Ag or no ag – that is the communication question

“They shaved the freaking barley!” That was the opening of a call I received from an industry colleague in early 2007. She was the Canadian communications manager for one of the major global crop protection companies, and was in the middle of a photo shoot for a cereal herbicide. The problem?  The creative director of her agency –  a well-known consumer advertising firm –  decided that the ‘beard’ on the barley plant looked ugly. He sent an assistant into town to purchase a straight razor, and they shaved the barley, prettying it up to look great in the ad.

The story turned out well for our agency. Our deep agriculture experience secured us an invitation to pitch the business – a marketing partnership that continues to this day. While our creative was strong and I believe our account service was and is top-notch, it was really our ag knowledge that opened the door and paved the way to a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

But today, in Canada specifically, many of the leading crop protection, seed and machinery companies are turning to consumer agencies to assist with their marketing and communication needs, where once they worked almost exclusively with ag specialists. This leaves ag-focused agencies wondering what they need to do to earn their place back at the table. I have a few thoughts.

First, the marketing communication landscape has definitely changed in the past five years. The digital tipping point has finally occurred in ag. While traditional media continues to be a prime source of information for farmers and other industry stakeholders, digital marketing and social media are now attracting a third or more of typical marketing communication budgets. For clients, digital savvy increasingly trumps ag knowledge. Clients are more and more willing to trade off some learning curve on the agronomics side of the business for sharp and relevant digital strategies and solutions.

Second, as ag moves closer to food, clients are also weighing an agency’s knowledge and experience in the consumer/food marketplace as a factor when making their decisions. Having at least some exposure to the consumer side of the business now counts for more than it may have in the past.

So how do ag agencies win the day? My mentor Kim McConnell said it best – savvy agencies need to have a bright mix of ‘agness’ and ‘adness’. That is, we need to be just as strong on communications as we are on agronomy. Today, that means having a strong digital team, strength in social media, and some working knowledge of the food side of the consumer landscape.

The day of the pure ‘ag only’ agency is waning. But for agencies willing to adapt and balance their ag experience with leading-edge communications expertise, specifically on the digital front, there is a chance to recapture lost ground.

After all, someone will inevitably decide to shave the barley. And a digital-savvy ag-focused agency with at least a bit of consumer know-how stands a decent chance of winning the business.


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