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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Smart, simple marketing

Nick and Sarina Caravatta operate a temporary labor service from an almost invisible location on one of Ottawa's poorest streets. Their business, providing temporary workers largely for the local construction industry, certainly lacks glamour or ostentatious wealth -- don't expect to see the likes of Conrad Black in their establishment -- but they understand the basics of sales and marketing; know your business, differentiate, and don't waste money.

They first came into the picture back in the spring, when a former employee sold them on a modest advertising feature in the internal newsletter of the Ottawa-Carleton Home Builders' Association, which we publish under contract. Their Labourcorp Temporary Labour Services business is an OCHBA member -- and I could see from their dispatch board that several prominent member firms use their services.

Our proposition: If you purchase a modest ad in this feature, we would write a modest story about your business in the theme issue. They accepted.

Well, we ran the ad, but didn't write or publish the story. I realized the error shortly afterwards, and offered a make-up ad and story. My bad -- we screwed up again; in fact I completely forgot my commitment. Nick didn't. He called to check in and remind me.

It is one thing to screw up twice; it is another to take responsibility. Since the original mistake occurred several months ago and it is not practical now to write the story in the Impact! I told him we would simply treat this as a regular news feature in Ottawa Construction News; forget the advertising element. (When you own the publishing business, you can occasionally bend the rules, though I am generally extremely careful about meddling with editorial integrity.)

Well, regardless of the source of the story, there is something really genuine here because the Caravatas' business operates at the extremes of the economy, and therefore is of real interest to anyone in journalism.

How do you create a viable business at the bottom end of the labour market -- the environment where drugs, poverty, and downright destitution are the norm rather than the exception? I wondered about these things as I got out of my car on the seedy street where their business is housed, carefully checking to ensure I had locked my car doors and nothing valuable could be seen through the windows.

Walking into the less-than-elegant (but clean) waiting area, where day labourers are reminded not to wear muscle shirts or torn clothes, I met the Caravatas. They explained how they make things work.

  • Their workers are paid weekly not daily as is common in the sector. This means the employees have some degree of reliability and stability -- it also means that they aren't rushing to get off work right on deadline each day to get their pay (the office stays open late on Friday, payday, to ensure the money flows when it is due, and if you work on Thursday, your pay will be ready on Friday, however.)
  • Workers are treated with respect. There is a counter, but no glass wall; no peepholes, no "us or them" attitude -- Labourcorp realizes its employees may be among the working poor, but they are working, and that is what matters. (There are incentives and recognition for reliability and stability, as well.)
  • Employers are also treated with respect. They get the workers they need -- who are shuttled by Labourcorp to the job sites, often at difficult-to-reach locations.
As for marketing, the Caravatas don't spend money on fancy digs; or a highbrow image. They have a simple website (I would can the music, but otherwise it does what it should do), and they don't waste money on careless or indiscriminate advertising -- but know the value of advertorials, especially when the marketing is geared to their intended audience.

Most importantly, they appreciate the importance of differentiation and distinctiveness; in this case, by rethinking some of the conventions and stereotypes of their sector, they attract better and more reliable workers -- and thus can charge slightly higher fees (and pay their employees slightly more than the norm). These principals, I believe, are valid for any type of marketing, even if your business doesn't operate at the edge of poverty.

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