As a business owner and 20-year veteran of the agrimarketing industry, I’ve had many colleagues ask me variations of the same stress-related question: “what keeps you up at night?”, “what worries you the most?” and “what causes you the most stress?”.
The reason they ask is because they know that owning a business can be stressful. The ad agency business is notorious for burnout and agriculture is fraught with uncontrollable ups and downs. So, they expect to hear about a lot of stressful things that make for good conversation fodder. Unfortunately, I tend to disappoint, as my answer is almost always the same: living the status quo.
Ultimately, while owning a business, running an agency and working in ag comes with challenges, none of them are as significant nor as unsettling to me as falling into the trap of thinking that I’ve got the answers, that I can rest on my laurels and simply do what I do. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen firsthand the impact that this thinking can have on even the most successful companies and industries. To me, the deadliest virus anyone in my position (or positions like it) can catch is a case of the quo’s.
So, why do I have such a fear and disdain for living and embracing what is? Isn’t it a good thing to believe in one’s own abilities? Shouldn’t we all live in the moment? While this may be the case in our personal lives, in business, this line of thinking simply doesn’t cut it for one main reason – competition. For as long as there is competition, there will always be the desire for one entity to outperform another; to outpace the status quo, so to speak. While this has always been true in business, what has changed dramatically in our recent future is the fact that this competition can come from anywhere.
This is why when colleagues ask me the common follow-up question of “what competitors worry me the most?” they tend to be surprised that my response, in order of significance, is:
- Marketing software companies (i.e. HubSpot, Outreach and Salesforce)
- Tech companies (i.e. Amazon, Google and IBM)
- Digitally/software-native non-ag agencies
- Other ag agencies
This isn’t to say that I don’t take other ag agencies seriously, but I generally know what I’m competing against, as their realities look very similar to mine. Whereas, with all of the others, their realities are vastly different, and therefore, so is their thinking. This, in my opinion, makes them exponentially more dangerous, as they aren’t constrained by “status quo thinking” that can inherently infect anyone who has been doing the same thing for too long.
One of the greatest examples of this today is the taxi industry. As I live in a city where ride sharing still isn’t available, I am privy to the plight of the taxi companies who are still fighting to protect the status quo they know and love; even though by now, they must clearly see the reality ahead. Unfortunately, it’s this very obsession with the status quo that allowed for their demise in the first place. Taxi companies know how to compete against each other but have no idea how to embrace change (especially not how to create it).
For my clients, this unknown competition is also real. I still believe that agriculture is going to be thrown a competitive curveball by one of the big tech companies at some point in the near future. So, how can my fellow agrimarketers and I ensure we don’t fall into the trap of the taxi companies? How can we equip ourselves with new and better solutions to solve problems we’ve never had to solve before? How can we progress our abilities at a rate greater than the challenges we’re facing, and push ourselves and our thinking beyond the status quo?
I believe that the means by which we do so begins with looking beyond our own backyard. More specifically, while we must understand and monitor our industry partners and direct competitors, we must not consider them our primary source of learning and inspiration. If we only learned from and mimicked other agrimarketers and ag agencies (who, in turn, are doing the same), we will inevitably find ourselves in a vicious cycle of regurgitated best practices and myopic “best in ag” thinking that only serves to protect the status quo. This isn’t to say that we can’t learn from each other, but that truly transformative progression has to come from stepping outside of our proverbial “comfort zone”.
For me, this means constantly exploring worlds outside of ag to seek out and adopt more progressive practices, ideas and offerings to bring back to ag. Offerings that can help me and my clients leap-frog existing and competitor best practices in areas like digital marketing, behavioral targeting, brand differentiation and cultural leadership. Offerings that improve not just our income statements but also our balance sheets. Offerings that have already helped businesses in other industries face and overcome the challenges ag faces today and may face tomorrow.
At the end of the day, I believe that to truly protect ourselves from the threat of change and possible obsoletion, we must not rally for, but against, the status quo. I also believe that we owe this to ourselves and our industry, as ag deserves more than the typical agrimarketing/ag agency thinking and services — even best-of-breed ones. And, while this may mean that you, like me, must constantly live in the uncomfortable state of “never being good enough,” I believe that’s what it takes to truly be best in class.