Special Report: Out-of-Home

There are any number of words, phrases and clichés that describe someone who seemingly can accomplish anything: Renaissance man (or, since the ’60s, woman), jack of all trades, generalist, polymath or, for the particularly erudite, homo universalis. Leonardo da Vinci was, perhaps, the prototype.

Sadly, this type of person has grown scarce in an age of increasing specialization—just try to find an accountant who can fix a leaking sink. But he or she can still be found, usually in successful enterprises.

Robert Martin, vp, communications at Universal McCann, San Francisco, would no doubt bristle at being described with any of the above designators—but he is, indeed, a generalist, at least as far as the ad business is concerned. Martin’s boss, Steve Soldano, executive vp, global managing partner at Universal McCann, says Martin, this year’s Media All-Star in the out-of-home category, is, in effect, a one-man, full-service ad agency.

“He’ll be the planner, the buyer, he’ll sit down with the creative team and he’ll make the economic business case to the clients,” says Soldano. “He’s not an easy guy to characterize.”

Martin’s particular area of responsibility is out-of-home, encompassing venues ranging from airports to Zambonis, along with cinema advertising and mobile media. His clients include Nortel, California Table Grapes, CBS and Microsoft. If you’ve been in an airport lately, chances are you are among the millions of impressions he has generated.

Martin is also a champion of out-of-home, which he regards as perhaps the last true mass medium. “When I look at outdoor, it is one of the few uninvited guests at the media- impression party,” he says. “It can capitalize on the surprise factor and the opportunity to delight. I try to create these platforms that force that delight experience.”

This, so often, is not an easy task. Executing uncommon media plans for a company like Microsoft can be a challenge. “Microsoft is this big, magnificent, global, process-driven, rigorous company,” he explains. “They are negatively risk-averse.”

That’s where the selling comes in.

Case in point is an idea Martin hatched in the shower: the private screening of a special, extended episode of the Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica.

Fans of the show, which ended its third season in March, are much like the “trekkies” who followed the Star Trek series for decades: vastly loyal, not able to get enough of the show.

To kick off the series’ fourth and final season, the cable network ordered a two-hour episode, scheduled to be telecast Nov. 24. Martin’s plan was to run the episode in select theaters two weeks prior to its TV premiere. Theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas and Seattle were selected, with free admission for anyone requesting tickets.

The screenings, arranged by Martin through National CineMedia, come courtesy of sponsor Microsoft’s MP3 player Zune and the company’s Xbox 360 gaming console, along with Mass Effect, a videogame created for the Xbox 360.

And Martin’s signature dominates an animated walkway in the American Airlines terminal at New York’s JFK airport. The display immerses travelers in the Microsoft experience via 600 square feet of digital and 700 square feet of static signage. The execution took some doing to pull off, requiring the OK of vendor J.C. Decaux, American Airlines and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as well as a multiyear commitment from Microsoft.

The walkway is now in its fourth creative cycle, and the concept has been coopted by J.C. Decaux for a similar setup at LAX.

Martin happened upon the space during a family vacation, which brought him through JFK’s Terminal 8. “It was a blank hallway with blank walls,” he says. Just like that, the idea was born.

Now that blank hallway is alive with 40 70-inch Samsung flat-panel monitors that act in tandem as a huge video display, complete with surround sound. And yes, he negotiated with Samsung for the monitors.

Martin admits not all his notions make it to the campaign stage. “All of these big ideas mean nothing unless the people on the agency and client sides who are adept at navigating these processes buy in,” he says.

“When I think of Bob, the Microsoft digital brand experience corridor at JFK airport comes to mind,” says David Grubb, worldwide media director at Microsoft. “Bob was relentless in his passion for executing this very big idea—he convinced us that this was something we had to do. Consequently, we moved from delivering mere exposure to delivering a true product experience.”

So far, the corridor has been used for the launch of Vista, Microsoft Office 2008, Windows Mobile and, currently, a holiday series for Xbox.

Three of the four Microsoft campaigns featured in the walkway were created specifically for that medium. And their influence has grown beyond the airport, with the Windows Mobile execution getting adopted for the product’s 2008 global campaign.

Mark Stewart, managing director of OMD East and formerly Martin’s boss at Universal McCann, is not surprised Martin has flourished on the Microsoft account.

“I moved him out to San Francisco back when McCann and Universal McCann won all the Microsoft business,” Stewart recalls. Martin, he remembers, “was always an early adopter, and we were merging with Anderson & Lembke, where the people were all very techie. I wanted him to take the intellectual and media knowledge that we had in New York and transfer it to San Francisco.”

As Martin is now fond of pointing out, Universal’s San Francisco office, thanks to Microsoft, is now the biggest global shop on the West Coast. “He’s a can-do guy,” notes Stewart, “and he’s an infectious guy.”