Geico Is Airing Old Ads Going Back to 1997, and They're Still So Good

The Martin Agency talks about its greatest hits

Very little advertising is as broadly beloved as Geico's. 

The insurance company has been rolling out amusing commercials for a quarter-century, ever since it hired The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., as its agency of record back in 1994.

Martin has produced loads of memorable Geico spots, which you can't miss thanks to the brand's gargantuan media budget. Always ranked near the top of the list of U.S. ad spenders, it routinely shells out as much as $1.5 billion a year on advertising. 

Geico produces multitudes of campaigns, all with different characters and jokes, under the same theme line introduced all those years ago: "Fifteen minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance." Often, several campaigns will run simultaneously, so viewers don't tire of any one of them (given how frequently they air). The combination of broad reach and creative excellence is very special in American advertising, and has helped several of these campaigns and their signature characters—the gecko, the cavemen, Maxwell the pig, Caleb the camel—reach iconic status. 

Lately, 10 of the best older spots have been enjoying a second act on television, thanks to Geico airing them again as part of a fun "Best Of" campaign—which also asks viewers to vote online for their favorite and settle, once and for all, the question of which Geico ad from history is the best. 

Below is a promo explaining the stunt, done in the style of an infomercial for a mail-order music anthology: 

The old spots have been getting lots of attention from viewers, who by and large have been loving the unexpected resurrections. It's a fun, nostalgic project, and indeed, one that few advertisers could pull off. The quality of Geico's advertising has been so consistently high over the years, and the focus on humor so unwavering, that the old spots still hold up—and even feel cohesive as a campaign. 

And if some of the details are dated (kids across America have surely been asking their parents what, exactly, a collect call is), there's a charm, a warmth and a familiarity in these old pieces that's particularly welcome in today's colder climate of political and social discord. 

Muse caught up with the team at The Martin Agency—Steve Bassett, Neel Williams, Justin Harris and Suzanne Wieringo—to talk about the "Best Of" campaign and Martin's 25-year history on the Geico account. 

See our conversation below, along with all 10 spots from the "Best Of" campaign scattered throughout. 

Muse: Where did the idea come from, to take a look back like this? 
Neel Williams, creative director: The notion of doing an anthology campaign, or a greatest hits campaign, was something we had talked about with the client for a while. The general feeling was that the time was right, in the world, to finally make this thing real. Over the past few years we've seen a lot of people online putting together their own best-of highlight reels on YouTube, or listing them out in social media. Part of this was handing it over to America and letting everyone decide—putting it to rest once and for all, and settling the debate. 

How was the final list of 10 spots chosen?
Justin Harris, creative director: We all took a stab at getting together our own list of our favorite 20 spots. The client did the same. We looked to see where things matched up and went from there. 

Steve Bassett, group creative director: We put a little bit of a rule on ourselves that we wouldn't include anything produced in the last five years, because history hasn't been written yet about those things. [Ed. note: In the end, they did include one 4-year-old spot, "Spy," from 2015] We got the account in '94. I think our oldest spot on the list is from '97. We also wanted to make sure we didn't repeat campaigns. Each spot represents a unique point in time and a unique voice we were using at the time. We didn't want to duplicate two cavemen spots, for example. We wanted each one stand on their own. 

The other factor was, "What can we get the rights to?" With some of these going back decades, it was a Herculean task by Suzanne here, who went back and located people and talent. That shaped our list as well. But when it was all said and done, both the client and we were really happy with the list we came up with. 

What was negotiating the rights for the older spots like?
Suzanne Wieringo, business affairs supervisor: When it first came up, I was like, "Oh my gosh, how are we going to find all these people?" But really, because it was Geico, I didn't panic. We've worked with them for so long, we were easily able to go back and find those old cast lists. Not only was it the cast but also the music. 

I wouldn't say it was stress-free, because it wasn't. Going back and finding some of the old folks did take a little while. Some folks would never answer, and just when you would think they weren't ever going to answer, they finally would. That was probably the worst of it. But a lot of them are still acting and are still in the business, and were with their same agents, so that was lucky. SAG was instrumental as well. 

But it was a big spreadsheet, and we just started going down the list. We were on a short timeline, so my colleagues helped me out and we just divided and conquered. 

Not many brands could do a best-of anthology. Partly that's because there's been such a consistency to the messaging over the years, even as the creative has evolved. How have you been able to maintain that consistency?
Steve Bassett: We got the account in '94. Our pitch to them was, "You have a great business model. It helps people save money, so that should be your strategy." We even quantified it: "Fifteen minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance." So that's been our basic theme line and strategy for going on 25 years now. Also, in an area where a lot of other competitors were using fear tactics, we decided to go with humor. And that has served us well. I think if you look at most brands and go back 20 or 25 years and pull out some of their older commercials, I'm not sure it would stand out as far as entertainment goes. 

There's also been consistency on the client side. People who were on the business in '94 are still on the client side, which is rare. People who were on the business when we got it in '94 are still at The Martin Agency. And Neel and Justin, as leaders on the team, they bring younger teams into the fold with their guidance. It helps keep the brand fresh, surprising, relevant and likable. Having a brand that people seek out and like and share is pretty rare, especially in car insurance. The YouTube channel has over 1.2 million subscribers, for a car insurance company. That's pretty cool.

Geico's competitors have been raising the bar, too. Has that put added pressure on you guys to continue to improve as well?
Neel Williams: What's going on in the category is one thing, but we also just try to stay in touch with the whole world of advertising. The way people are consuming advertising isn't on a category-by-category basis. With the amount of work that we put in the world, with the media weight we have, we want to stand out against everybody. I think that's where our client relationship is really productive and fruitful because they're constantly pushing us to make sure the people notice Geico and to stay top of mind. 

This project is very much focused on TV. But you also do so much online, especially in the last few years. Can you talk about what you do beyond television to keep this brand creatively interesting? 
Justin Harris: With any project that comes along, we just try to find the best solution, whether it's TV or something else. The broadcast portion is always going to be a big thing with Geico, and always has been. But after we produce a campaign, sometimes we have characters that just kind of blow up. Like in the case of Ickey Woods, we did a bunch of stuff that caught on. We did a cooking show with him, and then "Reflections With Ickey." As things unfold, we're constantly trying to try to see where there are places that we can further the idea. 

Running these old ads on TV again is very nostalgic. Even the aspect ratio is 4x3 on some of them. Is it comforting to go back in time like this, given the tensions in our world at the moment? 
Steve Bassett: I remember our first high-def ratio spot. It felt weird. But yeah, it's great to go back. Geico is almost a time capsule, as far as the work goes. "Collect Call," for example, or the cavemen era and political correctness. And it is a good time to get people laughing, I think. 

We tried to make the old ads look as good as we could. We got the original footage and digitized it. One thing we didn't want to do was fake people out and make them all high-def spots. We needed to take the old spots and re-run them exactly as they ran when they aired in '97 or 2001 or whatever. 

Neel Williams: One of the things we've observed, with the comments online, is that people's reaction to these has been very positive. A lot of people just forgot about these ads. And then they see them and they're like, "Oh my gosh! I totally forgot. That's one of the funniest ads I've ever seen." It's kind of like running into an old friend, except on your TV set. 

It's like you're a band, and you're pulling out your greatest hits at a concert.
Justin Harris: And the weird songs. The B-sides. 

Neel Williams: Music is a great analogy. We obviously leaned into it for the promo work. But it is true. When you listen to certain songs, it's not just the song, it's also the memories that go along with it—who you were, and where you were at that point. There's a lot folded in there.

"Hump Day" is out in front in the voting, which may be not a surprise given how viral that spot was when it first came out. Can you talk about "Hump Day" a little bit? 
Steve Bassett: You don't really know what's going to hit. "Hump Day" was part of our "Happier Than" campaign. We'd run a couple rounds of that, and I think "Hump Day" was towards the end of that campaign. For me, it's one of the best-produced spots we ever did. Everybody can relate to the idea of hump day. There's a Wednesday in every week. And I love the way it was produced. They actually had the voice of the camel be on set to inspire the actors, and I love how disgusted some of them are. This guy comes around every Wednesday and he says, "You know what day it is?" And they have to say, "Yeah, it's hump day." I love that tension. I love how awkward it is. I love how even though he's talking a lot, there's this silent resentment in everyone else. But it really didn't take off, like you said, and once those things start hitting, then you start fueling the fire. "Maxwell" was another example. And the cavemen, certainly.

You've done so many different campaigns, but I feel like the gecko and the cavemen are sort of the twin pillars. Was it tough to choose the spots from those two campaigns? 
Justin Harris: Gecko was maybe a little bit easier because we loved the earlier stuff where we were still finding out who he was, along with the public. It's very cheeky, a little less polished, a little more raw, and we loved that. I know the client does, too. So that was pretty easy. I guess kind of the same qualities apply to the caveman. That spot was just more of a surprise to everyone.

Steve Bassett: The "Interview" spot with the gecko is interesting. He's very self-aware. He knows he's an advertising icon, and he admits it. I love that. I don't know if Tony the Tiger's ever done that, but it's sort of a touchstone for us now. And he's never been a big shill for the company. He'll lay out a premise and just run with it, but he's never been hard sell. I think that's one reason he's lasted so long, and also that people often interchange "gecko" and "Geico" when they talk about the company or the character. 

The winner of the "Best Of" contest gets to be in a Geico ad. What can that person expect to go through when they arrive on set?
Justin Harris: Have you ever seen Ellen's new game show? [laughs] No, honestly, we don't quite know yet. This is all still unfolding.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards.