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When outside-the-industry consumers think of advertising, agribusiness probably isn’t what springs to mind. But it’s a niche market that’s ripe for innovation, and that’s where Lean Media comes in. Founded in September 2014, the company’s mission is to “bring the targeting power of programmatic online advertising to agribusiness,” says founder Beth Handrigan. In layman’s terms, that means they’re about to help agriculture companies get a whole lot more efficient with their advertising.
Finding a Niche
Handrigan and her co-founder, Matt Jeter, were formerly colleagues at a digital marketing agency and owned their own companies with a focus in the digital marketing space. For several years, they ran campaigns for national clients—and with the large buys that involved, the two knew that “programmatic advertising, or the automated buying/selling of online ads, was an ideal solution,” says Handrigan. That method makes it easy to closely target potential customers and makes the actual process of buying ads easier. Plus, the flexibility it offers means that the ability to experiment to figure out what’s optimal is practically built in—something that traditional media just doesn’t have the power to do, adds Handrigan.
However, the coworkers ran into a problem when it came time to run a campaign targeting seniors aging into Medicare: There was no way to utilize obvious data—like birth dates—to help target customers. The two decided to create their own solution, and the initial concept for Lean Media was born. “When the opportunity came up for us to join forces to build an advertising technology startup, it was a natural next step,” says Handrigan.
For two years, Jeter and Handrigan did customer-development interviews and ran campaigns to see if market interest existed (it did) and identify the right product and market fit. But their big break came when a local agency that helped provide digital marketing support for Monsanto challenged the fledgling startup to come up with a way to deliver ads to farmers. The coworkers wound up running a successful campaign not just for the local agency, but, later, for others, including digital agencies of record for companies like Syngenta.
“We soon realized that when it comes to leveraging the targeting power of programmatic advertising, agribusiness is truly an underserved market that was ripe for disruption,” says Handrigan. “It was then that we shifted our focus to building on online advertising platform specifically for agriculture and rural audiences.”
Lean Media fills an important gap in the market. In general, the options for agribusiness advertisers trying to reach farmers and other “rural operators” have been limited, says Handrigan: They “consist of non-ag-focused media companies who certainly have experience in programmatic advertising, but lack our access to and expertise working with agriculture data sets, or ag-focused media companies that own and operate their own network of websites and lack expertise in programmatic advertising, as it’s not a primary focus for them.”
Of course, this meant that the three staffers—Handrigran, Jeter and full-time sales representative Brandi Bargen—had to embark on a crash course of all things agricultural to develop the expertise they knew they would need.
“Neither Matt, Brandi or I grew up on a farm or had experience working in the agriculture industry,” says Handrigan. “While we were certain we had found a product and market fit for Lean Media, we also knew that we had a lot to learn. I recall early on when we received a request for a media plan to target various types of cattle farms. Honestly, at that time we had no idea that there were so many types of cattle, from cow/calves, stockers and fed cattle to heifers and milk cows (just to name a few!). Since then we’ve made a conscious effort to immerse ourselves in the agriculture industry and learn as much as we can.”
The effort was hands on: They took farm tours, have joined the National Agrimarketing Association, the St. Louis Agribusiness Club, and interviewed leaders at global agrochemical and agricultural biotech corporations.
Carving Out Space
The cofounders’ initial hunch that this space was “ripe for disruption” proved accurate: They’ve had orders from the largest ag brands in the world, says Handrigan, including many repeat buys. They’ve also generated $925,000 in lifetime revenue with an annualized revenue rate of $1 million.
After participating in this fall’s Prosper Women Entrepreneurs cohort, the next step for the company is a big one. They’ve proved market demand and that they understand how rural audiences consume media. Now, they’re transitioning from a bootstrapped company to a venture-backed enterprise. Part of that involves building the “first and only programmatic data-management platform powered by proprietary agriculture data sets and dedicated to improving media buying for agribusiness,” says Handrigan.
To this end, Lean Media is opening up a seed round and building out the team to include sales and account reps, media buyers and data scientists.
But some things don’t change—and that includes the love for innovation and learning that initially catalyzed the company to develop its unique niche in the agribusiness market.
“With such a small team, it is truly a dynamic and collaborative environment,” says Handrigan. “We love a challenge, and we believe in always staying true to our core value of authenticity.”