Ballou PR 18 Apr 2019 // 7:13PM GMT
High labour costs, strict rules against firing staff, and those interminable lunches -- such are the typical critiques leveled against doing business in France.
These complaints often surfaced at international public relations firms, which need a French office to serve corporate clients who want representation in the world’s sixth-largest economy. But Paris outposts were often unprofitable, and seen as a drag on the business.
“There is this myth that it’s impossible to make money in France,” said Colette Ballou, an American who moved to Paris in 2002 and founded an agency that is thriving today.
The experience of Ballou, which serves high-growth technology companies in Europe, is proof. Since it was founded, the firm has grown steadily to reach an annual turnover of close to £4 million.
Colette build up the business in Paris by wooing U.S. tech companies as they were expanding to Europe, and the agency made its name working for Facebook, WhatsApp, and Stripe in its early days. On the back of the French strength, Colette eventually expanded to London and Berlin and the firm now employs 45 people. In France, which is still the biggest office, revenue grew nearly 20% last year to reach 1.9 million euros. Clients now include Expedia LPS, RedHat, Cornerstone Ondemand, and Coursera.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing: about five years ago Ballou hit a rough patch in France, falling prey to an economic slowdown and losses of several key clients. It also had a difficult episode with a departing employee, who threatened legal action, a key risk French businesses have to manage. During this period, the Ballou headcount in France shrunk until there was only a two-person team in Paris. Another blow came when the country director also left.
In France, which is still the biggest office, revenue grew nearly 20% last year to reach 1.9 million euros.
Only Cedric Voigt, an energetic young account director, remained. Colette asked him if he wanted to stay on, since closing down France entirely was a real possibility. On the contrary, Cedric said he wanted to stay. They would seek to rebuild the business, almost from scratch.
“I never felt alone even though I was working from home - that’s why I stayed,” said Cedric. “My colleagues in the London and Berlin offices helped everyday.”
Things started to look up at the end of 2013 when Cedric won Pinterest as a client, and he could hire two colleagues. “Then the virtuous cycle began,” he said.
Ballou doubled its revenue from 2014 to 2015 and kept hiring. Under Cedric’s leadership, the French office got its mojo back. What emerged was a stronger and more focused agency as Ballou learned lessons from the past.
The French market was stratified: with the large domestic agencies like Havas and international firms like Edelman controlling a big chunk, and then the rest of the market largely being served by small shops often with only a few staff. Ballou realised that they had to offer superior services than more generalist agencies that they competed with, since expertise was an important consideration to the venture capital funds, start-ups and tech companies in the sector. It built a strong position in its niche of business-to-business technology.
It was extremely vigilant on controlling costs - modest offices and expense budgets - but also being realistic about what types of clients were worth keeping and which were not. On the staff front, Colette learned more about how to navigate tight French labour laws, while keeping flexibility to adjust staffing up or down as needed.
It also made training and staff development a key priority, in order to attract the best talent. In 2018, Ballou spent more than £1300 per head on staff training whereas the average spend for agencies contributing to the PR Week Best Places to Work report was only £800.
Ballou also set itself apart by actively taking part in the start-up ecosystem that has been growing rapidly in France in recent years. It began hosting events to help forge connections between people.
“To build a successful PR agency in France, you need to establish a real partnership with your clients,” said Cedric. “We always want our staff to be honest, and not be afraid to tell clients things they might not want to hear.”
With time, Ballou began to thrive again in France. Today Cedric now leads a team of 16 people, a far cry from him working alone in his apartment. Ballou recently moved to a new office that is three times bigger than the old one.