How did we arrive at these top public affairs consultancies you may ask?
Well, since the summer of 2018 the authors underwent a process of reaching out to agencies, vetting them online and externally, meeting with their leadership, as well as talking to clients and staff.
As BestinBrussels.eu wishes to promote best practice and transparency, early on we decided to exclude any Brussels consultancy which has not signed up to the EU Transparency Register. Amazingly in 2019 there are public affairs consultancies who have still not registered. Any potential or actual client should ask themselves serious questions about doing business with such a firm, including fundamentally about how can they adequately represent their interests if they are refused access by high-level EU officials like Commissioner cabinet members?
In January 2019, there were 291 Brussels public affairs consultancies on the EU Transparency Register. There are also 111 self-employed public affairs consultants in Brussels. Although there are many good individual consultants, our mission is to examine the best firms.
A closer inspection of the 291 agencies showed that actually there are less than 100 consultancies of sufficient size and experience to offer a broad public affairs service offering. Indeed, many of the 291 firms on the register are not public affairs agencies at all. There are all manner of businesses listed as professional consultancies on the Transparency Register e.g. PR firms (e.g. PRACSIS), Environmental Consultants (e.g. Eunomia), Economic Consultancies (e.g. Trinomics) and Business Strategy Consultancies (e.g. Wavestone).
In September 2018 we studied the principal 100 public affairs consultancies and reached out to the top 80 measured by staff numbers, declared revenue and other metrics. At BestinBrussels we believe that EU public affairs firms need to walk the corridors of Brussels to be the best guides for their clients, and cannot just have a postal address and fly in for meetings. For instance, we discovered some London and Paris based firms claim a Brussels office without any permanent staff here. We also excluded a number of firms due to feedback from clients, former clients and staff from more than one credible source. Some firms did not respond to repeated communication via email, their website, LinkedIn messages to their principals and other means which does not bode well for client contact. A few firms are in transition, undergoing transfer of ownership or facing business issues which resulted in a shorter list of around 60 firms being identified. These firms are a mix of boutiques, specialists, start-ups, mid-size and larger players.
We met with the leadership of most of these firms to hear first-hand about their public affairs capabilities. An offer was extended to participate in BestinBrussels to these firms to profile their companies. BestinBrussels.eu charges a small participation fee of €500 for smaller firms to €1,500 for larger firms billing millions of euros per annum to cover the technical, publishing, design, web, printing, legal and indeed human costs to get this venture off the ground. In 2019 we will donate over one third of our profits to our favourite charity UNICEF.
We cover in depth the best 34 boutiques, specialists, start-ups, mid-size and larger firms in Brussels that clients should consider for their EU public affairs needs. We also identify a Top 60 list for consideration.
In determining our Top 34 consultancies we looked at six key indicators which are important for clients:
The global financial crisis tested client loyalty, as corporates sought out better value. Budgets and retainers were trimmed and projects became more commonplace. Despite these challenges, BestinBrussels Top Consultancies pulled out the stops to retain the clients and provide extra value-added service. Some consultancies are really stand out in this regard – for instance, Scania has been a client of Kreab’s Brussels office for more than 25 years! Client retention requires a serious commitment to long-term relationship building not just with the organisation but the people involved. This should be an area of focus for every consultancy as retaining existing clients is more cost-effective and more profitable than acquiring new customers.
Happier staff tend to do better work for their clients and stay with their employers for the longer term. One of the greatest frustrations for clients is an ever changing consultant team. Staff retention creates a unique problem for public affairs firms, which have to worry about employees taking clients with them if they leave. Retaining staff, especially at the junior to mid-level is a serious challenge for consultancies where opportunities to meet millennials expectations for rapid career progression may be difficult to meet. How consultancies treat their staff is key to keeping them. Interestingly, when the author asked the secret to FleishmanHillard’s success over many years, a former staffer said it was down to the fact that Caroline Wunnerlich cared so deeply even about the happiness of the interns. So how consultancies treat their interns is a key metric. In days gone by the relationship was almost abusive where smart people with postgraduate degrees worked for clients without any salary. Nowadays every serious agency pays their interns. Award-winning social enterprise, InternsGoPro has developed a label that enables employers to showcase their corporate social responsibility and demonstrate their commitment to offering high quality internships. Marked against six criteria – including remuneration, supervision, guidance, and career development – and twenty-three commitments, employers can obtain an “advanced”, “excellent” or “champion” label. Acumen public affairs has been awarded the highest InternsGoPro certification for quality internships by Interns. Some agencies outside our Top 34 suffer greatly from staff churn.
You know good leaders when you see them, and successful leadership teams tend to create profitable businesses built around happy staff and happy clients. They are often defined by positive traits around enthusiasm, communication skills, loyalty, decisiveness, managerial competence, integrity, empowerment and charisma. Leadership stability at successful consultancies also says something about their culture – for instance, Russell Patten has been CEO Grayling Belgium for over 15 years; while Laura Batchelor, Director at Fipra International has worked there for almost 20 years since its inception.
Public affairs consultancy is a very competitive business so when firms and individuals are recognized by their peers it says a great deal about them. For instance, Isabelle de Vinck of Political Intelligence being chosen by her peers to Chair the European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association (EPACA) says something about her leadership abilities. Similarly, few would dispute industry heavyweights like FTI Consulting and Brunswick a seat at the top table on C-suite issues like M&A. Although not all are equal, awards can also say something about how agencies are regarded by their clients and peers.
Some firms have decided to focus on one or more industry sectors, and really specialize in the policy issues affecting them. For instance, Afore is dedicated to financial services, EU strategy has focused on the digital sector while Incisive Health is rapidly making waves in healthcare. Some agencies are strongly rooted in their nationalities, for instance Atrevia is a leader in the Hispanic market, EU Opportunity is the principal Portuguese lobbying agency and Pantarhei the biggest Austrian public affairs firm. EUTOP, Bernstein Group and IDA Group are leading German public affairs agencies in Brussels. Other larger firms have developed best-in-class practices such as Kreab, FTI, FleishmanHillard and Brunswick in financial services, or Landmark Public Policy Advisers in the food and drink sector.
‘Buzz’ backed up by substance
At any one moment there can be buzz around agencies – who is hot and who is not. Buzz can be generated by smart marketing, positive media or most importantly in Brussels something substantive like senior hires and client wins. For example, there is quite some buzz around relative newcomers, Rud Pedersen and Boldt who have made some very high profile hires, and implemented some smart marketing to promote their brand. Also, EUROPA INSIGHTS has some made important wins in the digital space, and McLarty’s new office is building its transatlantic credentials together with its heavyweight staff in Washington DC.
We asked those agencies that scored well against our selection criteria to participate in the BestinBrussels.eu project. In the pages hereafter are the submissions by the various participating public affairs consultancies and law firms, describing themselves in their own words according to our template. For further information please visit their websites and entries on the EU Transparency Register at: http://ec.europa.eu/transparencyregister
Our conclusion from this research, and from our own years of experience as leadership and organisational advisors, was that the best leaders with the most outsize impact almost always deploy these six classic, fundamental practices:
- uniting people around an exciting, aspirational vision;
- building a strategy for achieving the vision by making choices about what to do and what not to do;
- attracting and developing the best possible talent to implement the strategy;
- relentlessly focusing on results in the context of the strategy;
- creating ongoing innovation that will help reinvent the vision and strategy; and
- “leading yourself”: knowing and growing yourself so that you can most effectively lead others and carry out these practices.”
Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook 2018