Lessons from the Dairy Farm.
Chuck Stephens has never been a stranger to hard work. He grew up on a Kansas dairy farm, after all. “I threw a lot of hay bales up in the barn. The wasps loved that tin roof. I got stung countless times and was always sunburned,” Stephens reminisces.
An only child on a bustling 1,000+ acre farm, Stephens milked the cows with his mother, rode the cattle in at night and helped his dad when harvest came. “If you didn’t do a job that day, it was waiting for you tomorrow,” he said.
Stephens’ work ethic is the basis of an entrepreneurial spirit that led him into the world of communications. As the founder of Stephens & Associates (S&A), Stephens has left a lasting imprint on the Kansas City, agricultural and animal health advertising communities. See some of the agency's recent work that reflects this legacy.
From Composting to Communications.
But he didn’t always know this was his path. “I originally pursued a degree in music,” Stephens said. “I changed degrees numerous times before I figured it out.”
Trading his trombone for a portfolio, Stephens eventually graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in Agricultural Journalism. He took his first job in communications at Webb Publishing in St. Paul, Minnesota.
After cutting his teeth in the creative department there, Stephens moved up the corporate ladder at DeKalb Agricultural Research in Illinois. “I was the ‘do-it-all’ kind of guy. I loved all those jobs, especially the PR components.”
Climbing the Ladder to the Best Creative for Clients.
It showed. He became the public relations director after seven years of hands-on success within the company.
During those years, he met—and married—his wife, Charlotte. Kansas City then called the Stephens family back to the Sunflower State.
Stephens took an advertising job in town but quickly realized the opportunity to do things differently—to improve the work for clients. “There were better ways of doing business. When I thought about opening my own agency, I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Driving Change in Kansas City Advertising.
The self-starter mentality that took root in him as a child blossomed in 1980 into the creation of Stephens & Associates Advertising. It didn’t take long for success to follow.
“The agency started in our house, but it moved into an office space three months later.” He chuckles, “Charlotte wasn’t exactly heartbroken when it moved out of our home.”
Right away, Stephens & Associates made a splash with big-name clients in the agricultural and animal health industry. The client roster expanded quickly to include plant breeders, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and specialty markets with work shining in B2B and B2C capabilities.
“We got lots of attention. We were really visible in the traditional platforms. Awards from NAMA [National Agri-Marketing Association] and acclaimed radio, TV, billboards… We always did what was right for the client and it worked. We won so many awards.”
Another victory for the agency was the launch of Advantage® from Bayer in 1996. (Learn lessons for launching a product brand that still apply today.) The first topical flea control in the United States was also the first $100 million-dollar brand for the agency. Its enormously successful introduction to the U.S. market, followed by another with K9 Advantix®, garnered Stephens & Associates the reputation of “Animal-Health Machine.”
The agency’s prominence in the animal health landscape only grew with its direct influence on the creation and launch of PetSmart’s Banfield Pet Hospital® franchise. “We have a total involvement philosophy. We fully engage with the brand manager. We know their sales, their marketing goals. Their consumer,” Stephens said. “When we learned about Banfield’s place in PetSmart, we quickly determined the enormous opportunity.”
Lasting Success in the Industry.
With courageous business plans and recommendations, the reach of the agency continued to grow over time, spilling into additional industries, including finance and human health.
Stephens attributes this success to the incredible trust created and maintained between the agency and its clients. “The most important thing you can have in a client relationship is trust. You have to have their best interest at heart, because our business is the client’s business,” Stephens said.
This year, the Stephens & Associates, now simply called S&A, celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Although the milestone is taking place amidst a pandemic, Stephens is excited to say the future is bright for the agency. “We’re a group of extremely smart people,” Stephens states proudly. “As long as we think through the problem to provide truly strategic insights, we’ll continue to grow. Our brainpower creates content that makes a difference. And used correctly, it always will.”
The lessons of the dairy farm paid off for Stephens and still drive him today. They’re the basis of the S&A legacy of success that will continue to serve the agency’s clients until the cows come home.