or, So Much For a "Relationship Business"...
My first inkling that something was awry was the announcement on Twitter about a month ago of a new podcast series aimed at superintendents.
Gee, that's novel. C'mon in, the water's warm... as the saying goes.
The weird thing is that this one, by @the_fried_egg, is sponsored by @ToroGolf.
I found this curious because we have been doing TurfNet Radio podcasts for five years now (270 episodes with 226,000 listens to date), and every year I pitched that as a sponsorship opportunity for Toro — only to be told that for legal reasons Toro won't sponsor anything where content or message can't be controlled. Hmmm. I guess something changed.
Even weirder is the fact that The Fried Egg is primarily a golfer- rather than superintendent-oriented entity. You know, pro golfers, courses, architects, that type of thing. Sort of Golf Club Atlas without the pompous attitude. Not exactly a superintendent hangout, I wouldn’t think.
Not only do we produce six different podcasts, but GCI and GCSAA and others host podcasts for superintendents. To send sponsorship money outside this turf industry group to what amounts to a consumer golf platform like The Fried Egg is to me not only a questionable business decision but a kick in the balls (metaphorically speaking, of course, ladies) to all of us in turf media as well. The same turf media that has jumped (high) over the years when Toro has snapped its fingers.
But it gets better. A few days after that I got a voicemail from an unfamiliar name at Toro to set up a phone convo to discuss 2020 advertising. Not my regular contact.
The ensuing call was brief.
Uh, what happened to Bob, with whom I've been dealing for the last 15 years or so?
"He's not with the company anymore."
OK... I guess. Surprising though.
"I'm calling to give you a heads up that we won't be doing any digital or print advertising this coming year. We're not getting the ROI we are looking for."
At all, with anybody?
Basically, end of conversation. And a 25+ year relationship. But thanks for letting me know.
During the ensuing gasp for air might have been when I dropped my coffee mug.
I've been chewing on this for a few weeks now so my thoughts here are not of the knee-jerk variety. On one hand I can't blame them, as we all know Print is Dead. Beyond that, adjustments always have to be made, in every business. Toro has the Toro Advantage e-newsletter and a strong following on social media, so perhaps that's sufficient to get keep them in front of their customer base (hate that word). Oh, and now a podcast series on a golfer platform. That too.
Am I taking this personally? Yes, I am. You see, everything we do at TurfNet is personal. Personal R Us. Jon, John and I (our own version of the three caballeros, I suppose) work very hard to produce all that we do at the high level for which we are known, and collectively have over 60 years in it. We live it, breathe it, sometimes eat and drink it. And to be told that, in a nutshell, what we do is of no value is a gut punch. Or a kick in the nuts if you prefer, to invoke that metaphor again.
I think that was when my pencil mug slipped off the desk and hit the floor.
It's been a tough few weeks for my mug collection. This one was an oldie, from a distributor incentive trip to Munich in 1993. Too bad.
To wrap a little context around it, the amount of money Toro spent with us every year isn't huge, not even in our Top Three. I doubt it would buy a new Sand Pro. We'll need to adjust a bit, but we have survived worse over the years. It is disappointing, though, on several levels.
From my personal standpoint, as one who spent the seven years prior to founding TurfNet as the sales manager for a Toro distributor, I always enjoyed working with the guys at Toro. Not only on their advertising program, but also getting the booth tour at GIS and talking with the product managers and engineers, and anything else that came up throughout the year. They knew that given my background, I understood what they do. It was comfortable, and easy.
Used to be (almost) that way with Jacobsen, too, depending on the players at the time, before they faded into apparent oblivion. Deere has always maintained a front-line layer of PR or ad agency people, but we maintain good communication.
One trend I've noticed over the years has been the gradual replacement of "personalities" in manufacturer-level sales and marketing with serious gray-suited MBAs. Technically proficient and well-schooled, I'm sure, but also pretty tightly wound. Within the halls of Toro, the pipeline seems to be from the Carlson business school at UMN through General Mills to get their real-world training wheels and ultimately to Toro. I personally have had trouble connecting the dots between Cheerios and Reelmasters, but some smarter than I say that business is business and widgets are widgets regardless of the industry. Perhaps, but one thing we have all enjoyed in the golf turf industry is that this business is different from most others. It's a relationship business, or always was.
Business in this industry has also historically been conducted in the manner of the game itself, with respect and proper decorum while having fun. I have seen a lot of the fun bleed out over the years.
The podcast sponsorship thing is to me is evidence of a disconnect in basic understanding of turf industry vs Cheerios consumers. But, hey, on the grand scale of things it's a mere blip.
Not so much for the fun drain.
I had known many of the Toro guys for years, had a few beers and laughs with them upon occasion, but lately I've come to realize many have retired and others shuffled around to other divisions to the point where I really don't know anybody there anymore. Sort of like a veteran superintendent working the first tee on a Saturday morning and realizing he doesn’t know many of the members anymore. That’s on me, I suppose, but nonetheless. It is what it is, as they say.
Assuming that the "across the board, for all" edict is true and the other turf media players are getting kicked to the curb as well (which, incidentally, has given me pause to wonder if some of the Gray Suits are sporting long red neckties these days), it will be interesting to see if any Media People attend either of Toro's media confabs at the upcoming GIS . There's always a flurry of outreach prior to every GIS for us to register for one, so we dutifully block out an hour or so from our tight schedules. Then we file into their little room and sit and listen to the VP Guy and then the Red Iron Guy and the Irrigation Guy give us their spiel about new products and initiatives. We're handed our thumb drive with pertinent press releases and images, and sometimes a little toy Workman or Groundsmaster. Or maybe a coffee mug, with the understood quid pro quo of a slice of their advertising budget for media coverage. We then scurry for the nearest wifi connection to bang out some news items or social media posts about What We Just Learned From Toro. Not this year, I'm afraid. At least not for me.
One of the other trends of the past few years — a happier one, no doubt — is the energy and enthusiasm of the smaller, often niche manufacturers with whom we do business. We enjoy consulting with and advising them, trying this and testing that, changing up their messages and promotions to keep them fresh and effective. Not hidebound or hamstrung, they tend to be open-minded, loose, receptive and responsive, and fun to hang with when we have the chance. And they appreciate what we do, and the results they get.
One of them recently ordered a series of our large masthead banners at the top of our main page, saying, “We want to look like Toro up there.” Well, with a lot of space recently vacated, they can now look better than Toro up there...