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A creative team Featured

1:34pm EDT April 27, 2004
Who's the boss at advertising and marketing firm The Jackson Group?

While founder and owner Kathy Jackson and CEO Norm Cosand carry the most weight, they say the company's corporate culture promotes teamwork instead of focusing on the individual.

"We have a corporate culture that practically ignores titles," says Jackson.

She says that all employees, regardless of their function, are appreciated and encouraged to voice ideas to improve company performance and customer service.

"A good idea can come from anywhere," Cosand says. "Anyone can solve customer problems. There's no correlation between a title and where ideas come from."

That comprehensive approach doesn't end with the employees. The company's eight business units combine to provide a complete array of marketing and advertising services that include printing, mailing, and order-taking and fulfillment.

But despite the company's service mix, the slow economy of the past two years has taken its toll on the bottom line.

"We've had a tough couple of years," Jackson says. "But we are seeing signs of a recovery."

To cope with clients' dwindling marketing budgets, management took a hard look at ways to reduce costs and operate more efficiently.

"The pressure on our margins has caused us to examine our operating expenses and tighten our spending," Jackson says.

They've also had to adjust to changes in the industry, specifically to the way buying decisions are made. Jackson says companies are more focused now on the dollars and cents instead of on establishing a valuable client-provider relationship, and they're using the Request for Proposal (RFP) process more often to choose a service provider.

"It's a cold, mathematical process that doesn't take into account the dynamic, creative capabilities of each supplier," Jackson says, but with each RFP they've responded to, they've learned to present the company more advantageously. "It took us awhile to get to the point where we are effectively completing them. And we are more selective on which RFPs we will complete."

Cosand says they've also turned to technology to gain a competitive advantage.

"We have initiated some online tools for our clients that have reduced our costs and the time to deliver the product," he says.

In the past, it took several days to complete the order process for business cards, which involved the labor of three or four employees. Now the layouts of established clients' business cards are stored online, and new employees at those firms can type in their information and order cards in minutes.

"It's very sophisticated tools we are using in response to the need for driving our costs down without removing quality," Cosand says.

Smart Business spoke with Cosand and Jackson about changes in their industry and the decreasing value of relationships.

What were your biggest challenges when you started the company?

Jackson: The Jackson Group is actually three separate corporations; two of them existed when I came on board in 1985. Total Response was added in 1990.

The start-up of Total Response was very challenging because we grew so fast. We had five employees at the beginning, and had grown to 20 by our first anniversary and more than 100 employees five years later. We kept outgrowing our space, our systems and our standard operating procedures, and they had to be constantly upgraded to fit the growing demand for our services.

We met these challenges through our relationships with our lawyers and banking partners. Technology keeps improving and constantly requires investment. It's a very capital-intensive business.

What makes your company successful?

Jackson: Our culture. Everyone contributes to our product and service offerings in an open, honest, team-oriented culture. We have our superstars like any team, but the efforts of all players are necessary and appreciated.

I think that is the main reason why we have such low employee turnover. This approach leads to better service to the customers and stability. The COO has the final say in operational issues, but we provide a nonthreatening, relaxed environment.

What aspect of the business is most profitable?

Jackson: The beauty of integration is that each of our eight business units has had their moment to shine. All eight core businesses have had profitable times and not-so-profitable times.

When the economy slows down, one of the first areas of our clients' budgets to be cut is marketing dollars. Combine that with the fact that a number of our competitors were financially overextended and elected to slash prices in an attempt to just stay in business, and that put pressure on our margins.

While each of our business units are still profitable, business has been the slowest for the last couple of years than ever before. As the economy improves and marketing budgets are restored, our business growth will improve also.

Historically, the printing unit has outperformed the others, but in the last few years, it has been hard-hit, and the others, like telemarketing and fulfillment, have picked up that slack.

What are the biggest changes you've seen in your industry and how have they affected operations?

Jackson: The RFP process has dramatically affected our industry. The value of the relationship has been all but eliminated. Companies change suppliers to save a few dollars without much consideration given to the value of the supplier's knowledge and contributions to their business's past successes.

We may have provided a cutting edge solution to a complex problem or saved a customer a ton of money, and yet they will still send out an RFP soliciting bids from our competitors. I don't agree with that kind of short-sighted thinking. Just a few short months ago, "partnering" was all the rage. I don't see large businesses partnering with their suppliers.

It's hard to get some points across when you are being evaluated primarily on the pricing component. We have adjusted to this process, however, and are embracing it.

Offering so many services is strength, but carries its own set of challenges. How do you meet them?

Cosand: Being one of the largest integrated marketing firms in the Midwest and offering a complete suite of marketing services gives us unique advantages. We are able to provide our clients with efficiencies and effectiveness not available from smaller, specialty shops.

To ensure that each of our service areas employs best practices of that industry, each area is led by a senior manager and a dedicated team of experts in that field. They are empowered to seek improved methodologies and processes.

Yet they are held accountable to work together with other Jackson Group departments to provide clients with innovative thinking and solutions.

The secret to our success is not really a secret. It's building a team of the best and brightest people available, then consistently investing in their development.

What are your biggest operational challenges?

Cosand: When I joined the Jackson Group in 2001, the company was at a critical crossroad. Many of the original service areas (printing, mailing, fulfillment, call center, etc.) were under severe price pressure.

Adoption of technology had negated a lot of the skill and craftsmanship advantages that previously differentiated us from our competitors. Clients were viewing these services, when sold alone, as commodities to be bought primarily on price.

But clients were also under pressure. Downsizing was taking its toll on corporate marketing and procurement departments. While demands for measurable results were increasing, staff sizes were shrinking. This created an opportunity for an integrated marketing organization like ours.

With a large team of marketing experts and 40-plus years of experience in helping clients manage complex marketing programs, we were perfectly positioned to offer solutions to our clients' toughest marketing challenges.

First, we identified the most common marketing challenges that a company might face -- generating and qualifying leads, launching a new product, driving retail traffic, improving customer loyalty, etc. Then, based on years of experience, we developed standardized approaches to solving these challenges.

Today, we offer our clients and prospects a suite of strategic planning tools and services based on these approaches that allows organizations to outsource the planning, execution and measurement of complex marketing campaigns. Back in the old days, circa 1999 or before, we would go to a client with individual services in mind.

Today, we've found that bundling our services is a stronger approach to marketing ourselves.

What areas are you working to improve?

Cosand: Over the last several years, everyone in the graphic arts community has been pressured to reduce costs. And we are no exception. Our approach has been to evaluate every step along the delivery process to discover additional efficiencies.

As an example of these new-found efficiencies, we are now offering clients several online tools that allow them to order, personalize, proof and track printing projects and direct marketing projects. An example is business cards. Before, a graphic artist would lay out the design and make a proof. The printing department made a plate, the cards would be printed, packaged and shipped.

With our Web-based interface, the employee types his name and title, etc., clicks on the build button, proofs the card on the screen, adds it to his shopping cart and checks it out. The order goes straight to the printing division, where it is printed, boxed and shipped.

This approach has significantly reduced not only the cost to service these clients but also reduced the time required to deliver the final product. As another example, we are currently implementing ISO 9000 practices in several of our service areas to more easily measure our quality assurance program.

What are your biggest personal challenges in managing the company?

Cosand: The biggest challenge of any CEO is identifying individuals' talents and positioning each person within the organization where they can make the largest contribution. Some employees are very skilled in executing a specific function, while others are better at managing a team of employees.

Some are very successful in business development, while others are better at maintaining loyal client relationships. A select few are skilled at situation analysis and strategic thinking. The success of our business is dependent upon the talents of our people.

Developing a cohesive team of diverse individuals is the goal -- and an ever-evolving challenge. How to reach: The Jackson Group, (317) 781-4600 or www.jacksongroup.com