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Close-Up with Al Maag, chief communications officer, Avnet Inc.

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Al Maag is chief communications officer of Avnet Inc., one of the world's largest global distributors of electronic components. Earlier this year, the company introduced a video portal, Avnet OnDemand (www.avnetondemand.com), showcasing video from some of its more than 300 component and equipment suppliers.

Maag serves on the board of the Business Marketing Association and is president of the BMA's Phoenix chapter, which he was instrumental in launching in 2008.

In the following interview with BtoB, Maag talks about where the global recession prompted him to curtail some spending (and hold the line on other budgets) as well as how Avnet has become a video channel for its channel partners.

BtoB:What is your top marketing objective?

Maag: At our company, it is absolutely around organic growth. We want to grow all the markets we're in. We want to grow by adding geographic coverage, introduce new services and solutions, attract new suppliers and be as innovative as possible. We've been known to grow by M&A. We've done over 60 mergers in the last 15 years, so that's one of the more interesting ways in which we grow. But we feel, right now, it is very, very important we grow organically.

BtoB:Can you give us a heads-up on anything you're planning for next year?

Maag: If there's one thing I'm going to be keeping a real close watch on for all of our folks it's balance, and that's the balance between print and online. My team has led the social media charge at Avnet—it's really important, and we're doing a lot of things in this area. But … I am very concerned about the pendulum going over too much. I'm very concerned about balance. Print, to me, is still very important. (Print is about) branding; it's about tracking people who don't know too much about us. I don't think, always, some of these online activities do that.

BtoB:Avnet has a global footprint. Did the economic downturn cause you to make any changes in your strategy, messaging or tactics?

Maag: The first place that went, unfortunately, is what I just mentioned. A lot of our print activities were curtailed—not totally, but we did curtail them. That bothers me a little bit. The one area that we didn't cut was very strategic. We did not back off on our activities that we do with our customers and suppliers. We have not stopped any of our seminar activities. In fact, we just launched our second global, in-person seminar series: X-fest (around Avnet's largest electronic component supplier, Xilinx). Education will be a key to where we go—seminars and partner conferences. And we're not just educating people about our products and services; it's also about how to do their jobs better.

BtoB:In this downturn, we've seen tech publishers really take it on the chin, and some have pulled up stakes for their print titles. Has this affected Avnet?

Maag: Boy, has it. And I will tell you: It's our fault. I will be the first one to go on my soapbox to say ... we acquired 60 companies, and most of those folks were advertisers. When you eliminate 50 to 75 advertisers in a 15-year period, guess what: Something is going to happen. I would say, Avnet had a lot to do with screwing up the publishing ecosystem. And we have absolutely addressed that issue. I think one of my key roles now is to look at these types of things and make sure our folks are aware of them.

Recently, we invited three publishing firms to come talk to our marketing communications people about what the future is going to be like. I would say the No. 1 way we market Avnet around the world is through PR. We have been very fortunate in getting our unfair share of coverage. We work hard at it, and we get it. And my concern was, “If there (are fewer) publications or less advertising—which of course means less editorial pages—where are we going to get our coverage?”

BtoB:Talk about Avnet OnDemand and your approach, as you've said, of “thinking like a publisher.”

Maag: We've all seen this explosion of video being used in the business sense. (But) where do you put these videos? No one is going to put their videos on YouTube when there's a screaming cat next to it or comedy routines on the other side. I love YouTube, but I was looking for something that would show some results and some ROI. And no one seemed to have one, so we decided to do one ourselves. We're a distributor that, fortunately, has some wonderful brands that we sell—over 300 of them, ranging from IBM and Intel to HP and Microsoft. We represent some of the greatest technology companies in the world. So why wouldn't we use technology to help educate our customers? We looked at cable and satellite, but the Internet was the right answer. We decided to have our own portal and attract our suppliers to put their videos on. We are charging in some cases. We are getting leads for our divisions.

BtoB:And isn't that one of the big differences of Avnet OnDemand and YouTube? You can close the lead loop?

Maag: In our case, we usually give (video viewers) two or three action items. They can go buy, get a white paper for more information and so on. We're able to tell (distributors on our site) what happened to their video. We think that is showing some ROI. The exciting part for us is we are a value-added distributor that sells on the component side as well as the computer product side. So we will have the full supply chain of technology out there. No one else will do that.

BtoB:By the end of next year, what percentage of the Avnet suppliers are going to be involved with your video portal?

Maag: If we're successful, I would like to be at 50%. Let's say our top 100 suppliers, I'd like to make sure all 100 of them are on, for sure.

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