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STAYING ON TOP
AGENCY EXECS MUST MASTER MERGERS, RETAIN BUSINESSES AND EXPLORE AREAS FOR GROWTH
Editor’s Note: Operating in an industry that is frequently in a state of flux requires today’s leading ag marketing communications agencies to be flexible. Addressing client concerns about budgets, assessing growth opportunities and accommodating employee needs are key to retaining and expanding business.

Revealing their tips for survival and what they’ve learned through their years at communications firms are: Buzz Baker, president/CEO, CMF&Z, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, Iowa; Kathy Cornett, chairman, McCormick Co., Amarillo, Texas; Phil Johnson, president/COO, Colle+McVoy, Minneapolis; Greg Nickerson, executive vice president, Bader Rutter & Associates Inc., Brookfield, Wis.; and Steve Rhea, president, Rhea & Kaiser Marketing Communications, Naperville, Ill.


AM: How is the job market changing, and what influence does that have on your recruitment and retention strategies?

Baker:
Clients are leaner and so must we be. Their needs are becoming more specific, which dictates that when we hire, we do so to meet those needs with already-honed talents that can contribute immediately. As for retention, the first key in this highly volatile, efficiency-¤ocused environment is retention of business. If we retain business, we can retain good people by creating an environment where creativity and innovation flourish.

Cornett: Employees expect more flexibility these days. Some want to work from home. Some may not live in towns where we have offices. Some are more interested in benefits and security than in salary alone. We’ve always been open to special arrangements with employees.

Johnson: Up until a few months ago, jobs were plentiful, you could name your price, and if you had any talent, you probably could improve your position and salary. Mergers and the dot-com downturn changed that. Now it’s a buyer’s market, and there are more good people out there than there are jobs. From a retention standpoint, we’re looking at more alternative employment options. Professionals today are more focused on the work-life balance. Increasingly we hear of people who want to work part time or work out of their homes.

Nickerson: During the last 12 months we’ve seen a slight increase in the availability of talent because of continued consolidation in the agribusiness world. In particular, we’ve seen an up-tick in the inflow of resumes from people with corporate marketing background. When it comes to retention, so much is still tied to the quality of the client-agency relationship. Good people want to work on a good piece of business.

Rhea: For the first time in several years, the job market may not be as tight as it has been in the past. Even so, good people are always difficult to find because they usually enjoy their current work assignment and are being fairly compensated. Our recruitment and retention policies will essentially stay the same. We’ll continue the policy of meeting new and interesting people even if only for an informational interview.

AM: What was the toughest challenge for your agency during the past year?

Baker:
Our brand equity, built up over years of helping build some key client brands, has been trumped by consolidations and replacement of performance-earned friends by new players to whom that equity is irrelevant. The best approach is to work even harder for current clients and also seek out replacement clients who will be quite happy to have us help take market share from their competitors.

Cornett: Staying ahead of mergers and acquisitions has kept things interesting. We appreciate long relationships with clients and actually have experienced many changes with existing clients over the years - long before it was "fashionable." Keeping our focus on the work at hand and trying to stay out of client politics are important.

Johnson: The toughest challenge was living through mergers and all the continuity problems they presented. When your client undergoes a merger, you have to weather a barrage of personnel changes. You immediately have to begin rebuilding your credibility and re-establishing your credentials. Mergers also bring budget reassessments. We’ve had instances where fledgling programs were cut because the newly merged company wouldn’t fund them to the point where they could show results.

Nickerson: The toughest challenge was persuading our clients to maintain budgets in the face of difficult economic conditions at the producer level. These are times when you can increase share through aggressive marketing and reap the rewards when the selling environment improves. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in recognition of the value and leverage that marketing communications provides.

Rhea: Budgets were more agonized over last year by our clients than in almost any other time in recent memory. Industry consolidation makes managing a communications business a challenge. The only way to thrive is to stay flexible. We have to respond quickly, remembering to prioritize and focus on those issues that are most important to our respective clients.

AM: Where do you see the greatest opportunity for growth within your agency?

Baker:
No matter what anyone says about the future of agriculture and agricultural communications, because it’s what we do best at CMF&Z it must remain our best opportunity for growth. We will focus on it, enhance skills, invest in understanding the markets not only as they are but as they will be, and, most importantly, continue to work with or seek out clients who really want to grow and are willing to take risks.

Cornett: Growth is coming from two areas. Increased work assignments from existing client companies and additional services that have expanded our product base to attract new and different clients. Because our Fort Worth operation is relatively new, we expect to see growth there as well.

Johnson: I believe our biggest opportunities go hand in hand with our biggest challenges. As roles within our client organizations shift, needs shift as well. That puts the agency in a position to help identify areas of assistance and then provide it, either internally or through outsourcing. The rapid growth of the Internet also has fueled interest.

Nickerson: The essence of our agency has always been to apply strategic discipline to the job of building strong brands. At no time is that more important than now. This is the cyber world; everyone’s in a rush; companies are merging and people are changing jobs. Brands transcend all this upheaval.

Rhea: Public relations is the fastest-growing group within our agency. Our clients want to direct their messages to all the various audiences in the most cost-effective means possible. And that means talking to all of their audiences using advertising, events, interactive, direct and public relations, speaking in one voice with a consistent and believable message.

AM: What would be your dream account and why? Is there an ag issue or business challenge you would especially love to tackle?

Baker: CMF&Z must be in the crop protection business. We’ve launched a multitude of successful products into it, and we’ve proved we can move markets whether the supportive financial resources be substantial or only meager. Also, because of being in the business so long (try since 1975 with a product called Treflan!) and being so directly involved with all the players, we have much to contribute to a client in this category. Who needs to dream beyond that?

Cornett: The dream account isn’t necessarily a high spender, but a company that understands the value of marketing communication. Our best work is accomplished when the client is demanding and fair and has a sense of urgency and responsibility for the communication activities. Because we have so many clients in the integrated food industry, we’re very busy counseling companies about staying ahead of consumer issues relating to food safety, animal welfare and environmental concerns.

Johnson: My dream account believes passionately in the importance of marketing but doesn’t believe he or she has all the answers. This account demands the best work in the industry and appreciates good, solid thinking from its agency. Experience working on the agency side is a definite bonus. The challenge I would love to take on is helping a client deal with the contracting agricultural marketplace. We have some real opportunities to communicate better with a smaller universe of large players, as well as explore possibilities with people farming less than full time.

Nickerson: We already believe we have dream accounts. What makes an account a dream? A client who understands that marketing and sales communications is an investment, not a cost. One who takes the time to plan properly and treats us as a partner, not a vendor. One not inflicted with NIH (Not Invented Here Syndrome). And one who pays bills on time. That’s not asking too much, is it?

We’d love to be able to figure out a way to get all parties working together to elevate the image of the American farmer/rancher. Enormous policy and regulatory issues are looming, and if we do not speak as a united voice - a la AMA (doctors), ABA (lawyers) or AARP (senior citizens) - we fear the producer’s interests will be lost in the shuffle.

Rhea: Every account that we have is a dream account because we find it challenging and rewarding taking their products to market, and we have clients who are great people with whom to work. With that said, our agency has been actively pursuing opportunities to tell agriculture’s story directly to American consumers. Consumers need to be informed as to how fortunate they are through the advancements in biotechnology, modern farm equipment and the hard work of farmers and the others in the food channel.

AM: Describe an account you wish you would have handled differently and what you learned from that experience.

Baker:
In 1989 I resigned an account because of what I considered then and still consider principle. In retrospect, however, I don’t believe I gave our lead client contact the opportunity to fully understand why that principle was so important to us. She was a bright and decent person, and the worst she could have done was disagree. I didn’t give her that chance. I acted, which was my responsibility as a leader, but I’ve often wondered if the righteousness was mixed with just a bit too much petulance. I resigned not only a client, but also a terrific group of people who had been both business associates and friends. It’s a decision I often revisit.

Cornett: Our upfront work with clients includes a pledge for candor. Over time we have learned that it is our duty to tell the Emperor if he is without clothing.

Johnson: There are accounts we should have fired - those that didn’t let us do our job as strategists and communications professionals. We’ve learned that the best accounts are those where we can function as a true partner, using our full skill set to help them achieve their objectives.

Nickerson: During the last year we resisted the temptation to dive head long into dot-com "opportunities," despite having several offers of taking equity stakes in exchange for our counsel. However, we were hired by an outfit that sure seemed to be the real deal, only to find out that the multimillion-dollar budget they promised didn’t even reach six figures. We did get paid for our time.

Rhea: We have learned the inherent value of building and maintaining relationships with everyone throughout the client’s organization. Everyone is important - from the CEO to the newest member to the organization. AM



Candace Krebs is a freelance journalist based in Enid, Okla.


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