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Analysis: APCO And Text 100's Unlikely PR Alliance

Aarti Shah  13 May 2013

On the surface, the Text 100 and APCO alliance for BlackBerry makes perfect sense. APCO is a public affairs and corporate powerhouse that bills more than $120 million in revenues. Meanwhile, by putting digital and social at the core of its offerings, Text 100 has built a $50 million business with a heritage in tech PR.

It’s the “we’re stronger together than apart” argument for marriage. Even so, the partnership certainly breaks new ground and bends longstanding rules on how agencies go to bat for pitches.

Firstly, when competitive agencies collaborate it’s usually dictated by the client. Among the better known examples of this is IBM’s One Blue in which Ketchum and Text 100 were selected -- by IBM -- to share PR duties. There’s certainly no shortage of clients opting to spread the communications load across various agencies that are asked to play nice with each other.

But in this case, it was APCO and Text 100 that decided to join forces.That’s why their alliance has definite parallels to the global network model of PR agency collaboration. For instance, networks like ION, PRGN or PROI exist so that a member agency can partner with another firm to expand its capabilities scope (usually in geography but sometimes in practice areas) to qualify for a particular brief.

Yet, it’s known that these alliances can travel a rocky road, even when they spring from the purest of intentions. The root of tension usually being miscommunication, inconsistent standards and practices, and culture clashes.      

But of course, APCO and Text 100 didn’t come together as part of a traditional network with a shared history of working together. Rather, Text 100 is part of its own network as a member of the publicly-traded Next15 holding company. APCO is an independent.

So why didn’t Text 100 tap into one of its sister corporate and public affairs agencies to win the business? This would keep revenues within the family, particularly as Next15 has been looking to strengthen its reputation in this area for some time.

For example, under Clive Armitage’s tenure, sister Next15 shop Bite was moving towards this by winning corporate work for clients like HP in 2009. Bite is now rebuilding itself as a marketing agency, but there were certainly other options. Next15’s 463 is a public policy shop and BlueShirt works largely in financial communications. But it appears this was too US-centric or niche for BlackBerry.

“In terms of our capabilities we have good IR and corporate skills through 463 and Blueshirt in the US,” said Tim Dyson, Next15’s CEO. “Given BlackBerry’s needs it made far more sense to work with APCO so that they could get a global solution for corporate... I have huge confidence in our US abilities but when a client has a real need for integrated global comms, you have to separate what is best for them from what what is best for you.”

Ultimately, it’s Dyson’s blessing that is the biggest potential game changer. Will other holding company CEOs follow suit and allow their agencies - like Ketchum and Ogilvy -- to partner across holding companies or to independents in order to stitch together the most competitive pitch team?

Text 100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes and APCO founder/CEO Margery Kraus contend that we’ve entered a new era in which agencies can no longer afford to put their own needs ahead of the client. The agencies ruled by internal P&L turf wars or the partnership restriction of a holding group stand to lose when others are willing to forego some revenue in hopes of securing a longer term, more stable client relationships.

According to Hynes, some geographies will be led entirely by Text and others entirely by APCO but the agencies aren’t keeping score. But instead are “putting the best people out there and then figuring out a way to make it fair financially.”

“If we start by divvying the percentages and financials, we’re looking at it the wrong way -- we’re looking it about us instead of them,” she adds.

Heidi Davidson, SVP of comms at BlackBerry, acknowledged that work will likely fall into each agency’s speciality -- but on BlackBerry’s end, she wants to feel like she’s working with one agency.

“Our goal was to find efficiency with 80 percent of the work going to one firm,” Davidson said. “We didn’t want to see both Text 100 and APCO, we wanted one, unified team.”

Initially, there was some concern about how this joint venture would translate into fully integrated agency management for BlackBerry -- but Davidson says, so far the team has lived up to its selling proposition of providing one agency experience.

Ultimately, that will be the test of this new venture -- as Next15 or Text 100 grows its corporate practice or APCO expands its tech/digital/social expertise, will the agencies wrestle for budgets? Can two agencies -- managed entirely independent of each other -- share culture, philosophy and standards so thoroughly that clients cannot tell the work of one apart from the other?

The Holmes Report has been advocating the modern, disruptive PR model. This venture certainly fits those descriptors -- and if it succeeds -- could remarkably alter the planning and strategic mindset that goes into preparing, and ultimately winning, a competitive pitch.   

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