In March 2011, Andy Marker decided to leave the security of full-time employment at Prana, where he directed the company’s professional-purchase program, and head out on his own with IPA Connect (www.ipa-connect.com). A 20-year industry veteran who has also ran pro-purchase programs at Nike, The North Face and Patagonia, Marker believes that influencers, pros and athletes offer tremendous areas of potential growth and distribution for most brands if managed properly. “It’s not about going big and crazy and in the process ruining distribution,” Marker said. “It’s about doing this business in a controlled and responsible manner so everyone wins.”
As SNEWS® has previously reported, pro-deal programs can go awry, damaging credibility within the the industry.
We sat down with Marker (photo right) recently to learn more about his new company and to understand how he hopes to revolutionize and professionalize pro-purchase programs at all levels.
SNEWS – What was the impetus for you to go out on your own?
A – I love working with this sector of the industry and I think there is a great deal of work that needs to be done to bring professional purchase programs to the level or importance for brands as other sales channels have. For years I've been saying that if most businesses ran their regular business like they run their pro business, they would very quickly be out of business. I'm hoping I can help some great brands do this business well.
SNEWS – Have you been working with pros for a long time?
A – I first worked with pros back in the early days of Black Diamond Equipment in Ventura and continued to do so when BD moved to Salt Lake City. I found I really enjoyed working with the ski patrollers, avalanche forecasters and others from the Wasatch Front areas. From there I learned more and more and developed my systems through positions with Nike, The North Face, Patagonia and most recently, Prana. Some good experiences, some not so good but all in all, I benefited from great first hand experiences on how this business works for different companies. Over the years I have advised dozens of companies on how to do these programs correctly and profitably and I think most of those have gone on to see some significant progress with their professional purchase program business strategies.
SNEWS – You make a very clear distinction between pros, influencers and athletes. How should a brand define its relationship with each of these three groups?
A – In a general sense, I define a pro as being someone who is employed full-time, year-round in one of dozens of categories within the outdoor, sports and recreation industry. But in saying that, this is probably the area that has most brands frustrated. Brands frequently question and debate exactly who should be considered a pro and then if that category of pro is right for the brand. And my quick answer to that is it depends on the brand, the individual, their location, their skill, training and/or certification. Finding the right answer can be like putting together a puzzle. And while everyone on my programs is generally an influencer in one way or another, those influencers are not always what is thought of as the traditional pro. How a brand defines an individual as an influencer is truly up to the brand. One person's influencer is another brand’s unknown person. Influencers could be politicians, musicians, next-door neighbors, business leaders…you will know the influencers you wish to connect with if you first understand what you are looking for and why.
Athletes typically are specific to brands – ski brands support skiers, climbing brands support climbers and so on. However, I generally like to do whatever I can for any athlete that is competing at a true world or national class level in almost any sport. Here again though, all of this comes down to the brand defining and understanding what is right for them.
SNEWS – Retailers certainly have a mixed view of pro deal programs. Should retailers be wary of professional purchase programs?
A – In my opinion, yes and no. There's no question specialty retailers have it tough these days and all retailers try to protect their turf. That being said, I don't feel that every sale within a certain geographic region needs to go through a local retail operation. However, there is no way a brand setting up a well planned and executed professional purchase program should not also take into account the retailers who brought the brand success in the first place. In some communities, especially mountain towns, it may make more sense to work with local retailers as a brand develops its pro deal program. There is certainly the possibility that a poorly thought out pro-deal program could hurt a local retailer if he loses all of his sales to bros who think they are pros but are in fact just looking for a deal.
And as Gary Neptune once suggested, retailers should ask about a brand’s pro program and make a judgment on how it's operated and how it might affect them. And then, vote with their open to buy. Too many brands do a poor job with their programs and these do cause problems with retailers. The pro-deal industry will never go away, but like every other aspect of ones business, it should be done responsibly and strategically.
SNEWS - What is your vision for IPA Connect?
A – The goal is to establish a small crew of highly trained employees who know this business inside and out so that we can eventually, and effectively, represent leading brands in the outdoor recreation industry. We will be successful by helping the brands we work with to run a profitable professional service program with educated and loyal pros. In turn, retailers will know that when a brand is working with Andy Marker and IPA Connect, they can have confidence in the process. The days of the "hook-up" and the "brodeal" that undermines retailers and at the same time hurts a brand’s credibility should be long gone. Brands need to have a holistic and more respectful view of this business. Operating a strong and healthy professional purchase program is really not that hard to do it right with the proper program, but it's so very easy to do it wrong if you do it without a clear vision and plan.
I cannot think of too many companies in this industry that have a great solution or plan of action – one that is really well executed as a complete pro program. A loarge number of brands dabble with pro deals but in my professional opinion, few if any seem to fully comprehend the power and the vastness of the market. And those who have used third part programs are starting realize that even the better programs can’t, or don't know how to manage all aspects of a good program that need to be managed to ensure a brand’s long-term reputation and credibility.
SNEWS - Why would a brand hire your new company, IPA Connect, especially since you have just said third party solutions are not the best idea?
A – We are not a third party solution. We will work with a brand to help them set up and manager their own program, one that works for them individually. From recruiting to vetting to marketing to retailer issues -- I have seen and done it all and I think I can provide a great perspective on a brand’s opportunities and help them address any potential issues. A brand would want to work with us if they do indeed realize the opportunities that are in the market today and know enough to want to build this business correctly and responsibly, but not know exactly how. Again, building a great program is not about big numbers, but it's maximizing what you have and doing all you can to create strong brand awareness and loyalty; enrich your pros experience and educate them; know your database and control distribution. When you do the majority of things right, you will see better profits, more brand loyalty and a better representation of your brand in the marketplace.
We are not a company trying to give the "hook-up" or the "brodeal". I don't think operations that handle pro deals en masse are good for brands or for the industry. At least not for brands that are concerned with where and how their products are distributed. We want to work with brands, within brands much like the top public relations agencies you see. We want to be considered the first pro agency.