Amazing Hayes

Matt Hayes brought an advertising background rich with experience to Vermont in the late 1980s. His Williston firm, the Hayes Group, continues to benefit from his savvy approach to the business.

by Tom Gresham

Matt Hayes, president/creative director of the Hayes Group in Williston, left a fruitful career in big-time advertising in New York for an unpredictable life in Vermont but one that would allow him more time with his family.

In the late 1980s, Matt Hayes was an account executive for the venerable Grey Advertising firm in New York. Grey boasted a host of major clients and Hayes handled his share of them. It was an exciting, heady life and Hayes ditched it all to come to Vermont.

"I walked away from a career that people dream about," Hayes says. "I was working on global, multi-national accounts and flying first-class all over the world: flying to Lausanne to write global marketing plans for TMX (which is Timex), flying to England, flying to Germany on Lufthansa. I thought I was Errol Flynn. It took a lot to walk away from all that."

What it took was the realization that Hayes was living on airplanes as his three children grew up.

In 1989, Hayes moved his family north without a job or a definite idea of what he was going to do next.

"I decided that I was going to get an office I didn't know what form it was going to take and that I was going to get a house near a school and figure it out when I got here," Hayes says.

This kind of flexibility has served Hayes well in both work and life. It allowed him to leave the success he had found in New
York for a relatively unpredictable life in Vermont. It later allowed him to steer the Hayes Group, his eight-year-old Williston-based advertising firm, through a rough patch. Flexibility has become a must at the Hayes Group. Hayes eschews over-specialization from his employees and places considerable value on versatility.

"I like everybody in the shop to be a triple threat," Hayes says. "I like everybody here to have a loyalty to more than one discipline. I like them to be fleet-footed and malleable from a strategic standpoint, because if you are biased, then you can't be honest about your recommendations, about what's the best thing for your client."

Soon after moving to Vermont, Hayes was introduced to Brian Harwood, a fellow ad man. The two joined forces and Hayes-Harwood operated out of Stowe for a few years. Eventually, Harwood moved on and Hayes moved the Hayes Group to Williston.

In recent years, the Hayes Group has undergone a major shift in the way it serves its clients and attracts new ones. Before the shift, the Hayes Group's central office contained about 30 employees. Now, the number is just 10. In the past, a large chunk of business came from Vermont clients. Today, about 75 to 80 percent of the Hayes Group's revenue comes from outside the state. Hayes says a comparable percentage of the creative work originates beyond Vermont borders.

"We bring in a lot of creative activity, as it stands now, from around the world," Hayes says. "We have creative people that are in Portugal, in India, in Japan, in several states around the country. We took the notion of freelancers to a considerably higher level."

The loss of a couple of major clients a few years ago moved Hayes to make the switch. Instead of grieving, he took a step back, looked at his business with new eyes and adjusted. He overhauled the way the Hayes Group operated.

"It was a bit of an eye-opener because I realized that I wasn't taking enough advantage of the tools that were available to us: the Internet, the global connection, the global community that has been created as a result of it," says Hayes. "Watching the activities of companies that have taken advantage of that brought me to a place where I felt I could perhaps run an advertising agency in the same way. We've experimented with it with great success. Just this morning I was looking at a piece of art that came in from Bombay that we're going to use on a website. It happens instantly. So we have what you would call a creative department that is quite large but they're not sitting in this bulding. It has changed the dynamics of our business dramatically."

Hayes says the advertising business has changed a great deal since he broke into it over 30 years ago in New York. In the past, Hayes says, advertising firms were often measured by the strength of their numbers, or their "men per million."

"It's not a body count anymore," Hayes says. "One of my guys back there in the corner can send one fax or e-mail and he's got 40 helpers just like that."

Hayes took the scenic route to the world of advertising. Following high school, he hit the road touring as a drummer in various rhythm and blues and rock bands. Although he had no interest in attending college, Hayes kept his curious mind satisfied. By the time he was 20 years old, he had read everything translated into English that Dostoevsky had ever written.

Eventually, Hayes was selected by the military and he joined the Air Force. After a military career that largely involved playing drums in the Special Services across the Pacific, Hayes elected to attend college. He received his bachelor's degree in sociology and English literature from the University of New Hampshire.

Graham Hayes (left), whom his father, Matt Hayes, calls a "killer designer," is the firm's art director. They take time from a conference with Jeff Pierce, account executive, to fool around.

Following graduation, Hayes visited each of the top 10 advertising firms in New York and asked for a job. Each told him he needed either sales experience or an MBA, so Hayes retreated and found a sales job. After a year, Hayes returned to each firm and asked for a job again. This time, he says, they told him he needed an MBA. Hayes reluctantly returned to college and picked up an MBA. When he again visited the New York firms, he was offered a job by all of them.

Hayes started with BBDO, now a part of the Omnicom Group, and worked on various accounts, including a bank and a company that produces Pine-Sol. He also worked on the Pepsi account for a few years, but ultimately decided he was having too much fun with it. "I was very serious at the time," Hayes says. Hayes decided to make the move to Grey, which, as its name suggests, had a reputation for seriousness. "It was considered the Harvard of Madison Avenue," Hayes says. One colleague suggested that Hayes had a future as a copy writer at Grey. He chose to manage accounts instead.

"I was too chicken to be a writer," Hayes says. "I think the two professions
that deserve the greatest respect that I'm aware of are stand-up comics and copy writers. I don't know how either one of them does what they do. They just stick it out there and say this is who I am and this is what I can do. Take it or leave it. My daughter's a stand-up comedian and I don't know how she does it. She just walks in and takes a room by the throat. I didn't have the guts for that, so I became an account guy."

His experience at Grey, where for five years he ran the Pacific region from Tokyo, prepared Hayes for the hiccup the Hayes Group encountered a few years ago. Hayes was willing to undergo a major restructuring partly because he trusted the strength and flexibility of a broad-based, global approach to the ad business.

"I recognized that I had run accounts, even with the help of a global-tentacle organization like Grey, by using resources from all over the world and that that was before the Internet," Hayes says. "I just took some of that thinking to this new concept and said, 'Wait a minute, I can do that again. I don't need branch offices everywhere. What I need is a way to communicate and a discipline that has focus.'"

Hayes returns to the word "discipline" again and again. He regularly guest lectures at colleges and one semester taught a course at the University of Vermont. He says he's amazed by the misperceptions many students have about the advertising business, namely that working for an ad firm compares to a large party.

"[Those lectures] demystify the business for a lot of them," Hayes says. "A lot of students aren't very clear on what goes on at an ad agency. They have these delusions from television or books or whatever I don't know where they get it from that it's something other than a serious business. It's either an insurance company, a law firm or an accounting firm. We're not very different from any of those three. The only difference is that we put out pretty pictures occasionally. It's still a serious business. It's done by the numbers and the more disciplined it is, the better it is."

"What makes it different at an ad agency is that during an internal session, things end up on the wall that look like a bunch of five-year-olds have been scribbling. It looks like they're all having fun, but it's as mentally stressing and mentally challenging as anything these lawyers and accountants are talking about."

Still, Hayes acknowledges that advertising people "get away with stuff." He recounted going to a meeting at a bank and wearing a sports jacket because he felt like he was supposed to. Early in the meeting, he couldn't stand it anymore.

"I said, 'Now you know I own a jacket and now I've got to take it off.'"

Hayes says he thinks of himself first and foremost as a strategic partner with his clients.

"If we know what the overall corporate goals are, we can be more efficient," Hayes says. "The more intimate we can become with what the business owner's intentions are, the more effectively we can spend their money and get things happening for them."

The Hayes Group is less a graphics-driven communications firm and more a market-driven communications firm, according to Hayes.

"That doesn't mean that we don't win awards and do cutting-edge graphics and that sort of thing," says Hayes, who pointed out that the Hayes Group recently captured a global award for a website, "but that's not where we start. We don't start with that for the mission. We start with what is the company and where do we want to take it and what's the most efficient and best leveraged way of getting there. So, therefore, we're frequently not in a vendor relationship but in more of a partnership."

Sometimes, that partnership allows the Hayes Group to have a major influence in a business's plans. Hayes cites a client in Los Angeles as an example.

"We're not only working with them," Hayes says. "We've changed the name of their company. We've restructured their marketing organization. We've reorganized their price points. We've introduced a whole new way of dealing with their market. They're introducing three new product lines as a result of all the research we did. They're not just long-term. We're practically partners. I could probably go through eight or 10 like that in other parts of the country."

Hayes remains more than just a manager of his business. He's heavily involved in the creative process, regularly penning copy. When a Hayes Group client changes its name, Hayes comes up with the new name. Among the hired guns who support the Hayes Group's core is Graham Hayes, 25, Matt's son. A "killer designer," Graham grew up playing on computers at his father's office. Like his father, Graham is a musician and he often plays in bands at night. Tonya, 33, the comedian, lives in New York and does singing and songwriting in addition to her stand-up work. The youngest, Andrea, 23, lives in Essex. Hayes says she inherited a keen business sense.

Theresa Ghrist (left), serves as chief financial officer, human resources manager and Hayes' assistant. Christine Bouyea is account coordinator. They are two of the Hayes Group's 10 employees. The firm also employs the work of free-lance creative people around the world.

A few years following his move to Vermont, Hayes reached an understanding that his children had each grown beyond the need for daily attention from their father. Hayes, who was no longer married, found that he had a glut of free time. An art lover, Hayes compiled a list of art museums around the world that he hoped to visit before he died. He would travel during offseasons to save expenses and avoid big crowds. He only wanted to see the art.

One November found Hayes touring the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Hayes garbed in a full-length leather coat and a cowboy hat met a native Russian named Olga. Hayes says they were practically the only people in the museum. The two had coffee, and despite a major language barrier, Hayes speaks no Russian, Olga very little English they clicked. Four years ago, they were married.

The couple has settled into a life in Williston. Hayes doesn't travel as much as he did during his Grey Advertising tenure, but he still has certain obligations that require occasional forays from home. Olga often joins him on these trips.

"We have this whole new life together," Hayes says. "It has nothing to do with the advertising business, but it keeps me smiling."

Originally published in July 2002 Business People-Vermont