Changing of the guard at a Stowe advertising agency

by Julia Lynam

Veronica Williams and Brian Harwood photoLongtime Vermont radio, television and advertising legend Brian Harwood hand-picked Veronica Williams to lead his agency into its future when he retired and sold the business to a group of employees. Williams is now managing partner of HMC2, and Harwood has taken a consulting role. Williams’ 4-year-old Australian shepherd, Cookie, adds life to the offices.

How does one follow an act described as “an icon and a fixture in the state for many years”? That’s the challenge that has faced Veronica Williams, who replaced Brian Harwood at the helm of the Stowe advertising agency HMC, soon to be re-branded HMC2. The answer, according to Harwood and Williams, is cooperation, teamwork and mutual support, combined with a commitment to honesty, integrity and customer service.

The last 24 months have been a time of transition, during which veteran broadcaster and pundit Harwood has gradually relinquished his hold and encouraged Williams to take the reins. Her credentials are good: 15 years in the ski industry in Vermont, starting as a ski instructor at Mount Snow and moving into marketing at Sugarbush Resort in 1996, where she became marketing director before being invited to join HMC in 2001.

Harwood, who established the agency as Harwood Moses Chambers in Stowe in 1994 with partners Brad Moses and Dennis Chambers, traces the evolution of the agency back to 1977. That was when he was a founding partner in Knox Nimick Harwood (eventually known as KNH). After Knox and Nimick left, Matt Hayes joined up, and the agency was known as Hayes Harwood until the establishment of HMC.

Harwood was a player in the media world of Vermont way before 1977. John King, president of Vermont Public Television, dubbed Harwood “an icon and a fixture.”

“I’ve known Brian for eight or nine years,” says King, “but when I first met him, I felt that I knew him from many years ago because I remember him as a WCAX reporter and host of local programs.”

Inducted into the Vermont Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2006, Harwood is also known for his work on WDEV in Waterbury and WCVT as morning host.

Harwood still lives in his hometown of Waterbury, with his wife, Janet, who was an elementary school teacher in Stowe for 25 years and now works for the state Department of Education. They have three daughters, and three grandsons ages 13, 10 and 9.

Harwood has spent his working life in Vermont since graduating from the University of Vermont in 1960, apart from a memorable three years in Washington, D.C., as aide to Rep. Richard Mallary, who ran against Patrick Leahy in his first Senate race. “Mallary filled out a term in Congress,” Harwood explains, “was re-elected, then ran for the Senate and lost. I was so deflated by that defeat that I came back to Vermont.” He entered the world of public relations and advertising, participating in a number of agencies.

By 2001, Harwood and Brad Moses were the remaining active partners in HMC. “ We both decided at about the same time, for different reasons, that we wanted to step aside,” says Harwood. “We didn’t want to leave the client base in the lurch, so we needed to have key people here who could carry the flag forward. An acquaintance suggested Veronica, who was working at Sugarbush at the time. We made that acquisition, which turned out to be a brilliant decision!”

HMC group photoHMC2 has recently refocused its specialty to serving companies wishing to influence female decision-makers. Pictured with Veronica Williams, president (second from left) are, from left, Paula Bazluke, media director; Bob Kersner, new business development; Nicole Seguljic, production manager; Nicole L’Huillier Fenton, public relations director; and Annie Bakst, creative director.

Williams quickly became a trusted member of the team. Her ski industry experience made her a natural to take on HMC’s largest and longest-standing account at Smugglers’ Notch.

“She understood all about the business. That was key, because Smuggs was important to us, and has been for some time,” Harwood says. “It became apparent rather quickly that Veronica was going to be the anointed person that Brad and I were going to turn to to carry on.” Williams was named president and managing partner in January 2005 at the same time that a group of the staff took on the ownership of the agency.

Moses and Harwood’s confidence was inspired, says Harwood, by Williams’ obvious commitment to client service and her personal integrity. “I’ve always been a big believer that truth and honesty will, in the long run, pay off big-time, because, basically, the client wants to have truth and honesty delivered, and Veronica represents both of those things. It was a good fit.”

Since January 2005, the former partners have gradually withdrawn from the business, with Harwood maintaining a consulting role while Williams has taken on the running of the agency. The transition has been smooth, as Williams builds on already well-established client-agency relationships, introducing new talent and garnering new accounts.

Under Williams’ leadership, HMC is poised to launch a new brand, HMC2, the “squared” representing the exponential advantage that HMC believes it offers its clients.

The agency is transitioning from being a full-service marketing firm to an agency that specializes in influencing decision-makers. “We have found that we have quite a lot of experience and a very good understanding of that target audience,” Williams says. “It’s about focusing a little bit differently. Good marketing is always about understanding your audience, and we’ve discovered that we have a penchant for speaking to the female decision-makers. It doesn’t mean that we’re marketing only to women, but that we’re talking to the women who are making the decisions about products.

“Women have always been influential in how the checkbook is managed, and right now women control about four trillion dollars in annual consumer spending. They buy two out of every three cars, and they take 50 percent of business trips.”

Christine Werneke, chief marketing officer for the state of Vermont, has worked with Williams for the last year. “The first thing I did when I took on this job was to select a number of state-approved marketing firms,” Werneke explains, “and HMC is among them.” State-approved firms compete for marketing contracts placed by state departments and agencies.

“The one thing I think is of particular note is Veronica’s openness to coordinate and understand the benefits of cooperation as opposed to competition,” Werneke continues. “Veronica is always a proponent of the benefits of working together. She looks for ways to make sure that information is shared and lessons learned, and she’s been extremely helpful in achieving some of the collaboration I’ve been trying to achieve. Her team is extremely detailed and very skilled at managing complex projects.”

HMC’s team of 15 includes creative director Annie Bakst, art directors Jim Espey and Bill Germer, media director Paula “Velvet Hammer” Basluke and public relations manager Nicole L’Huillier Fenton, who joined HMC from Vermont Teddy Bear in 2005.

Jim Espey photoJim Espey, an art director, is one of six employees who bought the agency from Brian Harwood. The others are Veronica Williams, Nicole Seguljic, Emily Murray, Ivelisse LaMonde and Paula Bazluke.

Teamwork is essential, says Williams: “The account side works very closely with the creative side to develop ideas and decide how they will be presented to clients. When you’re a small agency you need to have everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Originally from Montague, Mass., and an alumna of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Williams now lives in Hyde Park with her husband, Pierce Williams, a freelance TV producer specializing in sports — especially ski — videos. They have three cats, a dog and a new horse.

Williams explains how she was captured by the ski industry. “I had never skied, and when I graduated from college, a friend suggested that I should learn how. As I’d graduated in January rather than in May, I decided to take a semester off. I fell in love with Vermont and decided not to leave.”

She took a job as a ski instructor at Mount Snow, then went into sales. “I wanted to be involved in the ski business because I fell in love with the sport. I wanted to move into marketing, and understanding the sales cycle is a big part of that.”

Understanding the client is another big part of marketing, and Williams’ clients appreciate the time she takes to get to know their businesses. A recent advertising design suggestion for the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation struck just the right chord. Irene Racz, director of public affairs, explains that one of HMC’s advertising ideas included the words, “No tricks,” which summed up their message well.

VSAC is in the business of educational loans and loan consolidation. “Most mail that people get from our competitors has almost too-good-to-be-true offers on the outside, but you have to read the fine print,” Racz says. “We don’t try to get business solely on the bottom line; we’re a nonprofit with a mission.”

Building client relationships like this is only part of the story. Williams says she believes HMC’s secret lies not only in superior client service, but also in providing services that deliver. “There has to be a good relationship, and relationships continue as long as they work. We’ve been able to manage the relationships really well and to provide our clients with good results.”

Having a team and a name that blend the best of the old and the new, it appears that HMC2 is well positioned to build on the vast experience of the old guard while integrating the youthful energy of the new. •