By Zan Martin
This year as we all work to survive the business and personal challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought it would be a great idea to share some positive messages to the forefront of our automotive aftermarket industry about the formation of Martin & Company. From my perspective, the launch of Martin & Company was an epic development, but one that can be replicated by anyone with the drive to start their own business. Now after 27 years of continual operation in the automotive aftermarket here is our story; one that has had its ups and downs, but is arguably one of the longest established automotive aftermarket advertising agencies in the USA.
In 1993, I was working for an ad agency that specializes in the performance automotive aftermarket and was probably at the time, the most recognized agency in the industry as the owner was a member of the SEMA Board of Directors with a long career in the industry.
After nearly ten years, I had worked my way up from senior art director, to account executive to vice president of marketing handling the most prestigious accounts on the roster for Burroughs & Associates; established company names that are still in existence today – Rancho, K&N, Warn Industries, Centerforce, Bell Helmets and more. I was married to a very creative art director that at the time was working in Nashville for CBS Records. It was after a trip to SEMA that Randy and I first discussed forming our own agency.
We had a full 1500 sq. ft. basement in our house that we rarely used, and decided with very little effort it could be converted to an office space. Those months of discussion were a bit scary, with lots of what if’s, but we took the plunge and have never looked back! I remember telling my father the decision Randy and I had made, and he said to me, “Honey!!!! No one will EVER take you seriously running a business out of the basement of your house.” It was quite satisfying 15 years later to inform him that I had been elected to the SEMA Board of Directors, and asked in jest, “So, do you think they take me seriously now?”
While working at the prior ad agency I had served as the account executive for Bridgestone Motorsports, attending all of the Mickey Thompson stadium races and off-road desert races on their behalf as their publicist reporting all important news as it developed. I had to pinch myself to believe that this was real. How could I get paid to do this and have so much fun! The stories I can tell about using my rental car as a chase vehicle, and the after-the-race parties…especially when Roger Mears won who was also sponsored by Budweiser. After a few years handling the Bridgestone account, a new marketing director was hired and announced that he didn’t care who the agency of record was, as he had his own marketing people he would be contracting with in the future. Luckily for me, my non-compete had expired by the time we formed Martin & Company, and I saw an opportunity to parlay my experience into a solid first account.
One of the first business solicitation calls I made was to the manager I had worked with at Bridgestone asking if I could pitch their business. By that time he had become manager of their motorcycle, kart and ATV divisions. We made the pitch and one week later were awarded the business. Needless to say, as I continued to solicit new business, the ability to state that Bridgestone was one of our clients opened many doors for me. By the end of our second year, we had landed 10 clients and hired nine full time employees. Much of that growth was fueled by my active volunteerism for SEMA councils and committees where my name and the Martin & Company name became more and more visible within the industry.
After several years, we were beginning to outgrow our space, had more accounts than we could handle, and my general manager was scouting for office space to rent, and frankly, I was becoming miserable. The more we grew, the more I found myself handling HR problems, resolving employee differences, dealing with ridiculously demanding clients, and just caught up in the day-to-day crush of running the business. I had tried hiring the right person(s) to handle these necessary office details to no avail.
What makes me the happiest about my job is meeting with a client who would come to the office showing off their brand new product invention and hearing them say, ”I’ve got this new widget. I don’t know what to name it, or how to package it, how to get it to market, or how to brand it…but I know people will love it and want to buy it.” Then subsequently meeting with my team to develop that strategy, get it implemented, and later having them call to share growth numbers with delight and profuse thanks; that is why I do what I do. I knew at this point that I didn’t want to keep growing. I didn’t want to rent office space. I wanted to keep walking to work, and get back to the joy of my job. Fortunately, my husband and business partner felt the same way.
We knew we could figure this out. Taking a look at our client roster, we identified the most demanding and troublesome accounts, and ended those partnerships. I remember one of them saying, “Wait a minute. I’m the customer, you can’t fire me.” Not only did I do that, but I must say it was actually quite freeing. From then on, we were picky about who we partnered with. It wasn’t then, and is not today about how much money we can make, but how effective we can be at helping our clients grow their businesses while truly enjoying what we do. We have been very blessed over these past 27 years to be respected enough in this industry to not ever really have to solicit new business. 95% of the time, new business arrives because we were recommended as an agency with an awesome and talented staff, that really knows what we are doing, knows the market inside and out, has the right connections to open doors and is quite affordable. Over the course of these many years, not only have we effectively helped grow our clients’ businesses, but we have also won 28 Automotive Aftermarket Design Awards, and several prestigious PR Awards in the process.
And not only did we get to experience these great accolades, but I got to experience these kinds of “pinch me, is it real introduction moments” year after year at the SEMA Show!
Another blessing that came with making the decision to remain a small and agile business is that it freed me up to give back to the automotive industry that has been my home throughout my whole career and consists of peers I consider to be my extended family including Stacey David, bottom left, former SEMA BOD Chairmen Mitch Williems, Jim Cozzie and Corky Coker (plus my husband Randy) bottom right.
For many years I served on the SEMA SBN (SEMA Business Network) Committee, serving as chair for four years. One of my greatest professional achievements was to be formally honored by the SBN with the Athena Award, be recognized for my participation in the SEMA Mustang Build Powered By Women, and to receive the SBN Legacy Award.
I have also been active with the TORA Council (formerly LTAA) and served three years as a member of the Board of Directors, and participated in SEMA PAC and MPMC activities. Today, I continue to serve as a mentor in many capacities, donate my time to help budding entrepreneurs and annually facilitate marketing seminars at SEMA and PRI.
Starting a new business and keeping it thriving for three decades is not for the faint of heart. With each challenge, whether it is a loss of clients, economic recession or a pandemic, there are times when you have to dig deep to find the inspiration to continue, but I have been fortunate to have the mentorship of so many people in this industry, a great team and a husband/partner that has helped me meet each challenge head-on. Many, many friends and industry peers have often asked me, “Zan, looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently if you could?” My immediate and unequivocal response is always, “Not a single thing!”