FOCUS: HI-TECH PR; Learning lessons the IBM way

IBM’s ideal of a pan-European ‘virtual’ agency could have become a logistical nightmare. A year down the line, Danny Rogers report

IBM’s ideal of a pan-European ‘virtual’ agency could have become a

logistical nightmare. A year down the line, Danny Rogers report

Ogilvy Adams and Rinehart rapidly climbed the European hi-tech league

table last year with a sudden half-million pound boost in its fee

income. The reason was its appointment as strategy consultant to IBM in

its Europe, Middle East and Africa region.

OA&R was hired by Paris-based Joerg Winkelmann, IBM’s director of

corporate communications for EMEA, to co-ordinate and manage the IBM

European PR network, sub-contracting work to agencies in 34 countries.

Winkelmann, IBM’s Euro-PR guru since 1993, received last year’s PR Week

European communicator award for what amounted to a cultural revolution

at the computer giant. He steered the company through a complete change

in its communications strategy and integrated its formerly regionalised

and ad hoc approach to public relations, in order to build a ‘virtual PR

agency’ network.

Until then IBM had been accused of complacency in European PR, using a

total of 45 local agencies and little consistency in its approach.

Winkelmann, however, recognised the formidable strength of the IBM

corporate brand and integrated the EMEA PR programme to focus on the

promotion of this brand.

Working with OA&R, Winkelman embarked on a review of all existing agency

relationships to convince himself he was using the top consultancies in

each local market. The upheaval in the hi-tech agency world was

cataclysmic and the pace of change was fast.

The review began in November 1994 and by March 1995 the new network was

in place. OA&R then faced the unenviable task of managing the network,

in co-operation with an in-house PR staff of nine in IBM’s Paris office.

A year on, the network is fully operational and Winkelmann is confident

that it provides what he describes as ‘dedicated support to our industry

solution units, our software and PC business and our various product

groups, at local and international levels.’

Bob Lear, OA&R’s worldwide account director, explains: ‘In the first

year, the network worked on a project basis and in multiple geographies,

but by the beginning of 1996 IBM had begun to centralise its pan-

European PR and had moved to genuine campaigns.’

These range from specific business unit campaigns - such as for the

Server Group or Software - that are consistent with the pan-European

advertising campaign, through to more strategic corporate initiatives

such as the emphasis on network solutions.

In addition, from June this year, the agency network has been rolling

out a series of new campaigns focusing on sector-based industry


Asked about the network’s successes and failures over the past year,

Winkelmann replies with the corporate line: ‘Given the diversity and

specific challenges of the European market place and the complexity of

IBM’s wide range of businesses, the network has been working smoothly.

While there is always room for improvement, we have enjoyed a true

‘partner’ relationship with OA&R.’

‘We’ve hit some bumps,’ admits Lear, ‘but growing pains are normal. The

challenge is to get agencies that do not share single ownership to work

across boundaries and share information seamlessly.’

And Winkelmann accepts that he has learned some important lessons about

implementing public relations on this scale. ‘First, there is no unique

approach to PR in Europe. Secondly, PR is based on local relationships,’

he says.

For example? ‘Although there is an increasing trend towards

internationalisation across all media, reporters in Italy do work

differently than those in the UK. This means that, in harmonising our

programmes and campaigns from a message and focus point of view across

the region, we will continue to interface with the press and other

external constituencies through local contacts. As a discipline, PR can

not be centralised the way that advertising can.’

Lear sums it up more succinctly: ‘The challenge is to integrate the

corporate, product and solutions elements into an integrated campaign

while reducing inefficiencies - one company, one voice, many accents.’

Throughout this learning process, the agency network has remained

relatively stable in its membership. Only in Belgium has the agency

personnel changed completely - PRP being replaced by Luna PR.

Different agencies now work on the account in Norway (GK Woldsdal) and

South Africa (GBS Marketing Consulants) but this is because the

individuals from the original agency have set up on their own. ‘We

decided the talent lay with the people,’ says Lear. In Germany the

network has added two agencies for project work - Competitive

Communications and the Marketing Team.

In the UK, IBM uses two main agencies. Charles Barker handles a large

chunk of IBM’s corporate and industry-based services work, while A-Plus

works on product PR.

Martin Knight, new head of communications and corporate affairs for IBM

UK, says: ‘We don’t really have much to do with OA&R. We do need to be

fully co-ordinated across our geographies but we also need strong local

contact with the media.’

Lear says regular contact within the network is maintained by e-mail and

a bi-weekly tele-conference between the client and the main cluster of

agencies. In addition, once or twice annually, key representatives from

the account teams meet with Winkelmann’s team to review and discuss


He believes the partnership between IBM and OA&R is getting closer:

‘It’s all about an agreement in style. From the beginning we agreed the

relationship would be transparent and we would be open with one another,

not only with our achievements but about difficulties. Our success

relies on this as much as our performance. We are lucky to have such an

open client.’

Of the way forward, Winkelmann says all IBM’s communications efforts

will increasingly be focused on the implementation of its network

computing solutions strategy: ‘This puts all of IBM’s products and

offerings into the context of an increasingly networked world. For

example, the Internet.’

Lear adds: ‘The big issue over the next year will be focusing more

closely on our messages. Rather than products, we will be communicating

on the basis of solutions, and particularly on the networked solutions

that will take us into the 21st Century.’

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