The media—particularly electronic media—are increasingly global. Capital flows effortlessly across borders. Consumers in overseas markets have more buying power than ever before. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that clients in the U.S. are devoting more time and money to overseas public relations than ever before.
But communicating in international markets is fraught with challenges, not the least of which involve the choice of agency partners. Faced with reaching multiple stakeholders in multiple markets, clients much ask themselves serious questions.
If I pick a single global agency, will I get stuck with inferior offices in some markets? Will my local country managers resent having a global agency imposed upon them? If I let country managers pick their own local PR firms, how will I retain control over their work? Will all those agencies be able to work together seamlessly? Come to think of it, how seamlessly will the offices of a giant multinational agency work together anyway? Do these firms really have a global culture? Do they understand the nuances of local culture as well as indigenous firms?
In some ways, the choice comes down to whether the benefits of centralization—convenience, consistency and control—outweigh the benefits of a more decentralized approach, including greater cultural sensitivity and the ability to select for quality in each market. Those were some of the issues facing the Cotton Council International as it embarked on its search for a global public relations agency of record.
The U.S. cotton industry is the largest in the world, and the U.S. is the dominant trader in the world, accounting for about 30 percent of the 89 million bales that are traded annually. Created in 1956, Cotton Council International is the international division of the National Cotton Council of America. Its mission is to increase exports of U.S. cotton and manufactured cotton products.
“We launched a trade oriented marketing and communications program in 1956,” says Drayton Mayers, director of industry services for Cotton Council International. “In 1989, we added a consumer promotion program that complemented our trade push, to create demand on the consumer side and a pull element.”
Initially, CCI relied almost entirely on “standard, thematic, image building advertising that introduced the mark, and emphasized the value of the mark.” The campaign, created by Ogilvy & Mather, built on the acclaimed “Fabric of Your Life” campaign that Cotton, Inc., had introduced in the domestic market in 1973.
But in recent years, there has been what Mayers calls “a change in philosophy” at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides funding for the program, and CCI was forced to move away from image advertising toward more below-the-line marketing tools. Still, public relations was not a significant part of the mix until late last year.
“We realized that as a result of not having public relations in the marketing mix we were leaving a significant brand stewardship and brand promotion opportunity on the table,” says Mayers. “We were not leveraging the budget. With that in mind, we started in early 2001 to research public relations as of building brand equity.”
Recognizing CCI’s inexperience in the field, Mayers went to unusual lengths to educate himself and his organization about what public relations could do. It hired or spoke with veteran PR professionals in an attempt to learn what public relations could and couldn’t do, what it would cost, and how its success could best be measured. Mayers also studied information on the Internet, including the PRSA website and sites operated by leading trade publications.
Says Mayers, “That helped us identify who had the skill sets in consumer marketing and branding, the experience working with commodity groups, and who had the physical network in markets around the world to help us.” Ultimately, it helped CCI winnow the list of RFP recipients down to eight major global PR agencies.
CCI had decided to go with a single global agency, rather than cherry-picking individual agencies in each of its key markets, only after a heated internal debate.
“There’s a real cost of going with one agency rather than a horses for courses approach,” Mayers says. “But in the end the decision came down to our desire to brand globally and market locally.
“We believed we needed a constant breeze of fresh air that would vitalize the program regularly. Sometimes, when you are working with a firm that only does business in the Japanese market, as an example, they are only thinking in a Japanese way. You run into the ‘not invented here’ syndrome. There’s not as much synergy. We didn’t want our firm to put any blinders on.”
There were financial considerations too: hiring local firms in each key market would mean paying design fees and production fees in every market.
Still, hiring a single global agency carries some risks. Some communications professionals worry that no single agency can be strong in every key market, that the seamless delivery of a single global firm (often more hoped for than realized) is not worth compromising standards in some regions. But Mayers had no such concerns.
“We knew there would be vagaries,” he says. “There was some fear that there would be some real dogs, but those fears were never realized. But we were not looking for an agency to come in and carry CCI on its back. We knew we would have responsibilities in the relationship too, that whatever agency we selected would be working with our people in local markets, and our marketing partners and our advertising agencies, and that we would all have to work together to achieve our business objectives.
“We all have strengths and weaknesses, and addressing those weaknesses is a management responsibility, not an agency responsibility. The most important thing was to find a firm that would become part of a team that would help us achieve our business objectives.”
Another common concern when selecting a global firm is that managers in local markets will resent having a PR firm imposed on them from headquarters—particularly if that firm isn’t among the best in their particular market.
“That’s why I designed the RFP the way I did,” says Mayers. “There’s sometimes an ivory tower syndrome, perhaps particularly among firms in the U.S., that when corporate says X, all the local people say, ‘Blah.’ I worked in Asia for several years, and there’s a saying there, ‘The mountains are very high and the emperor lives far, far away,’ which means people will do things their own regardless of what their headquarters tells them.
“For that reason, we wanted our people to be involved in the agency selection process all along the way.”
The process began in earnest at a global staff meeting in Washington, D.C., in November of 2001, which was the culmination of CCI’s research into the public relations business. Shortly after that meeting, the original RFP was designed and distributed to the eight agencies that met Cotton Council International’s criteria.
The RFP made it clear that CCI was committed to a two-phase selection process. The first phase was fairly typical, requiring a presentation of credentials and some broad ideas about the ways in which cotton could be marketed globally. But it was clear at the outset that the second phase would require a significant investment of time and energy on the part of the finalists, who would be expected to meet with CCI executives around the world.
“The fact that it was a two phase process was not different,” says Ellen Ryan Mardiks, worldwide director of marketing and brand strategy for Golin/Harris, which eventually won the business.  “But Drayton really worked hard to make sure local people in all three regions around the world were very involved.”
The finalists were told they would be expected to pitch not only to Mayers and CCI’s U.S. leaders, but also to regional executives at separate meetings in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Bogota.
“I told the firms right up front that this was going to be a two phase process,” says Mayers. “Ultimately, I wanted my organization to be completely comfortable with the men and women we would be working with, to get to know them and their skill sets.”
Says Mardiks, “They wanted to let us know right off the bat that this was going to be a lengthy process, that the second phase of the process would require a significant expense of both time and money on the part of the agency.”
The first phase of the RFP, however, was designed “to help us learn about these world class firms,” says Mayers. “We wanted to understand their philosophy regarding branding and the utilization of PR techniques to support the brand. We wanted to understand their specific relevant experience in commodity agricultural and apparel and fashion branding. We wanted to know how they would prefer to be held accountable. And we wanted to know their philosophy about coordinating a global account.”
There were only two “thinking questions,” Mayers says—questions that required the firms to present their ideas about the cotton brand and how it could be marketed on a global level.
There were no face-to-face meetings during phase one, although Mayers did make himself available for lengthy conference calls with each agency, and CCI did provide the firms with extensive internal information.
Says Mayers, “I’ve been told that we provided an abnormal amount of information. The agencies received all of our existing collateral, for example, but they also received our latest strategic planning documents. We had recently completed a management audit that focused on the strengths and weaknesses of Cotton USA and CCI. It was unvarnished and very explicit, and we provided them with that.
“We are a PR and marketing organization. That’s our raison d’être. And if we are to get the kind of specialized help we need we have to be up front and honest in order to get the very best counsel from those specialists. They need to understand our business strategy if they are going offer the best strategic recommendations.”
Mardiks agreed that the information package Golin/Harris received from CCI was “exceptionally detailed. We got a lot of information about their business, from every corner of the world.”
Two of the firms CCI contacted declined to participate. Of the others, several had what might have been considered an inside track—some had sister companies or affiliates that worked on CCI business, while others had worked with local CCI offices around the world, or in Washington, D.C. But in the end two of the three companies that made it to phase two of the process had no prior relationship with CCI.
Before the second phase began, one of the three finalists dropped out, apparently concerned that the time and expense involved in staging a world tour was not worth what many large agencies would consider to be—initially at least—a modest budget. (Mayers says the organization’s total budget is around $15 million and that public relations “will be a very important part of that,” but one participant said the initial budget for the account could be as low as $300,000 a year, rising to around $3 million over time.)
“The firms that had committed to participate in phase two had to go around the world,” says Mayers. “We do all our work overseas, even though we manage it out of the U.S., so it was absolutely critical that the agencies meet our people around the world. It was a critical part of the decision-making process and I would not have done it any other way.”
The two finalists agencies—Golin/Harris and sister company Weber Shandwick Worldwide, were each paid $2,000 for their efforts. “It was just a gesture. I know from my own expense report that the investment was much greater than that,” says Mayers. “I wanted “to let the participants know I respected their organizations. I understand the RFP process can be a very expensive, very stressful gamble.”
The process began with a two-hour briefing from Mayers that provided additional information on CCI’s stakeholders and the organization’s feelings about what communications approaches would be most effective. It was, says Mayers, “a master’s degree in cotton.”
From there, each of the finalists went on to participate in regional meetings in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bogota, and Washington, D.C., with one executive—Mardiks in Golin’s case, and Janet Cabot from the Chicago office of Weber Shandwick Worldwide—leading the team, supplemented by local talent at each meeting.
Golin/Harris had about 10 people, from Asia, Europe, Latin America and the U.S., involved in the pitch. In addition to Mardiks, the team included Barry Legetter, a veteran of Porter Novelli and Fleishman-Hillard, who had recently been hired as the deputy managing director of Golin’s U.K. office; John Morgan, a transfer from the firm’s Washington office who now has a leadership role in Hong Kong; and Jaime Bermudez, who led a team from Golin’s Colombian affiliate Dattis in Latin America.
“In each of the three regions there were at least three and as many as six key markets, and we appointed people in each of those markets who would be on the account,” says Mardiks. “We got our people out to meet with the client in each of the markets where they had local people—about seven or eight markets.”
CCI program managers, and in some cases their seconds-in-command, around the world were issued score sheets and asked to evaluate the two agencies. There were several criteria, but more than anything else, Mayers says, he was looking for creativity and chemistry.
Mardiks believes the approach gave CCI unusual insight into the cultures of the firms they were evaluating. “They were able to really get to know those agencies,” she says.
Says Mayers, “In a way, it was like peeling back an onion. With each meeting we were able to get a little closer to the heart of what each agency was.”
At the same time, the agencies were getting to know the client and its concerns better, and were able to add new elements to their thinking from one meeting to the next. “We learned as we went along and began to develop a point of view,” says Mardiks. “Our presentation evolved as we learned more in every meeting based on feedback from the client teams.”
That evolution was apparent to the client. Says Mayers, “It was a building process. They were building on their knowledge from round one, and I could see the strategic thinking evolve, the approach to the assignment. I was very visual. I could see it happening. I could see them getting better and better and better as their knowledge of CCI increased, and it became a crescendo of ideas and strategies at our final meeting.”
More than anything, of course, the international road show provided CCI with insight into how the firms would work together across boundaries, incorporating global strategy with local execution.
“We had both distinctiveness, because every presentation involved local people, and continuity, because I was at every meeting, and I was able to take what I learned in one meeting into the next,” says Mardiks. “That was a reflection of the approach we would take to the business, which combined some universal truths about cotton, combined with local nuances that would help us maximize our success in each market.”
Many clients are cynical about the ability of large agencies to work together across offices, and so Golin was determined to show how seamless its service could be.
“We tried to demonstrate that at every single step of the process,” says Mardiks. “We worked together on this from the beginning. We included input from everybody in our response to the RFP. It was not centrally developed. I think the client could see we were committed to approaching this as a team, that our London team was communicating with Hong Kong and our Hong Kong team was working with our affiliate in Korea. It was very synergistic.”
Ultimately, that approach impressed Mayers.
“I think it came down to culture,” he says. “Ellen Ryan Mardiks took exactly the approach I would have taken myself, exactly the approach I think my clients would have taken. We are a global organization, and one of the things that makes that work is that as an organization we respect each other, we learn from each other, we like consulting with each other. There are other organizations, even within the PR business, that are much more compartmentalized, where the U.S. delivers a grand concept for the rest of the world to implement. That was a losing strategy for us.
“But Golin/Harris had people from around the world involved from phase one. She understood that the headquarters in Chicago would learn from people in other offices around the world. She took on board ideas from around the world and she didn’t stop until the final meeting in Washington. She still hasn’t stopped. That told me a lot about the culture, and the way our two cultures would be able to work together.”
That was one deciding factor. Another was the way in which Mardiks and her team demonstrated their listening skills.
“I believe this whole process is about listening,” says Mayers. “It sounds simple, but if you’re an agency you have to listen to the client, to understand its strengths and weaknesses, its goals and objectives. If I had to point to one thing that helped Golin/Harris win the business it’s that its people listened all along the way, and because they listened they really understood our business. I think that speaks to the corporate culture.”
Although Mayers is a neophyte when it comes to public relations, he’s confident that the long and arduous agency selection process increases the chance of success as Golin/Harris starts work on CCI’s account.
“We can skip much of the traditional client-agency relationship start up process because we got to know each other so well over the last few months,” he says. “They understood our strategic intent before we signed a contract. We understood their culture. We couldn’t have gone wrong choosing either of the two finalists, but we are very confident in the choice we made.”