Matt Williams: CEO of The Martin Agency

My NativeAdVice:


As the fifth CEO in the history of The Martin Agency, Matt Williams really knows how to command a room. Guess it doesn’t hurt that he’s 6'3". He’s an avid cyclist, father of two and has a calming presence that makes any goal feel within reach (though that may also be due to his large wingspan). Matt joined the agency in 1991 as an account executive, but quickly found his niche in strategic planning, leading U.S. and global development for GEICO, Discover Financial Services, Nespresso, UPS, Saab, Credit Suisse, and Bank One. In his role as CEO, Matt oversees the agency’s work for prominent brands including GEICO, Benjamin Moore, Walmart, Mondelez and TIAA-CREF, among others.

Matt holds a marketing degree from The College of William & Mary as well as an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management; he is also a contributing author to the best-selling book Kellogg on Branding. He speaks regularly on advertising and marketing topics around the country and has even consulted on communications strategy with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Defense. All this from a man who made it through college as the lead singer of a band called Flannel Animals.

How did you get into the Advertising industry?

Pure nepotism.  My dad was a very senior client, so I was around advertising all the time growing up.  I wasn't drawn to the client side but all his agency friends were fun and smart and seemed to like their jobs.  So he got me an interview with one of his company's ad agencies.  Shocker--the client's kid got a job.  I loved it and two years later moved to Richmond to work at Martin where, happily, my Dad has never been a client.  That was 23 years ago. 

Tell us about The Martin Agency. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?

The idea began 50 years ago when our founder, David Martin, set out to prove that an ad agency could do great work outside of NY, Chicago or LA.

Our vision:

Be one of the top 3 creative agencies in the world--do work that grows our clients' businesses, impacts culture and is recognized in our industry.  

Build a global presence--we opened an office in London last year and want to expand into Asia and South America soon.  To attract the best talent and most interesting opportunities we have to look beyond the borders of the US.  

Create a community that enriches the life of everyone it touches--our company has to be a positive influence on the lives of our employees, our clients and the cultures in which our work appears.  If you're not making things better, what are you doing?

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to The Martin Agency's success?

There are so many disciplines and specialities in our business, nobody can be great at all of them.  So the ability to find the right partners becomes a strategic necessity.  I can't name any one partnership that's been key to our success, but I know our ability to partner with multiple companies in an open, collaborative way has been a key factor.

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?

There have never been more ways to bring great ideas to life than there are now.  We have to be creatively ambidextrous—able to think in terms of big brand ideas, then transition to be craftspeople who can make that idea come to life beautifully in multiple media and disciplines.  The best people in our business can shift between huge conceptual ideas and the detail of craft.  Find those people, help them do the best work of their lives and you'll be successful.

Life Motto?

Don't be a jerk.

The Martin Agency's Motto?

Good and Tough.  Good to each other, tough on the work

Your greatest success as CEO of The Martin Agency? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?

I've been in this job a little over 2 years.  I screwed up a lot in my first year because I was so nervous about... screwing up.  I was tight.  Uncomfortable.  And it affected the energy of the people around me.  As I've gotten more comfortable in the job I’ve realized that my greatest successes come when I loosen up and let the joy that's the signature of our company at its best, come out.  It makes people more willing to experiment and take chances.  That makes our work better and it makes this crazy, stressful business a lot more fun.

Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?

Be skeptical of advice from anyone who's never started a business.  Like me.

Describe the ideal experience using The Martin Agency.

Bring us a brand that's lost its momentum and a CMO with big ambitions for reinvigorating it.  We'll tap into new energy and reignite that brand.  And we'll do it with a big, enduring brand idea brought to life in multiple communication disciplines.  It's what we've been doing for 20+ years with GEICO, what we did with the UPS "What Can Brown Do For You?" campaign, and what we're doing now for clients like Mondelez, Benjamin Moore, Discover, Walmart and others.

How do you motivate your employees?

If we create an environment where our people can do the best work of their lives, they motivate themselves.  It's a wonderful, virtuous cycle.  My job is to keep the culture healthy, the opportunities coming and the environment positive.

One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?

That's a trap.  We've got too many food and beverage clients to choose just one of each. Okay,I won't cop out...  New York Strip and cabernet sauvignon.

What literature is on your bed stand?

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull.  Ad agencies can learn a lot from what he and his team built at Pixar.

Role model - business and personal?

Personal: my wife.  The kindest, strongest, most decent person I've ever known.  I've got a pink ribbon tattooed on my arm in her honor.

Business: John Adams and Mike Hughes.  The pair that made our agency what it is.  They're proof you can build a great business without compromising your standards, integrity or sense of humor.

Current passion?

Cycling.  I love the escape--it's a great way to clear your mind and break a serious sweat.  And the sport has a wonderful community.

And I've been playing in rock bands since high school.  I'm still in one and love our monthly bar gigs.

Favorite travel destination?

Home.  I'm traveling home on a plane right now and I'm more excited than I would be for any vacation.

What's next for The Martin Agency?

Become a global creative micro-network.  Attract more global brands and talent based on our work and our culture.  Keep getting better and tougher.