Alberta marketing trailblazer awarded Order of Canada

Fun is the definitive word when Kim McConnell describes his life so far.

A founder of AdFarm, North America’s largest advertising agency entirely focused on agriculture, McConnell’s lifetime achievements promoting youth and farming were recognized when he was inducted as a member of the Order of Canada in January.

While he will never know who put his name forward, the honour was the highlight of his career.

“I received hundreds of emails, cards and letters, phone calls and there is a whole bunch I have no idea who they are. They all end with the same thing, ‘it is good to see our industry is finally getting recognized,’ ” he said.

“I am not sure it is what I have done, as it is fun to be a servant of the industry and make things better,” he said.

A farm boy from Hamiota, Man., McConnell graduated with a degree in agriculture from the University of Manitoba in 1978.

He wanted to farm but his parents told him he had to get an education and work off the farm for at least two years. He did manage to farm for a season but circumstances changed and he ended up in Calgary and worked for Elanco.

“I was offered a job in advertising and promotion, which I knew absolutely nothing about,” he said.

A natural communicator, he took on the job and when he decided he had gone as far as he could with the company, he and his wife, Carolyn, agreed he should strike out on his own in 1984. Their three children were not born yet and she gave him a year to start a company called Fieldstone out of their home.

Union Carbide was his first client, which hired him to develop a marketing plan for a new product launch.

He started to attract some good clients and he hired staff he considered experts.

“It goes hand in hand. If you have good people, you have good clients,” he said.

He knew how to select the right people and let them go.

“I let them skin their knees. My job is to make sure they don’t bleed to death,” he said.

Many companies at that time needed marketing support and communication strategies.

“Companies didn’t have marketing departments. They had sales people, they had research people and maybe production people,” he said

“I was at the beginning of the whole movement.”

At the time, he didn’t realize he was marching to a different drummer.

“Everybody I knew either worked for someone or was at home farming with their parents. Nobody set up a business on their own,” he said.

His approach worked and the company thrived.

In 1999, he sold the company to a larger organization. He decided he was too young to retire but he did not want a traditional job.

“I am an entrepreneur and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to work for someone,” he said.

He worked with the new owners for a year and in 2001 his friends, Ross Harvey and Art Froelich, suggested amalgamation.

They owned the Parker Group and eventually the amalgamation became AdFarm, which today has offices in Canada and the United States.

The client list reads like a who’s who of the international agriculture world with Farm Credit Canada, Bayer, Dow AgriSciences, Agrium and others on board.

The first year was rocky and at times they worried they could not make the payroll. Ultimately, they got over the rough parts. CIBC became their bank and nominated them as one of Canada’s 50 best managed companies.

“We were the first agriculture business and the first agency to be named one of Canada’s best companies,” he said.

By this time, McConnell was approaching 50.

He was healthy and had energy, great connections and strong family support. He told the Adfarm board he was leaving as an active member of the company.

“I wanted to focus on the two things beyond my family that drive me the most. One is the entrepreneurial spirit. I like to help entrepreneurs. I am going to mentor some entrepreneurs. I think our industry is not performing at the level it could.”

That was 10 years ago.

He maintains an office at AdFarm’s Calgary location, but these days calls himself a strategic partner where he takes on projects that interest him.

That role gives him time to sit on boards like Genome Canada, Calgary Stampede Foundation, 4-H Canada, Canadian Centre for Food Integrity and Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency.

His latest project is to work with young Canadians aged 25 to 33 and introduce them to industry leaders to talk about opportunities in agriculture. Youth need to be encouraged and his generation needs to stand aside and let them step forward, he said.

“My passion is in rural and agriculture. If I look at municipalities, farm organizations and industry organizations, I think we would be so much better if we had some new young blood that can bring some new ideas,” he said.

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