DC
02/12/2013 07:43 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Colonial Williamsburg Hires New Agency For Rebranding Effort

Looking to widen its appeal after a disappointing year, Colonial Williamsburg has chosen The Martin Agency as its advertising agency.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which operates and maintains the 18th-century site as an educational and tourist venue, announced Monday that it had picked the Richmond ad agency to develop a new brand campaign.

"It's time for us to break through the perception that this is just a fourth-grade field trip," said Sally McConnell, the foundation's director of strategic communications.

McConnell said that although Colonial Williamsburg is known primarily as a history destination, much of its revenue flows from its hotel, golf, shopping and other lifestyle properties.

Martin replaces Detroit McCann as the foundation's creative agency. McConnell said there was no formal ad agency presentation process, but rather, "We just decided to move forward with The Martin Agency."

The change of agencies comes after an off year for Colonial Williamsburg. Paid attendance for the historic area fell 3 percent in 2012 compared with the previous year, marking a 40-year low in paid attendance.

Colonial Williamsburg sold 653,000 paid general admission tickets last year, below the previous low mark of 660,000 set in 2009, according to the foundation.

McConnell said the paid-attendance dip influenced the decision to switch to The Martin Agency.

The foundation said Colonial Williamsburg's total visitation remained flat at 1.5 million, a figure based on a "turnstile count" estimate. Entrance to the historic area is free, but admission tickets are needed for access to certain buildings.

The Martin Agency had the foundation's account in the late 1960s and it was among the first assignments at the agency for John Adams, now the company's chairman, who recently stepped aside as its longtime CEO.

Adams recalled that the agency hired artist Norman Rockwell and mounted a campaign that featured his drawings. Adams was asked if the new brand campaign might somehow link to that Rockwell art.

"We're not ruling anything out at this early stage," Adams said, "but it's not likely. Time for a new direction."

He said younger families will be an important target for the new campaign, scheduled to launch this spring.

"The Williamsburg experience has changed significantly in the past few years, so there's news to tell," Adams said. "In addition, we have to remind potential visitors of Williamsburg's relevance to contemporary American life. So many of the things the nation faces today are better understood through the lens of what happened in Williamsburg and throughout the nation generations ago."

Asked if the ads would make Colonial Williamsburg hip, he replied, "Relevance will be the goal more than hipness."

The Martin Agency has had a roster of major clients for decades and is famous for, among other things, its Geico ads with a wisecracking lizard, angst-ridden cavemen and, recently, a talking pig.

McConnell was asked if humor might be the right tool for Colonial Williamsburg's new campaign.

"There might be humor," she said, "I don't know."

She said what appealed to the foundation in its decision to change agencies was that The Martin Agency "seems to be able to come up with a very simple idea that resonates with the audience."

The foundation had already hired The Martin Agency's Ingenuity Media Group last fall to handle Colonial Williamsburg's media planning and buying, but had kept McCann Detroit as its creative agency. Martin and McCann Detroit are owned by The Interpublic Group of Cos.

Adams said ad agency contracts are typically year-to-year and that the details in The Martin Agency's deal with Colonial Williamsburg, including billings, are yet to be settled.

rhallman@timesdispatch.com

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