Matthew Miller
Apr 15, 2013

It's not about PR strategy, just strategy: APCO Worldwide

INTERVIEW: As Asia continues to be seen as the world's economic hope, companies, both foreign and home-grown, need to focus on their larger purpose, according to Margery Kraus, founder and CEO of APCO Worldwide.

Kraus: providing
Kraus: providing "peripheral vision"

APCO Worldwide may not be a household name, even in hypothetical households where brand consulting and strategic communications are frequent topics of conversation. Yet the company has more than 600 employees in 29 locations worldwide, including offices in Hong Kong, China, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

CEO Margery Kraus, who sat down with Campaign Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong last week, said her company focuses in Asia, as it does everywhere else, on bringing together experts from government, business, media, NGOs, and the financial community to provide companies with strategic counsel.

"We were built as a stakeholder-engagement firm," Kraus said. "Even in the beginning, we never called ourselves a PR firm, per se. When we sat with a client, we didn't think, 'Well, you need a PR strategy or a communications strategy'. We thought, 'You need a strategy'."

This approach translates to Asia because it suits the needs of the firm's multinational clients, regardless of where they come from (China's COSCO is one prominent client).

"They're looking for people who can help them with strategic counsel in places that they are unsure about," Kraus said. In their home markets, companies know the lay of the land and can confidently buy specific services, like crisis management, a la carte. When they're moving into new territories, they need more. "They need peripheral vision," she said. "They need to understand how these markets operate, who the real stakeholders are, not just what’s on the organisation chart."

This is just as important for the foreign companies coming into a market as it is for "indigenous" companies expanding out, Kraus said. "If you're going to go into a place you've never done business before, where is it more important to understand your full range of stakeholders that you need to engage with, and how to align your messages?" she said. "It's not just doing a media relations programme. If it's not built around your core business practices or your core strategy, then it doesn't work."

Moreover, companies need to understand how the landscape is going to shift around them, she added, citing the example of elections affecting the right to operate.

"Companies are saying, 'If it's just this tactical implementation stuff, OK, well, maybe we need arms and legs, but what we'll pay for is people who can really help us move markets and think about how we change where we're going'," she said.

With the latter point, the sense of purpose that can unify all of a company's activities, is one where Kraus sees the potential for Asian companies to lead the way.

Citing the company's recent report on champion brands, Kraus said one of the key requirements for achieving that status was advocacy, not in the sense of advocating for the company's own interests, but in the sense of advocating a shared purpose. Sustainability is one example of such a purpose, and one where companies in Asia may very well take the lead, Kraus said.

Turning to one of the trends driving the move toward transparent corporate purpose, Kraus cited the leadership of Asian consumers in adopting digital and mobile technology.

Clients need "people who understand this interconnected, supercharged digital age", she said. "What is the difference in using social media in one country versus another? Where are the lines? How do we get into trouble, how do we stay out of trouble? Because it's not so straightforward all the time."

APCO Worldwide acquired ad agency Strawberryfrog in 2012 because its principles fit well into APCO's view of the world, Kraus said. "They've taken the idea of advertising and found ways to make it very personal and engage people and create a movement around a product or idea. And we thought that given our interest in social media and the fact that the world is becoming a lot more visual, that having this strong creative partnership would allow us to do a better job as we look to the future."

Strawberryfrog still operates independently, but its association with APCO gives it faster time-to-market around the world, while the parent company receives consumer-focused insights that it would not otherwise get from its traditional activities, Kraus said. Asked about future acquisitions, she said that as an independent, self-financed company, APCO has to be smart, but she is looking for targets. She cited the example of Dubai, where an acquisition helped APCO build a lot of momentum quickly, as the model for potential future purchases.

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