After more than doubling in size since it bought itself back from parent Grey Advertising and holding company WPP five years ago, APCO experienced an unfamiliar decline in revenues in 2009, with global fee income down by around 10 percent as a result of the economic crisis. The firm still topped $100 million in fees, though, enough to rank among the top five independent public relations firms in the world and the top 20 overall. There were new or expanded assignments from Western Union, the U.S. Travel Association, Hewlett Packard, Edison International, eBay, The Rockefeller Foundation, Dow Corning, AstraZeneca and MasterCard.
APCO continues to derive a little less than two-thirds of its revenues (slightly more than $60 million) from its North American operations, with the Washington, D.C., headquarters operation still accounting for the bulk of that and still best known for its work on public policy issues, although it has developed broader expertise in corporate reputation management, crisis and issues, and healthcare. The New York office has been growing at a healthy pace in recent years, and now employs a team of about 20, offering a range of services that includes corporate responsibility, corporate and financial communications, issues management, and an expertise in the FMCG category. The firm also has offices in Seattle, Sacramento and Raleigh-Durham, and beyond the U.S., a Canadian office in Ottawa and affiliate partnerships in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Peru.
APCO reported EMEA fee income of close to $17 million in 2009, down slightly as budgets tightened, but the firm did pick up work from Applied Materials, Barilla, Western Union, eBay, and the government of Malaysia. APCO has about 140 people in 11 offices in the EMEA region, with the Brussels headquarters and the London office still the two largest. Other EMEA offices include Bonn, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Warsaw, Moscow and Johannesburg. The firm saw its Asia business slowing down in the fourth quarter of 2008 and experienced a tough first quarter of 2009, but things picked up steadily through the rest of the year and overall revenues were flat, although headcount declined from about 170 in 2008 to 150 by the end of 09, in part because of the decision to scale back some smaller offices in less strategic markets. There was new business from Disney in Greater China, Westinghouse in India, Merck Sharp Dohme in Vietnam. A major area of growth was the firm’s services to government practice, which picked up assignments from the Governments of Malaysia and Gujarat and the Thailand Board of Investment (the latter two for economic development work).
APCO’s strength continues to be its ability to operate at the nexus of three key spheres of influence, which it defines as business, industry and finance; media, public opinion and society; and government and public policy. It’s the third of these that has long been APCO’s distinguishing ability. The firm’s roots are in the public affairs business in Washington, D.C., and it continues to be one of the two or three go-to agencies for government relations work. But it has also expanded its capabilities to become one of the leaders in corporate communications and crisis and issues management. The firm has even expanded into product marketing, though it has done so in a way that plays to its traditional strengths: its Pathfinder methodology helps marketers identify stakeholder issues that have the potential to impact the success of new product launches. Another major initiative in 2009 involved the launch of a new strategic consultancy division, Global Political Strategies, focused on helping clients navigate global economic and geopolitical issues and access new markets. The firm has also been working to integrate more digital (it was a pioneer in online public affairs) and social media techniques into all practices.
There was a new role for longtime North American chief executive Neal Cohen, who has taken on additional responsibility for international operations, and for Nelson Fernandez, a five-year veteran of the firm who took over management of the growing New York office, but the leadership team, from global chief executive Margery Kraus on down, is distinguished primarily by its longevity and stability—as well as by the diversity of backgrounds, which includes former legislators and regulators, ambassadors and business leaders as well as professional communicators and former journalists. New additions to the already-impressive Washington, D.C., team include Lisa Carr, co-founder of communication consulting firm Nine Dot Strategies and public policy expert; Jake Sargent, former deputy communications director for the House of Representatives committee on rules; and Jennifer Swint, a veteran of BSMG and Atlantic Media Company.
APCO recently undertook a global talent review designed to identify ways in which it could better develop its people and its capabilities, and has launched a number of new initiatives as a result, focusing on talent identification, targeted development and succession planning. Chief executive Margery Kraus has always been a hands-on leader—she holds regular meetings with rising stars from all around the global network, soliciting their views on the firm and answering their questions—and plays a hands-on role in professional development. APCO has also expanded its global scholarship program, which encourages inter-office transfers and allows young rising stars to build relationships with peers in other markets. Finally, the firm has made a more formal commitment to diversity of both background (race, gender, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation) and experience.
A key differentiator for APCO has been its unique international advisory council, a cadre of leaders from the worlds of business, politics, diplomacy and media who provide valuable expertise and insight. There were several additions in 2009, including Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush; Carlos Gutierrez, former Kellogg chief executive and U.S. Commerce Secretary; Tony Namkung, expert on U.S.-Asia relations; Mark Dybul, former director of the U.S. office of the Global AIDS Coordinator; and Tony Lake, former national security advisor to President Clinton. Other thought leadership initiatives included a partnership with The Washington Diplomat to survey the attitudes of foreign ambassadors, and research into employee confidence and loyalty with specialist firm Gagen MacDonald. And the firm’s APCO Insight corporate reputation research approach continues to gain traction with clients.
If there’s a high-profile issue out there, chances are APCO is helping at least one client navigate it, so when criticism of lavish corporate spending led to criticism of legitimate corporate travel, the U.S. Travel Association called on the firm to develop an integrated campaign—Meetings Mean Business—that focused on lost jobs in the travel industry, particularly at the local level, and significantly shifted the tone of the discussion. On the corporate reputation front, meanwhile, the firm worked with Edison International to help the company establish itself as a leader in electric vehicles, introducing its new CEO to industry influencers, including bloggers, and raising the company’s search engine profile. For Dow Corning, meanwhile, it focused on the renewable energy space, establishing CEO Stephanie Burns as an expert on solar energy technology and securing coverage in online and traditional media. APCO also developed a communication platform to position HP as a leader in energy efficiency.
When APCO surveyed its clients, it found that what they valued most was the firm’s ability to help them think about the future and deliver forward-looking counsel, and in 2009 it took steps to revitalize its brand to emphasize those capabilities, with a series of ads featuring client testimonials that also focused on the firm’s passion for client service. The firm’s has also expanded its existing relationships with the Clinton Global Initiative and the World Economic Forum, partnerships that serve to underscore its own commitment to corporate responsibility.
Despite suffering a decline in revenues in 2009, APCO remains committed to the path it has been on since regaining its independence, The firm continues to focus on services that move it higher and higher up the value chain: public policy issues have always caught the attention of the C-suite, as have the kind of crises and issues that APCO handles with aplomb, and CSR and other corporate reputation challenges are beginning to occupy forward-thinking CEOs too. Good examples of the firm’s focus on these areas include its recent forays into public diplomacy and this year strategic consultancy through the Global Political Strategies operation.