CAMPAIGNS: Smaller research shops turn Street deal into big coup

PR Team: Sprung PR (New York), Marx Communications (Stamford, CT), and Best Independent Research (Chicago) Campaign: Launching Best Independent Research Time Frame: December 2002 - present Budget: $24,500

PR Team: Sprung PR (New York), Marx Communications (Stamford, CT), and Best Independent Research (Chicago) Campaign: Launching Best Independent Research Time Frame: December 2002 - present Budget: $24,500

While the long drama over Wall Street stock analysts' conflicts of interest seemed to produce few victors, for some small independent stock-research firms, the very public investigation and subsequent settlement had the makings of a minor windfall. Wall Street investment banks were charged with using their stock analysts to publicly tout to investors stocks that the analysts and banks didn't necessarily believe to be sound investments. The firms allegedly encouraged this behavior because they were seeking to provide lucrative investment-banking services to many of the same companies whose stocks they were pushing. Indeed, regulators framed their investigation as a classic case of reciprocal back-scratching between Wall Street and corporate America that left many small investors on the receiving end of some disingenuous research, which many say led them to make some poor investment decisions during the late 1990s. As part of last month's landmark $1.4 billion settlement reached between the Street's banking giants and regulators, the major firms will spend $432.5 million over five years to provide independent research to their customers. In this case, "independent" means that each firm will be required to supply reports from at least three outside research firms. As word spread that such a requirement would likely be part of any final settlement, a group of small independent research shops banded together to form a consortium called Best Independent Research (BIR). Strategy Months before the settlement, BIR hired Sprung PR and Marx Communications, two agencies that often partner on clients, to position the consortium as one of the natural choices to supply the independent research that Wall Street would soon seek. "BIR didn't have a huge marketing budget," says Andrew Sprung, "but they did have enough to do an effective positioning and PR campaign." Sprung and Marx decided to showcase BIR member firms' superior stock-selection track records, and to emphasize BIR's embrace of performance measurement as a tool that could effectively reform the stock-research industry. After consulting with BIR, Sprung and Marx established three concrete objectives: get major media attention for BIR's launch by riding the wave of coverage gained by the settlement announced by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer; establish enough brand recognition to open the door between BIR and senior decision-makers at major investment banks; and show that investment banks can gain a competitive advantage by offering top-performing independent research. The campaign's main audiences would include investment bankers, securities regulators, individual investors, and stock analysts. Tactics Sprung and Marx used the launch to show that BIR represented a bid by the US' top-performing research firms to make the settlement work as planned, and pitched several business- news outlets about the launch. When the preliminary settlement announcement was imminent, the team contacted reporters covering the deal at all major papers to suggest they speak to BIR president Thomas White. The team also wanted to show that third-party performance measurement gives BIR a legitimate claim to offer the "best" stock-selection research by highlighting the fact that all member firms are in the top-10 overall rankings published by Investars, a research-performance tracking service. "They were good at not getting us in articles that just bashed the banks," says White. "We did not want to be seen by banks as part of their problems, but instead as part of the solution." Results BIR received a spate of coverage in the press as an emerging player in independent research, including stories in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Chicago Tribune, and Institutional Investor. Yet perhaps the most favorable result was that White met in mid-January 2003 with senior officials at five top investment banks, and maintained continual contact with all of them as the final settlement was nearing completion. Future BIR continues to work with Sprung and Marx as the firms and regulators come closer to choosing the providers of independent stock research.

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