A Q&A with Ballou founder Colette Ballou

Having worked for PR agencies in her native US, in 2002 Colette Ballou set up Ballou in Paris, London and Berlin. PRWeek caught up with her to find out the agency's story

Why did you initially set up Ballou?

"I had worked for a series of agencies in New York and San Francisco. In 2001, the dotcom boom exploded, I got laid off, and thought ‘what do I want to do next’. Having seen how badly agencies work internationally - one office could never just coordinate nicely with another in a different country, and so much client money got wasted on that squabbling - made me think there had to be a better way."

Why Paris specifically?

"I had never, despite my name, lived in Paris or anywhere abroad. But I had worked for an organisation which helped mostly American PR firms to acquire in Europe. So I knew the financials, that on the whole, in French offices, it was celebrated if you broke even. Most French offices lost money, it was just accepted.

"So I knew that would be the hardest market and that it really might kill me but that if I got it right, it would be a real winner, it would be worth a lot of money and would be very hard to replicate. But it was really a lot of chutzpah - I knew I could have just as easily failed really badly."

What was your ethos when you founded the business?

"I wanted to create a humane workplace. I once had a boss who managed by humiliation, she would scream at you in front of 50 people. I just wondered why was that a way that people talked to people, but I’ve seen that behaviour rewarded by some firms. Scream at me if I’m on fire or if there’s a fire near me, that is the only reason you should be screaming in an office, ever!

"To this day I'm still surprised by some of the experiences I had working in agencies, what I was taught about how an agency should run, how a client is always right, just keep the client happy and for the love of God, don't ever tell a client that they need to reduce the retainer. Come on - you can look at underservicing as a great gift, as free money, but really it’s wrong. You have to do right by the client."

How have you instilled that into Ballou company culture?

"Well, there’s a slightly different culture in each market, but we drop in the same DNA into each office, and that’s what makes it so easy to work together."

"Every time we have new people joining, I go into that office and tell them the story of Ballou, how we work, and I remind them that there are a couple of things they are paid to do; one is to make sure that we’re doing the right thing for our clients, because I believe that when you do what's right, you will get rewarded in spades. The other is to be able to tell each other when we’re wrong. And that includes me - so I’m setting that culture where they know that they're being valued for their brains, where they know not to just kowtow, being overly deferential just serves nobody.

"I’m very keen that no performance review should ever be a surprise - you should know how you’re doing, there’s got to be this culture where we’ve got each other’s back. And also, you don’t get promoted if you’re making the client happy but you’re making your colleagues miserable, you are not promotable, we do not reward that bad behaviour. We’ll work hard to rehabilitate that sort of person."

How do clients, and potential clients, take to that culture?

"We had a potential client who issued an RFP for the German market, and were very clear that they couldn’t talk about data security and privacy yet. Germany is one of the hottest countries in the world on data and privacy - without talking about that you don’t get anywhere. We heard through the grapevine that they’d pulled the RFP, and not long after they came back to us and said you’ve got the business because you’re the only one that told us the truth. And guess what, they’re one of our longest-standing clients.

"I think if you look at our client list - Red Hat, Mozilla, Box, Trivago, it goes to show that by really just being yourself, you will attract quality - both with clients and recruits."

And what about staff?

"What shows me that we’re doing something incredibly right is that we’ve had a number of staff return, having gone to different agencies. And they say to me: ‘I cannot sit in another meeting with someone senior who doesn’t even understand what the client does, and yet they’re giving advice.’ Those places where nobody on the team can speak up, it just yells out that there’s a senior person who’s really insecure."

What’s next for Ballou? More markets, different services?

"We’re not seeing any new overseas markets that are right yet. Places like Israel, Sweden, even Poland have interesting companies, but there’s no demand for local PR - we can win business there, we don’t need to establish an office.

"We’re building our capabilities - we’ve launched SEO, branding, graphic design, animation and video services. We looked at podcasting but that feels commoditised so we work through partners. We’re always looking at what’s next.

"Frankly, our goal is to continue to have our double-digit profit margins - we’re very proud of that. Growing too fast is a killer - we could be twice as big if we said yes to everything, but then you lower your standards with recruitment to get people through the door, then you lower your standards in terms of new business just to keep them busy. It’s a nasty cycle - there is absolutely such a thing as growing too fast, and it can really rip apart your culture."

 

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