“We knew in the culture that it might be something that people would respond to, but we had no idea it would have the resonance that it did,” Alexander said of the Geico “Hump Day” commercial, which has solidified itself as a pop culture phenomenon. “We had no idea that people would pass it on from celebrities, to newscasters, to children in schools, to parents …
“Every Wednesday, it gets a new energy.”
Hump Day” isn’t the only work with Alexander’s fingerprint that will surely have a longstanding legacy in pop culture and beyond. Oreo’s “Wonderfilled” campaign, Walmart’s “Conveyor Belt” campaign, numerous other Geico ads (such as “Old MacDonald” and the “Cavemen”), and even the Emmy Award-winning “Clouds Over Cuba” project for the JFK Presidential Library and Museum all are tied to Alexander’s leadership. Add to that Geico’s “Unskippable” pre-roll campaign, which recently earned The Martin Agency an unprecedented Cannes Grand Prix, and you have the start of an extensive list of award-winning notable works.
It’s no wonder Alexander was one of 10 CCOs listed in Adweek’s Creative 100 in July, which highlight’s America’s most inventive talent in marketing, media and technology.
While the awards give Alexander and his team a sense of accomplishment, they are not the finish line. He says they mostly inspire him to want to get back at it to try to do it again.
“Awards are the result of doing something usually that hasn’t been done before,” he said. “By no means are they the thing we try to set out to do, but they are the result of doing something special.”
Finding his niche
Alexander got his start in marketing as a junior copywriter for Donaldson’s department store in Minneapolis after graduating from St. Cloud State. There he became more aware of the advertising and marketing world around him as the Fallon McElligott Rice agency in Minneapolis started to put the state on an international stage.
“I just got the bug. Minneapolis at that point already had a strong regional advertising reputation, but Fallon really put them on the national and international map,” Alexander said. “To a young guy, for the first time I could see that was something I really wanted to do. I could see what they were making and it really dawned on me that I wanted to be a copywriter in an agency.”
- 2015: Geico “Unskippable” campaign, Cannes Grand Prix award
- 2014: Oreo “Wonderfilled” campaign, two One Show Pencils and one Cannes Lions
- 2013: JFK Presidential Library “Clouds Over Cuba,” Emmy Award in News and Documentary
- 2012: Walmart “Conveyor” campaign, silver and bronze at The One Show and shortlisted at Cannes
- 2010: JFK Presidential Library “We Choose the Moon,” two golds at The One Show and five Cannes Lions
After Donaldson’s, Alexander was a copywriter at Dayton’s department store and the Campbell Mithun agency before getting his first big break with Clarity Coverdale Fury, a smaller boutique advertising company in Minneapolis.
“I really learned to be a copywriter from those around me,” he said, citing agencies such as Fallon, Carmichael Lynch, Clarity Coverdale Fury and others. “We all just kind of battled it out for supremacy within the Minneapolis region and we actually became a big national player with the work that the whole community was doing.”
Around 1989, Alexander was recruited to be the creative director for the international firm Chiat/Day in Toronto, Canada.
“I really still wanted to be a copywriter and work on the work and not be a manager quite yet. I was only 30 years old,” he said.
In 1992, he was hired as a copywriter for The Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia, and he has been there ever since. He became their CCO in 2012 helping run the company. He splits his time between writing, mentoring and creative directing. With a nod to his hockey upbringing in St. Paul and time on the Huskies Hockey team at St. Cloud State, he calls his role “player/coach.”
A company with a 50-year legacy, The Martin Agency has grown from about 150 employees when Alexander started working there to 500 now with offices in Richmond, London and New York.
“The culture here is really unique. We call it ‘Good and Tough,’” Alexander said. “We’re really good to each other, but tough on the work.”
While the final product is creative, the work of The Martin Agency is really problem solving.
In an era where media is everywhere and commercials are largly uninvited (just ask most Netflix, Hulu, Hopper or DVR users watching ad-free TV), it’s difficult to get the attention of consumers who are often cynical and distracted, Alexander said.
“We have to figure out a way to make our brands likeable and to break through the clutter and grab the attention of a consumer that’s looking at three or four screens at a time,” he said. “We believe, as a company, that the best way to do that is to do something that is creative.”
Take Gieco’s “Unskippable” video preroll campaign for example. Viewership for YouTube preroll ads are generally poor and users skip them as quickly as they can, which means the first five seconds are the most crucial. The solution from Alexander’s creative team: Load all of the messaging into those first :05 and let the last :10 or :25 play out for a few laughs.
“It gives me great oxygen to sit in a room and work creatively,” Alexander said about problem solving as a team.
With a list of credits as accomplished and memorable as Alexander’s, it’s difficult to single out a favorite, but he said some of his best work has an element of truth, like the Health-Tex baby clothes campaign he worked on early in his tenure with The Martin Agency.
Alexander was raising his young daughters while working on the campaign and could really write about it from the heart: “When you’re bald and toothless, you’d better wear cute clothes,” reads one print ad. “Your baby’s naked. Your phone’s ringing. And your mother-in-law’s walking up the driveway. Let’s talk snaps,” reads another.
Alexander has often thought of himself as an underdog. But that’s OK, he said, he prefers the underdogs. That’s also why he takes a lot of pride in St. Cloud State.
“It’s kind of an underdog school and I consider myself an underdog, and a big part of my character is proving people wrong,” he said.
Alexander didn’t have the best grades in high school, he said, and came to the university to play hockey. But he had the desire to learn and was dedicated to contributing on and off the ice. When he graduated, he was thankful to have a degree that he could use.
“We need schools like St. Cloud State, big time, to bring out the best in students,” he said.
“It was very inclusive for its time and open to new ideas. I’m really glad I went to a public school with a very diverse student body. I feel lucky that I was able to graduate with a degree that gave me a good underpinning with a great writing background.”
About Joe Alexander
- He grew up in St. Paul in a family with nine kids
- He loves the color blue
- He played hockey for the Huskies in the early 1980s
- He gets his fill of hockey when he comes to Minnesota to visit family