The UK, historically the gateway for many pan-European projects, is in danger of losing its leadership to Germany. This is one of the surprising conclusions of a recent report commissioned by Media Information into the state of the European PR industry. Leading industry figures in the UK are divided as to whether they should be preparing for battle or not.
“It’s nonsense,” says Alasdair Sutherland, executive vice-president of corporate development at Manning Selvage & Lee (MS&L). “The UK is a much bigger industry than Germany and most top PR companies still have their head office here.” There is also insistence that, in spite of the rapid growth of PR on the continent, the UK industry remains the most advanced in Europe. Chambers Cox cites as evidence a pan-European project for Jordan Dental Care, which the UK-based consultancy has just won. The client is a Norwegian company and there will be no UK PR activity. Managing director Rose Gibson claims his company won the business because, “there is still a perception that the UK is more sophisticated than other countries and leads in strategic thinking and creativity”.
At Herald Communications the picture is somewhat different. “We now have as many campaigns co-ordinated out of Germany as the UK,” says Esme Page, chief executive Europe. “There is no reason why this won’t continue. The Germans understand the UK better than we understand them.”
Certainly, the industry has to contend with the UK’s geographic isolation on the edge of Europe and exclusion from European Monetary Union, but what of the traditional barriers of language and culture?
“Culture and language are red herrings,” says Carlo Crighton, director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Text 100. “Attitude is the barrier. If empathy exists then you’re in the winning seat.” One way that Text 100 tries to instil better understanding between regional offices is through relocation and job swaps. Fifteen per cent of staff at all levels have been moved to other locations, while a successful experiment of swapping general managers for one to two weeks will soon be repeated with account directors.
Gibson agrees: “Language and culture should never be barriers. Of course, agencies need to recognise cultural differences where they exist but in some markets they don’t. Often the most successful campaigns are those with a visual element which translates easily from one country to another.”
Page says that speaking the same language is by no means a satis factory a solution. “People who speak seemingly fluent English can make small mistakes that totally change the meaning of what they are saying. For example, French people may confuse ‘sensible’ and ‘sensitive’.” Herald runs special sessions which train staff to look out for such mistakes and to ask questions which ensure they have clarified all areas of ambiguity. In addition, Herald prefers its staff to have a second language, not necessarily because they will need to use it, but because, in the company’s experience, it makes them more sensitive to cultural differences.
Widespread consensus indicates that cultural and linguistic differences are easily surmountable, if there is a strong relationship between both parties. Does this give companies that operate overseas through their own offices an advantage over loose affiliations of independent companies?
Page thinks so. “We decided to invest in our own offices because you need a degree of loyalty at local level. You must invest a lot of time and money in bringing people together so that the agency gels,” she says. Page also points out that the advantage of a network is not just closer working relationships but also shared standards and methods of operation. “A small agency that hastily creates an international network so that it can offer overseas implementation may not spend enough time on researching its partners. When you recommend a company which does not match your standards, it reflects badly on you,” she claims.
MS&L’s Sutherland adds: “A loose conglomeration of offices plundered from handbooks and yearbooks does not make a network. Ideally any office delivering a global programme will share common management systems, financial practices, training and staff development models, quality control processes and evaluation systems.”
However, there is always a danger that a client may disregard the benefits of working with a multinational consultancy because its local offices already have relationships with other PR agencies. Crighton at Text 100 acknowledges that sometimes it’s important to sacrifice your local office in favour of the client’s choice of agency and that you should never try to sell the whole network. However, he concedes there can be problems. “It needs strong direction from the client to work. Also we have to build up the interaction in the same way that we do with our own offices so face-to-face communication is still key.”
Sutherland agrees: “Ironically, the easier it becomes to communicate electronically 24 hours a day the more important it seems to be to meet people face to face. What is never acceptable is an edict from on high with no explanation, no prior involvement and no opportunity to develop work that is effective in each market. It’s human nature that people don’t like ideas that they haven’t developed, so all countries must be involved in the planning as well as the implementation.”
However, Gibson feels that this misses the point and that companies often fall into the trap of assuming that they must have someone on the ground. “It’s a myth that you always have to have a local presence. If it’s not a huge campaign you can deal directly with the local media.”
Sutherland disagrees: “There is a trend to be more local not less. The more pervasive a brand becomes across global markets, the more it behaves as a local geographic entity. Global brands do not necessarily have a consistent global consumer.” So does that mean there is no place for centrally dictated strategy? “Quite the contrary,” he retorts. “Consistency of behaviour and message have become even more important for any product or service hoping to operate in more than one market. There is no market in the world which is not subject to influence or information emanating from another.”
The challenge, as agencies are finding, is getting clients to pay for both central co-ordination and strategic direction. Media Information’s report found evidence that many clients saw the solution in creating senior in-house positions. This is confirmed by PRCA research which established that almost 90 per cent of companies aim to keep international co-ordination in-house. The report concluded that agencies need to work harder to prove their value through better attention to detail on project management and improvements in local agency competence and responsiveness.
Most agencies, however, welcome the creation of in-house positions and do not see them as a threat.
“Often these people have unrivalled access to the chief executive and so can be an incredible ally,” says Crighton.
But are clients willing to pay twice for senior project direction? As Gibson observes: “Pan-European programmes don’t necessarily mean pan-European budgets.”
Most agencies are prepared to stand their ground. “The benefits are speed of implementation and greater consistency. In hi-tech, things move so fast that the PR can make or break the success of a product or company,” insists Page.
Sutherland adds: “Clients may balk at investment in programme management as opposed to programme delivery, but our experience shows that the more time spent in agreeing financial processes, common and consistent reporting methods, approval standards and means of regular contact, the greater the chance of success the final programme has. But a small agency will have problems with a big international project because of the time involved in setting up those relationships. They will either have to recharge the client or take the loss.”
Does this mean that small agencies face a bleak future as more work becomes pan-European and global? In recent years, small companies have used new technology to present a larger operation than they possess. Can technology also help them to work in overseas markets?
“There’s no doubt that the online world will have an impact. Agencies with a minimum of resources will be able to operate across a region using bulletin boards for example,” says Crighton. “Also, a lot of clients prefer a small agency. They want a high degree of loyalty and a small, highly focused team.”
A report by the Global Financial Communication Network and Fishburn Hedges in the UK would seem to support this. It claims that business journalists around the world are increasingly using the Internet to source news and information. Ninety-five per cent regularly use it and, of those, over half surf the Net several times a day with a third claiming that e-mail is their preferred way of receiving press information.
However, the report also finds that a third of German journalists still do not have access to e-mail. Perhaps, German agencies really are better placed after all.