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HAYMAKER: A Power Blend of Creative and Strategy Helping Brands Win Fights

Advertising Agency
Los Angeles, USA
How founders Jay Kamath and Matt Johnson built a creative agency that breaks the rules and leaves a mark
Image Credit: Saddo

Modern day brands have it tough. With the playing field constantly changing, it can feel like an uphill battle to break through the noise and be remembered in the minds of consumers while millions of other distractions pull them away.

Never has it been more important to land ideas that can break through and leave a mark. And this is exactly what underpins one LA-based full service creative agency’s mission. In fact, even its name breathes this attitude. 

HAYMAKER: an equally powerful and wild punch delivered with full force, that can produce the most spectacular of knockouts.

HAYMAKER the agency has a history of landing ideas that leave a lasting impression with people, transcend media and move culture.

Whether you’re the biggest brand on the block or an up and coming challenger, they’re on a mission to help brands shake up the world. 

Notable award highlights include a 2022 Regional Emmy for Seattle Kraken’s ‘Fear the Deep’, a Clio Sports award for Powerade’s ‘Power In Numb3rs’, and Small Agency of the Year 2020 - an impressive feat for it only being HAYMAKER’s third year in business.

“It's just unbelievable to get recognised on that level so early on,” recalls Matt Johnson, founder and chief strategy officer. We’re a small but mighty group and we put our heads down so much that it felt surreal when we stopped to appreciate what we’ve been able to accomplish. That was really a special moment for the agency.”

Matt, whose strategic insight has racked up four Effies, a Most Effective Brand in North America for truth, and Ad Age’s A-List Marketer of the Year for adidas - has had a long career in advertising, starting at Goodby Silverstein & Partners and moving to Leagas Delaney, Venables Bell and Partners, BuderEngel and Friends, 180LA, and 72andSunny, where he met his now business partner and Chief Creative Officer, Jay Kamath.

“I got my start in architecture school where I started learning the fundamentals of design,” Jay reveals. “But then every architect I met warned me not to become an architect… My keen powers of deduction told me that this seemed like a red flag.”

Shifting his focus, he went on to work at Wieden + Kennedy Portland, where he worked on Nike Basketball, writing spots and concepting new product ideas. When he met Matt at 72andSunny, the two had an immediate creative connection, working together closely on strategy and creative. 

“Matt would bring me early into the strategic process,” says Jay, “and I would continue to collaborate with him during creative development and production.”

When Jay left 72andSunny in 2013, Matt asked if he had ever thought about starting his own agency. “I said no. To which he replied, ‘Well, I would start one with you.’ To which I replied ‘Holy shit.’ I didn’t feel like I was ready yet, at that moment, but it planted a seed.”

After a stint of freelancing for the likes of Google Creative Lab and Facebook, and a role as creative director at R/GA, helping them pitch and win Nike Basketball and lead the launch of the Kyrie2 and the KD9, Jay started working with Matt in mapping out what their agency could look like.

“We always believed that strategy and creative working hand in hand was a powerful formula to help brands combat fragmentation,” he says. “And creating the next generation of strategically creative individuals and makers was equally exciting to us.”

“We launched in February 2017 to coincide with an auspicious Hindu holiday as mandated by my mother. Matt thought that was a strategically sound decision.” 

Attack Challenges From All Angles

HAYMAKER attributes its success to the team’s ability to wear multiple hats and think outside of their job description. 

“We've seen it proven over and over again that understanding more than your job role really helps you grow, not only within what you know but in what you’ve picked up through all your experience,” Matt stresses. “It’s thinking about multiple aspects of the business, not only within HAYMAKER, but most importantly, in our clients’ businesses as well. When you're able to do that, you get a greater understanding of all that the client is up against.”

“Because just like ideas, knowledge can sometimes be left on the cutting room floor, as it were. That's what we're really trying to encourage against. We're bringing our total knowledge to every element to create the most holistic solutions to our client's business problems.”

This approach sets the tone for collaboration from the very beginning, creating a culture where everyone is encouraged to break the rule of ‘staying in your lane’.

Group brand director Laura Hoffman believes this is achieved through their appetite for curiosity. “Curiosity is what feeds the model that we’re trying to create. We want brands and creatives to understand each other better. And from that, we can collaborate more effectively and create better work together.”

“That’s why we always ask questions,” adds creative director Richard Fischer Estrada. “We almost revert to a six-year-old kid when we’re trying to understand brands and their challenges, asking why and why and why again.”

That same curiosity is encouraged between the team too. “We’re curious about each other and what we do outside of HAYMAKER,” says Richard. “We encourage everyone to give a mini TED talk presentations to the agency on whatever subject matter they’re passionate about, whether that’s the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or the genius of Joan Jett, you name it.”

Matt notes that this emphasis on asking questions really opens up the discussion and creates a space for sharing all ideas when working with clients. It’s something he really values. “Early on in my career, I was exposed to improv comedy, and have seen the power of improvisation. Just like telling jokes, it’s good practice to just riff and get all the bad ideas out of the way first so you can land on the good stuff.” 

“But I think there's a freedom in that,” he continues, “and hopefully it signals to the rest of the agency that it's okay to swing and try something. And it’s the same with our clients. There’s a lot of iteration and I think that’s what's really driven that client experience. We're pretty open, and hopefully, they experience and feel that we're good sports about it all.”

When it comes to their process, Jay highlights that “instead of a compartmentalised approach, brands can always expect us to present cohesive strategy and creative together, informed by each other. Our biggest pet peeve is the fancy looking 100 page strategy deck with pretty charts that no one knows what to do with next and so becomes an expensive doorstop. Instead, we pressure test strategy in real-time to ensure it will lead to compelling creative as opposed to just an interesting strategic handle.”

To this point, strategy director Chelsea Gilroy says, “I love the way we bring creative teams in as early as possible so that we can understand what they've been brainstorming for the brands beyond any specific projects we might get from the client. It leads to stronger, richer, work.”

A Winning Combo

With the combined force of blended creative and strategy, HAYMAKER has produced incredible results for its clients, time and time again.

“One of the projects I look back on with immense pride is our work with Reef,” Jay expresses. In a collaboration with Urban Surf 4 Kids, ‘First Beach’ brought together ten foster kids to experience the beach for the first time.

“The beach is fun and we obviously made content that embodied that spirit. But the beach can also be transformative and powerful. We worked hand in hand with Reef’s internal creative team to keep the work authentic. At times we felt like extensions of each other and we were able to make such a tonally diverse body of work.”

“It was one of the hardest challenges we could have asked for,” Matt recalls, “with some of the best partners, resulting in some of our most favourite work. Surf culture have a massive BS metre. If you are not dead on, they will call you out immediately so Reef couldn’t miss the mark.”

“Reef became our first AOR client,” he adds. “We call it earned AOR. We had a repositioning idea for them that included a tagline, re-looking at their photography, typography, and colours… We worked with their creative internal team to make it a group project that involved them as much as it did us.”

“It became the model for how we try to work with each and every one of our clients,” he says. “If we start with a project, we don't think of it as a project, we think of it as a chance to build a relationship.”

“Our first Super Bowl spot was also a major highlight,” says Laura. “We decided to go down the celebrity route to deliver the message and mission for Greenlight. There was great collaboration between us, the client and also our VA partners at Hailstorm and production partner. It was basically a writers room amongst everybody that led to great results. We're so happy that we were able to land such a big statement in a big moment for the brand, which has helped the company a lot.”

“Even beyond the Super Bowl, working with financial literacy is something that can help level the economic playing field across communities and it's very rare that we get to work on something that's good in both ways,” Matt comments. “It's a good product that does a lot of good in the world. To get the chance to do that on the biggest stage is an honour.”

Topo Chico

More recently, HAYMAKER took on a huge Topo Chico project. “Topo Chico is a beloved brand and a cult classic and they didn’t want to lose that,” Richard recounts. “So we had to be really careful to avoid work that felt like traditional advertising.” 

“Our solution was to help the brand behave more like an artist. That's a strong pivot because that gave them permission to do things a little differently. We’re able to put the spotlight on the collaborators with the brand taking a supporting role. So we are in charge of these creative briefs that are like sandboxes that we give to each creative to play with in their own unique ways. And that's been super satisfying, because you get to work with people you've never worked with - people that I follow and admire on Instagram who I’m now working alongside.”

“What our success really comes down to is finding inspiration and renewed drive by becoming an agency where people come to make what they want to make,” Jay sums up. “In the era of the ‘great resignation’, we’ve learned one thing above all: investing in people that want to make, and helping them make more of what they want to make, makes them better people and better makers. And in the end, that is what will make us a better agency.”

Topo Chico

Topo Chico

“Our internal mantra is: ‘we help you make stuff’. Not just agency stuff or client stuff but your stuff. Whether you are a creative, strategist, producer or brand person – we will invest in bringing your idea to life. Whether that’s financing you directing a music video, sponsoring an up and coming boxer and designing his robes, putting your furniture design idea into production. We’re a company committed to supporting our team’s creative ambitions.”

Looking ahead at what’s next for the agency, Matt says, “I'm excited about the unknown, which is part of why I wanted to start the company to begin with. I think we all need a balance of things that are known and consistent as well as new and challenging.” 

“Placing importance on the growth of our people and where those people might go and how they might shape their lives will ultimately determine where we go. And we will always work on building our cumulative knowledge, with both a strategic and a creative mind present in everyone at the company. That's how I believe we've seen it tick up, even in just our five years so far. Clients appreciate that more and more and I think that'll continue to serve us.”

“The exciting thing is where everyone will take us collectively.”

Work from HAYMAKER
Born to Fight
Escape Basic
Pair of Thieves