France takes its toll on international PR firms
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France takes its toll on international PR firms

Arun Sudhaman

Global PR agency heads love to grumble about France. That is not only because most of them are American or British. Of late, Paris has become an increasingly difficult market for the global networks, buffeted on one side by an insular PR community and on the other by an economy that has struggled to recover after the recession. All of these issues have been brought to life, vividly so, by Waggener Edstrom’s decision to exit the market. Costs are high and regulations, particularly labour-oriented ones, stymie business agility. With the economy flatlining, there is a little indication that the overall PR market is growing — up just 1% in 2013 according to industry association SYNTEC — despite a well-founded reputation for digital and integrated excellence. Then, there are what we could politely call ‘cultural issues’. France is a big country — the world’s fifth largest economy — but the Parisian PR community can appear very small, painfully so for eager American PR networks. This is a city where the media and political elite is tightly intertwined with the domestic PR industry, where Publicis Groupe and Havas PR firms dominate the big business relationships that matter. “There's always been a certain difficulty for non-French PR companies to establish a solid, lasting and profitable business in France, particularly for the American networks that usually grow abroad for serving their own US clients,” says MSLGroup chief strategy officer Pascal Beucler. The “monolithic, top-down approach”, says Beucler, does not work in France, where a small band of influencers holds sway. “You have to be acknowledged by the hexagonal business elite and, ideally, to be recognised as peers, because you graduated from Polytechnique, ENA, Sciences Po or HEC.” “And even if you're the French exec of an Anglo-Saxon network, and you meet the local standards, you'll still be at stake because your company's name sounds a bit like a Chandler's detective agency,” he adds. Not that there isn’t a thriving independent agency scene. There is, but the agencies are homegrown, including such standout shops as Agence Elan, Hopscotch, Cap & Cime and Wellcom. Wag-Ed's decision will not surprise many in the industry, particularly the many global agency heads that are wondering how they can turn around their own underperforming French operations. While France wanes, attention drifts to more appealing investment targets. Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia. All better for the bottom line. Under the ‘flags  on the map’ strategy that used to characterise global agency expansion, Europe required a presence in the UK, France and Germany. Soon, that expanded to include Italy, Spain and the Nordics. As European economies continue to struggle, those large regional networks are more like millstones than multipliers. Aside from the UK and Germany, the more mature European countries are proving difficult for many, and labour regulations mean it is not easy to quickly shift course. So, is France worth the hassle for international PR firms? There is plenty of eye-catching work, thanks in part to a local agency model that has managed to integrate traditional public relations with digital marketing, social media and customer publishing. International agencies can certainly learn from that example, even if those lessons may not necessarily transfer elsewhere. “More than a ‘French problem’, the competitiveness of PR agencies today in France is firstly a matter of competence, and performance,” claims Beucler. “What clients expect from PR agencies today, in France like in most mature markets in the world, is not really just classical public and media relations.” Whether many international firms are able to provide that is open to debate, particularly as they look to invest in higher-growth markets. Which raises the question: is Waggener Edstrom's French exit a sign of things to come for international PR agencies grappling with slow-growth European countries?
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