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Beth LaBreche had been telling her clients' stories for two decades when she set out to compose a new chapter for LaBreche, her boutique public relations agency in Minneapolis.
Business had dipped. Clients, also feeling the squeeze of the Great Recession, demanded more results, more accountability. Competition, even for small projects, was increasing, especially from digital agencies pressing their advantage in online marketing and new technology.
It was, LaBreche now recalls thinking, the perfect storm in the fall of 2010. That also made it the perfect time, she decided, to write a new future for the agency, which she had founded in 1990, just a year and a half out of college.
"It was a good midlife career crisis,'' LaBreche said. "I knew that what I had been doing for the last 20 years, I wouldn't be able to keep doing for the next 20 years. We needed to become more relevant to our clients. We needed to bring what we do closer to the results that they needed to see."
LaBreche considered simply bolting digital services onto her traditional PR practice. Instead she began working to redefine the agency, plotting "a roadmap to modern marketing."
The result, launched in April, represents the transformation of the LaBreche firm into a unified marketing agency, which LaBreche said is the Twin Cities' first and one of few in the country operating under such a model.
The old LaBreche, like many PR agencies, focused almost exclusively on crafting and pitching stories about clients' products and services and counting the number or placements or impressions those articles got.
The agency topped $4 million in 2008, its record year, but has hovered at about $3 million a year since. The agency has 18 employees, down from 25. While it's chosen a new model, LaBreche maintains its focus on business-to-business marketing for clients in manufacturing, health care and consumer services.
Under its unified marketing model, the agency today offers traditional and digital marketing initiatives from a unified, multichannel framework centered on the client and including strategy, content and technology.
The approach produces greater results, LaBreche said, because it does away with the silos in which marketing channels -- offline and online, Web, search, social and mobile -- operate at typical agencies. LaBreche worked with Personifeye, an Atlanta-area consulting firm, in developing the new model.
Closely tied to that united framework is a lead-nurturing marketing process that guides communications between a brand and customers through the "life cycle" of the customer's interactions with the brand, from awareness to purchase and advocacy, LaBreche said. With a closed-loop philosophy, the agency measures what works and what doesn't, enabling LaBreche and its clients to fine-tune marketing efforts in real time.
The goal is to position marketing to drive business growth and to measure that performance, LaBreche said.
"Ninety-nine percent of our clients want to sell stuff," said LaBreche, who helps clients assess business opportunities and take advantage of them.
"The guy at the top just wants to know, 'Are we selling more? Are we not only getting through the recession but are we growing, and what part did marketing play in that?''' she said.
Wausau Paper engaged LaBreche earlier this year to increase market awareness of the unique technical competencies of its paper segment business, said Jon Bast, a Wausau vice president of sales and marketing. Getting consistent messages to diverse industry and customer segments had been difficult using multiple media companies and partners.
"We found there's no single tactic or approach that will create action, it's really the entire touch point that drives the customer experience," Bast said. "Beth and her team took the time to start from square one, understanding the strategy and approaching us with a model to help us realize how efficient we could be in our marketing strategies to generate new business."
Thomas Schick, president and CEO of Personifeye, said the consulting firm specializes in "agency reinvention."
"She knew her business model had to change for her agency to succeed in a rapidly evolving marketing environment," Schick said. "They committed to the change, embraced it and took the time to implement it effectively. I'm impressed with what Beth and her team have done.''
The expert says: Lorman Lundsten, professor and chairman of the marketing department at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said Beth LaBreche had shown courage to adopt a business model that focuses on client sales rather than the traditional public relations metric of building awareness.
"A key goal she has that would warm the heart of a marketing manager is that she fully admits that the goal is to sell stuff," Lundsten said. "She's willing to walk away from that safety net and say 'We'll figure out the purchase process, we'll influence the purchase and we'll be judged on whether or not the cash register rings.'
"That's what marketing managers have been looking for for a long time. We now have the technology to track sales and an agency that wants to pay attention to that."