Values-driven agency Matter Unlimited, or Matter for short, has a mission to amplify the power of brands and organizations to drive growth and positive change in the world simultaneously. Under founder Rob Holzer’s leadership, Matter has created powerful campaigns for client partners including Facebook, HP, UNICEF, ABC/Disney, NBC Universal, Kimpton and TED. But Rob’s passion and vision for sustainable impact also extends beyond the office. He is also a founding member of The Civic Nation Creative Alliance and serves as an industry expert for the United Nations Media for Social Impact Summit, PopTech, and Social Innovation Summit. In this episode, we discuss the challenges of being an industry trailblazer and the unwavering importance of sticking to your guns. We learn more about the internal processes that take place at Matter, the projects that they do and why all companies need to get their values in check in order to secure their future.
[0:00:05.8] ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to Happy Porch Radio. The podcast for progressive
agency owners and web professionals. Season three is focused on the growing number of
agencies who are making the world a better place.
We explore what this even means, why is it different from any other agency and how can it be
reconciled with the real world challenges of running a profitable agency? Join your host, Barry
O’Kane as he speaks to leaders of agencies who are driven by verify use to positively impact
the world around them.
[00:00:44] BOK: Hello and welcome back to Happy Porch Radio. My guest this week is a
founder of the incredible Matter Unlimited, whose mission is to amplify the power of brands and
organizations to drive growth and positive change in the world simultaneously. Rob Holzer
founded Matter Unlimited to drive positive lasting change in the world by leveraging the power of
advertising, digital marketing and branding.
In this interview he shares the start of that journey as well as his vision for the future. Inspired by
his passion for sustainable impact, Rob is also heavily involved in a number of other inspiring
organizations and we touch on that at the start of our conversation.
So, let's meet Rob.
[00:01:31] RH: Hi. I'm Rob Holder, I'm the founder and CEO of Matter Unlimited.
[00:01:35] BOK: Awesome, well welcome to Happy Porch Radio, it's really great to have you
© 2018 Happy Porch Radio, an Endzone.io product !1
[00:01:38] RH: Thanks, good to be here.
[00:01:40] BOK: So, just before we start talking a little bit more about Matter Unlimited as you
know this season of Happy Porch Radio is all about value driven agencies. But before we dig in
to that, I know you're involved in long list of different schemes and organizations and things like
[00:01:58] RH: Schemes? Lots of schemes.
[00:02:02] BOK: So I’d sort of love to hear a little bit more about the work you're involved in
outside of initiatives or outside of Matter Unlimited.
[00:02:12] RH: Okay, you mean in general.
[00:02:14] BOK: Yeah, because I noticed there's a couple of things that really stuck for me, one
was Shared Value Initiative.
[00:02:20] RH: Yeah, I think that through our work we start to, you know we start to get asked
and pulled in to different things that are very, very interesting and related. I think when it comes
out to organizations that are important to me and important to the company, you know, I'm a
very big proponent of communities, communities and individuals, entrepreneurs like-minded
people that are doing great things in the world.
I think the shared value initiative we became kind of involved with that organization when they
got kind of got started, it was through our relationship. We were the agency for the Clinton
Global Initiative and they launched the Shared Value Initiative at CGI's annual event, and so
when I heard about it I contacted them right away because Michael Porter, you know, was
certainly was an inspiration when they started Matter Unlimited. He's a Harvard business
professor who kind of coined the term, “shared value” and wrote an article in Harvard Business
Review that was very seminal about purpose in companies and balancing financial success with
I mentioned that I have an agency that was focusing exclusively on this kind of work and they
said that they are in the process of putting together a group of organizations that are focused on
that type of work. So, it's a great organization, glad to be part of it. I think that you know
personally and then I mean Matter itself we’re involved with them and other different
organizations and communities. Summit Series is a group that I am very close to, you know,
which is a group of really outstanding entrepreneurs and people who are looking to kind of come
in together, collaborate, talk about the issues of the world and hopefully impact the world at a
Also, the Suzman Foundation as an organization called Reality which I've been a part of for a
while which focuses on helping to inspire and bring together the next generation of change
makers to repair the world in many ways and to work on issues of impact. So, I think there's a
lot of organizations that are doing great work and we love being a part of and I feel really excited
and jazzed to be asked to these things from time to time.
[00:04:44] BOK: That's really interesting, you used the word “community” several times there.
It's really interesting to me that the people I'm speaking to for this season is very often very
awkward looking more than just focus on the agency and my question to you is, I guess what
you are implying there is that you got this — you personally have this purpose or this values
driven this framework, you know, you want to get involved and you say, “We better the world
and help young change makers get involved in these broader initiatives” and is that something
that for you is very closely integrated with your work with the agency?
[00:05:22] RH: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's the reason I started Matter, you know I had an
agency before Matter that was a branding agency that started off as a digital agency and
become an integrated agency and we grew and we have a lot of success in building brands. I
eventually sold that agency to a larger network and when my ten year was up there, I was
thinking about what to do next. At that point my own value system had been shifting personally
and through, it's just through life and personal experience. I wish shifting, you know what I found
to be valuable and then when faced with the idea of how I'm going to spend my time next at
work. I think when you successfully sell a business and for some crazy reason people think
you're smart but I think a lot of it was just circumstances. Yeah, I did some decent things and
had some decent moves.
You know I have a lot of options of things that I was going to be able to do or could get myself
involved with and for me the most important idea was how do I integrate my work with my
personal values system and trying to be in of service was kind of how I was thinking about that. I
was just thinking “Well I know this business really well and I'm really soon to be good at it so
instead of trying to jump in to something totally different. How can I reframe marketing and
advertising and use and leverage that very powerful tool to have impact.” That's when Matter
was really dreamed up.
[00:07:06] BOK: Very powerful. And do you think that – or was there is a conflict before that
point? You know when you have that space after selling and the space for opportunities or to
look for something new and different. But were there any conflicts or was selling the agency and
moving on a trigger for that? Or is this something that was kind of bubbling in the background
[00:07:25] RH: Yeah, I think personally you know going through different hardships in my life
and losing a dear friend to cancer. Or like going through the process of just life as you get older
and I think also looking at the context of the work, you know having been involved – we had a
lot of fashion and luxury clients that Stirrup which is the previous agency and I sort of reached
this point where I wasn't connected to the output anymore. I didn't really want to plead in to a
system, of just kind of over-consumption that I felt was kind of at the root of some of the
problems that we are facing in the world then advertising and marketing does develop that.
It's a very powerful weapon and we change behavior for millions of people everyday. That's our
job and I had worked on it a couple of projects with Stirrup that were very inspirational. One,
being working with G.E. for seven years on eco-imagination, which is their initiative to develop a
business unit of sustainable products. Launching a big company like that really transformed this
brand around his initiative and was very inspirational and very rewarding to be a part of as their
digital agency on record for all of those years.
That really got me thinking and also in 2008 our agency was behind building Hope Of Change
for President Obama when he was running in his first election and part of the group that has
putted together the “Yes, We Can” video during the primary which is really seminal in him
getting denomination and moving a lot of people and rallying a lot of people in his direction. So, I
started to see, “Okay, well what we do really has a lot of power to effect change.” It got me
thinking that, “You know could be possible to have an agency that only this kind of work and that
could I make successful.”
And if I did it successfully, that would serve as a model to the rest of the industry to show some
of my peers that might be feeling the same way, that they can do their work but they can do it in
an entirely different way.
[00:09:43] BOK: So in those early days of setting and moving towards setting up a new agency,
what was different about that process and about that building a team and setting up something
new – what was different if you're saying you're solely focused on this aspect?
[00:10:01] RH: Well, it's hard, it's already sort of narrow down to – well first of all service-based
business is a unique animal and having now done it for, this is my 28th year running agencies,
it's a really particular kind of animal. It's a very people-centric business so you need talent at
high level at high cost and you need to develop clients very quickly, you need to get people to
really believe that you can provide them service, it's competitive, it's more competitive now than
certainly it has ever been, there are so many agencies. I think when you narrow down to having
a particular focus, that's a good thing because it gives you some kind of differentiation.
The problem is what I did was choose an area and a discipline and a focus that just completely
really didn't exist and when you're that far out in front of things, it's really challenging to convince
clients that you are the organization that they need to do the thing that they need to do. I knew
that if we compromise on you know the type of work that we took like say, “Okay we're going to
be this purpose led agency but you know we'll do some of this other stuff that really isn't really
purpose led on the side,” then our brand really was of no value really.
No intrinsic integrity in the mission that we're trying to do. So, it was hard and I think it's
interesting because it's kind of a repeat of what happened in my first agency. In my first agency
we decided that that was really silly, that I had an agency on one side and a digital agency on
another side, and we're two different things because the world was working differently.
So, we started calling ourselves an integrated agency and this was in like in 2000 or 2001 and
people didn't understand what that meant. So it was hard for companies to put us in a box
where they can hire us until finally a company did take a shot in us and then the whole world
turned to our direction and that became what a modern marketing agency is.
I think with purpose and, you know the purpose led economy, as I would like to say – six years
ago people really didn't see that and they didn't really, they might have wanted to believe it but
there was still a lot of unprovenness around that being a real business driver and that was the
struggle in the early days is finding our footing within that and convincing clients that you know
“We can really help you with an agency to figure this stuff out” and you know luckily the world is
a very different place in 2017 and almost 2018.
You know, the world is moving our direction again and you know luckily we struggled to those
early years and we been able to put up together some great client relationships and great work
behind it that now positions us in a place where companies really see the value, and the unique
value, of what we are offering and our specialty, that's a tough place to be when you're trail
[00:13:20] BOK: And, you were trailblazing but you also had the previous experience where
you're coming to the beginning of that journey but with the skillset and experience of running an
agency so –
[00:13:30] RH: Yeah, sure.
[00:13:30] BOK: Even with that experience you're describing it to being tough.
[00:13:33] RH: Yeah and I think that's huge leg up because you know kind of I had known and a
bit kind of the stages, you know the stages of developing and growth, and also what it might
take to get it going, to get it off the ground. I think when I first started with my first agency I had
no idea about anything. So it does help.
It's still tough, I think I was able to leverage relationships and networks that I built up over the
years which is great but it's still tough work to try and execute.
[00:14:11] BOK: Yeah, so you’ve kind of gone through that journey twice that tough start up,
you know and trailblazing your journey that you're talking about. I don't mean start up and I
mean starting up. What was different? Apart from that you had done it before, was there
anything different the second time around because you kind of had this extra – this slightly
different motivation, the purpose led part?
[00:14:33] RH: Yes. I think that one of the – and this is also the great gift of doing this work and
it was a bit of my hope but I didn't quite know how much kind of what would happen until I got in
to it. But, ultimately I think the learning curve of understanding the world that we operate in was
something that I was extremely excited about but also took a lot to really – and it was just really
time and dedication and kind of pursuit of for lack of better words, that world of social impact,
the world of humanitarian development work happening.
The understanding of the players and the way things happen in the world was an education
process for me and for all of us in the company. I think that when you say “What's unique about
Matter,” it really is this piece of understanding of “Well we have an understanding of brand and
we have an understanding of culture and those are things of agencies need to have but we also
have this third component of understanding the world of social impact that we layer all of this
things together to have a unique perspective and point of view in the world.” That was
So, that was something of a learning curve that gives us this unique perspective but it was also
extremely exciting and I feel one of the great values of doing this work is now understanding
time but in a deeper way how good work happens around the world and that is something very,
very different and I think necessary in this work where as you know these days there are a lot of
agencies diving in to the space.
I think that when you see the work coming out there's a certain, not in all cases, but there is not
as much depth to the marketing efforts and maybe you can kind of peg words the organization
don't quite understand at a certain depth, you know. The way the organization is trying to impact
the world. So, that's a great learning and great support.
[00:16:55] BOK: So, do you have an example that you're talking about that sort of learning
which is kind of different from the technical skills you know of the sort of industry, general skills.
Do you have an example to bring that to life?
[00:17:10] RH: Yeah, I think with our recent work with Merck, with the Merck For Mothers
project is a great example. I think there is a way to go to work where you can just dive in and
look for the big idea but I think with that organization what we wanted to really do is to dive in
and have a real deep understanding of number one, why did this company do this, it's a
$500,000,000 10 year commitment to end maternal mortality. The company doesn't sell any
drugs in maternal mortality in that issue, they took on this issue expressively because they
wanted to effect something with their skill and growth but they didn't want it to be perceived in
trying to just sell stuff.
And, that was a big story when the organization came to us they are really looking for marketing
and content. “Make us something to kind of tell the story” but we said “There's a big story here
that we have to get to the bottom of it, you know, people just don't know that as an organization
that you're doing this which is amazing.” Then whose the audience and who are we trying to
move and kind of getting deeper in to the why of getting in to this work. And it was really
important before we figured out what we're going to make and so we did some deep dive on the
strategic level with them to understand what this mission meant and developed a real platform
for them on which we could create creative execution.
Which would include eventually a virtual reality film that we did to help global health workers that
they can leverage to influence people all the way to the brand and from film which should be
much more public to kind of encapsulate the emotionality behind this initiative and why they're
involved in it and how partners were coming in to the table to solve the problems.
So, I think our sensitivity to dive in deeper in to the issue and understanding how the
organization work with other partners and governments around the world and what they were
ultimately trying to achieve allowed us to deliver or resolve that really spoked directly to this
audiences that we have identified that they wanted to reach. Versus just making you know
coming up with a big idea of like something and putting out some creative work behind it.
I think that, that's ultimately that's the kind of work that we want to do, we're finding ourselves
more and more in that position where we get the chance to do it with great companies.
[00:19:48] BOK: Oh, yeah, that's outstanding. So, you're describing that journey with these
types of clients. How does that work internally with the work culture? Is the only word that I can
think of to ask this question – but how does that internal team dynamics feed into things like
recruitment and that sort of, the way things are operating internally?
[00:20:08] RH: Yeah, I think luckily we're not a giant agency with hundreds or thousands of
people, we're a small team and our organization really works across the disciplines in a very
collaborative way. I think we break – any project that we're going to get in to, any client situation
that we're going to get in to we're going to collaborate internally across the disciplines. So we
have the creative lead who is sitting very closed to our strategy lead, who sits very closely with
the account lead and ultimately the production lead.
So, those four people – and there is technology involved we'll have a tech lead but the
collaboration amongst that group in a really tight way is extremely important where there isn't
just one group and we don't just say to the creative team, “Okay well here's the brief and you go
think about it” and that's it.
It's working together. And our strategy group brings in that kind of the research, the insights, but
also the insights into the social impact space which it just so happens we've been doing a lot of
work in for many years. So, there is a body of knowledge that's kind of built in to us, you know
around that understanding of who the players are and what's been in the past. What are things
that are coming up in that particular issue space. What are the organizations that we're working
on, who are partnered and who can come to the table. So, that strategic layer is very deep here
I think sometimes it's not as deep where they are just looking for what's the creative insight that
will allow the marketing to work.
So those people are working very closely with the creative team and then the account team is
really a group that understands the client and our clients are non-profits and foundations, high
net worth individuals as much as they are a brand. So what really is important is to understand
the goals of the organization very deeply, so those things work together and then ultimately the
production pieces, the nuts and bolts pieces of “Okay now that we have this can we really get
this idea done with the budgets we're trying to work with.” The great thing with us is that we
leverage a network of talent globally that are amazing creatives.
Whether they are film makers, technologists, you know all different types of people that make
stuff that we bring to projects to kind of work with us collaboratively. So, I think the process
exists in a lot of agencies like this but I guess it's just about that strategic layer that marries the
creative layer and it's very, very tight here, that's probably a bit of difference.
[00:23:06] BOK: Yeah, that sounds really cool, and how do you choose clients and projects to
work on, do you have a very clear set of – within the team, “This is our values, this is the type of
project.” Or is it a much more case by case gut call.
[00:23:21] RH: Yeah, I think it's case by case. You know we have turned down work I think
through the years a number of clients and projects that would've been lucrative, would have
been great but ultimately, we couldn't work on and it is case by case. I mean our perspective is
we will speak with a wide variety of organizations, you know, we don't come in with prejudices
right off the bat. But I think that we really want to look at the work that we're being asked to do
and look at the organizations motivations around that work and certainly if we think that there is
what we sometimes called “good washing” or “green washing,” we will walk away from that work
because we don't feel like it would be in what the organizations best interest or our interest to
get involve with the work.
That's the case where organizations are sometimes just kind of putting lipstick on a pig and
trying to make something bigger than it is or it just doesn't ring us through. But those cases are
pretty far in between. I think sometimes it's just about that we can't feel like we can't do the
groundbreaking work that would move the meter for the client and then we might turn the work
down. But yeah, it's pretty much case by case.
[00:24:42] BOK: Within your team, do you need to work to keep people's values aligned and to
keep the team interested. Or is there a challenge of people pulling in different directions or
having different motivations outside these very focused values?
[00:24:56] RH: I think they're pulling me back all the time, honestly. I think again it's hard as this
leader and runner, when you're trying to run a business and grow it and scale it, to sometimes –
I lose perspective. I think there is a reason why people are here that Matter, there's a reason
why people have joined this agency and a reason why I think every week we get a lot of calls
and letters from really talented people to want to see about working here or what it's like to work
here, how we started it, etc.
I think there is a motivation from people who reach a certain point in marketing and advertising
and they want to know what they're doing it for, they're tired of doing this kind of work to sell
more widgets to more people that people don't need and they reach a frustration point.
So, my team is extremely passionate about what we do and really dedicated and even on their
own lives we encourage everyone to be out there in the world and doing work that is doing
something and they all do.
I think it's more of they are keeping me on top of others. What our mission is as much as I'm
trying to do that with them. But it's a pretty natural thing, as I said maybe six years ago when I
started it is harder to – we were kind of scrappy and scrounging and stuff. I think now we get to
look at some really amazing work or potential projects and with amazing organizations. And
companies themselves are going through big, big kind of gut checking transformations that are
exciting. I think everyone is excited about the work that comes across our path.
[00:26:48] BOK: Awesome, I want to tie that back to something you said earlier on where you
had – you were very clear when you were starting the agency that you wouldn't compromise on
in terms of the type you work you take on you described that as basically completely destroying
the reputation or the image of the company.
Do you think if you hadn't been that strong and definite at the start that you would be where you
are now? If you were for example taking that compromise of you know “Hey this one is going to
earn us some money, we need the money to get through the next six months.”
[00:27:18] RH: I mean you never know the answer but yeah. I think ultimately, you’ve got to
believe in what you do and you've got to stand up for what you do, that's it. I think I did that with
my previous agency too and I think we did great stuff. We wanted to be a really creative first
agency but I think with Matter it's a bit different. If we're really going to go out there and say that
we are walking, you’ve got to walk the walk. And that for me it's really important in this work and
I think we've heard it through the years that our clients have hired us not only because you
know for our capabilities but expressed that our values align with what either their aspirations
were, what they were doing.
I think more and more this is where the world is going. People want to work with people that
they like but I think they wanted to work with people that they feel are aligned with their values
or who are offering something as a perspective and everyone wants to work with people with
integrity. So we hope and strive to hold the line on things, even if they're difficult.
I think you got to do that and I think there is really at the end of the way there's no point in
saying your something and then not acting like it. So, even it has been hard sometimes along
the way it doesn't – to me it doesn't matter to just - it's really been more about our meta mission
I would say here. Which is to really have impacted scale and make a positive dent in the world
in someway with what we have as talents. So I think that that's mostlywhat we're after so if we're
really after that we can't compromise on the work.
If we had done that, yeah I think people could – I never wanted to point at them and say you
know that they're kind of full of crap. They say they, do this but they really do that and that was
never something that I wanted to happen with us.
[00:29:15] BOK: Yeah, behind it it's quite inspiring that you're so very clear and strong in it.
What's the future? What's next? How do you measure this on going success of this meta
mission that you're describing?
[00:29:25] RH: I think it's really our company is reflecting our mission, our mission is taking hold
of the world the kind of clients that are calling us, the kind of people who want to work with us is
a reflection of you know whether or not we are successful in what we do and we're feeling it now
which is great. We have momentum and the world has turned in in our direction as I've said and
I think you know I don't have those educational meetings anymore where I'm trying to convince
someone that you know the world has moved in to a purpose-lead economy and that companies
don't have the luxury of standing on the sidelines anymore.
I think it's very clear, I think the current president of America has even has pushed us closer to
and made it more relevant and more urgent. We have some real challenges in the world and
companies have such power to affect change at scale and if they want to stay relevant and
innovative, which is the heart and blood of being a long term thriving company and organization,
you have to innovate and you need the best people to do that and more and more younger
people don't want to work for organizations that don't represent their values or have a real north
star to them. So, it's no longer a luxury, it's not a side activity, it's not a corporate social
responsibility or reputational exercise.
It is brand centric and business centric to really figure this out and get your company align with
your values and community and allow people to understand that clearly. So, that's where the
world is now so we get to just kind of dive in deep with it which is better than having to go
through the exercise of convincing people that this thing is actually okay.
[00:31:23] BOK: Yeah, yeah and with Matter does it feel like you said that you're breaking
ground maybe as when the agency was starting but now it feels like – do you have a vision of
what the next six, eight years will be like?
[00:31:40] RH: Yeah, I know I always said that another part of my own personal mission was
that if I can prove that I can create a successful agency like this that only worked on that
purpose-led work that other people would start them and then it would help people within our
industry and transform the advertising industry in some way. I see that a little bit and I don't
know if it's just us there's other people in it but I think that there is certainly marked agencies
doing what we're doing.
There's even big agencies that are opening up divisions and talking the talk that we're talking.
So it's having impact and for me you know, the next couple of years, the focus here now is that
we're building long term relationships with clients and we're growing. We opened up an office in
San Francisco this summer, so we have an office on both coasts and scaling the teams both in
New York and San Francisco is a focus, and potentially looking at operations elsewhere
depending where the clients take us. But, we're also looking at things differently because we are
now invited in to some pretty rarefied rooms on issues that we care about so really even
thinking about platforms around some of the big challenges in the world and who can we bring
around the table on this issues whether it's brands or non profits, NGOs, organizations, talent,
How do we kind of develop and help orchestrate really impactful initiatives around these
challenges to help communicate them better and has some positive movement in the directions
we want. We’re kind of looking at things a little bit more like that versus getting higher that's an
agency for a project and so we see us getting more involved with longer term efforts. You know
we're doing that with maternal mortality, where doing that with President Obama and we have
been through the past two years and now it's the Obama's Foundation on My Brother's Keeper.
Looking at opportunity gaps in America for young boys and men of color and how we can move
the meter on that, we’re involved in poverty projects, we're involved in climate change in a big
way. So I think for us it's looking at this issues and seeing how can we take what we know and
help kind of herd cats and develop great creative ideas and rally people and create some impact
there that's ultimately what we're going to focused on, certainly for the next perceivable future.
[00:34:19] BOK: Oh yeah, as I said before, inspiring. Thank you so much for your time today I
really appreciate that and sharing so openly about everything that you on the agency is doing.
Very final question for our listeners who want to find out a little bit more about the agency and
the work that you personally are involved in, where can we direct them?
[00:34:37] RH: Yes. Certainly, our website which is makethingsmatter.com and following us on
social media certainly helps it's @matterunlimited personally myself is @robmatters and we
would love to hear from anyone, whether it's people who are looking to work with us, to
collaborate with us and clients that are looking to have real partners in the room. I think
ultimately at the end of the day we struggle with the word “agency” because you know our
relationships run really deep where we think all the time we're working on the same side of the
table as the people that we work with and we're in it for the long haul. So, anybody who is
interested can just give us a call or reach out.
[00:35:22] BOK: Outstanding and as usual those links and social links will be in
happyporchradio.com on the show notes. Thanks again Rob, I really appreciate your time.
[00:35:31] RH: You got it, thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:35:37] BOK: You can get all the links and notes from this episode on happyporchradio.com
where you can also find out how to send us questions, feedback and get involved in the
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enjoy it too. Thanks for listening.