The French evolution

France's PR industry may not be as developed as its European neighbors, but it is growing, offering great opportunity.

France's PR industry may not be as developed as its European neighbors, but it is growing, offering great opportunity.

While the UK and Germany tend to lead the European PR market, France's PR industry is becoming ever more evolved as the years go by. Though Paris has long been considered a necessary location for any respectable global firm to have an office, even locals admit that the industry has a way to go before it reaches US-type saturation levels. But with new political leadership and fierce competition for talent, France is as hot a destination for PR professionals as it's ever been.

Agencies shift focus

France is home to a broad array of multinational agencies that handle work for large companies that want to tap the French market, and these agencies also compete with homegrown firms for France-based clients. One change sweeping through the market, agency leaders say, is a rapid shift into digital communications as a primary strategy - meaning that competition between large and boutique firms is becoming democratized.

"The PR business used to be really focused on media relations. And it's not anymore, at all," says Eric Maillard, MD of Ogilvy PR Worldwide's Paris office. "We've changed a lot of the scope of work."

That change is not only the tactical shift from print to digital media relations, but also an elevation of concern in the C-suite about the opportunities that PR can offer, according to several agency veterans.

"Due to competitive market conditions, and globalization and consolidation, companies rely more and more on their consultancy taking a qualitative approach to help them differentiate," says Patricia Ott, GM of Lewis PR in France, via e-mail. "They also expect more specific and targeted results from their PR agency."

Growth has shifted from tech clients to the lifestyle, automotive, and b-to-b sectors. Green-focused and CSR work is also strong.

Financial PR and public affairs work are also particularly strong. Nina Mitz, who heads FD's office in France, explains that the French PR market is still "maturing," unlike some other more fully formed European countries. It is shifting from a largely domestic-focused market to a more international one. She attributes that to the large amount of liquidity available for international investment and strong international performance of French clients.

"French PR companies used to be so French; now there is a growing space for international networks," Mitz says. "We have a need for best practices in financial PR, [but combined] with a strong knowledge of the French media market and the French public administration."

That need is not easily met. Agency executives agree that the talent market in France is extremely tight, with simply not enough experienced multilingual professionals to meet demand. Philippe Cherel, MD of MS&L's Paris office, calls the hiring game "highly competitive" and cites some telling statistics from a 2005 survey: France has 3,000 PR pros (80% of whom are women), and nearly half have an advanced degree. Eight percent come from abroad.

"It means the profession itself has gone from media relations only to a highly educated professional," Cherel says.

Also notable is the extent to which skill in public affairs in France is tied to success in PR. The ability to work the government successfully is seen by clients as a vital talent.

When the relatively conservative Nikolas Sarkozy defeated the Socialist Segolene Royal in the French presidential contest earlier this year, the PR industry took notice and debated what the regime change may mean for the industry.

"Because the political life will change, the public affairs business will also change," says Cherel, adding that the public affairs model will become more advanced. "We are going from the old model - having relationships with political leaders, having lunch... toward what's happening in the [US]."

Going beyond luxury

France's international reputation may conjure images of luxury brands. But the well-educated and prosperous country is a key market for all major international corporations, and they are working to bring their corporate communications functions in line with the digital demands of the modern era.

"Our key issue is to always improve our profitability in a market where margins are very short," says Cyril Carretero, director of marketing and communications in France for international IT service provider company SCC, via e-mail. "I think that online communications will progressively surpass the 'traditional' communications. I will not be surprised if in the future more than 50% of [our] communications will be online."

Many multinational companies in France - such as Kodak - run their French PR operations under the Europe, Middle East, and Asia (EMEA) banner, with a global communications strategy combined with a certain degree of country-specific tailoring.

"The strategy is very much defined by worldwide [goals], in terms of key guidelines," says Peggy Mourmant-Galtier, Kodak's PR manager in France. "But there is quite a large degree of adaptation in a global strategy and plan that makes sense for the market."

She also notes the rising importance of online communications for corporations in France seeking to reach consumers.

"In the past three or four years, we've certainly seen the Internet pick up a lot," she says, adding that a recent survey found it to be the number one source of information that customers in France turn to.

The changing media scene

The French media market is far less driven by daily newspaper reporting than the US. National papers like Le Monde and Le Figaro do exert influence, but they pale in comparison to widely read weekly magazines with a more analytical approach, such as L'Express and Le Nouvel Observateur.

Radio is a very strong broadcast medium in France compared with the US and is a serious competitor to TV. Interestingly, the rise of online media in France is threatening radio news in much the same way it's threatening US newspapers.

"France is a market where radio is extremely developed," Mintz says. "It's not something new... [but] you have the competition between the radio and Internet."

Selected agencies

Brunswick Group
I&E Consultants
Lewis PR
Ogilvy PR
Porter Novelli
Ruder Finn
Weber Shandwick

France's largest companies

Company Rev. ($bn)

Total 168.4
AXA 139.7
Credit Agricole 128.5
BNP Paribas 109.2
Carrefour 99.0
Societe Generale 84.5
Electricite de France 3.9
Peugeot 71.0
France Telecom 65.9
Suez-energy 56.7

Source: Fortune

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