The power of co-operative marketing: The MSL Show in action

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Robert Merkley (right) with guests at the annual MSL show in Ottawa

The annual MSL (Merkley Supply Ltd.) Show has become a “must attend” event for Ottawa’s design and construction industry. The event attracts more than 1,000 to a local conference centre, where supplier-exhibitors also can conduct informative seminars; as an eclectic combination of owners, architects, engineers, general and masonry contractors (and some down-to-earth bricklayers) hang out, with an unlimited open bar and free food.

MSL primarily distributes masonry products and supplies; consumers can certainly visit the company’s showroom in an industrial area of the city, but this retailer sells most of its product to the trades. And MSL president Robert Merkley saw an opportunity more than two decades ago to create an event that has all of the best elements of effective marketing rolled into one day.

In the early 1990s, another local entrepreneur decided to start a trade show for the construction industry. I had just started my business — a fledgling publication then focused exclusively for real estate brokers and sales representatives. The construction show was on the “edge” of my market interests, but I negotiated a trade-out deal with the show operator, exchanging advertising for booth space.

The show blew me away with its size and scope, and inspired me a few months later to start a publication for the local construction industry. That publication, Ottawa Construction News, continues to this day, not quite the many years of history behind Merkley Supply Ltd., but certainly we have both outlasted the original construction show, which faded out of existence more than a decade ago.

Merkley had a massive display at inaugural construction show. (He also purchased an advertisement in the first issue of Ottawa Construction News — the ads continue today — and had some influence within the Greater Ottawa Home Builder’s Association (GOHBA) in my business receiving a continuing contract to produce the association’s internal newsletter, The Impact.) Awed, I waited for the second show.

Then, Merkley Supply had about the same amount of space, but the company seemed far less interested in “working” the show. I didn’t know why, until the time for the third construction show. Merkley wasn’t there, because he had decided to start its own show at a local banquet hall.

The first MSL events were modest, in scale, but still had some of the hallmarks of the current program. Merkley didn’t skip on the food and drink — and you needed to be invited to attend. This would never be a show for students, unemployed people, or retirees hoping to pick up a few trinkets. Merkley arranged with his manufacturing suppliers to rent booths at the show; and used these funds (plus his own capital) to provide the food and drink, and support the controlled direct-mail marketing for the event.

The show has grown through the years. About three years ago, Merkley moved the event to a major convention hall, and then added seminars and presentations to the day — supplier exhibitors could set these presentations, often complying with the rules for continuing education credits from relevant professional associations.

Today, if you have any connection with the local architecture, engineering and construction industry, you’ll almost certainly meet some movers and shakers at the event. Exhibitors have no problem paying for their booth space; their ROI on sales channel results is incredible compared to a regular show. Merkley also uses the event to promote his favorite charitable cause, the “Ride the Rideau,” a 100-km cycling event to raise money for The Ottawa Hospital’s cancer centre.

Fair enough. This sort of event requires planning, promotion, and a reasonably hefty marketing budget. However, Merkley has shown how co-operative marketing can really be effective. MSL’s suppliers certainly help pay for the costs, and they are happy to do it, and everyone who attends leaves with positive feelings about MSL — undoubtedly good for the company’s branding.

This is a local example, but possibly when you are thinking about your marketing initiatives you can see some merit in reflecting and emulating MSL’s success.

1. Can you engage your suppliers in the process, obtaining their financial support to fund the project?

2. Can you deliver upstream and downstream value to your suppliers, clients, and even your clients’ clients?

3. Can you create a sustainable, replicable event, that serves as its own draw and magnet for further initiatives?

I think you can, as well. You’ll need to think creatively, of course, and obviously manage your expectations at the start. MSL didn’t over-promise a huge show the first few years; but he had enough suppliers, enough good food, and a qualified list of people to invite, so the risks were manageable. I think most of us have at least these foundations, if we are ready to go beyond the obvious. Think co-op. You will be impressed by the rewards.

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