On a warm, windswept day in the gently rolling countryside of Wright County, Fred Haberman stoops over a cabbage head the size of a bowling ball to cut its stem for harvest.
The cabbage is organic, as are the onions, tomatoes, kale and cauliflower being raised in a well-tended plot outside Delano where employees from Haberman’s Minneapolis ad agency volunteer to plant, weed, water and learn about sustainable agriculture.
“Just think how many people this garden could feed,” said Haberman as he moved across the rows and pulled 6-inch-long green beans from their mother plant.
It’s a passion of Haberman that is now the backbone of his 20-year-old agency that began in Fred and Sarah Haberman’s Minneapolis duplex and is still growing as a nearly 50-person shop in the Warehouse District.
Haberman, 49, calls his agency “Modern Storytellers” and describes its clientele as pioneers in their respective lines of business.
Past and present clients include August Schell Brewing in New Ulm, the McKnight Foundation, UnitedHealth Group and the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. Earlier this year, the Haberman agency was retained by the Lunds grocery store chain to launch the newly merged Lunds & Byerlys brand with TV, mobile and Internet advertising.
It is the food category where Haberman has established a national presence.
Clients include Organic Valley, a Wisconsin-based cooperative with annual sales now exceeding $1 billion; California-based herbal tea producer Traditional Medicinals; and Earthbound Farm, another California-based national supplier of organic food.
“We’re helping nurture, advocate and promote the good food movement,” Haberman said in an interview.
The agency also has ventured into the sustainable food business with an aquafarm called Urban Organics on the grounds of the old Hamm’s brewery in St. Paul. There, in partnership with water filtration giant Pentair, Urban Organics raises green produce and tilapia fish that are distributed across the region.
“We knew we wanted to do something in the food space to understand the business challenges,” said Brian Wachtler, president of Haberman. “By doing something ourselves it made us a better agency.”
In conversation, Haberman comfortably drops terms like “food desert” to describe areas lacking access to affordable fresh food while noting that organic foods today have grown to account for 5 percent of the food dollar.
“One hundred and ten percent doesn’t begin to describe how inspired Fred can get on an issue that he is passionate about,” said Liz Morris Otto, a former full-time Haberman employee who now manages the garden project from her Delano country home.
Haberman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, and his wife, Sarah, still an agency principal, opened their shop in 1994.
Haberman, the agency, and Fred Haberman made their biggest mark in the ad world 10 years ago when they founded and organized the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on the frozen lakes of Minneapolis. The event drew tens of thousand of participants and spectators in good weather and bad. It was a big shot in the arm for the small, relatively unknown agency.
“We named it, we branded it, we managed it,” said Wachtler. “It was a case study for our clients about the full range of capabilities we could provide.”
Haberman, who sold the pond hockey event in 2011 as his agency took on more business in the food sector, won’t disclose financial numbers for the agency other than to note it has grown in revenue every year since it opened for business.
Last year, income was up 14 percent. But there have been lean years as well.
“There were moments when it was scary,” Haberman acknowledged. “I had a personal [financial] guarantee that was bigger than I liked. We were hiring talent and that cost a lot, but we had to stay with our vision.”
The vision was to become a full-service integrated ad agency from one that primarily did public relations for brands. “We knew that would be critical and that it would require a fair amount of investment and organizational change. And change is hard,” Haberman said.
A wild ride
But the last half decade has been a wild ride for Haberman, and a challenging one, too. An organization doesn’t go from 28 people to nearly 50 without some hiccups.
Four years ago, Haberman had no agency-of-record relationships with clients in which it was the lead marketing resource. Today it has more than half dozen agency-of-record designations, along with its own dedicated digital and creative departments to service those accounts.
“All of a sudden we were competing [for business], and when you compete you lose,” Haberman acknowledged in an interview last week. “We kept learning and in the last couple of years we started winning. We had some serious big wins.”
Traditional Medicinals, which came on board last year, was one of the agency’s biggest wins, but Earthbound Farm, which Haberman landed two years ago, was not insignificant either.
Traditional Medicinals heard about the Haberman agency from a communications consultant it hired to help shape its brand profile.
“We had a name awareness challenge,” said Matt Crum, vice president of marketing for the Sonoma-based company, which has a 36 percent share of the medicinal tea market. “Haberman brought to us a concept known as brand publishing and established a platform for educational and engaging content through an online magazine called Power Plant Journal. Soon we had a half-million page views. The gang here is super-excited.”
Haberman has been approached by potential outside investors in the agency, all of whom have been turned away. The agency also been approached by dealmakers and venture capitalists that want Haberman to help their clients get a foothold in the organic marketplace.
It’s heady territory for a Milwaukee kid who grew up on bratwurst and sauerkraut, one of the original organic foods. His original interest in organic food was spawned by his exposure to the Wedge Community Co-op in south Minneapolis.
“We wanted to be pioneers ourselves and try new things and see if we could advocate for new ways of doing things,” said Haberman.