It pays in many ways to be part of a network

Multinational PR firms have long used their geographic reach and breadth of services as a key tool in winning competitive pitches.

Multinational PR firms have long used their geographic reach and breadth of services as a key tool in winning competitive pitches. In fact, while some would rather not say it, the generic "dots on a map" approach has won many a pitch by impressing clients with the scope of the offering.

But for smaller agencies - local firms, or those with only a few domestic offices - serving business in different geographies or specialty fields can be a tricky game of referrals and bargains with other firms. Many have turned to agency networks, allowing them to approach client service on a more even field with the big boys.

Although it may seem intuitive that firms join networks in order to have partners to help serve business in diverse locations, it turns out that there is a much more fundamental benefit to such groups: education. Unanimously, those who participate in networks say that learning best practices from each other may be the greatest client-service bonus of all.

At Worldcom Public Relations Group, an international network of agencies in 42 countries, there are practice groups within the network designed to help all members raise their standards.

"If a firm wants to get involved in an industry and doesn't know a lot about it, they can join a practice group and learn about it," says John Bliss, chair of Worldcom's Americas region. "It's educational, as well as marketing."

Members of agency networks also boast that they can often offer clients even better service across a broad range of markets because their member firms are better acquainted with the areas.

"If you joined Hill & Knowlton, you might bounce around from [office to office]... but you would not really know those regions, you'd just be passing through," adds Bliss. "The Worldcom partners run the firms in the areas where they're natives - and they're senior consultants."

Bo Spalding, cofounder of Atlanta-based Jackson Spalding (JS), joined the PROI network several years ago. He says sharing best practices with other independent firms is one of the most rewarding aspects. That takes the form of twice-yearly conferences and frequent informal visits of members of foreign firms who come to town. JS has even instituted a month-long personnel exchange program with a member firm in Amsterdam.

Spalding has also pitched for business in combination with other member firms - and won.

"For national or international [clients], we definitely mention it," he notes. "It helps level the playing field with some of the big national firms that have offices across the country and around the world."

Some networks focus less on spreading service capabilities and more on sharing information. One example is Lumin, a group of five independent firms that concentrates on helping each other in more ethereal ways.

"The fundamental difference is the basic agency network is a geographic play; ours is what we refer to is an intellectual collaborative," says Steve Cody, cofounder of member firm Peppercom. "We're more inward-facing than we are external-facing."

That means management training sessions, annual retreats with featured speakers, and a tight collaboration between firms that is driven as much by friendship as by business. But the network does serve for quick research and focus groups on behalf of clients.

"Even though we do occasionally compete against each other," adds Cody, "it's more about how we help each other out."

Key points:

Agency networks serve clients in different geographies

They allow smaller firms to pitch competitively against larger ones

Sharing best practices is a key benefit of networks

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