How to Win in an Economic Downturn: Increase Advertising – AND – Modulate Tonality, be Authentic, and be Helpful

Dave Nobs is the Managing Director and Head of Business Development at Lavidge, a highly awarded, employee-owned, full-service advertising agency with ever broadening horizons. Lavidge started in traditional advertising in 1982, then added public relations in the 90s, digital marketing in the 2000s, and multicultural marketing about 5 years ago. A couple years later, the agency broke down the walls between what had been its divisional siloes. Subject matter experts now look at the totality of a client’s issues holistically.

Dave notes that the agency’s work focuses on projects that meet client-specific and industry-specific benchmarks, most commonly tracked through brand awareness and sales. He explains that his agency strives to make a difference for clients, employees, and the community.

Lavidge added multicultural marketing to address cross-cultural messaging needs in a state with a strong Hispanic presence . . . but multicultural marketing is not just about language differences. Dave says marketers serving a specific cultural market need to be aware of the different, and almost intangible. “tones,” strategies, and tactics needed for a client to gain credibility within that community.

“Truth, inspiration, and action” drive the agency’s projects: 

  • Truth “happens” when the agency and a client collaborate to research issues, develop strategy, evaluate data and analytics, and go through the give-and-take-process of participating in focus groups, interviews, consumer intercepts, and experiential observation – and synthesize all that market and client information to understand what the client is “about,” and what the client “needs.”
  • In the inspiration phase, the agency and the client work “hand-in-hand” on the marketing story, the design and art direction, and the feel of the narrative. 
  • The action part includes media and channel placement and assessing responses and brand impression dynamics – getting the message to the masses and hearing their reply. 

As Managing Director, Dave generates new business, grows existing client business, attends to agency marketing issues, and develops strategic client innovations. In this interview, he lists assets that he attributes to Lavidge’s success: 

  • An attitude of positivity 
  • Daily communication with clients large and small
  • The agency’s focus on the client . . . and on using “every experience, tool, trend, skill and insight at our disposal to create immediate and lasting connections between brands and human beings.”

Over the years, Lavidge has evolved to concentrate on a number of core verticals: healthcare, education, retail services, homebuilders, and sports.

Dave discussed re-reading a Harvard Business Review article on how to market in a recession. The article’s author asserted that tough economic times were “not the time to cut advertising.” Historically, brands increasing advertising during a downturn, while their competitors cut back, “can significantly improve market share and return on investment.” Dave reminds us that “It’s also important to be aware of tonality . . . to be authentic . . . to be helpful” and highlighted several companies that are taking action to do just that.

Dave is available on his company’s website at: https://www.lavidge.com/.

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Dave Nobs, the Managing Director at Lavidge based in Phoenix, Arizona. Welcome to the podcast, Dave.

DAVE: Thank you, Rob. It’s a pleasure to be here.

ROB: Fantastic to have you here, Dave. Why don’t you explain to us where Lavidge really excels and what you’re known for?

DAVE: Sure. We are a full-service advertising, digital, public relations, and multicultural agency here in Phoenix. We’ve been in business since ’82. We were founded in the ’80s as an advertising agency, added PR in the ’90s, digital in the 2000s, and then multicultural marketing about 5 years ago.

We are one of the largest agencies in Arizona, and certainly one of a handful of full-service agencies, meaning all of our services are in-house under one roof.

ROB: Perfect. You’ve been around for the addition of that multicultural line of business; what were some of the things you saw in the market that pulled you in that direction and caused you to commit to that line of business?

DAVE: We’re always looking at innovative client solutions, and multicultural marketing, particularly Hispanic marketing here in the Southwest, is particularly important to our clients. We started with McDonald’s, which was a big client of ours, and then we added multicultural marketing to a number of our other clients, particularly in healthcare, like Banner Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and others just because it was a need that they have.

Multicultural marketing is very different than general market in tone and some strategies and tactics specifically geared to accomplish results in that area.

ROB: How in particular? What are some of the ways you would say in detail that things need to be different when you’re speaking to that sort of audience?

DAVE: I think different strategies and tactics resonate with the Hispanic market better than others. Obviously, digital is very important. Events, immersive/experiential marketing sometimes is more important than others. But really, for us, it’s more a client solution than it is anything else, particularly for our clients that has that audience, and that’s important for them.

ROB: I would imagine a part of that is really almost subjective in the eyes of the person being marketed to. It’s this overall sense I think we all have when someone knows and understands us versus where someone’s intruding into our world but doesn’t really belong at the party. Is there an intangible dimension to it, do you think?

DAVE: I think that’s accurate.

ROB: Perfect. Tell us a little bit about how the agency started, if you can get into some of that, and then how you came into the picture as well.

DAVE: Sure. As I mentioned, we were founded in ’82. We have a staff of just over 70 people. We have $70 million in capitalized billings, and we’re employee-owned. I believe we’re the only agency in Arizona that’s employee-owned. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve been voted Best Place to Work eight times and the Top Agency in Arizona six times, Best Place to Work for Women, and just recently – this month, as a matter of fact – we were named AZ Big Media’s No. 1 Advertising Agency for the ninth year in a row. We’re very proud of that.

For us, it’s really about solving client problems with strategic thinking and sharp creative views that go well beyond producing ads. Our agency mantra is “be creative, work smart, and have fun.” We live and breathe that every day.

ROB: With an agency that’s been there for a while, and you said it’s also employee-owned, how do you think about leadership transitions within that environment? Because 33 years, you didn’t start the thing but you’re running a lot of the show there now, and someone will supersede you. How does that work in that sort of environment?

DAVE: Good question. My role is that of a Chief Growth Officer, so my focus is generating new business, growing existing client business, agency marketing, strategic client innovations. I’ve been here 10 years, and I’m part of a management team of eight people. If you can believe it, I’m the newbie. The rest of the management team members have been with Lavidge for more than 10 years.

The industry has changed so much. It certainly has become more project focused. What we need to do, and what we’re focused on, is really – our purpose is to make a difference for our clients, our employees, and in the community. Our beliefs are really around truth, inspiration, action.

What I mean by that is for our clients – and we’re very collaborative; we like to involve the client at every step of the process, from the outset of the campaign to the strategies and tactics to the implementation and to measuring the results. So when I mention our purpose, making a difference, we’re looking for truth. You hear a lot in our industry about finding insights, but the truth for us is really strategy, research, the conversation with our clients, including the hard conversations, looking at the data, analytics, focus groups, interviews, consumer intercepts, the experience. All that we put into place to gather these insights.

The next step for us is really the inspiration, which is the motivation, the motion, the design, the art direction, the experience, the usability, the feel – to tell those stories, because for us, like most agencies, it’s all about storytelling.

Then it’s the action, getting the results that our clients need. That’s looking at media, looking at the channels, looking at loyalty, all of the brand impressions, clicks, visits, awareness, decision, movement, all generating the results our clients are looking for.

ROB: It sounds like quite a range of things to think about. I appreciate what you’re saying about the insights and having some of those hard conversations around the insights. In some ways, coming into digital, even coming into PR before that, in some ways the numbers that you can present to a client have changed, but the bottom line of business in terms of doing well for your clients, doing well for the business, doing well for your employees – those haven’t changed.

What are some of the key numbers you see that are really relevant to clients today, that help them understand and help them come to grips with maybe a hard conversation?

DAVE: That’s a good question. Most of our clients – and this is historically true for the industry as well – are looking at two things at the end of the day, usually: brand awareness and sales. The trick is to develop programs that are specifically geared toward our clients’ benchmarks. They’re different by industry and they’re different for each client.

I think it’s particularly important these days to develop tailor-made solutions because each client is different, each challenge is different. Oftentimes, there are different projects for some of our bigger clients, and they all have different metrics.

ROB: Yeah, especially when the clients are significantly larger. It can make a difference. When it comes to Lavidge, is there any particular sweet spot for you in terms of industries and client size that you maybe see a cluster of clients around that helps develop some particular excellence in that area?

DAVE: Some of our core vertical experience – healthcare, certainly we have a number of healthcare clients such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, Delta Dental, SimonMed, Sonora Quest, Banner. So healthcare is certainly a specialty of ours.

Another one is education. Arizona State University is one of our larger clients. It’s interesting – I say Arizona State University; it’s really 12 or 14 different clients because we work with their enterprise marketing hub and all the different schools and divisions, such as Barrett Honors College, Thunderbird, Cronkite, the Alumni Council, the athletics department. It’s a number of different clients under that one banner.

So healthcare, education. Retail services is another core area of expertise for us. We do a lot of franchise marketing in the retail space. We worked with Massage Envy for years and years and years in virtually every year of marketing and communications. Re-Bath is another significant retail service client of ours.

If I had to mention three, those would be it. Healthcare, education, retail services. We also do a lot with homebuilders. We’ve done a lot in the sports area as well. We’re a full-service general market agency, but those are some of our core areas of expertise.

ROB: Very interesting. It makes sense. Some of those are very familiar, although even with the educational focus, in some ways it maybe looks more like enterprise than ever before, because what you’re describing to me sounds almost – you mentioned their marketing hub – it sounds like a center of excellence that any enterprise brand might have. Do you think they have had some inspiration from that world, or some learnings from the center of excellence approach? Or maybe even the enterprises learned from them.

DAVE: Yeah, I believe so. For ASU, it’s really all about innovation. They’re proud to be named the most innovative university. Obviously Michael Crow, their president, deserves a great deal of the credit for that. But ASU, for us, that’s a great example of our collaborative approach. We really do work hand-in-hand with them.

It can get messy at times, and we like that because we think involving them, again, early in the process and working with them – daily communications, weekly status calls, monthly reporting – that helps generate best results as possible on their behalf.

ROB: It’s really interesting because you jammed through that cadence of the daily, weekly, monthly. A lot of times when we talk to even very successful agencies, especially because I think maybe people come from a creative place, they don’t mention that sort of process. How do you, with I think you said around 70 some employees, think about establishing that as a standard? How do you communicate those standards of cadence and make sure they’re listened to and followed throughout the organization? Because they come from a place of wisdom.

DAVE: Right, and that’s really our commitment to our clients because things change so often. Daily communication is vital – not only for our big accounts, but also for some of our smaller accounts. We have, like a lot of agencies, larger agency of record relationships, and then we also have standalone public relations clients or website clients or creative services clients. It’s important, no matter how big or small they are, to communicate daily. Again, that’s part of our commitment.

Then the weekly calls keep everybody on track – not only us, but also our clients. Particularly helpful for the larger clients. One of the things that we like to do is have one point of contact for our clients so they’re not making four different calls. They’re calling one person who can marshal the internal resources that are needed.

One of the things we did that I think is interesting, a couple years ago – we used to have a standalone advertising division, a standalone interactive division, a public relations division, a multicultural division. We broke down those walls and those silos a couple years ago and implemented a more unified approach.

It’s not about whether they’re an advertising client or a PR client; it’s much more about what that client needs. Does it need strategy? Does it need creative? Is it a user experience website/responsive design approach that’s needed? Is it content? Is it social? Is it search? It could be a number of things, and it’s really about answering clients’ needs and offering one-stop client solutions on their behalf.

ROB: When you made that transition, did they have an account manager in each of those divisions before and you were able to streamline that to one trusted point of contact? How did that realign when you made that switch?

DAVE: It was actually fairly seamless. We had, obviously, experts in each one of those areas, and we had a head of advertising and a chief creative officer and the head of our interactive division. Breaking down those silos – we still have subject matter experts, but it’s about bringing them to bear on our clients’ behalf rather than looking at it division by division, if that makes sense.

ROB: For sure.

DAVE: The reason for that is we found that it’s like – what’s the old saying? Trying to force a square peg into a round hole. We were slotting different clients into different divisions, and that’s not always the case. They could be primarily a public relations client, but they’re going to need a website or they’re going to need a special event or they’re going to need print or digital magazine execution, video. It’s really about being more client-service-focused than anything else.

ROB: Dave, what are some things you’ve learned as a marketing agency leader that you might do differently if you were starting again 10 years ago, or even further back in your career?

DAVE: That’s a very good question, Rob. I think the one thing that I would’ve done differently is I would have taken one of the client side opportunities that came my way over the years, because I’ve been in the agency business – all my career has been spent on the agency side of the business. Talk about a glutton for punishment. [laughs]

But I probably would have taken one of the client side opportunities that came my way. I think I would’ve liked to have that experience, sitting in the client’s chair and having the final say and making decisions on which campaigns run and why. In fact, one of those opportunities was in your neighborhood, with Turner Broadcasting System, interestingly enough.

ROB: Oh, interesting. It’s very common, I think, for people to bounce from brand side to agency side, sometimes drifting over to the vendor side. I think there is value in that empathy. I’m sure you have had plenty of people on your team that have had that experience, right?

DAVE: Yeah. I think it’s useful. I also teach a sports marketing class at ASU at the Cronkite School, and that question comes up a lot with students, because of course, they’re thinking primarily, in sports marketing, “I want to work for a league or a team,” and they don’t really understand all the other avenues of career development, whether it be in an agency like ours or a corporate sponsor or some of the other suppliers that are involved in sports marketing.

But I do always recommend having both experiences, and again, I would have probably done that differently, to answer your question.

ROB: You can also see quite often how many agencies, some of their longest running clients come from the relationship you’re talking about. You have a relationship with the university, and the university is also a client. It’s not a quid pro quo, but it’s a relationship business. Someone who spends 5 years inside Coca-Cola, 5 years inside Home Depot, 5 years inside Blue Cross is going to have some very longstanding relationships to pull on.

Not to say that you don’t have those from being a trusted agency partner for people; it’s just in some cases, it’s different because you may have a former agency you can’t pull that client from the same way you can if you left the brand and you’re on the agency side.

DAVE: That’s a good point. I remember when I was general manager of Rogers & Cowan in Los Angeles, which is the big entertainment publicity firm, we had a number of different divisions, like television, film, music, product placement, consumer, etc. It was interesting; I always talked to the CEO about how there were really, really expert people, but they were what we call an inch wide and a mile deep, meaning they knew everything in the world about music, but it was hard to transfer those skills to say consumer marketing or corporate communications. I think this is true of clients as well. They get so deep into their area of expertise.

I think it’s the role of the agency to really bring best practices and other solutions, perhaps from other industries, to the table to get them to thinking beyond just what works in a specific market.

ROB: One thing I imagine that’s probably relatively new for Lavidge, and you’re learning a little bit, but maybe you also have some lessons to learn, is this thing that many of us are doing perhaps not by choice right now, which is working in distributed teams, working remotely. You can’t even get in a room if you want to, or at least you probably shouldn’t amidst this coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis.

What are some things you’re learning, especially since you mentioned these cadences that you had? Are you learning some different habits that are helpful for teams that are at a distance now?

DAVE: That’s a great question, particularly given the challenging times that are upon us. I think one overriding principle is to be determined in what you do and not be fearful. Despite the current circumstance, there are opportunities.

I’m very proud of our agency, as an example, because we quickly, a couple weeks ago, switched over to working remotely. It’s been seamless. We just had an all staff meeting on Wednesday that we did remotely, and it worked remarkably well. We’re doing that for our client teams. So there are some opportunities.

I think in general, one of the things that I’m seeing is that brands can use this opportunity to step up and take action. There seems to be a common thread around brand purpose. You hear a lot of words like “authentic,” “useful,” “helpful,” “purposeful,” but I think it’s really about leveraging brand power for good.

ROB: It’s a good reminder. You mentioned “helpful,” and I think if we all take a step back as marketers and as people who are communicating into the lives of other people, we probably realize – we should always be helpful, but I think it can get a little bit hard to remember that sometimes. When people are just out there spending money, everything’s fine, people are looking to buy stuff, I think we can lose some of that helpfulness and get a little bit flashier. I think we maybe realize right now, this is not the time to ask for stuff from people, but it’s time to be helpful to them.

DAVE: Yeah, no question. Just the other day I was rereading the Harvard Business Review, an article about how to market in a recession, and maintaining marketing spending is important. It’s not the time to cut advertising. It’s well documented that brands that increase advertising during a recession or a situation like this when their competitors are cutting back can significantly improve market share and return on investment.

But your point is well taken. It’s also important to remember tonality. It’s important to be authentic. It’s important to be helpful. You think about some of the recent examples, like Ford and Tesla are using their factories to make ventilators, or Anheuser-Busch are using their distilleries to make hand sanitizer. Just a couple of examples of being authentic, being useful, being helpful.

ROB: For sure. In some cases, with Budweiser, with Anheuser-Busch, I’d imagine that’s even coming to them a little bit at the expense of their actual business. Ford may not be needing to make as many trucks, but if my social feeds are anything to be believed, Anheuser-Busch and their competitors are doing pretty well right now. A lot of people seem to be buying their product and talking about it. [laughs]

DAVE: That’s right. That’s very true. But again, I think it’s really about their brand purpose. I imagine they are doing very well, but it’s also about being helpful and being purposeful in what they’re doing to consumers at large.

ROB: Perfect. Dave, when you’re looking ahead – you mentioned in this time, you see opportunity. This is a time to seize opportunity. This is certainly not a time to be shy right now. We all feel probably some moments when we want to just chill out and check our brains out, but when we’re done with that, what are some things that are coming up for Lavidge that you’re excited about?

DAVE: I think we’re very excited about a number of areas. In this particular situation, the coronavirus/COVID-19, crisis communication is obviously important. We’re staying very busy in that area, public relations experts.

Two other areas that we’re looking at are certainly ecommerce, given the remote learning and the remote situations that both we and our clients are facing, and then cause marketing – again, really talking about what you and I were just discussing: brand purpose, connecting a brand purpose with their business goals and making sure they stand for something that their consumers care about.

So those are three areas that we’re looking at. Before this came upon us, we were also looking at a number of other areas. One was the rise of experiential marketing as a strategy to engage consumers, using branded experiences, live marketing, event marketing. The whole idea is creating a memorable impact on the consumer.

Obviously, two other areas that our digital team has really focused on is increased artificial intelligence, in-depth information about what consumers want and how that can be personalized and how that can personalize the buying experience based on someone’s preferences. And then one of the areas that I’m really interested in personally is the whole brand solving business challenges by engaging young consumers through their passion for e-sports, gaming, as an example. Those are the areas we’re looking at.

ROB: It’s really fascinating because a lot of times a 30-some-year-old agency would be very steeped in things they’ve done, but it sounds like, especially with that leadership team that you have around you, this company has been through multiple downturns and has grown and is still one of the largest in Arizona.

I can hear in your description of the things you were thinking about, the things you’re thinking about now, it’s intentional but it’s not opportunistic. It is tied to things you’ve been dong, but it’s not overly tied to the plan that you had, and you’re still trying to push really hard to find some way to do branded experiences. There may be something that emerges from that, but you’re not going to do a big brand activation in a physical place right now.

DAVE: Correct. I do think, to your point, it’s important to be flexible. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been extremely successful for almost 40 years.

We do have a number of client innovations that we’ve developed for our clients, whether it’s introducing new services such as account-based marketing or programmatic digital media, but it’s also about improving traditional marketing methods. Innovation is not just about coming up with new solutions, but it’s also about improving marketing and advertising, digital, public relations, social, website design and development, etc. So I think innovation comes in two areas: both coming up with new solutions as well as improving solutions that you’ve employed for clients in the past.

ROB: Excellent. Dave, when people want to find you and they want to find Lavidge, where should they look?

DAVE: We are in the Biltmore area of Phoenix, which is right on Camelback very close to the Biltmore Hotel, if you know where that’s at. Certainly centrally located.

Again, we’re a full service agency, and I think that’s important. Not that we don’t have standalone clients, but usually we like to think of ourselves as a one-stop client solution. Those services include strategy. We do a lot of branding work, a lot of corporate communications work. That includes market research and customer segmentation. And then we have our creative services, so that’s TV, radio, print, digital advertising. We have our own in-house video production capability, so it’s not just TV ads. We’re doing a number of videos, whether it’s corporate videos, product videos, training videos, online videos.

Then our digital expertise is really in two areas. One side of it is the website design/development, microsites, landing pages, mobile apps. The other side of that is all forms of digital marketing – search, both paid and organic, email marketing, lead gen, lead nurturing, ecommerce that I mentioned before. We even do custom loyalty programs for some of our clients. That’s helped by the fact that we have our own in-house analytics department as well.

Then in the public relations area, it’s both traditional corporate communications and product publicity, but also content. As a number of agencies do, we’re doing more and more content creation/content management, whether that be videos, blogs, infographics, whitepapers, etc., and mapping that out to make sure it syncs with traditional public relations.

It’s nice to have all those client solutions, if you will, under one roof and available to our clients. Now, some of our clients are using all those services; some are using the services that are most needed for them.

ROB: Got it. That’s excellent, Dave. It looks like they should also probably, if they’re looking for you online, go to lavidge.com. Is that right?

DAVE: That’s correct. Lavidge.com. You’ll see on our website a lot of the information that I just talked through. You had asked about some of our core areas of expertise, and in three of those areas – there’s more, but certainly using healthcare as an example, we did our own marketing report. We literally conducted research to determine which messages are most resonating with consumers, which marketing tactics are more successful than others. So we did a whole research study, which is available on our website.

Additionally, that’s reinforced by a number of whitepapers that were written by our subject matter experts, whether it be digital, creative, strategy, to really walk through and bring to life some of those findings. All of that is available on the website, Lavidge.com.

ROB: Perfect. Thank you so much, Dave. It’s been great to have you on the podcast, and I’m grateful for all you shared about the journey of Lavidge and how sustained that business has been in a really admirable way.

DAVE: It’s my pleasure, Rob. Thank you very much for the time. I enjoyed it.

ROB: Take care. Thank you.

DAVE: Thank you.

ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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