A List Contender:

Matt Groves

Groves: “I never thought the tangent off into the digital world would lead me here.”

Matt Groves seems somewhat surprised to find himself director of digital and integration at Fallon.

Hardly lacking the experience for it, having set up his own boutique web agency, 64k, in the early days of the internet (when dial-up was cutting edge technology and Mark Zuckerberg just a school boy), and worked for some of the biggest names in advertising, he still believes he’s spent most of his career on the periphery of the industry. To become a central part of it now feels unusual.

“I’ve followed quite a non-traditional route into the industry. Advertising is very generational; you have to earn your place. Usually you spend time working your way up but I’ve come at it from a different angle. It can be difficult to earn the right to be part of that sometimes.”

This may or may not be down to his reputation as the digital Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction). Groves is the man you call in to “solve problems”.

He describes his route into advertising as “a long old journey”. With a self-confessed rebellious streak, he passed up places at university to go travelling on an extended gap year (or five). He has little regret in missing out on any formal training, though, and if anything, a lack of knowledge of the rules or traditions he may have learned at university has made it easier to bypass them in his career, he believes. “I am probably where I am now because of that.”

His first exposure to the ad industry came about when he began working as a freelance designer for a number of London agencies on his return. “I was working on weird stuff like packaging for Sindy dolls,” he says.

In 1994, he created his first website; an epiphany moment which changed his life. Months later, he set up 64K with £3,000 on his credit card. “Before I knew it, I had 20 people working directly with and alongside advertising agencies, for brands like Nescafe, Cadbury, Schweppes and Yoplait. Back then, I never thought the tangent off into the digital world would lead me to where I am now.”

He considers himself lucky to have been around in this classic dotcom era alongside start-ups like AKQA and Razorfish. “It was an exciting time and it still is too. We’ve gone through that first stage and now it’s becoming a bit more serious. Maybe a bit more corporate, but that’s no bad thing,” he says, pointing out that new trends produce new agencies, such as We Are Social.

Life soon changed. “After a few years working with ad agencies and having my own agency, I knew that one day the big agencies would have to take it all a bit more seriously,” he says.

After eight years of 64K, Groves folded the agency into McCann Erickson, where he then set up and lead its digital operations — a conscious effort on his part to understand how a conventional ad agency works.

After four years, Groves took another new direction, becoming a partner at digital production company unit9 and learning high-end digital production. This was followed by a move to San Francisco and Goodby, Silverstein and Partners as director of digital development, before ending up back in the UK with Fallon.

Groves may see himself as an outsider, but he has seen the industry from all sides; a useful perspective in his current Fallon role overseeing integration. And he no longer sees himself as digital. “The word digital is there just to define what you’re talking about. At the end of the day, what I’m doing at Fallon is helping understand what the impact of technology is on the agency and on advertising.”

He describes his job as simply encouraging people to understand technology’s role in advertising, or, as he puts it, “Zen and the art of digital”. If the industry can get its head around that, then “we’ll be in pretty good shape,” he predicts.

“The excitement of technology is that it doesn’t stand still. There’s no way of predicting where it will go, but it will continue moving and developing and a lot of that will be down to people,” Groves notes. “Compared to people in the industry now who need to adapt and learn all this, there’s a whole new generation coming through that has always had technology as part of their lives.”

His four-year-old son is a perfect example of this: happily using an iPad, he plays the Toyota “back seat driver” app. Kids can virtually drive the same route as the driver via GPS, with the addition of animated scenery and games.

There are clearly parallels between the generations. It wasn’t so long ago that Groves was spending his teenage years playing classic games such as Donkey Kong and Pac-Man and learning computing on an early Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Look where he is now.

First published in collaboration with Campaign Magazine on 27th July 2011 as part of our A List Contenders series.

Update: Matt broadened his role to encompase sister agency Saatchi and Saatchi alongside Fallon. He became the Operation Director of Mother in January 2014.