Two years after he was forced to part ways with the company that he led for five years and called home for a quarter century, former Martin Agency CEO Matt Williams has re-emerged on Richmond’s advertising scene, in a role that in some ways is bringing his career full circle.
Earlier this year, Williams signed on as an equity partner and managing director of Brand Federation, a Richmond-based consultancy network founded by local ad vets Kelly O’Keefe and Dennis Duffy. In his new role, Williams helps the firm connect businesses, ad agencies and other clients with consultants and freelancers for specific branding and communication needs.
The job blends Williams’ experience as an executive with his 15 years as a brand strategist at Martin, where he worked his way up over 26 years to the agency’s top administrative position, which he held for five years before exiting the company in late 2017 amid a sexual harassment scandal involving allegations against the agency’s then-chief creative officer.
Since then, the 52-year-old served as executive chairman and advisor of Chicago agency Everest, and as a visiting clinical professor and curriculum innovation fellow at William and Mary, his alma mater. His consulting work and connection with O’Keefe led Williams to Brand Federation, where O’Keefe brought him on as one of its first consultants and, later, a business partner.
BizSense sat down with Williams to catch up on his involvements since his exit from Martin, his takeaways from his time there and the circumstances of his departure, and what he sees the future holding for Brand Federation. The following is an edited transcript:
Richmond BizSense: What compelled you to join Brand Federation? Why did you want to go all-in as a partner and manager?
Matt Williams: I was really intrigued with the idea of a company that’s built on matching up clients with independent marketing consultants on a really flexible basis. It’s a really interesting and timely idea, because if you think about what’s happening in the marketing world, agencies and marketers alike are all being squeezed and asked to do more with less, and that means they don’t have the capacity to hold as much staff as they used to. At the same time, the need for strategic disciplines is exploding.
They’re looking for UX/UI people and brand strategists and digital experience strategists and all these different disciplines, and they can’t carry them as full-time staff, but they know they need them. At the same time, we’re seeing a growth of people in those disciplines going into the independence economy, because they like the freedom of working as a freelancer, choosing their own clients, working on their own terms. Brand Federation was set up right in between those two needs, to connect those clients who need those kinds of resources with the people who are equipped to bring that expertise.
RBS: Is there a creativity involved in matching up clients with consultants?
MW: Brand Federation is a great example of people taking the discipline of creativity and applying it to business models. This is a way of working that’s rare. … How do you apply creative thinking to business models. You start to look at things that are going on in the world, things that are happening in the world of business, and you say, ‘OK, how can I identity problems in a different way, and how can I bring a different way of thinking to solving those problems in a way they haven’t been solved before?’
I’ve seen firsthand as the leader of an agency how resource-constrained agencies are becoming. At the same time, I’m seeing clients who need strategic specialists, and I’m looking at agencies and clients and saying we need to make better use of more-flexible staffing approaches. The good news is there’s a whole world of freelance strategists out there who are not just freelancers because they have to be, because they lost their jobs or got downsized; they’re freelancers because they choose to be, because they’re good enough to work on their own terms.
We’ve now got this database of over 200 people where we can find exactly the right person for exactly that challenge, and it’s a creative process connecting those people with those engagements.
RBS: Your recent background is in management, but you spent 15 years before that as a strategic planner at Martin. How are those disciplines playing into your new gig?
MW: One of the things I love about this is that I’m back in that world, and I missed it. I loved working with clients on really thorny strategic issues, working with consultants on translating those issues into consumer insights and those insights into strategies. I loved that. And when you’re doing what I was doing at Martin as CEO, you spend a lot of time managing but you don’t spend as much time with the people doing the work on a day-to-day basis, and I missed that. I’m back doing it at Brand Federation, and I really couldn’t be happier about it.
RBS: When you were named CEO at Martin, was there a little regret knowing you wouldn’t be involved in creative strategy as much?
MW: When you make the move from practitioner to manager, the challenges become very different. You start to move from being a day-to-day contributor to the creative product, whether that’s executional in the advertising world or strategic, you’re now managing people who do that work. It’s a different set of skills, but equally valuable.
It was always fun for me on the executive management side to think about how to populate teams and how to create an environment where those people could do the best work that they could do. That’s your job. Your job isn’t to do the work; it’s to enable the people who are doing the work, and to make sure the teams are populated with the right people to do the best work.
RBS: It was a difficult time when you parted ways from Martin. Did the sexual harassment scandal take you off guard, and how did you deal with the circumstances of your departure?
MW: It was really hard. You never want to see a company you care about – more than that, people you care about – go through what we went through. I think crises like that force you to decide what’s important, and first and foremost what was important to me was to protect the woman who came forward, which we did, and I’m proud that we did that, and also to make sure that this company … was positioned to weather that crisis and to move forward, and to do whatever it took to make sure that happened. I’m happy to say that both those things happened.
I spent 26 years at Martin, and I love that place and I love those people. I’m still in touch with my friends there. Honestly, that place will never have a bigger cheerleader than me. I’m really happy to see Martin succeeding the way they are. Kristen (Cavallo, current Martin CEO) and her team are doing an amazing job.
RBS: It had to be difficult to leave, and you could have left right away, but you stayed on for a time to help with the transition.
MW: You never envision your tenure in a company ending the way it did. Nobody would choose that, and I certainly wouldn’t have chosen that. But we do the job we have to do. Sometimes that job is unexpected, and sometimes that job is harder than you ever thought it was going to be, and that one was unexpected and hard. But I wanted to do the job that needed to be done.
The decision was made that I needed to leave, and I accepted that. It was OK. But at that point, it was less about me leaving or me staying than it was about making sure that the agency could move ahead and succeed, and that the woman who came forward was protected. And both those things happened. At some point, you realize in crises like that that this is going to go in a place you have no control over. It’s not going to be up to you where this goes. What’s up to you are the decisions you make along the way. We didn’t do everything perfectly, because you never do everything perfectly in a situation like that, but I think we did more things right than we did wrong.
RBS: In your years at Martin, was there a particular account or campaign you were involved in that remains your pride and joy?
MW: I worked on Geico from the day it came in the door to the day I walked out the door, and I am so proud of the Geico work. It had all the effects that great creativity should have. It built their business. They went from No. 8 in the category to No. 2 in the category. It changed the culture in a positive way.
RBS: Is there a favorite Geico campaign that you were involved in? John Adams (former Martin chairman) said his favorite spot was when the gecko first showed up.
MW: There’s two. One is the gecko, because I was kind of present at the creation of the gecko. We were coming out of a focus group in Phoenix, and it was before Geico had expanded into the western part of the U.S. We’re bemoaning that nobody can pronounce the name of the company: “Geeko” and “Geeyecko.” One of the creative directors who was with us drew a lizard on a napkin and slid it across the table to Ted Ward (Geico marketing exec) and said, “Ted, you should do this.” And it had a little speech bubble coming out of its mouth that said, “I’m a gecko. Don’t call me Geico.” And Ted looked at it and was like, “You know? Do that.” The next thing you know, there’s this gecko.
The other one is the Caveman campaign. It was pretty amazing, because it was such an unexpected way to deliver on such a simple insight, which is: “Shopping for insurance online is hard. Well, we’re going to make it easy. We’re going to make it so easy a caveman can do it.” And again, this character embodied everything about that idea, but it was so much better than that: The tension between the sophisticated caveman and everybody expecting him to be a caveman was just hilarious.
RBS: What’s your take on the ad scene in Richmond? Is Richmond a good breeding ground for what Brand Federation does?
MW: In the agency environment, it’s a business that’s in the midst of being fundamentally reinvented, as so many businesses are, and I think Richmond is one of those places where that’s happening. You’ve got established agencies like The Martin Agency that have been around for 50-plus years, who are fundamentally rethinking the way advertising works and changing and succeeding as they do. You’ve got smaller agencies like Elevation, West Cary Group, Barber Martin, who are doing terrific work in the city and in the region. And then you’ve got Arts & Letters, who are coming in and making a huge splash with national clients in a really short period of time.
I think all of them, while they’re in the midst of reinvention because the business is in the midst of reinvention, they’re all continually proving in their own way – and I’d put Brand Federation in this group – the fact that creativity still matters and will always matter. The form it takes and the way it’s practiced are going to change, they’re going to change quickly and dramatically, but the essence of creativity will always be an accelerant to business, and as an accelerant to business it’s always going to be important.