As our links with our European neighbours look set to change over the coming months, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned from having offices in multiple markets.
Live your story
It gets spouted time and time again, but the importance of brand cannot be understated as the glue that binds agencies across borders and locations. At Ballou, we feel we have a genuinely strong brand ethic. Not just a mission statement on a wall that gets looked at once a year, but living-and-breathing brand values. Each office's new joiners get told the "Story of Ballou" by our chairman Colette, and because we do things differently from other agencies, it's vital that we don't have "independent republic" offices in other countries that do their own thing.
Having said that, there’s a slightly different culture in each market and that needs to be respected. The media scene is very different in each region, along with the attitude to the press and the way PR works. All that needs to be taken into consideration but when you have the brand DNA at the core you can adapt to suit each country's attitudes and make it work everywhere.
As such, giving your overseas offices autonomy is fundamentally important to ensure operational efficiency and effective amplification of your brand in the market. You do need to ease up on the control and ensure that your regional heads understand their markets better than you do if you're headquartered elsewhere. It's easy to come across as heavy-handed and a little imperialist if you impose guidelines or goals that are unachievable in the region.
Our strategy as a senior team is to always to "get out of the way"; once an international office is established we move on to the next, leaving the regional director in control. We have wholly-owned offices in London, Paris and Berlin and cover the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland as well as partner agencies across the rest of Europe – with each team given the breathing space to thrive and prosper on the market’s terms.
Speedy, yet measured, scaling
To scale effectively, you need to have a reserve army for a big project. Hire permanent staff with good networks across your regions and then ask them to pull in their contacts, freelance or otherwise, to get the job done quickly.
Don't be afraid that by hiring regional freelancers for a particular project you'll look like you don't have a solid knowledge base. Good freelancers have worked everywhere, by default they have amazing press contacts, and they are excellent chameleons that will wear your colours in a flash. Too many agencies describe themselves as "international" or "Europe-wide" but then take six months to assemble a team. Think Avengers....one phone call and you've saved the world.
In addition to this, resist the temptation to empire build. It's not about world domination and dots on a map, it's about strategy. At Ballou, we’re not seeing any new overseas markets that are right yet. Places like Israel, Sweden, even Poland have interesting companies, but there’s no demand for local PR so we can win business there – there’s no need to establish an office. Don't expand for expansion's sake.
The road ahead in international PR, particularly European, is uncertain. The only thing we can be sure of is that it's going to be bumpy, but with the right decisions actioned, risks can be mitigated against and opportunities seized. In the meantime, buckle up.
Written by Cordy Griffiths, CEO of PR agency Ballou
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