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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the October 2, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Be Courageous: Pick One Business Niche

Roman playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote: "Our

plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know

what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind." Or as

New Mexico ad man Steve McKee says, "It’s all about focus."

One of the biggest mistakes companies make, says McKee, is spreading

themselves too thin. He offers Amazon as an example. "Stop 100

people on the street," he says. "Ask them what they think

of when they hear `Amazon.’ Ninety-nine will say books." That

branding can stretch a little. There is a natural cross-over to DVDs,

music, and maybe even audio electronics. But stretch into boots and

snow shovels, as Amazon did, and consumers become confused.

Amazon is working on its over-reach issues, says McKee, by teaming

its behind-the-scenes E-commerce technology — its real killer

ap — with established brands; selling toys, for example, in tandem

with Toys R Us.

McKee, president of the Albuquerque, New Mexico, marketing company

McKee Wallwork Henderson, is as focused as he urges his clients to

be. "Sylvester Stallone is an action hero," he says. "He

has to accept it, and not complain. I’m an ad guy." He not only

accepts the designation, but embraces it with zest. A graduate of

the University of New Mexico (Class of 1985), he began his career

in advertising at age 22, and worked for N W Ayer, Phillips Ramsey,

and Della Femina before starting his own shop, in 1997. On Tuesday,

October 8, at 11:30 a.m. he speaks on "Bulletproof Marketing"

at a meeting of NJ CAMA at the Doral Forrestal. Call 609-799-4900.

McKee’s shop is as focused as he is. It serves growth companies. If

other clients come knocking, they will not be turned away, but they

will receive services "through the back door," McKee says.

The importance of achieving a tight focus first jumped to the forefront

of McKee’s priorities when he attended a launch conference for Microsoft

95. It was announced, he says, that the company had retained 12 "best

of breed" marketing companies to get the product off to a flying

start. Some of the companies were small, he recalls thinking, but

all had managed to establish an identity that made them stand out.

"It was a formative moment," he says. "I decided I wanted

to be `best of breed.’"

When McKee started his own shop, he made identifying a focus his top

priority. Many agencies specialize in an industry group, maybe pharmaceuticals

or banks. Others concentrate on an age group, often young children

or teen-agers. McKee decided neither of those approaches would work

for him. For one thing, lots of other agencies were there already.

For another, he thought it would be boring to serve so narrow a clientele,

and the tedium factor would make it hard to recruit the best staff.

He hit upon the idea of cultivating a base of growth companies. These

companies, with sales growth of 40, 50, even 100 percent a year, appeal

to him because, "they’re aggressive, they’re growing." Furthermore,

they tend to be small enough so that the CEO still takes a hands-on

role in marketing. No one was homing in on this niche, despite the

fact that companies in it face unique issues.

"They can’t make a mistake," McKee says of young, fast-growing

companies. They have to build an identity and get a message across

the first time. Marketing for this group must be "bulletproof."

The strategy is working. In a down year of historic proportions for

the ad industry as a whole, McKee says his shop is on track to a 40

percent increase in revenue. He credits a tight focus for his success,

and makes these recommendations:

Find a focus. What a temptation it is to add more business

lines — and more and more. Almost always, says McKee, doing so

is a mistake, quite often a fatal mistake. He points to Jaguar. "You

can write them off, they’re gone," he says of the car manufacturer.

Being folded into Ford, in his opinion, is killing what was once a

strong luxury brand. "The new Jaguars share a platform with a

Lincoln," he comments. "If I wanted a Lincoln, I’d buy a Lincoln."

He looks down on Mercedes’ downward aspirations too. "They’re

making a huge mistake, selling a $28,000 C Class," he says. "If

you aspire all your life to drive a Mercedes, spend $80,000, and pull

up beside a 22-year-old kid (in a Mercedes), it’s a brand breaking


Hotel companies, in his opinion, tend to get it right. McKee says

Marriott is smart to use a different name for hotels in each of its

price categories. Ditto with Starwood Lodging and Hilton.

Be brave. What applies to the big guys, applies to small

businesses and solo practices too. "I see directories of ad agencies,"

says McKee. "Under `specialty,’ some companies list eight things."

Better, he says — far far better — to develop just one specialty,

or, at most, a handful of closely-related specialties. But this is

not easy, he acknowledges.

"Everyone thinks `what if Nike calls?’" he jokes. But the

chances are slim that a dream job will go elsewhere because "athletic

footwear" isn’t listed as a specialty. McKee urges professionals

to bite the bullet and make a choice of specialty.

Trumpet the focus. After choosing a specialty spread the

word. Doing so will be easier for a specialist than for a generalist.

For his business, McKee need only concern himself with growth companies.

"There are mailing lists," he says. He can use a list of names

of fast growing companies with annual sales between $20 and $100 million,

his target group. Direct marketing works for him. Someone in a different

specialty, say machine tools, might do well with trade magazines.

In any case, narrowing the audience makes reaching it easier.

Be tenacious. Brands are not built in weeks or months.

"It takes years," says McKee. Don’t set expectations too high,

expecting to be on everyone’s lips in six months. Be realistic, and

keep working.

And don’t get distracted. New business opportunities glitter

all along the path to business success. It is hard to avoid stooping

to pick one up. But better to just keep walking.

In an almost unbelievable example of the peril of distractions, McKee

talks about Gerber’s foray outside of its core business. The company

made famous the jingle: Babies are our business, our only business.

But once upon a time, McKee swears, the company allowed itself to

be persuaded that Gerber stood not for babies but, in his words, "for

nutritious mashed-up food in jars."

Gerber’s attempt to peddle pureed vegetables to seniors was a dismal

failure, a prime example of a ship getting badly lost on its way into


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