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Holmes Report

The Akkanto brand may not be a familiar one, but the firm—until recently known as European Communications Strategies—has been around for 13 years and founder Charles van der Straten Waillet has been active in both public relations and philanthropic activity in the Brussels market and beyond for more than 30 years. There have been numerous changes in recent years, however, including a management buyout in 2005, and in 2007 the new management team decided on a new name, derived from the Italian accanto (close, nearby) and designed to reflect a close-knit team of senior counsellors with close relationships to their clients. 

Today, the firm is led by a partnership of senior executives that includes managing director Johan Ral, a former television reporter who worked with Burson-Marsteller before joining CS; Carl Buyck, former spokesman for the Flemish Minister of Finance, Budget and Health; Walter Gelens, most recently marketing director at Belgacom and a veteran of senior marketing and operations positions at Unilever; Isabelle Hardy, former PR manager for Lintas Brussels and senior consultant at Ogilvy Adams & Rinehart; Marie-Paule Meert, and expert in Belgian governmental and parliamentary affairs; Ariane Vanderlinden, who works with FMCG sector clients faced with major restructurings and crises; Fabienne Anseroul, administration and finance manager; and new addition Thierry Bouckaert, a former business journalist and communications director at Belgacom. 

The firm works across three distinct segments of the Brussels business. Without positioning itself as an EU affairs consultancy, it offers some EU expertise and operates comfortably within the EU context; it also manages public relations activities for companies—local firms and multinationals—targeting the Belgian market; and—probably its distinguishing expertise—it runs broad international corporate communications programs for both Belgian and multinational corporations and other organizations (most notably federations), working at the CEO and board level, and providing broad expertise in crisis and issues management, financial communications and investor relations, internal communications, media relations, marketing support, and media training. 

And within that broad portfolio of business, Akkanto provides two services that few others can deliver: first, it provides an interim communications service, placing counsellors in-house to manage the full range of a client’s communications needs; and second, it helps corporations communicate their corporate social responsibility initiatives and develop public-private partnerships, with a particular—and unrivalled—expertise in the African market. 

The firm saw revenues increase by about 16 percent in 2007 to around €3.65 million, with growth from employee communications, international corporate communications and high-level public affairs. On track for even faster growth in 2008, the firm is aggressively pursuing a growth strategy for the first time since the MBO. A team of about 25, including 12 senior professionals, continues to work for a client list that includes Bekaert, the Belgian Post, Heineken, Private Investors for Africa, Spadel, Suez, and Swift, with new business over the past 12 months from Microsoft, Carrefour, DuPont and the Belgian Employers’ Federation (FEB-VBO). Highlights included two IBIS Award-winning programmes, for Electrabel (a crisis communication drill for the company’s nuclear plant in Tihange) and Mattel (upholding the company’s reputation after three consecutive product recalls). 

Akkanto works internationally for the majority of its clients, often sending consultants to work on the ground in markets as diverse as Washington, D.C., Paris, Africa and Eastern Europe, and has been focusing considerable energy in recent months on the fast-emerging Chinese market, where it aims to help Belgian companies doing business in the People’s Republic and Chinese companies with needs in Belgium and the EU. The firm is also a member of the European Crisis Management Partnership, a network in independent firms in nine countries, all with extensive crisis communications experience, and of Firstline Europe, a network of senior stakeholder management counsellors from across Europe.

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