Still less than a year old, Pleon (created by the merger of Omnicom’s ECC and Brodeur units across Europe) has made impressive progress through its first 250 days. It has created both a brand and the infrastructure to support it; it has started to win and serve pan-European business; and it has created opportunities for people to work on a regional rather than just a national stage. Fifteen clients are served on a regional basis (between three and 26 markets), with IBM by far the largest. New business over the past 12 months included international assignments from Oracle (seven countries), Baxter, DHL, Kelly Services, and Sony, as well as local work for 3M, AstraZeneca, ING, LG Electronics, Olivetti and Roche. Revenues for the first year of operation are believed to be around €75 million.
Pleon has 24 offices in nine key markets. It is number one in Germany and Austria (where the former ECC was the market leader, with nine offices in the former and five in the latter) and in the Netherlands (where Schoep & Van Der Toorn was the flagship of Brodeur’s European network); and ranks in the top five in Hungary and Switzerland (a new office, operating as Pleon C-Matrix). In France (55 people) and Italy, Pleon offices are in or close to the top 10. Its most conspicuous weaknesses are in two of the most important markets in the region: the U.K., where Pleon has 35 people and despite growth of 35 percent last year remains underdeveloped compared to its peers; and Brussels, where it has a relatively new operation. It operates through affiliates in Denmark, Finland, Spain and Turkey.
Outside of Europe, Pleon operates as Brodeur|Pleon Worldwide, partnering with Brodeur operations in the U.S. (where the firm has six offices), Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region: 30 offices in 24 countries in all. But Brodeur is still primarily known as a technology PR specialist, its recent expansion into healthcare and financial services notwithstanding, and Pleon now has a much broader scope of operations, so it may be necessary to work with other Omnicom agencies to deliver a full range of services on a global basis.
One of the priorities during Pleon’s first year was the establishment of regional practice areas. The biggest is corporate communications, where the firm has expertise in change management (headed by Ralf Langen), crisis (Jens Krämer), CSR (Andreas Steinert), and investor relations (Alfred Jansen). The public affairs group, led by Cornelius Winter, is particularly strong in Germany, but expanding into Brussels and other European capitals. The brand and consumer marketing practice is led by Tjessica Stegenga. The research group, also headed by Steinert, supports all initiatives. In addition, the firm has created groups focused on several industry segments: automotive; financial services; healthcare; government; technology (at 22 percent of total revenues, the largest industry sector by revenue contribution, and with 200 consultants a leader in the European market); and consumer goods—with retail and utilities targeted for future development.
The leadership team of Rainer Zimmerman, a veteran of ABC/Eurocom, KohtesKlewes and BBDO Germany, who serves as chairman of Europe, and CEO Alex Schoep, whose firm Schoep & Van der Toorn was acquired by Brodeur, has come together nicely, and the firm has strong experienced leadership in the German-speaking markets, the Netherlands, Italy and France. The most significant additions to the team over the past 12 months came in the U.K., where former ITV news producer Geoff Beattie took over as CEO and where public affairs specialist Ian Tunnicliffe (who headed Home Office communications in Baghdad), marketing specialist Jennifer Helfer (most recently of Firefly), and Eve Keogan (formerly of The Red Consultancy) added expertise outside of the tech sector.
One of the biggest challenges of any merger is creating a common culture, and so Pleon has invested a good deal of energy during its first 12 months in bringing people together for practice group meetings and in developing an intranet that allows offices to share knowledge and best practices with their new colleagues. A new global account management (GAM) system is designed to facilitate cross-border work, and has been the focus of much of the firm’s professional development efforts over the past year.
Pleon management talks about going “beyond communication.” That means it will focus on helping companies manage opportunities and threats in three environments: the competitive environment, which includes both consumer and financial markets; the political environment, with an emphasis on public affairs and social responsibility; and the internal environment. It will also focus a good deal of energy on looking at how those three environments interact, and what new challenges that interaction poses for corporate reputations and corporate leadership—an approach that emphasizes solving business problems rather than communications problems. To expand on its existing expertise in these areas, Pleon has also forged alliances with some of the biggest educational institutions in Europe: the European Center for Reputation Studies in Zurich; the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands; the University of Mainz in Germany.
Given Pleon’s heritage in the technology arena, it’s not surprising that some of its most notable successes have been in that space: transforming the image of IBM by focusing on its service business; helping Nortel communicate a consistent message across Europe; working with Microsoft in Germany to improve its corporate reputation through educational initiatives. On the consumer front, Pleon worked with music download portal Musicload as it defended its market against i-Tunes, introduced the Audi A3 Sportback at a global media event in Monaco and helped launch several new products for Gillette. In the U.K., meanwhile, the firm helped build momentum for the launch of Sony’s T7. Finally, on the corporate front, Pleon has handled change management assignments for Ciba (spin-off of the performance polymers business), Deutsche Bank (deconsolidating the retail bank and the private banking division), ING Group (the merger of three insurance subsidiaries), and Siemens (the merger of Siemens automotive and Mannesmann VDO); government relations for Microsoft, with a particular focus on patent issues in Germany and Eastern Europe; communications around obesity issues for Storck; and creating an early-warning issues management system for RWE.
Pleon has been aggressive in building brand recognition, as it needs to be with a new name (from the ancient Greek word for more). The firm has published several reports designed to promote its expertise in areas such as marketing, technology, and stakeholder relationships; published a much-lauded book by automotive practice leader Egbert Jan van Bel on event marketing; and it has picked up a handful of awards, most notably earning eight nominations and four Gold awards during the inaugural European SABRE competition, for clients as varied as Microsoft and the German Ministry of Defence.
Perhaps more than any other firm, Pleon—with its roots in continental Europe—sees its future tied to the future prosperity of the European Union. But it also sees itself offering solutions to the challenges European business faces as it struggles to become more competitive with the U.S.: innovative marketing approaches designed to drive sales and corporate reputation management expertise to help companies deal with outsourcing and other potentially difficult issues. A major challenge will be increasing the number of multinational assignments—a good start was made in 2004 but more progress—and the number of global 500 clients, who today account for less than a quarter of the firm’s assignments.