Ballou EU
Case Study: Ballou Shows How Boutique Agencies Can Work Across Borders

Note: The following article first appeared on PRovoke

The media landscapes in the UK, France and Germany are dissimilar and digital formats are at different stages of maturity.

When Ballou won a contract last year to work for the tech company Mozilla in France, Germany and the UK, the tech-focused boutique agency wanted to make sure it got off to a good start.

Such multi-country work is difficult to do well since messages or tactics tailored to one market often do not succeed in another. To avoid missteps, Ballou decided to hold a half-day kick-off conference in Paris with several executives from Mozilla, including the head of communications who flew in from San Francisco. The ten Ballou staffers who would be working on the account — four in Paris, two in London, and two in Berlin — were all present as well.

“It was a real investment but it was necessary to get a good foundation for the work,” said Cedric Voigt, the general manager for Ballou in France who also worked on the account. “Serving a client in different countries is complex.”

The work Ballou has since done for Mozilla has been a calling card for how the agency functions, namely by putting collaboration and local know-how first. Founded by Colette Ballou in Paris in 2002 to serve fast-growing tech start-ups, the agency now has 60 staffers and works for clients like Red Hat and BOX. Its services stretch from traditional media outreach to designing websites and making short videos to doing search-engine optimisation.

“There are not a lot of agencies with our level of specialization in technology that also has its own presence in Europe’s three biggest markets,” explained Nick Taylor, the general manager for the UK office.

“Doing PR in the UK, France and Germany is very different. There are far more differences in how journalists work in those places than commonalities, so having people on the ground is essential.”

Some of these cultural differences may seem minor but they do change the way agencies work. For example, Ballou has found that French journalists tend to plan their schedules far less in advance than German ones, and had to explain that to one client last year who was trying to plan a press trip to the US and could not figure out why the French were not signing up.

The media landscapes in the UK, France and Germany are dissimilar and digital formats are at different stages of maturity. For example, while podcasts are everywhere in the US, prompting some clients to ask for them, Ballou has to explain that while podcasts are popular in the UK, and a bit in France, they remain rare in Germany.

The Covid-19 pandemic has slowed Ballou’s growth — like many agencies globally — as the start-up and venture capital investors seek to tighten spending to conserve cash. Nevertheless, Ballou is still working for Mozilla and dozens of other clients and betting that its expertise and approach will see it through the downturn.

Ballou now has about seven clients for which it works in multiple countries, which is fewer than levels in the previous years because of the crisis. But in France, for example, about one-third of Ballou’s clients usually ask the agency to do work for it in Germany or the UK so the offering does drive growth, said Cedric Voigt.

Ballou has learned lessons about how to make such multi-country accounts successful. One of them is that there should be a lead agency and one point person for the client to turn to first so as to avoid confusion. But that role should rotate between the offices to make sure that everyone is involved and one territory is not being favoured.

Regular calls between the people working on the account in the Ballou office are also needed, but also more informal quick communication by text and chat.

When working for Egencia, a French business travel startup that had been acquired by Expedia Group, the French office took the lead since the client was nearby. Ballou did campaigns for Egencia in France and the UK that were quite different. “We relied in France on one-to-one informal meetings and interviews with journalists to build their relationships with local influencers,” said Voigt. “It’s a tactic that works well in France, but less in the UK, where we focused more on thought leadership angles that work better there.”

Another key element of running multi-country accounts effectively is explaining to the client why the results in different countries can vary. “Sometimes they cannot understand why news or an action resonates well in one country and not in another, so we initially spend quite some time educating them” he added.

But just as important is tailoring the content to the market. “We invest a lot of time in writing and pitching in each place,” said Voigt. “We don’t apply the same tactics in all countries at the same time as some other agencies are doing.”

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Media Relations Post Pandemic
Media relations post-COVID

We can’t open a newspaper without reading that coronavirus is going to change fundamentally the way in which we live and work.  For those of us working with the media, we have to address how we work alongside our colleagues in news and features to continue getting stories out in a timely and seemly manner.

What the crisis has taught us is that short-term thinking does not bring long-term rewards in PR.  If your media relations are nurtured carefully and are, as a result, authentic and transparent your clients will trust that you are handling their story appropriately, and your media contacts will have faith that you are a trusted and reliable source of information.  Anyone suddenly trying to cultivate a cosy relationship with a journalist mid-crisis would have received short shrift.

As a PR the relationship is between you, your client and the media.  A relationship with the media should never be treated as a disposable asset, or one to be treated with disrespect.

Bombarding journalists with irrelevant or badly thought-out or written material shows a level of disrespect not only for the contact but for the craft of PR itself.

Since March this year, we have seen blanket coverage of COVID-19. Not many pitches will make it across the line if they don’t at least have a coronavirus angle at the moment, but flogging any story relentlessly is tactless and pushy.  Be aware of your tone and your angle; even if the pitch is non-virus related, you’re still operating in a post-COVID world and that should colour any pitch you are contemplating. For example, positive financial result releases are going to be received badly if staff were made redundant or furloughed.


Coronavirus in the media
2020 has been dominated by blanket coverage of COVID-19


Immediately after a big government policy announcement is not necessarily the time to start approaching your contacts no matter how relevant your story. Those contacts are going to be frantically trying to get the bottom of the implications for the entire sector.  If you have something genuinely new and useful to add, then go ahead; if not, don’t add to the noise.

Remember, you’re dealing with human beings, not just a story. Human beings who may have lost someone at home or at work, who may have had to cover some very upsetting stories or who have seen colleagues made redundant. Rather than pinging over a DM or a formulaic email to a media contact, try picking up the phone and asking how they are.  Find out how you can help them rather than telling them what they should be covering. The story, whether it’s about the coronavirus crisis or not, should never be bigger than the people.

Can we help with your public relations? Please get in touch to find out.


The Mental Health Commute

Many industries that prided themselves on their frenetic workaholic reputations, like stockbroking, financial trading etc have now discovered that they can work perfectly well from home with no loss to either their results or their ego.  It has been a real surprise to many CEOs who had previously dismissed remote working out of hand and has bought many improvements to work life balance.

Once the schools open on a more consistent basis working from home will be even more satisfying and productive and analysts are predicting a long-term shift to home working.

One of the stranger things some of our colleagues have mentioned missing, however, is their commute.  Not the sitting in stationary traffic on the ring-road part, or more commonly being rammed against someone’s armpit for forty-five minutes on a train, but the dividing line between work and home that is provided by the commute.  Annoying as it was, the commute did provide a buffer zone between home and work.

Being catapulted out of a Zoom conference call and straight into children’s teatime or a sulky teenage row can be disorientating.  It also means your partner may find themselves pinned to the wall for ten minutes while you describe every laborious detail of your planning meeting and who said what to whom.

For those who are in flat shares and confined to one room, the temptation is to keep working, or stop and start, which blurs the boundaries horribly and gives the sense that work is never-ending.

As a result, workplace coaches, who are doing brisk business helping employees navigate the new normal, are advising a “mental health commute”.   They recommend the following:

  • Arrive at your desk ten minutes before beginning work, with a coffee, and read whatever newspaper you would normally read on your commute. Move your mind from home to work.
  • Wear “outside shoes”. Yes, it may be comfortable to slop around in socks but you need to help your subconscious shift from casual to professional.
  • Get outside during your lunch break (and obviously, make sure you have one). You’d be amazed how your daily trot to Pret helped refresh your brain; no need to miss out on it now.
  • When you finish work, turn off your laptop (properly off, don’t just push the cover down) and spend a little time reading the newspaper. If you can, get out again to walk around the block.  Even ten minutes will give you that decompression time to enter wholeheartedly back into family life or leisure and reset those boundaries.

Of course, if you want to entirely recreate the commuting experience, you can wedge yourself into a corner for an hour and get someone to bash you with a rucksack, but we don’t recommend it.

Seven out of 100 is…not enough

Following our recent Linked In post (Women Should Not be News) on the fact that women being included on company boards is unfortunately staggering enough to keep making news, we are delighted to announce that the number of female chief executives in the FTSE 100 is to increase to seven.  Seven!  The world’s gone mad.  This is after Susan Davy was named as the new chief of South West Water.

In addition, Amanda Blanc is becoming Aviva’s chief executive and Gill Rider is the new chair of Pennon which also boasts a female chief executive.

Perhaps…just perhaps…we are at the very summit of the slippery slope to equality.  Let’s hope so.

Who You Gonna Call?

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has become the Ghostbusters of post-COVID business life, leaping to the defence of Britain’s employers as the government guidance trickles out.

Its suggestions to date include a full rebate for lost hours if staff are identified through track-and-trace, back to work vouchers to help small businesses cope with the financial implications of pandemic adjustments and most heroically of all, a demand that large corporations that received financial help from the government should be compelled to pay their suppliers within a month. Britain’s small business were owed more than £23bn in unpaid bills and that was at the end of 2019, BEFORE the shut-down. Since coronavirus, almost 2/3 of small companies have either not been paid at all or been paid late, according to FSB research.

In addition, an FSB survey revealed that one in five small companies were still closed because reopening under the existing guidance would not be viable. The organisation appears to be keeping the pressure up on the Chancellor not to overlook the little guys. Thanks, FSB – not all heroes wear capes….

Colour blind tech

The issues around the higher arrest or stop and search figures for people of colour, both here and in the US, has put technology under the spotlight.

Surveillance systems are being produced and sold to councils, police and shops but serious flaws have been revealed that may produce biased results.   Trials of face scan tech and training data is reputedly tested on photos of mostly white, male faces.  As a result, the data becomes a little less reliable when it is presented with a woman or anyone with darker skin.

Amazon’s facial recognition software Rekognitions was less reliable when it came to identifying gender if the person was darker skinned or female.  Self-driving cars, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology found, were better at detecting light skinned people, which led to accidents when the cars failed to identify black people.

In 2018, MIT found that face recognition systems were wrong in a third of all cases involving black women but were almost 100% accurate when it came to the identification of white males.  Again, this was attributed to trials being conducted on pictures of white men.  OK tech can’t change the world but SURELY it can fix this?

Green shoots of recovery?

Brexit is believed to be putting Britain at a disadvantage in terms of green tech, particularly hydrogen projects, despite being the first country to set a net zero carbon emission target.  The government has provided £70m to two small hydrogen projects, in comparison with Germany, Portugal, China, Japan and the United States who have all invested heavily. The global hydrogen market is believed to be growing to $1tn over the next 30 years.

If we leave the EU on a no-deal, however, as a nation we will miss out on the chance to be involved in the European Union’s Green New Deal, which aims for zero emissions by 2050.  Ballou works with Ecosia, the search engine that uses profits to plant trees, (the organisation had planted 60m trees by 2019) and we’re always delighted to work with green tech companies.   The prospect of the UK falling behind in the development of eco technology is a depressing one and on a personal level for Ballou, it would be deeply sad for us as an organisation not to be able to continue to work with other pioneers in such a vital and worthwhile sector.

Women directors should not be news

The fact that Marks and Spencer has recruited two female non-executive directors made the business sections.  The eight strong board now boasts three women.

This wouldn’t seem a cause for Champagne and bunting, were it not for the fact that more than 85% of companies have NO women executives on their main boards.  Count them….none.

These figures come from The Pipeline, the organisation that serves FTSE 100 companies across all sectors to promote hundreds of female executives successfully.  Its annual independent report of the gender gap in the FTSE 350 makes depressing reading.

The Government’s target of 33% of women in leadership roles by 2020 is nowhere near being met.  9% of executive directors on main boards are women and that figure has been unchanged since 2017.  A spectacular (hollow laugh) increase of 0.8% since 2018 has meant that now a heady 17.1% of executive committee members are women.  One in five companies have no women on their executive committees.

Ballou was founded by Colette Ballou and is run by Colette and female CEO Cordy Griffiths, and we have a healthy gender representation within the organisation, as you would expect.  This puts us definitely in the minority; only 3.7% of companies have female CEOs, down from 4.6% two years ago.

The old “male, pale and stale” stereotype of British company boards and executive committees is proving hard to dislodge, despite the fact that companies with 25% or more women on their executive committees achieve an impressive 16% net profit margin, 10% higher than business without a woman on their executive committees.

Putting women on boards and executive committees is not egalitarian lip-service.  Companies fare better with more women in senior roles.  And if you think you can wait before you start to take action, think about this; at our current rate of progress, it will be almost 2090 before executive committees achieve gender parity.  Is this what we want for our sons and daughters at work?

History shows us that the only way to achieve parity is by monitoring, mentoring and promoting women out of the middle management tier and obtaining male buy-in to the initiative.  It has to be an issue that is kept front of mind.  An “oh well, it’s just turned out like that” attitude with a shrug of the shoulders just maintains the status quo.   It’s only by making a conscious effort can we achieve a situation in which a news story about three new non-executive directors does not need to focus on the fact that they are female.

Surviving’s just fine, thanks

Just as the people that declared that unless you emerged from lockdown speaking Catalan and having knitted your own greenhouse you’d basically failed, businesses are being lectured at too.

If we believe the business pages, it’s not about surviving but thriving.  Broadsheet business sections are filled with profiles of those companies for whom the lockdown has been a boon. Sportswear manufacturers who are dealing with increased demand due to the Joe Wicks effect, the gaming industry, bike shops, supermarkets and the makers of hand sanitisers have all enjoyed unprecedented success.

Let’s not forget that these companies just happened to be in the right sphere for the knock-on effects of coronavirus.  To hold them up as shining examples of innovation and hard work is a little disingenuous; they have successfully capitalised on circumstance, which is not quite the same thing.  A maker of hand sanitiser would have had to be doing something quite remarkably wrong NOT to succeed in the last three months.

Could we have a small, low-key, subdued cheer for the companies who rather than “smashing it” in lockdown have managed to keep ticking over?   Who’ve had to try and keep furloughed staff buoyant, tried to maintain clients and deal with financial uncertainty?

Most business owners or senior teams have had to make more unpleasant decisions in the first half of 2020 than they had to make in the whole of last year.   To every business owner that’s reached Friday with a sigh of relief and thought “phew, we got through another one”, we salute you.  Not with a double page spread in the business section, but with recognition, sympathy and admiration.

What IS app?

We’ve all done it.  Got confused about who we’re talking to on WhatsApp and sent the message to the person we’re talking ABOUT instead of to the person we’re talking to.  We’ve all experienced that moment of blind panic that feels like a fortnight when we realise we just pressed “Reply” rather than “Forward” accompanied with a sarcastic sentence.  The kicker is the time we’ve thought “I really really ought to get round to updating my passwords” the day before we discover we have unexpectedly bought a mobile home in Honolulu.

So imagine how Tony Alves, the former finance director of Volga Gas, felt when he realised that he’d been sending sensitive information to someone he thought was a non-executive director of the company over WhatsApp, only to discover that it was a hoaxer.  The share price of Volga Gas surged by 30%.

Technology and the possibilities it presents has made the world more exciting and more full of potential. But along with all the positivity, the world can seem a more threatening place, with dark forces being able to worm their way deep into our lives.  From 5G being responsible for coronavirus to M15 monitoring you through the camera on your laptop, tech conspiracy theories abound.  Get a group of committed techies together and it won’t be long before the stories begin, whether jokingly or semi-serious.

As an analyst noted recently, tech conspiracy theorists have a touching faith in people’s ability to work together efficiently, as most project managers find it difficult enough to persuade a group of eight people to get a legitimate project off the ground successfully, on time and without early disclosure.  The effort required to organise some sort of worldwide underground project with synchronised timing and total secrecy would be superhuman (or maybe that’s the point, if the Lizard People are your chosen evildoers).

So when we hear about poor Mr Alves chatting away on WhatsApp, entirely understandably thinking he was talking to someone who turned out to be a picture and a fake number, there’s almost something comforting about it.  It had far-reaching consequences, but it wasn’t a conspiracy, it wasn’t a diabolical plot, it was a confidence trick, which worked.  100 years ago it would have been someone ringing up and using a sock over the telephone receiver to disguise their voice.   We can’t anticipate the worst constantly, or expect people not to be who we think they are, or we’d all be nervous wrecks and quite frankly being alive at the moment feels like an achievement.  Humans don’t need conspiracy theories, we can muck it up all by ourselves, so relax.

Change your password though anyway.