Essential Guide: Independent agency networks

Sarah Shearman finds out everything you need to know about the top global agency partnerships.

Sarah Shearman finds out everything you need to know about the top four agency partnerships.


Number of agencies: 75
Countries: 33 countries, five continents
Revenues for 2012: $200 million
Founded: 1983
Structure: IPREX is managed by a global board, elected by its partners. It consists of a global president, a secretary/treasurer, and presidents of the Americas, EMEA, and Asia-Pacific
Leadership: President, Kathy Tunheim, Tunheim Partners (Minneapolis); secretary/treasurer, Andrei Mylroie, Desautel Hege Communications (Spokane, WA); president-elect John Scheibel, Trefoil Group (Milwaukee); past-president, Jim Walsh, Walsh Public Relations (Ireland)
Clients include McDonald's, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Logitech

Kathy Tunheim, president of IPREX, Tunheim Partners CEO and principal

“Smart agencies understand the world is flat,” says Kathy Tunheim, IPREX president and CEO of Tunheim Partners. “The genius of an independent agency network is it serves the multi-market needs of independent firms.”

She says the core differentiator between IPREX and a multinational agency is the decentralized model of ownership and operations, with “established on-the-ground insight” in different markets.

“There is no big overhead structure to recover,” she adds. “The work done by the independent agencies is embedded in their own cost structure.”

“Connective tissue” differentiates IPREX from other networks, adds Tunheim, referring to the strong relationships between member firms and their capability for sharing best practice and learnings.

For example, in February IPREX hosted a conference for 40 rising stars across its global agency partners entitled “Digital Media's Future and the Implications for the Global PR Industry.”

It is a condition of IPREX membership that partners, owners, or senior managers of a member firm attend at least one regional or annual meeting per year, which covers different themes such as operations and client services.

Conflict between agencies is rare, notes Tunheim, because of the network's collegiality. “We have the right mix of talent,” she notes. “We all talk to each other and join forces.”

When collaborating on work, she says it is up to the individual agency to manage its relationship with the client, rather than the network.

IPREX charges all agencies an annual fee of $3,850, regardless of the firm's size.

Overall, it does not have a particular area of specialty as the type of agencies that join are “constantly evolving.”

Public Relations Global Network

Number of agencies: 49
Countries: 28 countries, six continents
Revenues for 2012: $110 million
Founded: 1992
Structure: Monthly meetings of executive and operational committees. Owner-operators from agencies in the network sit on the operational committee
Leadership: President, Mark Paterson, Currie Communications (Australia); immediate past president, Francine Robbens, Public Relations Partners (Belgium); president-elect, David Landis, Landis Communications (San Francisco); treasurer, Joe Ledlie, The Ledlie Group (Atlanta); secretary, Patricia Pérez, VPE (Los Angeles)
Clients include FedEx, Zumba Fitness, Expedia, McDonald's, Walmart, Whole Foods Market, Old Navy, MetLife, and Jack Daniel's

Mark Paterson, president of PRGN and MD of Currie Communications

PRGN's founding agencies were initially members of Edelman's affiliate network until it was disbanded in 1992. “At PRGN, there is a strong family feel and personal relationships between the members,” says Mark Paterson, network president and MD of Currie Communications.

PRGN has a high participation rate in the running of the network, with all member agencies active on operational committees. The network does not pay a secretariat and members volunteer. “I spend a day a week on PRGN,” adds Paterson, “and treat it like a client.”

The annual membership fee ranges from $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the agency's size. The main benefit of the network is the business it brings in, notes Paterson. For example, Currie Communications started working with its client Walking the Talk after receiving a recommendation from a PRGN agency in Brazil. The client has also been recommended to a network agency in Mexico City. 

He says 45% of members shared business last year, which is a figure the network is taking measures to improve.

Client conflicts are rare, but if they occur, members resolve the issue themselves or PRGN makes a recommendation.

PRGN takes a “cautious” approach to appointing new members. Firms are invited to file an application that passes through the membership and executive committees. If it is a yes, a member makes a site visit, then writes a report. The agency is then presented to all members and asked to attend the next meeting where it presents a formal pitch and members vote on its application.

Owing to this process, the network does not grow as quickly as others. To help with recruitment, PRGN is launching a program at global events attended by independent agencies later this year.

Public Relations Organisation International

Number of agencies: 56
Countries: 50 countries, five continents
Revenues for 2011: $382 million (2012 revenue NA)
Founded: 1970
Structure: Partner agencies are represented by owners in 98% of cases. Each owner  has one vote. PROI is divided into three regions; EMEA, the Americas, and APAC
Leadership: President, Bob Frause, Frause (Seattle); VP, EMEA, Michaela Benedigova, Seesame Communications (Slovakia) and Ana Margarida Ximenes, Grupo Inforpress (Portugal); VP, the Americas, Ciro Reis, Imagem Corporativa (Brazil) and Rachel McCallister, mPRm (Los Angeles); VP, Asia-Pacific, Richard Tsang, Strategic PR Group (Hong Kong) and Neil Green, Senate Communication Counsel (New Zealand)
Clients include Walmart and Verizon

Bob Frause, president of PROI Worldwide and chairman and CEO of Frause

As the largest independent agency network in terms of fee income, but not agency member numbers, PROI Worldwide maintains that having a long members list does not necessarily equal quality.

PROI prides itself on the high caliber of agencies it admits to its network, setting an upper limit on members at 85. “We find quantity does not always mean better quality,” says Bob Frause, president of PROI Worldwide and chairman and CEO of Frause.

He explains that many of its members are the leading independent firms in their markets, such as AGT Communications in Russia and Adfactors in India, among others. 

PROI has a rigorous process when it comes to admitting new members. “We don't just take anybody on,” adds Frause, “because when we bring partners on we need to be totally confident they will be able to help deliver for existing partners and clients.”

Before a partner is admitted, PROI does rigorous research that includes talks with existing clients and an examination of financials. The criteria is that an agency must be among the top five independents in its market and have the right level of transparency. After an agency visit, the application is decided upon by a committee made up of members from three regions.

Membership fees depend on agencies' net fee income, ranging from $795 per year to slightly more than $3,000. Frause says the goal is not to make a profit, but to work in the best interests of an agency partner. It also has “significant” funds, making it a secure investment for members. 

Worldcom PR Group

Number of agencies: 110
Countries: 48 countries, six continents
Revenues for 2011: $227.6 million (2012 revenue NA)
Founded: 1988
Structure: Worldcom PR Group currently has a full-time COO, Daisy Guthin, who is retiring in June to be succeeded by a new MD. Worldcom also has a group board and a regional board of directors
Leadership: Chairperson, Corinna Voss, HBI Helga Bailey (Germany); Americas region chair, Todd Lynch, St. John & Partners (Jacksonville, FL)
Clients include Panasonic, Baskin-Robbins, Mitsubishi Chemical, the Japanese government, and Rockwell Automation

Todd Lynch, Worldcom's chair of the board, Americas region, and VP and director of PR at Florida's SJ&P

Worldcom PR Group prefers to be described as a partnership rather than a network.

“We create the resources and relationships to maximize our individual practices, how we serve our clients, and team up to go after new business,” says Todd Lynch, chair of the board for Worldcom's Americas region and VP and director of PR at Florida's SJ&P.

He says while there are ad-vantages to both multinationals and independent networks, Worldcom's partners are “entrepreneurial and aggressive” with a “nimbleness and agility.”

Market knowledge is shared during annual regional and global meetings, which partners are required to attend. As well as a lot of networking opportunities, best practices are delivered through presentations and panels. For example, when social media first appeared on the agenda in a 2006 meeting, only a few partners where practicing it.

“People went home and tackled what was then a burgeoning new media,” he adds.

In addition to meetings, Worldcom has subset groups with particular practice areas, such as consumer and healthcare, for deeper penetration into sectors. Peer reviews help partners learn about agency capabilities – two or three partners will conduct a review of an agency and learnings are often used as meeting material.

This intimate knowledge helps Worldcom agencies team up for RFPs. “There are times when partners could compete for new business,” he adds, “but it may make sense for them to partner up, giving them a stronger offering.”

Worldcom is always on the lookout for new partners, but recruitment is “about developing partners that are going to be passionate or complementary,” says Lynch.

Fees start at $2,000 per year and increase depending on agency size. Potential partners must meet a level of standards, including years of practice, business size, and billings, before the board makes a site visit and a vote is taken.

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