Do PR agencies need to be global?

Big, global companies like to choose big, global agencies. There are good reasons for doing this. There’s consistency of approach, consistency of message and procurement gets to weigh in on contract terms. There’s also that comfort factor of using a ‘big firm’ that makes sure chief marketing or communications officers feel safe. But is bigger and more global really better? As someone who worked to build a global PR agency, I know that global can be great. I also know that many clients embrace global for the wrong reasons. I also know that many of the global agencies are far from connected and offer very little in terms of real value to their customers.

If bigger isn’t better then why don’t people use a network of agencies? Well of course some do and many of them get great results. But the choice is increasingly being made harder as social media and other forces change the way markets operate. Audiences are no longer defined by geographies so why should communications campaigns be? I recall some at Apple telling me that on iTunes they watch communities that are driven by what styles of music they like, not where they are from. This is the future of marketing as our tastes and needs become a function of what values we have and not which country we are from. This is in essence then a series of global communities, rather than a series of countries.

So, how many agencies are ready for that world? The answer is very few. The small local agencies are trapped by their geography and the larger firms are trapped by their business models. That said, building the ‘new global agency’ isn’t easy. The biggest hurdle is getting clients to agree to invest their PR spend on audiences/communities regardless of where these people live. This is tough when PR dollars are driven by local sales. The other challenge is doing the research to prove these communities really exist and are valuable. That is in itself non-trivial. In other words it is a brave client that shifts its spend away from geographies to communities. Until that happens, we are likely stuck with the existing model.

So what is global PR anyway? Well the truth is ‘global’ is often very un-global. I’ve yet to hear of global meaning every country in the world. I’ve yet to see a client that really lets ideas from anywhere in the world drive new campaigns. I’ve yet to see a client that really drives local implementation and measurement to be consistent. Global usually means about 10 big countries. It means a common template and font for plans and reports and it means some themes are shared. In other words global, for most, is really more regional at best. So if global really isn’t global, why again to clients like the idea? Because the idea is a great one and sounds so… smart. I’m not saying clients trying to make their PR global are stupid. I think many are well intentioned. However, I do believe that global is for the most part a myth. There are agencies that run global programs and do it really well, Text 100 and Bite for example (shameless plug). But I’d really encourage clients to think hard before pushing a global RFP. What they will likely end up with is a firm that is faceless and a series of campaigns that are bland and lack impact. Instead, I’d encourage them to think about the perception they want to build, who is key to that and the programs that will drive these people to embrace that perception. That may mean hiring a global firm or it may just mean hiring a really smart boutique that really gets it and doesn’t mind traveling.