significant role in the city’s evolution through tireless work and an aspiration to be part of something greater than himself. That collective desire to shape, influence, and move our city forward, particularly in the face of a complex, fractured past, is exactly why Richmond and its people are so special.
“There is an opportunity for Richmond to become a model for what a truly great city looks like,” states artist Noah Scalin. “That comes in part by supporting the creative community that already exists within its borders. We have no lack of talented, driven people who are great problem solvers here. They just need to be given the space, trust, and resources to do their thing.”
This year alone conveys the ambition of Richmonders. Along with the creation of MDP Circle, locals took action in other ways. Nonprofit arts center Studio Two Three led the charge on a variety of programming aimed at uplifting the voices and visions of RVA artists. Among the initiatives, History is Illuminating, a series of recontextualized signs on Black history in Richmond, and For as Long as Such Images are Needed, an exhibition in partnership with the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at VCU.
Artist Hamilton Glass developed Mending Walls, a public art project bringing together RVA artists from different cultures and backgrounds to create murals around racial and social justice. VCU Alum and digital strategist Altimese Nichole, partnered with nonprofit Girls For A Change to launch a scholarship opportunity for local African American youth. Photographer Tania del Carmen created #OnHoldAtHome, a photo series raising awareness on community challenges during the pandemic. And Tim and Lauren Barry turned their home into the Billboard House, featuring dynamic projections that reminded Richmonders, even those in suburbia, to get into good trouble.
“Richmond is a creative hub,” says Lauren Barry, who works as an art director with event management firm, Markham. “The city has always been buzzing with creative energy – it’s one of the reasons we decided to put down roots here. You can’t escape art and creativity in Richmond.”
It’s true. And when Richmond’s creative worlds collide, amazing things happen. Such is the case when Martin tapped Scalin earlier this year to collaborate on an initiative to promote their client Old Navy. The national retailer planned to donate $30 million worth of clothing to families affected by COVID-19. The end result was a time-lapse video featuring Scalin in action, applying one of his signature techniques to create a large-scale portrait of an American family made entirely out of Old Navy clothing.
“It drew a ton of national attention not only to Scalin’s work, but to The Martin Agency and [innovation studio] SuperJoy,” states Amanda Russell, Co-Founder and Creative Director of motion graphics studio, Cream. “I love that they are choosing to highlight our city and the talent within, rather than hide from it.”
Director Adam Dorland of Quirk Gallery believes that Richmond is gaining attention by companies embracing and encouraging local artists. “Having organizations like The Martin Agency, Arts & Letters, and VCU’s Brandcenter based in Richmond promotes the idea that artists and creatives can make a life for themselves here.”
“Richmond is exploding,” says Jason St. Peter, Founder & Creative Director of Think branding and creative agency. “And much of the credit is due to the creative minds here who influence positive change every day.” Cabell Harris, Founder & Creative Director of WORK Labs, agrees. “I always say create work you love, with people you like, in a place you want to be.”
Richmond is definitely a place people want to be – and return to.
“I spent six years with Martin and fell in love with the city,” states Executive Producer Scott Friske of animation studio Hue & Cry, who recently moved back, having spent over 20 years of his career in Los Angeles. “The success of these three organizations puts Richmond in the conversation with towns like Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas, where you see a concentration of creative output.” Additionally, Richmond has retained its unique identity – an asset that has helped, rather than hinder, its growth.
“Richmond truly seems to be experiencing a turning point in creativity,” says Macy West, Partner & Executive Producer at Mad Box Made. “There is a grit that has always run through RVA’s veins, but it is coming to the forefront, rather than only being the ‘underground’ movement.”
Executive Producer Melanie Cox says her company, Spang, was purposely built around working with agencies like Martin and Arts & Letters, as well as the innumerable other creative shops in town. “We designed our studio and edit suites to be an extension of creative agencies, a place where they can work, enjoy creature comforts and continue to churn out strong ideas,” she states. “The fact that Martin was founded in RVA and has chosen to stay in RVA has spawned work for an entire production community to flourish.”
J.L. Hodges, Partner & Creative Director of Overcoast Music + Sound says that people know they don’t need to leave Richmond to get extremely high quality work. His company applies a “locals first” approach as well. “Although we work with a global network of writers and composers, a large part of our talent pool is based right here in Richmond,” states Hodges. “We love that we are in a position to provide opportunities for the ‘home team,’ so to speak. We have always been proud ambassadors for Richmond.”
Danny MacNelly, partner at ARCHITECTUREFIRM, the local team behind the design of Arts & Letters’ new office space, states, “As a small business trying to do work in Richmond, we are amazed at what these groups are doing. Not amazed that the talent is here, but just in awe of their ability to create and communicate and attract some of the biggest clients anywhere to our town and keep them coming back. They are driving this city forward.”
After all we’ve endured in 2020, the concept of moving ahead – making progress, as well as an impact – feels strangely promising. Because let’s be honest, not everyone can look back on this year and feel successful. For many Richmonders, especially artists, entrepreneurs and small, minority- and women-owned businesses, this year has been a serious challenge.
“My hope is that Richmond continues to work and thrive from within,” states Jolinda Smithson, Owner of Shapes & Colors and host of CreativeMornings Richmond. “That people decide to work, live and play here… found businesses, rent or buy their houses here, send their kids to local schools, and participate in local organizations.” She admits that Richmond is not always the easiest place to live, but feels optimistic seeing it grow and shift in positive ways.
Unlike major cities, Richmond’s relatively low cost of living also allows people freedom and opportunity to take more risks. But for the success to continue, “Richmond needs governance and economic development that preempts, promotes, and supports this growth with smart planning strategies,” states Kristin O’Connor, Owner & Executive Producer of RainMaker Studios. She wants to see responsible development and the right support from local government to further advance the community in its many diverse districts, small businesses, and large corporations.
Justin Bajan, Co-Founder & Creative Director of ad agency Familiar Creatures, believes Richmond has become a viable and respectable spot to continue or start a career. “My hope for the future is that the growth and success of Martin and Arts & Letters is just the beginning of what’s to come here. That the great talent within those walls don’t use this town as a stepping stone, but instead stays in town and builds more agencies with individual flavors and capabilities. Agencies that reflect the independence and boldness you see all throughout Richmond.”
Having grown up in Richmond myself, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much it had changed after being away for 12 years. When my husband and I moved back in 2014 to start our creative studio, EVERGIB, what stood out most to us were the people – other local entrepreneurs and organizations who took time to offer us guidance and advice; who became allies, colleagues, and friends. After living in big cities like New York and LA, it reminded us about the importance of community. Looking out for your neighbors, as well as lifting them up.
The recent achievements of The Martin Agency, Arts & Letters, and the VCU Brandcenter are undoubtedly a collective win for our city, as are their efforts behind increased diversity, equity, and inclusion. But critical to the city’s ongoing evolution is a commitment to continued investment in Richmond and its people.
As we enter a new year of possibilities, let’s remember that we’re all working to build something special here.
Together, we can make it happen.
Top Photo: The Martin Agency leadership team. Photo courtesy of The Martin Agency.