Beating the odds

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If you make it past the steel and glass refrigerator stocked full of beer (pop and juice cost a dollar; the beer is free), the second thing you’ll notice walking through Malone Advertising’s downtown Akron offices is that every piece of furniture is on wheels. From desks to chairs to credenzas, there’s not one fixture that’s not mobile.

“That’s so people can work in teams,” explains Malone’s President and CEO Fred Bidwell.

The newly renovated office space was designed so people can move their work areas freely throughout the office, depending on who they need to collaborate with that day. To further accommodate this, individual offices don’t have doors.

“We were one of the first people to buy this style of furniture,” says Bidwell, who took over Malone’s helm in 1998.

The rolling furniture and stocked refrigerator are more than gimmicks. The office was clearly designed to spur creativity rather than to impress visitors, and it seems to have worked.

Malone Advertising has had a consistent 20 percent annual growth rate since 1997. Last year, it grew 25 percent, putting it within the top three or four (depending who you ask) ad agencies in Northeast Ohio.

In 2002, Bidwell expects to exceed his growth goal of 16 to 17 percent, and he’ll probably do so after last month acquiring Haselow Marketing Communications, a Cleveland-based agency with $13.4 million in annual billings. Capitalized billings of the two agencies are around $60 million, and Malone now employs 88, including the 10 who came from Haselow.

“The acquisition virtually guarantees I’m going to hit (my goal) … I ought to do a lot better. The smart business person does conservative projections and hopes that they’re pleasantly surprised,” says Bidwell.

Bidwell is banking on the firm’s history, its specialized areas of expertise and the hard work of its people to maintain that growth record.

“People think advertising is sexy, fun, and it is, but a lot of it is putting your nose to the grindstone and doing the work. Just having the work ethic sometimes means a lot,” he says.

A rich history

Malone Advertising was founded in 1943 by Norman Malone. Its first client was Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which remains a client today.

“We think that might by one of the oldest agency-client relationships around, so we’re real proud of that,” Bidwell says.

Bidwell started working at Malone in 1981 in its creative department. At the time, the company was owned and led by Bain Malone, son of the founder. Bidwell moved up the company ladder to become creative director, and in 1998, assumed majority ownership from Malone, who still acts as an adviser to the company.

Focus on what you do best

One of the keys to the company’s ongoing success is that it has focused on an area of marketing many other agencies are just now trying to gain expertise in. Malone has focused on specialized retail marketing since the early ’90s, Bidwell says, making it one of the first to do so.

He describes retail marketing as “any form of advertising … from signs at the Shell station to radio or TV … that directs people to the retailer and motivates a purchase.”

He says more and more agencies are trying to offer this expertise, but “with mixed results. Some are doing a good job and some are not.

“We try to get everything as close to the retailer as possible and as close to the time when somebody might want to buy as possible,” he says. “For instance, the TV that we would produce for brands like Kimberly-Clark (a Malone client for 11 years) would always identify the retailer, and there would always would be a reason to go there, like a promotion or something — an incentive to go there”

For Healthy Choice frozen foods, Malone created a billboard campaign and featured the products on boards located close to the retailers — identified on the billboards — that carried them.

“It’s the kind of work that really helps to drive sales rather than just plain old brand enhancement,” Bidwell says. “The Super Bowl ads you see are all about establishing a brand. What we’ll do is come in and say, ‘OK, if you’re going to end up advertising, you have to make sure that you take care of it on a local basis, either with your local store or locally with your client stores.”

Malone was founded nearly 60 years ago as a retail specialist, and point-of-sale marketing evolved out of that area. By not trying to be an expert at everything, the agency has built an impressive client base, including Goodyear, Kimberly-Clark, ConAgra Foods, Meineke and Sherwin-Williams. It works closely with agencies worldwide which have the expertise and provide marketing services to its clients in other areas.

“They (clients) come to us because they know what we do and they are looking specifically for those kinds of services,” Bidwell says. “That’s why we have such a cool portfolio of brands. If we just tried to be all things to all people, there’s no reason why Kimberly-Clark or ConAgra would ever hire us. There are some pretty great agencies in Chicago.”

Branching out

Last month, Malone deviated from its heritage as a consumer retail marketing agency when it acquired Haselow Marketing Communications, a Cleveland-based agency with a strong history of business-to-business marketing. It set up a new division called Malone2, headed by Haselow owner John Haselow, which focuses on business-to-business clients.

Haselow sold his agency to Malone as part of a long-term retirement strategy. He made a two-year commitment to head Malone2, and, along with his expertise, brought a large portfolio of clients to the agency, including Hill PHOENIX, Tyler Elevator Products and Ashland Specialty Chemical.

Haselow plans to expand the Malone2 client base by targeting companies in industries he’s worked in.

“One of the first questions you always get is, ‘What experience have you had in my industry?'” Haselow says. “You pick your target, you pick it where you’ve got the experience, you pick it where there’s allied situations. So we developed a list that says, ‘OK, here’s all of our experience, now we’ll take a look at the various industries.

“Hill PHOENIX is on the cold side (of supermarket products — it manufactures refrigerated display cases), so now we’ll take a look at the hot side of the supermarket business.”

The Haselow acquisition adds a third distinct area to Malone’s practice. In 2000, it acquired Zeris Interactive, now its Web subsidiary. As a separate division, Zeris has built Web sites for companies including MTD, Bell Helicopter and Rolled Alloys.

When asked about future growth, Bidwell shies away from revealing acquisition plans.

“The best way to grow is organically,” he says.

There might just be something in the beer. How to reach: Malone Advertising, (330) 564-0300