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EDITOR'S NOTE: While agencies are modifying services and strategies to keep up with the fast-paced and changing agribusiness climate, the basic principles of good communications tactics still apply, according to executives at four leading agricultural ad agencies.

Revealing what communications firms must do to survive and thrive long-term are Buzz Baker, president/CEO, CMF&Z, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, Iowa; Phil Johnson, president/COO, Colle & McVoy Marketing Communications, Minneapolis; Bob Miller, chairman/CEO, Miller Meester Advertising Inc., Minneapolis; and Greg Nickerson, executive vice president, Bader Rutter & Associates Inc., Brookfield, Wis.

AM: What's the trend in the scope of services a major ag agency offers?

Baker: The trend is clearly to data-driven, Web-enabled communications. Thus, for a contemporary integrated marketing communications company, database development and management capabilities - as well as Web site creative, production and ongoing service resources - are necessary additives to the core advertising and public relations functions.

Johnson: More and more agencies are broadening the number and type of services they offer. Ad agencies are adding public relations and direct marketing capabilities. Public relations firms are dabbling in sales promotion and advertising. Fortunately, Colle & McVoy was one of the leaders in offering integrated services to agribusiness. We understand that sound strategic planning must be the basis of all communications and that strategy will dictate the right mix of integrated communications tactics.

Miller: Digital, digital, digital. The world is moving at e-speed, and agencies need to lead the way for their clients, which is not as easy as it once was. There will be less reliance on mass media and more emphasis on the digital world. "Hard" communications such as publications will give way to e-communication. Direct marketing becomes even more important, public relations will need to make fundamental changes, and advertising as we know it may cease to exist in its current form. Agencies must gear up for this in terms of technology, expertise and philosophy.

Nickerson: We continue to broaden and deepen our service offering because building strong brands today requires competency in a wide range of disciplines. The Internet has opened up a whole new channel for not only delivering information and marketing messages but transacting business as well. But, no matter how much communications tactics change, the basics still apply. For an agency, that means generating creative yet strategically relevant ideas that build a client's business.

AM: What are the biggest challenges ag agencies face today?

Baker: We know the demographics of agriculture are changing, and we believe the psychographics are changing as well. That means target audiences from marketer to channel to end-user are thinking about their businesses differently. To reach and move those targets requires new messages, oftentimes delivered in a new way. Identifying the viable leverage points to be used as message constructs and then conveying the messages in the most effective and efficient way have always been the agency's task and challenge. Today the challenge is more complex and thus more difficult, but it is the same challenge.

Johnson: Agribusiness consolidation is clearly the greatest challenge for agencies that do not have a diverse client base. In almost every category - animal health, crop protection, equipment and others - mergers and acquisitions are narrowing the number and range of agricultural clients. Agencies that do not offer integrated services or do not have the critical mass needed to serve larger, more sophisticated clients will need to consider consolidating or exiting the industry.

Miller: Change, or rather the speed of change, is the biggest challenge. The speed at which clients are consolidating is incredible. What is true this morning is no longer true this afternoon. Consolidation of agricultural clients creates a fierce competitive environment among agencies that none of us has experienced before. The victories go to the nimble.

This fast-paced business climate is forcing companies and their agencies to shorten the planning cycle. Clients are asking for - and needing - sophisticated programs that are conceived and executed in a few short weeks. Agricultural marketing is now moving at the pace of the retail world. Clients want work that is fast, cheap and good - not just two of the three, as agencies used to tell them.

Nickerson: Industry consolidation is probably the most significant challenge facing us all. It's the continued downsizing of the agribusiness complex. Whether you're talking about the number of farmers, the number of manufacturers or the channel to market - the playing field is changing dramatically. With all the changes taking place at the client level, there's a risk of brands not getting the attention they deserve. Too much energy ends up focused on internal issues. Long-term strategy can take a backseat to short-term issues. That's why we take our role of being the brand's steward very seriously.

AM: In today's job market, what is key to attracting and retaining the best employees?

Baker: Everyone - new employees and long-time contributors - wants to work on interesting business with good people and have the opportunity to truly make a difference. And they want to be reasonably rewarded for making that difference. In today's job market, however, prospective employees are far less willing to do what many of us did in the past (i.e., pay the tenure and experience dues before working on the best business with the best clients and with the most potential for recognition and rewards).

That doesn't mean they won't pay the price, but it does mean you must have a career path plan and vision for how they could grow and thrive with your company as they come into it, rather than after some proving takes place.

Johnson: Competitive salaries and benefits programs are merely the price of entry into today's competitive marketplace. Beyond that, the keys to attracting top talent are as individual as each candidate. By recognizing that each employee has unique motivations and needs, employers can create individualized packages which will be professionally challenging and personally rewarding.

Miller: People want jobs where the work is satisfying, their talents are recognized and free from boundaries, and compensation is fair and flexible. Today's employees want and expect to go 200 miles per hour, and we need to allow this to happen. That is why they are in the agency business. We also need to provide access to cutting-edge technology, which provides job satisfaction and an "education" not achievable at any university.

Nickerson: We work hard at creating work environments and work experience that are cultivated by responsibility and reward. Providing a true sense of ownership is a strong motivator. That not only helps retain top-notch talent, but it's also a very important recruiting tool. Really good people want to work on really good clients. That's why it's important to have clients on your roster who are committed to treating marketing and sales communications as an investment, not a cost. That's probably the least appreciated factor in retaining quality talent.

AM: Ten years from now, how will an agency be successful, as yours is now?

Baker: Do the basics very, very well. Create an environment where those who can think outside the box, but in a disciplined way, can thrive. Work with clients who will allow you to optimally express your talents on their behalf. Always be passionate about the work, but never petulant. Know what constitutes success and then reward at least those who contribute the most to it. Perhaps most importantly, never stop learning. And the higher up in the organization you are, the more important that is.

Johnson: Success throughout this decade will depend to some extent on the same things that make us successful today: talented employees, smart clients and ethical business practices. But there's no doubt that throughout this decade agencies will also need an unprecedented capacity for change so they can embrace the new realities of the information age. The challenges and opportunities of e-business are staggering for clients and agencies alike. Colle & McVoy has already invested heavily in building a successful interactive technologies capability to serve the current and future needs of our agribusiness clients. But we, and other agencies, cannot let up. Success will require even greater vision and more technological resources.

Miller: First, give up the past. Recognize that in today's environment the crystal ball doesn't read beyond the next minute. The key for future success will be how well agencies will reinvent themselves to anticipate and adapt to the rapid rate of change. The line between agencies and clients and media will be dotted, if not eliminated. Agencies are getting into the media business because the media is suddenly competing with our clients in new ways. The lines are blurring.

Nickerson: To be successful will require investment in people, training, technology, relationships and reputation. Another key ingredient is to identify which trends will stick, then capitalize on them. That's particularly true for technology. Not every new whiz-bang piece of technology is going to survive. The trick is to pick those tools that cost-effectively build strong brands and deliver dollars to the clientís business. Also, successful agencies will have a strong vision for where they want to take their business. The cyber world creates a lot of temptations to make hasty, short-term decisions, but a long-term strategy is still a necessity.

AM: What's going to be the biggest surprise the ag communications industry will face in the next 10 years?

Baker: There are two. First, if we think change is occurring rapidly now, we ain't seen nothin yet. And if we can't anticipate that change, adapt to it and direct the outcomes of it, we will fall behind and fail. But the second "surprise" (which perhaps is the only real surprise of the two) is that the basics will not change - in 10 years or 10 times 10 years. Because, if the objective is to commercially persuade someone to take action, it will still require understanding the customer so we may link our product or service to that customer through its attributes, benefits or even specific appeal to personal values. And doing all that better than the competition.

How we acquire the understanding may change, the tools we use to create the leveragable message may change and the mechanism(s) for delivering that message may change, but the objective will not. Nor will there be any shortcuts to accomplishing that objective in 10 years, just as there are none today - which is as it should be for any worthwhile objective or for success in anyone's life's work.

Johnson: Agri-marketers who deny or underestimate the growing knowledge, power and influence of consumers - in the United States and abroad - are in for a big surprise. The rugged individualism of the agricultural community must be tempered now by a new recognition and acceptance of the global interdependence of producers and consumers.

At Colle & McVoy we create powerful communications by touching the hearts and minds of our clients' target audiences. In the information age, these target audiences are more diverse, cynical and powerful than ever before. We have a responsibility to help clients listen to, understand and influence these many audiences. By being proactive and forward-thinking, we can prevent undue surprises and positively impact agriculture in the 21st century.

Miller: We've just seen the beginning of the Digital Revolution. Our communications world will change so dramatically that you won't recognize it. Advances in satellite technology and greater access to interactive information services will allow custom-tailoring of virtually any communication to virtually any person. Most of the change is in progress now. Only deployment is lagging.

Will farmers wait to watch a specific TV program when they can call up on demand what they want to watch? There will be no lines between broadcasting and being online. Farmers won't be willing to wait for information from a monthly or even weekly publication - if they will read a publication at all. Farmers will demand getting the information they want, exactly when they want it, how they want it and to what degree of detail and timeliness. The only current ag communications medium that may resemble its current form is radio, because you still have to watch the road or row to drive. Of course, you'll be in a control tower above the farm.

Nickerson: The compression of channels to market will have a dramatic impact on our industry. As we move from, in a number of cases, four-step distribution to two- or one-step distribution, the importance of communicating effectively grows ever greater. The advent of the Internet and its various applications has only placed more emphasis on building strong brands. The "middlemen" have served as conduits for product/service information for decades. If they are removed, who supplies the information and how is it delivered? Manufacturers will need to build even stronger relationships with the end-user and make their brands meaningful. AM

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