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Does every PR firm need an international capability?

What are purchasing challenges for international buyers of public relations? The role of procurement? The inadequacies of the pitch process? Or balancing the desire for a uniform approach, versus the need to employ the best people in each region that you afford?

These are all discussions that we will be exploring over the coming weeks in a series of articles on buying global PR. For this first article we focus on balancing the need for a uniform approach with buying the best experts you can afford.

I caught up with Hanover founder and managing director Charles Lewington at ICCO’s recent summit in Milan to discuss this very topic. Charles founded Hanover in 1998, but in recent years it has grown quickly (25% in its most recent financial accounts.) This growth combined with an international client base meant that Hanover needed to provide an international option for its clients.

Most successful independent PR firms probably get to this stage, where to continue to grow your business, or in some cases to protect your current revenues, you have to have a international capability.

If you don't, sooner or later, the chances are that your international clients will say: "Thanks, we like you, we love the client team, you do some great work, but we’re an international brand and we need an international agency. See ya!"

The solution, in broad terms, to this problem is either to sell your independent firm to one of the groups (eg: Omnicom, WPP, Havas or Publicis) or to join one of the international networks of independent PR firms.

When I discussed this with Lewington he agreed that the challenge of how to grow your firm internationally is further complicated for independent UK communications firms because of the lack of a significant number of global UK brands.

Lewington reports that "We've grown quickly, 25% last year, I'd say every other day we get a request in from a part of the business needing an international capability, so we had no choice to but to do this to enable us to service our clients ... we have to have that competence, we have to have those relationships to enable us to do international work."

The larger (mainly) US-owned agencies have successfully grown their international footprint by "following" their clients around the world for the past 20+years.

Hanover has a pretty international client including the likes of Microsoft and Goldman Sachs so Lewington’s strategy is to build an international capability to enable him to service these clients through a series of hand-picked independent specialists operating in specific markets in specific geographies. "You can use your reputation in the UK to win business abroad" he adds.

The concept of a network of independent forms is not a new one, for example PROI has been operating for 45 years, but Lewington believes that his new Ecosystem network will be a success because it is concentrated only in specific sectors. All of the members are fast-growing PR firms operating at the corporate reputation management and public affairs end of the market.

Does the networked model still work?

I ask Lewington if the international networked agency still works? He replies: “In some areas you might want the international networked model, but some sectors such as energy, sustainability, financial services and healthcare are very good examples of where you need smart people with good expertise in local markets to be able to deliver."

"We've spent time ensuring that partners in the agency system have specific strength in these key areas."

The Ecosystem founding partners are akkanto (Belgium), Atrevia (Iberia and Latin America), Dortok Communications (Turkey), ipse Communication (Germany), Hanover Communications (UK and Brussels), Narva (Sweden and the Nordics), Noesis (Italy), SPN Communications (Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan), Thomas Marko & Associes (France) and Vision Group (Poland). The network intends to expand its membership to North America, Africa and Asia-Pacific within a year.

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