Joey Leslie started his career with an impressive knack for auctioneering: he managed to climb his way up to one of the top sellers on eBay, selling memorabilia to benefit the company he worked for. After discovering a similar tactic being used by a powerhouse agency based in SLO, Leslie decided to move to the Central Coast and joined their team.

That small agency was the spark for a much larger flame: Matchfire, a marketing agency that specializes in social purpose. Despite working on some of the highest profile clients across the globe, Matchfire remains committed to Creating Connection in our community with their projects here in San Luis Obispo. We sat down with Joey Leslie, the dynamo President behind this creative company to get to know him a little better.

You got your undergraduate degree at University of Texas at Austin— how did you make your way to the Central Coast?

joey leslie
Joey and his wife, Angellia

After my time as a Longhorn, I went off to law school for a few years. But I realized late in the game that I wasn’t all that interested in practicing law. Unsure of an exact destination, Angellia (now my wife) and I threw some clothes and a case of Shiner Bock into an old VW and headed west. After a time in Sedona, Arizona, we eventually landed in Los Angeles where I discovered my passion for fundraising and spent 10 years at the Motion Picture & Television Fund. 

During my time with MPTF, the internet was exploding. Like many fundraisers, I wore a lot of hats – annual giving, trusts & estates, celebrity wrangling, sponsorships, capital campaigns, you name it. It was a formative time for me, and I could see the emerging importance of online community, influence and the potential reach of the early web.

One of my ideas was to work with this new company called eBay to sell entertainment memorabilia to benefit MPTF. I sold Wilson the volleyball, Men in Black props, Planet of the Apes costumes among other weird and wonderful items. After a year or so I was one of the biggest sellers on eBay. I soon became aware of a small agency in SLO doing something very similar, so I packed up my family and left LA for SLO to join this internet savvy social good company. After a couple of years and an evolution our company’s mission, I ended up acquiring the business and began to grow our team into what is today: Matchfire.

What first sparked your interest in marketing? Why did you decide to make it your career?

Honestly, marketing as a career choice wasn’t ever really an option. I have sort of backed into an industry that calls itself “marketing” as shorthand. What we really do at Matchfire is create connections at the intersection of people, celebrity, causes and brands. It’s that connection that interests me most.  With the right message at the right time to the right folks, you can leave a small dent in the world.

Sure, we help sell a fair bit of soap and sugar water – but most of the time we try to build connection. I love what I do, and the people and clients I’m fortunate to work with. I’m lucky that my avocation and my vocation are so close to the same thing!

joey leslie

Tell us about the evolution of Matchfire. How did it start?

The team here has been around for almost 20 years at this point. We’ve had a few name changes, but the people and the purpose has remained the same. We started on eBay running high-profile charity auctions for brands, charity and celebrities. We then took these same clients and began building community for their fans, customers and donors.  We’ve created some of the biggest and most successful campaigns on the web. It’s funny to say nowadays, but we were HUGE on MySpace! And today, we’re continuing to shape the purpose of online community with clients like LG and Instagram

We’ve grown over the years, adding expertise and capability. We now have offices in Dallas and New York and clients all over the world. At this point, we are a very seasoned, full service integrated marketing agency. But most important, we like one another!

Who would play you in a movie of your life?

I had the team here help me answer this one. While I was hoping that a George Clooney type might be the best choice, there seems to be a broad consensus that Fozzy Bear is closer to the truth. 

Tell me about a marketing campaign that stands out for you and the Matchfire team.

joey leslie

Since early 2019, our SLO team has been working closely with French Hospital to raise awareness for their new fundraising campaign. Matchfire helped create the Beyond Health movement that has really taken hold in the region. Most of our team has worked on this campaign over the last year.  It’s personal and it’s meaningful to us and our families, and it has impacted how the team thinks about their place in this community. Many of our campaigns are global in reach with big budgets in faraway places, so there’s something really special about working closer to home.

What has been the most unexpected/weirdest client ask? Did you end up making it happen?

A few years ago, we joined some longtime partners to launch the Miracle Machine. The Miracle Machine was a Kickstarter project featuring a $499 high-tech home appliance that could turn water into wine in only three days. The campaign quickly became viral in the first two weeks with more than 300,000 video views, hundreds of press hits and 7,000 interested folks on Kickstarter.

Except… this was an elaborate marketing ploy to draw attention to a water charity, Wine to Water. For a single dollar, Wine to Water can provide clean water to a person for an entire year.  Wine to Water is affecting real change at a fraction of the price of what so many people were willing to pay for a pretty ridiculous appliance.

We upset a few people after the reveal, especially all the media folks who so easily fell for such obvious nonsense – but by and large, the campaign was a huge success for the organization.

What was something you tried recently for the first time?

I just finished taking a welding class out at Cuesta College. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and now I find myself walking around thinking, “I could make that!” My experience at Cuesta was amazing – I recommend it to everyone!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

joey leslie

My kids are my greatest accomplishment. They are like my own personal social purpose campaign! In many ways I take my work home with me. I advise lots of companies on acting with purpose, so I hope that I’m instilling that sense of obligation in my boys. So far, so good!

What about San Luis Obispo makes it a great place for companies like Matchfire to be headquartered? Where do you see the SLO business community in 10 years?

Currently my favorite part of being in this region is the vibrating energy of anticipation among our neighbors, peers and clients.  There’s this sense that we’re on the verge of something amazing. 

In our work on the Chamber’s economic vision, Imagine SLO, and the Hourglass Project, we’re seeing the potential of our community come to fruition in the coming years. We’ve been able to collaborate with local leaders in education, culture, entrepreneurship and health care to promote Lifelong Learning, Creating Connection, Empowering Innovation and to support the health and wellbeing of our local Doers + Dreamers. From my perspective the commonalities in these various themes are obvious. All boats are rising, and passionate, dedicated people are leading the charge. I’m grateful to play even a small part in the becoming of our region.