FOOD FIRST: Bob Noble relinquishes the office he ran for decades, but he’s keeping the test kitchens and food advertising services he most enjoys.
In sale, Noble rewrites firm’s future
Bob Noble speaks like a man going back to his roots. After nearly 50 years running Springfield-based marketing firm Noble Communications Co., he sold the company July 7 to Pittsburgh-based Gatesman Inc.
In the deal, the founder retained a small yet dear portion of the portfolio and plans to make that food segment a renewed focus.
“It’s kind of hard to build new and keep the old alive,” Noble said. “You lose your perspective on what’s important to you.”
Gatesman acquired all of Noble’s clients in the home-and-building, insurance, banking, financial, health care and education industries. The clients – including Joplin-based roofing materials manufacturer TAMKO Building Products Inc., interiors manufacturer VT Industries Inc., Country Financial, Pace Suburban Bus and Hoover brand vacuums – represents $6.5 million of Noble’s $7.5 million business, or 87 percent of client billings.
The transaction, terms of which were not disclosed, also includes the staff members associated with those projects at Noble Communications’ two offices – 11 in Springfield and 36 in downtown Chicago.
Gatesman, which billed $10 million last year, now leases the second floor of Noble’s Chesterfield Village building and the Illinois office – both operating as Gatesman-Noble.
CEO John Gatesman said his firm wanted to expand to another major market, and Noble Communications had desirable client categories, especially in higher education and home and building.
“I consider us one brand united,” he said. “And Springfield has been a part of that equation in the past, with Noble, in their Chicago office. And they work very seamlessly between locations.”
Gatesman said the current employees will remain, bringing the count to 125, and he plans to hire an additional employee in Springfield and four in Chicago.
The sale does not include Noble Food and Food Channel Productions LLC, which operate on the first floor of Noble’s Springfield building known for its 35-foot outdoor fork sculpture. Noble remains chairman of those entities.
Noble said he’s getting away from what he calls the more traditional ad agency model and moving toward content publishing and product development.
“That’s what companies do, they harvest one side and they invest in the other,” Noble said. “Selling the traditional business is helping me finance and fund the future company. That was not a horse that I wanted to keep riding. I’m putting all the resources I have into this new endeavor. And it’s pretty exciting.”
The food industry is really where it all started.
After founding the agency, Noble designed an ad campaign for local food producers to encourage consumers to buy products made in the Ozarks.
“The New York chapter of the American Marketing Association recognized us for having created the most successful regional pride program in America,” Noble said. “And all the sudden we had a business practice around food.”
Since then, Noble and his team have been bringing national brands to southwest Missouri to design marketing strategies as well as develop new products – in some quiet, yet impactful ways.
“We helped Don Tyson create the first chicken chunk for McDonald’s,” Noble said.
Predicting the future
What’s next for Noble centers on The Food Channel and CultureWaves, the company’s in-house data curating service.
CultureWaves employs trend watchers, Noble said, to scour the internet for emerging cultural changes. Noble staff members, as well as outside companies that subscribe to access CultureWaves data, use the insight to develop marketing strategies, content and new products.
John Scroggins, editor-in-chief at the Food Channel, said the data has been used to influence national ad campaigns and has changed the way some clients, such as Taco Bell, operate their businesses.
“Our insights division said our lifestyles are becoming ‘clockless,’” he said. “Not everybody eats [at] 8 a.m., noon and 5 o’clock – especially your target audience.”
David Nehmer, president and chief creative officer at Noble Food, said that caused Taco Bell to start staying open later and adopt the late night snacking term “the fourth meal” coined by Noble Communications.
The firm also helped Tyson pitch the concept of chicken fries to Burger King, using data that demonstrated customers wanted protein that was convenient, portable, fun and at a certain price.
The marketing firm designs new foods, makes prototypes and proposes them to existing brands, said. The restaurants try the products as limited-time offers.
“The Burger King bacon sundae was one that we developed here,” he said. “We were tracking bacon, way back when, before it really started to catch on. We saw it going into high-end chocolates. And we had an assignment from Burger King to help them bring relevance to their ice cream.
“We presented a lot of concepts to them and they pretty much laughed when we went in there and talked about bacon.”
But Burger King executives were convinced by the CultureWaves data, he said, and the dessert became popular.
“Everybody’s trying to be relevant,” Nehmer said. “And it takes a long time for a manufacturer or a chain to figure out what those ideas are, get them tested and get them commercialized.
“CultureWaves helps us look forward a little bit further ahead to design products that match up with that.”
By unloading nonfood clients, Noble said his now smaller firm is redirecting efforts. Its flagship service, FoodChannel.com, relaunched July 12 in partnership with USA Today, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network LLC.
Under the deal, the USA Today sales team will offer its clients advertising opportunities on the Food Channel’s website, which includes original articles and videos on the topics of food and cooking.
“That’s a huge opportunity for us. And the brand exposure that we’ll have will be tremendous,” Nehmer said.
The content is mostly produced for and sponsored by Noble’s clients, but it also includes short videos by national contributors. For example, a cookbook author may make a series of how-to segments and give them to the Food Channel in exchange for exposure and a share of the online ad revenue.
Scroggins said they’re not trying to compete with cable television’s Food Network – which tried to buy the rights to the Food Channel’s name in the early 1990s – but is trying to promote content that is relevant to consumers by authors passionate about food.
“We work with those chefs that aspire to have a great audience, a good following – but they are not necessarily looking to be the next Paula Deen,” he said.
The short videos appeal to the social media culture, Noble said, and they’re growing in demand by advertisers.
“We want to be wherever the consumers want to experience that content,” Nehmer said, noting how people today often watch videos on their mobile devices while in grocery store aisles.
Noble said the traditional ad agency model is changing.
“It used to be that a company would spend a half-a-million dollars to create a 60-second TV spot. We take that same amount of money and create 50 video programs that are placed digitally,” he said. “Brands are marketing direct to the consumer themselves, and we create content for their digital footprint and their communication plans.”