In the messaging mash-up that is our world, with ideas, musings and straight-up sales pitches flung at us from all directions—Twitter and Instagram, pop-ups on our laptops, TV ads, and more—how does a brand get through to its target and stay relevant? Or even get relevant? One might start by hiring the self-proclaimed professionals in the industry formerly known as advertising: MUH-TAY-ZIK | HOF-FER. Bucking the conventional method of pigeonholing itself as a social media company or a digital agency or a traditional ad agency, the San Francisco firm, founded in 2009, combines all these practices. It is more a targeted content machine than any one discipline.
The agency, also known as MTZHF, acts as a branding task force, planting messaging—from the whimsical to the controversial—wherever and whenever makes sense. Their client roster includes Netflix, Google Nexus, Audi, AAA regional membership and national insurance, New Amsterdam Vodka, the online dating site Zoosk, the Golden State Warriors, and YDesign Group, to name several. For Tiny Prints, the online card creation service, a Father’s Day TV spot set to charming music follows the progression of a child’s handmade cards to her father from age 3 to 32. The spot ends on “The best cards are still the ones you make yourself,” with a quick how-to on creating your own card online. For BARTRENDr, an app that enables followers to share real-time experiences at local bars, MTZHF installed signage for a phony bar opening at an abandoned storefront on a busy corner in Manhattan called Gestations: “NYC’s first bar for pregnant women.” The tagline, “You’re drinking for two now,” was just as offensive as the larger-than-life visual: a very pregnant woman in a sports bra and cutoffs popping the cork off a champagne bottle. That stunt garnered a lot of press and attention for BARTRENDr and actually sparked a conversation reinforcing the fact that pregnant women should not drink alcohol. Television news stations conducted interviews with passersby, and print and online news took on the story.
Not only does this range of work illustrate the facile manner in which MUH-TAY-ZIK | HOF-FER can turn out work creatively, but it also speaks to the firm’s efficiencies. For Netflix, the agency is producing more than a dozen unique vignettes per day for the brand’s social media feeds. A dedicated war room in MTZHF’s downtown office houses a coterie of writers, art directors and producers who fill in the floor-to-ceiling whiteboards with ideas to launch on social media for shows and movies that range from Breaking Bad to Gilmore Girls to I Love Lucy to Reservoir Dogs. Each person in the room, no matter what his or her talent or job, is an entertainment aficionado and can call up scenes instantly—a necessary passion/skill if you’re going to write about pop culture and retro culture in bulk. And, notably, none were hired for their photographic Downton Abbey or Galaxy Quest memory; they found their way to that war room organically, and as the agency got to know them.
Director of technology Dean Casalena became a surprising source of memes in pop culture when the agency embarked on an online project for Netflix called “Spoiler Alert: Behind this door lie some of the biggest spoilers in TV and film. What you are about to see cannot be unseen.” Yellow crime scene tape runs across a steel door, and a red button beckons: “Enter.” Once inside, there’s no going back, as promised. Like ogling one roadside crash after another, you can’t take your eyes away as spectacular climaxes from such shows and movies as House of Cards, The Usual Suspects and Orange Is the New Black are cut together, rendering a throwing up of one’s arms and a why-bother-watching-now? response. Curiously, this piece increased viewership of Netflix’s offerings across all lines. Casalena, when learning of the assignment, stepped outside his tech role to become curator, editor and master scream-producer.
The sheer amount of work being generated at MTZHF is impressive given the staff of 50, about 30 of which are creatives. A method the agency calls “rapid content creation”—not a phrase bandied about at most ad agencies—helps its teams stay on track. “It’s basically a streamlined production process where we create and produce many, many small films and videos very quickly,” explains head of production and associate partner Michelle Spear Nicholson. “The pace is much different from traditional shoots. Creatives are directing them. A junior team can conceive of an idea and immediately shoot it. We’ve created 20 original vignettes in one day for Netflix. Along the way, we’ve realized we’re doing something new.”
Doing something new has been the agency’s rallying cry since day one. It was founded in 2008 by John Matejczyk, executive creative director, and he was joined by Matt Hofherr, director of strategy, in 2010. They began lean and continued to grow, moving that same year from a 1,000-square-foot loft on Potrero Hill to Jackson Square as they crystallized their positioning as “professionals in the industry formerly known as advertising.”
Eight years from its beginning, MUH-TAY-ZIK | HOF-FER has become a model of how our multiscreen world of messaging can elevate clients’ brands into a place of even more relevance than when they came through the door. Matejczyk estimates the agency’s work is bucketed in thirds, divided equally among social, digital and traditional. And yet, he doesn’t want defined boundaries: “Our business has this high need for specialization,” he says. “I don’t want this agency put into silos—digital strategist, social strategist, brand strategist.” Hofherr adds, “Everything we were saying made the early prospects nervous. They kept trying to pigeonhole us. Now we’re pulling so many levers, the tools in the toolbox are endless. The creative muscle has to be flexible.”
Matejczyk spent the first ten years of his career in Chicago. At Y&R Chicago, as senior vice president and group creative director, he had what he describes as an “a-ha moment” while he was working on a campaign for H&R Block. Rather than show the tax prep company through the usual, straight-laced financial personality, Matejczyk and his team offer a hilarious look at the hellacious task of preparing one’s own taxes. The award-winning campaign garnered a lot of attention, and Matejczyk found himself on the map. He realized that if he could make people sit up and laugh in the financial sector, anything was possible.
Goodby, Silverstein & Partners brought him to their San Francisco office, where he began working on ads for Saturn, Budweiser, Netflix, Adobe and Hewlett-Packard, among others. Leaving Goodby for a time, he went to Fallon in Minneapolis to run the Citibank account. There, he created the groundbreaking, Emmy Award–winning Identity Theft campaign, which showed victims of identity theft speaking in their robbers’ voices. He eventually returned to Goodby, but then left to serve as a visiting creative director at agencies that included BBH New York, 180LA and TBWA\Chiat\Day NY.
Hofherr, who came to advertising by way of acting, had a winning streak at seven agencies, including TBWA\Chiat\Day, Kirschenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners, BBDO and FCB, serving as managing director when each was named Agency of the Year by Advertising Age. In 1999, Citron Haligman Bedacarré brought Hofherr in as fourth partner; over the next year, his work helped the San Francisco agency grow exponentially—more than $250 million in billings and 200 new employees were brought in—as it manifested a new identity as AKQA.
Now working together, these two powerhouses have put MTZHF on a growth curve. At this writing, the agency had just won accounts with Audi and AAA, with plans to add at least 20 new employees. Increasing staff by nearly 50 percent can be daunting in the best of circumstances. But when you’re running an agency that defies traditional roles, it can be downright scary. Hofherr explains, “The work and flow are constantly changing. The business used to be simple. You started with clear input. There are only six or seven things we’re going to do. The client would give you an assignment, and you would turn it into a brief. It was very linear. The client would go to the account person. The account person would go to the planner. The planner would go to the creatives. Here, it all happens at the same time. There’s no time anymore, but it’s more fun this way. Everyone needs to own the work, but with fluidity.”
MTZHF now occupies three tall floors in a building at the corner of Pine and Sansome, in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District. The iconic grande-dame skyscraper, built circa 1926, is a throwback to its time. It’s made of carved steel, and the narrow lobby, complete with doorman, is outfitted with rich color and fabrics. Here, on the three spacious floors, creatives, producers and account people sit side by side, their workstations dotting a long picnic-style table running the entire length of the floor. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer unobstructed iconic San Francisco views.
The palette here is black and white, mixed up in different ways: black couch on a black wall; white chairs against a white wall; black and white mixed together; black everything on black walls, ceilings and floors. Matejczyk says, “We thought, let the people bring the color.” Agency traditions like the Kelli Award—named for senior producer Kelli Bratvold, who fell asleep with drool seeping into her keyboard during a 46-hour-long product launch—keep the culture fun, light and meaningful. Matejczyk explains, “The award, a Barbie or Ken doll made in the likeness of the recipient, is given to the employee who makes the best possible creative even under the most trying circumstances.” Then there’s Buddy, the chief executive dog, who enthusiastically greets visitors in the reception area, wearing client logos on his collar. Buddy appears in commercials on a semiregular basis.
The agency culture is the mainstay, the constant threading through projects that are as disparate as snowflakes. For the professionals in the industry formerly known as advertising, each day is whiplash-inducingly different from the one before, filled with writing, filming, drawing, scene grabbing, joke telling and meaningful, game-changing moments. ca