Q&A Valeri Lea

When you grow up around food, it often becomes your life, whether you want it to or not.  But for Valeri Lea, it was one of the best parts of her childhood.  And she's continued on with it, in a different way, but with food still the centerpiece of her life.

“I actually have been in the food business for what feels like my whole life,” says the partner and head of account services at deep group, a leading food marketing agency that promotes global foodservice brands. “When I was a kid, my mom owned a restaurant, and I was exposed to a lot – as you might imagine, a child in a family business trying to 'help out' where I could.” She laughs. “And watch and learn. At a very young age, I actually remember going to my first food show. Gosh, I was probably about eight years old, which was just incredible, being that age and running around a food show, sampling food and beverages at all these different booths.”

Lea says she remembers her excitement about food shows “and all that wonderful food,” to this day. “Even at such a young age, I was completely drawn in. After that first show, I was pretty certain I wanted to work in the industry. I’m happy to say I still get the same kind of charge at food shows today,” she says.
Today she leads a team of foodservice marketers at deep, which designs brand identities, print advertisements, social media campaigns, and package design for some of the nation’s largest brands such as, Nestle Professional, Tyson Foods, and Lamb Weston.

Lea is proud of the family deep comes from. It's part of the Marlin Network, which is comprised of two companies (Food IQ and Star Awards) and three agencies (deep, Marlin Company and The Alchemedia Project). “There is an incredible amount of talent here and each affiliate, as we call them, has a special skill set. Marlin is our oldest agency and has some really long-lasting relationships with their clients. The Alchemedia Project is a digital branding agency. FoodIQ is an innovation firm that provides culinary, insights and innovation services. And Star Awards is a College & University loyalty program.”

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The Marlin Network offers STARAwards®, a loyalty program for self-operated college and universities. Manufacturers are members of the program. Operators are rewarded for their purchases and use those rewards for free attendance to the annual NACUFS conference. “It’s a really beneficial program that has grown tremendously the last few years, proving that the reward is of great value to those C/U operators,”she says. Recently, Lea was featured in Forbes’ “Women Business Leaders” section, which focused on the leadership role she has played since the agency launched in 2005.

Lea took a brief segue from food when she went to college and majored in communications, with a minor in public relations and promotions, but once out of school her career went right back to food.

“My first job out of college was at a company in St. Louis called Sunmark, which was a division of Nestle. The job market in the mid-90's was really, really tight, much like today. I started out there in a temporary position as a secretary for the vice president of manufacturing,” she says.

She remembers really flourishing and thriving there. “Nestle is known for placing a lot of value on its employees and they invested a lot of training in me. I got to know the vice president of marketing and he took me under his wing,” she recalls. “I was able to leverage my communications degree in the marketing field there. And I've been in foodservice ever since.”

Lea worked for Nestle for about five years, and then relocated to Springfield, Mo., where her mom was living at the time. “I wanted to be closer to family, get back to my roots again. I got a job at an advertising agency in town and have been working on the agency side ever since. I've been doing agency work for the last 15 years,” she says.

Not a career as a chef or restaurateur? “While I loved that life of owning a brand and having our name on the door, I think the marketing agency world suits me so much better. To me, it’s so exciting to help other people grow their brands and to be able to work on a different one each and every day,” she says.
Her agency's primary clients are in foodservice, but also range across food manufacturers to equipment manufacturers to ingredient companies, restaurants, hospitality, clubs, convenience stores, delis, even brokers and distributors and contract managers.

Lea says her approach to business at the agency can be put into just a few words. “Service. The people we employ at deep are required to be givers; to always put others first. We practice a true spirit of servant-hood, not only with our clients, but with one another as well. What this truly means in regards to how we service our client is that we put their true needs first. We don’t sell them services we have. We sell them services they need; things that will be effective in moving their business forward. Too many times we’ve seen agencies push ideas onto their clients that are 'cool,' but ineffective. We’re not into that and consider that a disservice to our clients. We’ve actually had clients approach us with a project that we’ve talked them out of because we know it won’t work in meeting their needs or their customers’ needs.”

When it comes to strategy, trade shows are a critical part of agency business. “Trade shows always offer a great forum for showcasing innovative new products, so it gives us an opportunity to try things first-hand, to witness live demos, and see what trends are really taking off,” Lea says. “Our favorite thing about trade shows, however, is finding opportunities to overhear operators talk about issues they’re facing in their businesses or new things that they might be adding to the menu or doing to drive traffic. All of these things make us smarter and help us do our job for our clients better. We design a lot of booths for our clients, help them get materials ready in time for the shows and will even help serve food in the booth if needed. We’re there for them, whatever they need.”

A typical day for Lea might start with planning to market a new brand. “It’s always exciting for us to sink our teeth into a new brand. At deep, we find it’s important to get as immersed into the client’s expectations of that brand as possible, what competitive issues we might face, operator needs and any other marketplace condition that might affect a launch,” she says. “The first rule of marketing is to know your target audience, so which tactics we deploy for a product introduction or new brand depends on who our operator target is and how they like to receive new information. Sometimes we focus more on digital, sometimes it’s more of grassroots PR effort and other times we’ll just work to arm the sales and broker teams with what they need to have valuable conversations with their operator customers.”

Lea believes agencies are crucial for businesses trying to grow a brand. “We really like to work with clients that see us as a partner versus a vendor. So we act as an extension of their marketing department bringing fresh thinking to the table. A brand manager has a lot of things under their responsibility beyond just managing a communication plan or a marketing campaign, but that’s our sole focus, so we can really be a tremendous asset to them. Plus, our eyes are constantly on the industry, we attend nearly every industry event and this isn’t something that an in-house team is always able to do.”

The Partner says deep is so successful because everyone who works for the agency is in love with what they do. “Eating is a communal experience that brings people together. What a great thing to be a part of! And we’ve been doing this collectively as a team for several decades. Our experience, fresh perspective, creative talent and service mentality are what attract global brands.”

Deep practices what it preaches. It even has a working kitchen with a full range, grill, deep fryer, and convection oven, space it shares with its affiliate, FoodIQ, which supports the agency in culinary development for its clients. Through FoodIQ, deep can provide recipe ideas and menu development and engineering.

She notes that the foodservice industry is growing in new and exciting ways. “Locally-sourced menu items are something that consumers are looking for. This includes both produce and meats and seafood. There’s a vegan movement, a gluten free movement, and we’re seeing healthier kids’ meals too. People are becoming more and more concerned about what they put in their bodies and they’re being more vocal about it, which changes menus more quickly. Consumers will want to continue to experiment with new flavors, like sriracha and snacking will continue to occupy a lot of our time and interest,” Lea says.

Demographics are another crucial piece of the pie. “Baby Boomers behave a certain way of consumption and they have common needs from a more psycho-graphic perspective. We try to really be observers of human behavior versus just reading a bunch of statistics and data,” she says. “We're trying to make a good connection and apply that information for clients to make good decisions, because, as you know, what a person says they do, and what a person actually does, are two very different things!”

When it comes to Millennials, they won't spend as much money when they eat out. “They are very tech-savvy, they are much more social and leverage technology to do that, like tweeting a meal they're about to eat. They are looking to experiment a lot more with their food, so experiential flavors, a restaurant concept, is often built with the needs of a Millennial in mind. When you're tracking that particular consumer, our clients want to make sure that their menu items have sriracha and other really extreme and bold flavors,” she says.

As far as relationships with distributors, all of the agency's clients have good relationships with both large broad-line distributors like Sysco and US Food as well as smaller ones, and it does not view distributors as competitors. “We're collectively together growing the food service industry, versus competing with one another,” she says.

The agency supports its distributors and operators in many ways. “For example, we help them answer the question, ‘what do I do with this product in my restaurant?’ How do I create some great dishes with it that will meet my customers' needs, so recipe ideas are part of that. How do I generate awareness and attention that I've got this item on my menu, so it could be merchandising support, things like that. We also arm the DSR with the information they need, the story about the product, and what makes it different, what makes it better and how it's going to meet their customer's needs. How it's going to help to grow their business. So it's not just about the operator and helping them reach their customers for the consumer, but also helping the distributor sell the right product to the right operator to meet the right need and not just about rebates and making discounts. It's about growing food service in totality,” Lea says.

She believes the purpose behind broker consolidation is a good one. “Brokers are trying to become much more sophisticated consultants to operator customers. And at deep group, we're all about elevating service so that we can grow foodservice collectively, together. Does it necessarily concern me? Not as long as the operator's needs are being met, not as long as we're being responsible and the foodservice offerings that we're bringing to the market are meeting consumer needs.”

Where do cash-and-carry outlets like Restaurant Depot and Smart and Final fit?

“They play a big role for us and our clients,” she says. “We love the small business guy. Like I said, I grew up in that world and that's where they shop. They shop at Sam's Club and they shop at Restaurant Depot. And so we're making sure we've got applicable products for them in those outlets. A lot of our clients are very active in placing product in cash-and-carry and we think it's an important part of growing food service and helping out those small business people, because that's where they shop. It's about knowing your target. Where do they go? Not just how do they consume media information, but where do they go to get their product and just making sure we're there so that we can help them out.”

Right now the agency has several different product categories in which it doesn't currently operate. “Our sights are set on fresh produce and foodservice seafood. We don't have seafood clients on our roster, but, with our knowledge of some of those areas from our past lives, we're ready to help people out in those product categories,” she says.

“Dairy is another area that is untapped for us, so those are our immediate short-term needs. Long-term, we'd like to have some non-foodservice manufacturers on our client list, as well, whether they're distributors, or contract managers, or brokers, or even affiliations, such as councils or boards. We'd love to help those folks out, because those are the guys who are really getting the word out. They really have a need for PR and we have a great public relations and social media team here at deep group, so that would be my more immediate need, to focus, to expand on those kinds of areas. We're still tied to food but not necessarily food growers and manufacturers, if that makes sense.”

Lea says what helps clients most to make their brands stand out is very simple. “Consistency
is so key in both Front of House and Back of House. Every eating experience should be exactly what the guest expects when they enter an establishment. Or better. Keeping it fresh. Know your audience. Get the word out.”