Expanding your PR agency business is an incredible opportunity for the upcoming Brexit – just like many other British businesses, you’ll need to find new markets to sustain you financially and allow you to grow your business.
We often assume that our actions, skills and decisions can be easily replicable across sectors, geographies and markets – they can, but not always.
Local mergers and acquisitions, buying out a PR/SEO/Creative agency (whose MD/owner you’ve known for a long time) to expand your market reach in your country of origin or main place of business is very different than either buying one overseas or than you trying to go “out there” and open a local office.
Humans are creatures of habit – we like to do things in the same way, and we like to assess our risks by following, most of the time, a prescribed pattern of analysis: we do, in other words, our own form of due diligence.
In highly regulated marketplaces, it is very easy to ask your soon-to-be Joint Venture partner or acquisition for the latest audited accounts, Profit & Loss, Balance Sheet, or to commission a credit agency to pull out all the information you need to assess your financial risk.
But what happens when you know there’s an opportunity for you to enter a less regulated market, one that has a lot of potential and that would lend you (and your agency), a unique vantage-point over your current competitors, let alone the local competition?
You do the same due diligence but, this time, you start with that of your own agency, and finish with that of your local partner (if any):
1. Who are you?
The answer to this question should go beyond brand identity and corporate boilerplates.
When you enter a foreign market, you need to be very clear on who you are as a corporate entity, what you stand for, where you “draw the line” (since every market has its unique ethical challenges) and what your financial capabilities are to sustain the new office for at least 12 months.
Don’t be surprised to learn that, for many countries and cultures, the stress-test of your commitment to that market is mainly related to the length of your presence there: the fact that you have a well-established portfolio in another geography doesn’t guarantee, at all, that you’d be handed work on a silver plate. You’ll have to “prove yourself”.
2. What do you know about this market?
How many PR (SEO/digital/creative/management etc.) agencies are already active on this market and what is their client relationship structure? Do they work for the private or the public sector? Do they work for both? Do they get work because they are politically connected or because they are very good at what they do?
If you have the budget and time to invest in it, I’d recommend you commissioned an advanced market research study.
What is the legal and financial structure you will have to be aware of and abide by? What are the usual payment terms and are there any risks for your potential clients not to be able to pay your invoices?
3. How culturally aware are you and your expat staff?
Are you familiar with the cultural variances that exist, and are you ready to comply with them?
Would your religious beliefs and social behaviour (or theirs) be offensive to them and vice versa?
What are the socio-demographics of the country and what is the unemployment/poverty rate?
Is it easy to find qualified staff and, even more important, where do you find it?
Are you forced, as a new business, to employ a set number of locals?
What is the religious/tribal make-up of the country and how do you ensure you cover (if you wish, of course) the communication needs and specifics of various groups?
4. What do you bring to the table?
If you are a big “agency” name you’ll find that, often, you’ll be called in for advice and, potentially work – this “work” is not necessarily related to the quality and rigour of your outputs but to the fact that “you said/did it”.
To put it more bluntly, be aware of being used as a “scapegoat” – it happened to many agencies before you and it will still happen. When you set foot in a non-prescriptive and not highly regulated marketplace, do look the gift horse in the mouth.
You may also have to answer this question sometimes: “why should we use you, as opposed to our long trusted local partner”? Your answer here cannot be fluff; you need to demonstrate that you understand not just the technicalities of the PR world but, especially, that you know how these will apply to the local market or that targeted activity. Let your local knowledge, research and understanding shine through.
5. How well do you know the sector?
Economic sectors vary significantly across the world – if tourism accounts for a big proportion of the GDP in some countries, in others it is somehow irrelevant. The sector you will be rendering your services to may be very different, in terms of priorities and risks, to the sector you were used to in your business’ country of origin.
Let’s say that your agency specialises in green energy projects and you pretty much handle anything from solar to hydropower briefs; your company’s ethos is to ensure renewable energy is at the heart of government, citizens and business.
However, the renewable energy sector in other countries may be in its infancy or non-existent. If you tell the regulators in that country, who are heavily reliant on fossil fuel for cheap energy generation, that they should drive a campaign on raising the awareness of fossil fuels’ environmental impact, you shouldn’t need to worry about unpacking your suitcase.
Know the national/local sector(s) you are going to be providing your services to – it matters more than you think.
6. Do you understand the language?
Naturally, most people speak English – but there are many who don’t or refuse to.
If you ever sat in (or watched) a state-level bilateral meeting with foreign dignitaries, you will see that they all have interpreters. This does not necessarily mean that they cannot speak their interlocutor’s language – in many cases they simply don’t want to because they can buy some extra time to think about the right answer or they just want to listen to the exact nuances and inflexions something is being said in.
Having a minimal knowledge of the language(s) of the country you’re going to be working in is very important. Even if, at most, you can only utter some banalities and pleasantries.
It shows that you made a conscious effort and are committed to learn. Even more so, saying something in the local language (although badly), can be used as a fantastic ice breaker in what may be some tense or potentially difficult business discussions.
The best thing about understanding the local language/dialect? It allows you to connect directly with those you are there to help engage/communicate. The language (spoken, written and body) is the first conduit of your PR efforts.
If you understand that not every opportunity is an opportunity, then you are on the right path to writing your own international success story.