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SKATING TOWARD THE PUCK
FARM PROGRESS COMPANIES ANNOUNCES NEW STRATEGY TO MOVE TOWARD THE FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE
Jeff Lapin, president, is reshaping Farm Progress' print strategy with the help of all company employees.
What do art, hockey and agriculture have in common? One collective thread between the vastly different areas is Jeff Lapin, president of Farm Progress Companies, Carol Stream, Ill. Many, including Lapin, have probably asked the question, "How does an art and journalism major from New England become the president of one of the agriculture industry's most traditional publishing entities?" Lapin's extensive publishing experience and style of inspirational leadership is the answer.

Lapin came to Farm Progress from Squid Media Inc., a Cincinnati-based marketing and promotion consulting and media development firm where he served as president. Additionally, Lapin was senior vice president and general manager, magazine/educational services, of F&W Publications Inc. He also worked for the former Harvest Farm Unit of HBJ Publications, which published Ohio Farmer, Michigan Farmer, Kansas Farmer and others that are now part of Farm Progress.

All of these stops ultimately led him to a company whose publications were struggling with an identity crisis and a recession in the agriculture market. But, Lapin has taken this adversity along with tradition head on and is helping Farm Progress to make waves in ag publishing circles.

CHALLENGING TRADITION

In October 2003, armed with corporate brochures, financial sheets, circulation numbers, volumes of magazines and more, Lapin began studying Farm Progress Companies and, more importantly, questioning where every dollar was spent and how it benefited the company.

According to Willie Vogt, corporate editorial director, Lapin has asked the question, "Why do we do this?" many times. Often the answer was, "because that's the way we've always done it."

"Because he has an outsider's perspective, he can ask questions that no one else can," Vogt explains.

Another unique factor is Rural Press Limited's - the New South Wales, Australia-based parent company that bought Farm Progress from the Walt Disney Company in 1997 - dedication to fostering rural and regional interests not only in Australia but also in the United States. Management from Australia has taken an active and encouraging role in moving Farm Progress and its staff forward to the future of agriculture.

In mid-June, Lapin and other key management members called together all of the company's employees to unveil a fresh strategy for Farm Progress Companies. Two of the most impacting points of the new strategy include a new format and unique design for all 18 of the state publications, as well as the resurrection of Farm Futures magazine.

These moves came as a welcome surprise to many editors and staff, and their reactions were overwhelmingly positive. Carroll Smith, editor of Mid-South Farmer, recalls that there was energy in the air the day that Farm Progress' employees were let in on the plan. She says the most surprising aspect was not the upcoming changes but how the news was imparted. "They presented this as a new opportunity and asked us how we wanted to do it within the new format," Smith explains.

"Jeff is new to ag, and his not knowing all of the specifics about the industry has led him to turn to us - the editors - and ask how do you want to do this?" she says. "He's not a dictator, and he's very open to our ideas."

BREAKING THE MOLD

Under a new plan, Farm Progress' 18 state publications feature unique logs and template designs as well as more local editorial coverage.
Why all of the changes? Some have said that Farm Progress' former cookie-cutter design approach to its 18 state farm magazines has created an identity crisis among media buyers. "There was an erroneous impression our content was the same in each title," Lapin says. "In fact, our editors produced more than 5,000 editorial pages in 2003, with an average 69 percent local content."

Lapin has set out to reverse this by creating a clear identity for each magazine. The strategy involves returning the publications to tabloid size - the size used until the mid-'80s when the magazines were changed to a standard trim format.

Vogt says this new palette provides readers the information they need as well as a more reader-friendly format. "This isn't your daddy's tabloid," he quips. Using a combination of coated and high-grade uncoated stock and absolutely no newsprint, Vogt says, "this is not what a U.S. reader would mentally define as a typical tabloid."

Along with the size change will come a unique logo and template design for each of the state publications. Lapin says this strategy will build on the strength of the existing brands, while differentiating the magazines in the marketplace and providing more local and relevant content for the books' combined 500,000 readers. The individual design of each publication "drives home the point that these are unique properties," Lapin stresses.

The design will not be the only distinct change. Readers will also notice more locally relevant editorial in the state magazines and on the respective unique Web sites. Lapin says the content will be even more unique to each publication. The primary focus of the editorial will remain with Farm Progress' roots in production agriculture and will not follow the trend of many farm publications in featuring rural lifestyle content. "Farm Progress' strength lies in the production side of agriculture and that's where we want to be," Lapin adds.

The underlying theme of this change is to give the reader what he or she wants. Vogt says Farm Progress intends to spend more time listening to the reader and enhancing the editorial product based on this feedback. "This sets a whole new tone for our company," he says.

This also sets a new tone for advertisers who will receive a better venue to communicate their messages to producers. Vogt says the new format "allows advertisers more flexibility by offering new shapes and sizes to communicate a message." Also, he says advertisers have no reason to worry about the quality of the tabloid-sized publications. With glossy covers, uncoated stock and color print, Vogt says he is very happy with the quality.

In addition, the renewed focus on localized agriculture provides new opportunities for local and regional advertisers. Classifieds will become a major part of the new sales strategy for each state book, and the company is planning to staff up sales professionals who will build relationships with advertisers on the local level.

"We are offering many new things for advertisers, including new and varied ad sizes and various departments that will allow an excellent editorial set for these state, regional or national advertisers," says Don Tourte, director, national business development for Farm Progress.

Greg Guse, vice president and director of client services for Paulsen Marketing, says he can't really see a downside to the direction Farm Progress is taking with its state publications. "There is more content on a page and a great way to create impact with a larger ad size," Guse says. "Not to mention that in the mailbox, the tabloid size will stand out and say 'Read me first!'

"When you stop and think about the current state for agriculture publishers, new strategies and new approaches are needed in order to effectively compete and succeed," Guse says. "The state publications now have more appeal to local and regional advertisers. The challenge is maintaining national advertisers while attracting local ones. If they can do that, I think this will have been a smart move."

FILLING THE GAP

Given the changing dynamics of high-end producers, Farm Progress is bringing back Farm Futures magazine, which it suspended production of four years ago. Targeting 200,000 large-scale, $250,000+ income producers, Farm Futures will focus its editorial content on top-of-mind issues for farm businessmen, such as risk management, landlord relations, farm programs, input buying and employee management topics ranging from 401K programs to uniform programs.

Mike Wilson, executive editor of Farm Futures, says that this niche audience does not get equal coverage and the support that the mid-size farmer enjoys. "Our goal is always to learn what the readers need and provide it," he says. "We plan to be in constant contact with our audience through focus groups and feedback opportunities so that we can be as close to them as possible."

The magazine, produced by an editorial team with 80 years of combined experience, will hit mailboxes in early October. Many will recognize the work of John Otte, economist and former extension professional in Florida; Arlan Suderman, who has extension experience in Kansas and as a market analyst and grain trader; and Bryce Knorr, an active grain trader and former Farm Futures editor.

"This staff probably has more outside, real-world experience than agriculture has seen in a long time," Vogt says. "We perceive a coverage gap in this specialized segment and we plan to fill it. We have assembled a team that I think will hit this underserved market pretty hard."

Warren Riedesel, marketing communications manager for corn, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, sees this move as a positive one. "We at Pioneer are looking for magazines that get read, and this has the potential to do that for us."

Tourte says the magazine will prove to be an "excellent opportunity for advertisers to continue and enhance the dialogue with the existing readers of the state books and to target the upper end of the grower market in an outstanding editorial environment."

Lapin stresses that the company is resurrecting the old Farm Futures name, but not the old magazine. In fact, the company and its printing partner, RR Donnelly, are using new technology that offers a higher level of print quality and, according to Vogt, promises to have farmers saying "Wow!" when it shows up in mailboxes.

NEW OPPORTUNITY

These are just two of the major changes that are occurring at Farm Progress Companies. According to Vogt, the company is reengineering all of its internal processes and taking an analytical look at the other traditional products and services, such as farm shows, as a result of this new course.

You may ask why these drastic changes are happening. It goes back to what hockey and Farm Progress Companies have in common, which lies in Wayne Gretzky's most noted quote and Farm Progress' inspirational motto: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been."

Farm Progress Companies has taken this idea and applied it to the ag publishing industry. And, although no one knows exactly where agriculture is going, Farm Progress is now changing business processes in order to move toward agriculture's future with the help of successful tools from its past. AM


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