PROI, WorldCom, Pinnacle, IPREX ... PR Networks. What's the difference?
It's a good question. To answer it, you first need to address what difference networks make to their member firms and their respective clients.
All PR agency networks were formed to enhance the capabilities of their members. That enhancement, in large part, has been focused on giving independently owned PR firms some level of out-of-market or global reach. This ties in to a key expectation for many network members, which is to get or give business to and from their fellow members. The reality is, more often than not, most independent firms are hired to do work that relates to their defined marketplace, be that geographic or business sector.
So what's the compelling reason for independent firms to be in a network with global connections? Business today is global - if not in market coverage, then certainly in outlook. This means that most clients need firms with at least an understanding of the impacts of globalization, if not the ability to work in multiple markets.
But there is more to networks than multimarket and global reach. Networks also give their members the opportunity to grow their businesses through shared experience, expertise, and, yes, clients. This collaborative brainpower can be of significant value to clients.
To further understand what networks offer, you have to understand how the concept came about. Networks were created to help independent PR agencies compete with multinational firms for clients who need multimarket programs. However, there is a big difference in what networks and multinationals offer, from an operational and geographic perspective.
When a client uses a multinational firm, it is, for better or worse, buying the "whole package" offered by the firm's various offices. Networks, on the other hand, have the ability to use their colleagues in various markets or not. For example, within PROI, our commitment to our clients and each other is that if one partner firm is not a good fit for a specific assignment, then that partner will help find a firm that can better meet the client's needs. In addition, using a core team to service the account, a good network offers the benefits of consistency of approach and process, while, because of its flexibility, being able to tailor these to the client's specific needs.
In highlighting how multinational competition drove the formation of networks, I have made it sound as if all of the multinationals are the same. Are they? Of course not. All multinational firms work hard to differentiate themselves and create unique brand equity. We accept that they are different, even if we can't always clearly articulate this difference. Admittedly, most networks have some name recognition, but have not established a lot of brand equity. However, to say all networks are the same is to say that all multinationals are the same.
The networks are as individual as the firms that make up their membership. But if you believe brands are based on the values and traits of an organization, then each network surely has a brand that differentiates it from the other networks, as well as from each multinational.
Network membership is a choice. As networks recruit, they look at the geographic locations of potential members, their areas of expertise, their reputations, the caliber of the owners and their staff, and how the potential members will fit into the group. A network is a group of independent firms that have decided to coalesce as a "tribe" that respects the differences of each member. It is the embracing of these differences that builds a unique brand for each network.
Part of the challenge to the networks in building brand awareness is that prospective clients will base their first impressions of the network on the brand traits and capabilities of the member who has the initial contact or is the defined lead firm from the network. It is, therefore, the role of this lead agency to clearly define and demonstrate the network brand.
The difference between the PR firm networks comes down to each group's collective experience and expertise, their approaches to client service, their overall purposes for being, and, most important, the character of each member firm and how they make the network valuable to their clients and to themselves.