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Wednesday, Apr 24, 2024

Research Expert Had Early Focus on Hispanic Market

Back when Carlos Garcia first formed the Hispanic market research firm that bears his name, he had a long string of clients. That was the bad news. The field was so new, and clients were so ambivalent about spending money to market to Hispanics, years could pass between projects, and when clients did throw the firm some business, the jobs tended to be small and short-lived. Today, Hispanic advertising has become a $4 billion industry, with a growth rate that far outpaces the general market. And Garcia Research Associates Inc., with a client roster that includes some of the biggest names in packaged goods marketing, will see its revenues grow by 40 percent this year. But, Garcia bluntly concedes, “Most people would not have waited. “If I looked at these books like a business person I would have closed the doors 10 years ago,” Garcia said. “It was never a question of we’re not profitable enough. (In lean years) I would pay myself a minimal salary and move forward. Sometimes it takes that kind of patience.” In many respects, Garcia is an unlikely entrepreneur. He started his business, not so much because he wanted to be his own boss, but because he didn’t much like the other bosses he encountered. He readily admits he is not a good salesman. And his goals have been less about building a business and more about creating an environment where he could do the kind of work he enjoyed. “I wanted a jerk-free zone,” Garcia said. “I wanted a crew of people who were pulling together, rowing in the same direction, helping each other out. What I really wanted was a truly Latino-style environment, where the focus is on the work and not on anyone’s ego.” That work environment is finally paying off. This year, Burbank-based Garcia Research Associates will bill somewhat more than $3 million, thanks in part to new clients who have tapped the company for its skill at everything from moderating focus groups to advertising copy testing and discerning the cultural differences within the Latino community. “We of course liked his experience, and his resume and his presentation. And he really took to the project and did a tremendous job with it,” said Brenda Croy, director of business development for Health Net of California. “He was able to structure the discussion in a very easy way so that we got some great input from the participants.” Educated at Pomona College, UC Berkeley and the Universite de Paris III, “The New Sorbonne,” mostly in film and theater, (he ultimately got an MBA from National University), Garcia stumbled into his current field when he returned to the U.S. and started beating the bushes for a job. He landed work as the first full time employee of a small Hispanic market research firm. A son of Mexican immigrants, Garcia liked the opportunity to study Hispanics and the attention to detail market research required, and over the next 10 years, he continued to work in the field, moving through several companies until the last agency where he was employed was sold to an Anglo with no background in the Hispanic market. “I guess I owe a huge debt of gratitude to this individual who was such a jerk, because he forced me to take a huge risk,” Garcia said. Using his home and other personal possessions as collateral, he scraped together about $35,000 in loans and started Garcia Research Associates in 1990. “The first year, we billed $338,000,” Garcia recalled. Back then, most of the companies that paid any attention to the Hispanic market were selling cigarettes, beer and fast food, but Garcia was not willing to work in those categories. The firm had a few steady clients Warner Lambert, Mazola and Mission Foods, among them but the company’s fortunes were largely at the whim of what was a very fickle marketplace for Hispanic marketing efforts. “It was very frustrating,” Garcia recalled. “They would do a Hispanic market initiative, see some benefit, and then they would just stop.” With a need to continually replenish his business, and with no particular fondness or aptitude for sales, Garcia fell back on his theater background, and he worked the speakers’ circuit at seminars and conferences for new business. “My greatest weapon was my theater background and feeling comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people,” Garcia said. “It wasn’t a strategic choice. It was a personality limitation and a personality opportunity,” he added. The company’s revenues would grow one year and fall back the next, until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 all but shut down consumer spending. Marketers began to look elsewhere for opportunities, and as they did, they came upon stories of companies like Procter & Gamble and Sears, who were some of the earliest adopters of Hispanic marketing efforts. “You could look at the Hispanic spenders and see they were surviving quite well,” said Garcia. “That correlation hit people over the head.” By then Garcia Research Associates’ reputation was well established. “We’ve been working with him for seven or eight years,” said Enrique Gil, CEO of Ethnic Marketing Group, a full-service Hispanic advertising agency in Valencia. “They really do their homework. They know the consumer, and they are culturally sensitive to all the nuances so they really know how to get the truth out of the consumer.” The increased attention to Hispanics has brought other challenges for Garcia Research Associates. Large, general market agencies have begun selling ethnic research services, and they are elbowing into territory once exclusively held by small boutique firms. To compete, Garcia has inked a deal with Ipsos-ASI, a huge, multi-national copy-testing firm that has given Garcia Research Associates access to new clients. The agency recently opened a Tijuana office in an effort to reduce the cost of data processing and become more cost competitive. And Garcia has launched Omnibus Studies, a unit that allows smaller marketers to share the cost of large, national studies. Like the company’s other initiatives through the years, Omnibus is financed entirely out of the revenues Garcia Research generates. And like the company’s history, Garcia figures it will be some time before the investment bears fruit, but he isn’t sweating the timeline. “The decisions I make are based on what I think is good for our company, our reputation and our long term relationships with clients,” he said. “I can wait it out. I can hang in there and lose money on something, and I can do that because I have the ability of being my own man.”

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