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Best of NAMA 2020

Editor's Note: Agri Marketing broke from its tradition of featuring the presidents and CEOs of the top five agricultural agencies and instead spoke to the creative heads of these agencies about the changing role and importance of creativity to agencies and clients alike. Those featured are: Glenn Dawes, AdFarm; Van Kaiser, Rhea & Kaiser; Mike McCabe, Bader Rutter & Associates; creative team leaders Jeff Modean, Jake Garcia and Geoff Hastings, McCormick Advertising; and Joe Osborn, Osborn & Barr Communications.

What have been some of the bright spots in your agency this year? How have you been able to maintain your top five position in our ranking?

Glenn Dawes, Ad Farm
Dawes: Some exciting new business and the attracting of talented new people to creative, PR, media and account services. We've received nice recognition for our work, too - at NAMA, CAMA, plus a prestigious international quality award from Bayer AG for an InVigor print ad. Also, our own Ross Harvey won CAMA's Agri-Marketer of the Year. In April, we finally moved into our new office space in Calgary, which is a reflection of our company brand and the industry we support, a physical embodiment of agriculture. Grain bins, Quonset hut doors, row-crops flooring - it really is quite amazing. We also revitalized our spaces in Kansas City, Fargo and Guelph.

Even more satisfying, though, is that so many of our bright spots are also our clients' bright spots. At some level, that's truly what it's all about. We had clients in really challenging businesses that enjoyed terrific commercial success. And we were a part of that.

I'd say that we have a stronger agency than ever doing better work that leads to more business. We really push ourselves to convert business direction to clear strategy, because that's where the best creative comes from - digging deeper. In other words, relevance leads to impact. And in advertising, if you can make an impact, you grow.

Kaiser: The past several years were somewhat hectic with all the consolidation and buyouts we were dealing with at the client level. This year we have been able to focus our efforts on communications and not as much on "new business." With that said, high points usually revolve around good people doing what they do best - great advertising.

Mike McCabe, Bader Rutter & Associates
McCabe: In a still-challenging environment, we saw strong growth among our ag client base. We launched new brands into the marketplace, including Tetradure™ antibiotic for Merial and Keystone™ herbicide for Dow AgroSciences. And after spending 25 years at our former location, late last summer we moved into our newly constructed home office. We're also in the process of implementing major new computer and software upgrades agency-wide.

McCormick Team: Seeing results from the work we've done this year is a real positive for us. Our goal is to lead the way in bringing creative accountability and measurability to our clients. Great work is one thing. Great work that drives sales is another. We've been fortunate to gain new assignments from existing clients and gain new clients. We view all of our new business as a credit to the past work we've done.

We repositioned McCormick this year as a company of "sales communications professionals." Our sole job is to help clients grow sales and market share. This focus, along with the low turnover of our people, provides us a stable foundation to deliver the kind of work our clients expect and the kind of work to help us grow.

Osborn: We have enjoyed success in both organic growth from existing clients and timely new business wins. In the last quarter of 2003 and the first quarter of this year, we won substantial incremental business from agribusiness organizations such as Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Pride Seeds in Canada and a new cattle marketing venture.

In addition, we have expanded our communications services to non-ag enterprises and government organizations such as USDA Rural Development. One particularly gratifying aspect of the USDA Rural Development win was that it was in competition with other major national PR firms, which are decidedly outside our traditional competitive set, illustrating that our core competencies easily transfer beyond our well-defined ag world.

How have consolidation and tightening budgets affected the creative side of what your agency offers to clients? Have you seen a shift in what clients expect?

Dawes: In part, advertising is about change and innovation, so expectations always change. Sometimes that affects budgets, but budgets affect only tactics, not the strength of ideas. And in the creative department, our currency is still ideas. We may be asked, on occasion, to do more for less. But really, our creative isn't compromised at all.

Kaiser: Consolidations can cause you to "take your eye off the ball" if you aren't careful. We are very aware of that and work hard to continue, from a creative standpoint, to do what we consider right for the brand. Tightening budgets are a challenge, but in the past 25 years we've faced this issue dozens of time and for dozens of reasons. Our job is to do the best work possible and respect our clients' money as if it's our own.

McCabe: Core client expectations have remained the same: beginning with a smart strategy, an attention-grabbing idea and an innovative way of making it all come to life. Of those three areas, I would say the execution phase has been under the most pressure. There seems to be fewer budget dollars available for original photography and the associated costs (i.e. travel) that go along with acquiring original photography. Technology has helped us become extra efficient with shrinking budgets. All of this has forced us to be more resourceful than ever in the conception and execution of our ideas. The bottom line is that we have to do as much as we did before with fewer dollars.

McCormick Team: Without a doubt, we are asked to do more for less. But rather than fight the trend, we have embraced it. We know the creative cycle is faster than it used to be, so we have used technology and an innovative creative development approach to shrink the timeline. We talk a lot about delivering efficiency for our clients. On the creative side, that means quicker, better and cheaper without sacrificing quality. That's our mission.

One shift we've seen is that clients not only expect new ideas, they more readily accept them. Clients recognize the harder creative works, the greater the media or mailbox efficiency. A good idea is worth more than ever in today's world of flat budgets.

Joe Osborn, Osborn & Barr Communications
Osborn: Our clients tend to be large and sophisticated, so their expectations of O&B in terms of both creative quality and efficiencies have always been high. We have seen a renewed emphasis on research and results across all our clients in the United States and Canada. And we're very comfortable with that. We've built a very successful business on thoroughly researching the message and our creative work, and then delivering measurable results. The front-end research provides direction at the earliest stages, when the investment is at its lowest and there is the most opportunity to incorporate the findings.

As agribusinesses consolidate, they tend to focus on their core strengths and use more outside resources for professional services like marketing. In an increasingly competitive environment, the expectations of marketing services are higher. Communications must be highly targeted and very efficient. One of the ways we maximize our clients' dollars is through cooperative promotions, advertising and events that meet the needs of several clients simultaneously. It takes careful planning and coordination, but the result is a bigger impact.

How has the creative process changed over the past few years?

Dawes: Three ways. First, technology has made the entire process much quicker, which means you don't have nearly as much time to think. You've got to be fast on your feet!

Second, how we present ideas to clients is different. Often, our initial comps look like finished print ads. This is a little dangerous, because suddenly we're evaluating the image instead of the idea. Or worse, we assume it's finished and don't give ourselves enough time to properly execute it once it's approved.

Third, at AdFarm, our account group is getting better and better at digging up points of relevance. This means tighter, more compelling briefs. I'm an artist, not a businessman. I'd much rather think up a billboard than battle account people and clients for consumer insights. So better briefs - with substantially deeper customer insights - have allowed my creative teams to work harder on their creative, which they enjoy. When you're provided quality insights from the account and client groups, like in the case of Nexera Canola and FOLICUR fungicide, you feel guilty not hitting it out of the park by creating a great ad.

Van Kaiser, Rhea & Kaiser Marketing Communications
Kaiser: The creative process itself hasn't changed. We still study our markets, learn our products, analyze our competition and then start with a blank sheet of paper. What has changed, however, is the addition of some exciting new tools to help make our communications more personal, timely and efficient.

McCabe: We spend more time up-front getting the brand strategy and creative strategy finely tuned before even starting to concept headlines and visuals. Computers and the explosion of stock photography have made our comp presentation layouts tighter than ever, along with the time frame for getting them done. Some clients expect an almost finished ad when reacting to layouts for the first time.

Finally, we are more focused than ever on how our work performs in the marketplace. By monitoring readership studies, tracking results and other measurement practices, we gain valuable feedback on performance.

In the end, it still comes down to what mattered 20 years ago - quality ideas and great execution.

McCormick Team: The strategy behind the creative process is more important than it has ever been. We use established strategy for a given client as an acid test for everything we do - if it doesn't help move the client in the strategic direction that has been set, we don't do it. In addition, creative is held to a higher degree of accountability than it used to be. All of our major clients test for and track a variety of measurement factors. The process has definitely become much more scientific.

Another process change is that "once-a-year" creative doesn't cut it anymore. Clients expect, and we do our best to deliver, a continual flow of creative ideas.

Osborn: Our creative processes have become more focused and more accountable. We've improved the input end with better strategic planning tools and thus achieved efficiencies in execution of the concept, copy and art stages. In the production arena, we always integrate competitive bidding and then bundle the work in order to increase our buying influence with selected suppliers. In short, it has become easier for us to do better work in less time for less money than a few years ago.

How has your creative group adapted to accommodate a broader range of services offered to clients such as direct marketing or electronic media?

Dawes: Our agency started with clients who had relatively small budgets. Many still do. So we had to provide an integrated communications offering and didn't have a huge number of people to do it. In other words, we learned very early the importance of being able to do everything - print, broadcast, direct mail, digital media, etc. So as we've grown, and our business direction continues to get sharper, our work gets sharper regardless of the kind of tactics we're working on. Philosophically, we develop solutions, not advertising. So by definition, we are literate and skilled at a wide range of services.

Occasionally we partner with people who know more about specific areas than we do - for example, Bayer CropScience, AdFarm and VML working together. Partnering is a learned skill, and we believe we've learned it.

Kaiser: Enthusiastically. What exciting times these are. The ability to talk directly to a an entire market, a region, a small group or an individual using today's new media and tools opens all kinds of doors for the creative people. Relationship marketing isn't really new; it's just more effective than it was even five years ago. We now can track not just individual producers but also the influencers that surround each of them.

McCabe:From day one, Bader Rutter has offered a wide range of services. Therefore, a broad range of skills and interests has always been expected of creative team members. We've tried to hire people who are interested in working on a variety of creative challenges, not just "ads." Naturally, people can be stronger in one area than another. It's how all the skillsets fit together that ultimately determines success.

Creative team leaders (from top) Jeff Modean, Geoff Hastings, and Jake Garcia, McCormick Advertising
McCormick Team: We recognized the need to specialize our creative offering several years ago and made two key structural changes. First, we designated and trained leads for each discipline within each creative team. Second, we forged strategic alliances with a leading database management company and a digital-interactive company to compliment our internal resources. Overall, our structure has allowed us to produce integrated creative elements supported by a very high level of specific expertise. That's a combination that's good for our clients.

Osborn: We've made an enterprise-wide effort to accommodate clients' changing needs menu. This means not only adding specialists in new disciplines, but also broadening our traditional offering spectrum from strategic brand and business consulting to our rapid-response studio services that turn short-term projects around in hours when necessary. Our concept is for O&B to own the necessary expertise inside our agency network so every client gets the benefit of a full-service agency. We have highly skilled professionals providing the full range of strategic research, branding, customer relationship management, public relations, Web, media, creative and production services.

As a key member in one of agriculture's largest agencies, how are teams organized to provide your clients creative marketing solutions?

Dawes: Very traditionally, I think. We try to keep teams together by client. Each team consists of the same group from creative and account services. As an all-ag agency, every creative person works 100 percent on farm consumers. Plus, creative is involved from the very first stages of campaign development - which guarantees direct access to clients. We also have in place a continuous stream of input coming from the market - for instance, our farm panel - which keeps us honest. If I had a dime for every time a producer had a great idea for a radio spot or print campaign ...

Kaiser: Whenever possible we work on a complete team basis. Creative directors, copywriters, art directors, public relations and direct marketing specialists, account services, media and production people all function as a part of the creative process. This gives continuity to the message and assures our clients that we are managing more than just their brands. We are working as efficiently as possible to help manage their dollars.

McCabe:Our creative teams are made up of copywriters, art directors and a creative team leader - who may also play the role of art director or copywriter within the group when needed. That core creative team works hands-on with all work associated with the brand. Additional expertise or firepower is brought in as needed.

McCormick Team: We organize by product group and/or market segment by client. Why? We believe this type of approach allows us to go much more in-depth as compared to a structure where someone only touches a client's business once or twice a year. Our creative teams involve everyone - account service, media, public relations, production, etc. Creative is not limited to what you see or hear; it can be a unique media buy, a new public relations approach or as simple as a different fold or ink. Resourcing the entire agency brings added value to clients and helps keep ideas fresh.

Osborn: Because we prize accountability and collaboration, our organization is very flat. The creative directors in each major office have complete responsibility for that location's quality of work. They closely supervise client-focused teams of writers, art directors and broadcast/print production/proofing staff. We always bring specialized talent, media, PR and account people into the process as needed. I see the work on an agency-wide basis at the beginning of the process and at the end. This approach gives our clients several benefits: the teams learn each client's business in depth, they have access to all the expertise we have throughout the organization of 125-plus people and they take ownership of every project from inception through delivery ... and even on to the metrics and pre- and post-evaluation in the marketplace. So a client has multiple internal champions for his or her project at the agency. AM

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