Learning and Leaving From Brussels

By Monty Hagler
Let’s start with the end.
There are remarkably few reminders of the March terror attacks in Brussels until you depart for the recently reopened airport three hours in advance of the flight home, laden with Belgian chocolates. Traffic jams and merges into a single lane on the approach, allowing soldiers at multiple check points to peer into vehicles as they slowly move forward. Taxis drop passengers 400 yards from the terminal. Hundreds of people drag their bags towards the base of the parking deck. Then up you climb, circling the spiraling car ramp in loops that make you breathe like the 30-minute mark in spin class.

A security tent outside the terminal entrance waits at the top, funneling people like cattle in a chute. Camouflaged military personnel carrying dark assault rifles survey the scene from every angle. Inside the terminal, long lines stretch around corners. Airline personnel ask every passenger a long list of questions regarding their luggage, electronics and activities. There is no let-up in the eyes, cameras and scrutiny until the final security checkpoint is cleared. Then the odyssey is over. The experience returns to normal with duty-free shopping, last minute trinkets and searching for a seat in terminals filled with road-weary travelers heading to destinations across the globe.
More than 100 of those travelers were agency leaders in the Worldcom partnership of independent agencies representing 48 countries from 110 cities. By every measure, our annual group meeting was a huge success. A strong turnout of partners, outstanding speakers, thoughtful discussions, knowledge shared, amazing meals and booming laughter. Brussels is an amazing city – beautiful, clean, vibrant and filled with rich history. Our host arranged every detail to perfection.
But the biggest success was simply that the meeting moved forward as planned, despite the tragedy this resilient city faced fewer than 8 weeks ago. Many partners, including myself, found travel arrangements had been scrambled because of the limited capacity at the airport. As with the situation in 2013, when Worldcom partners met in Seoul during missile tensions with North Korea, we persevered and pushed ahead.
From a professional development standpoint, this meeting was rich with content and thoughtful discussion. Key highlights included:

  • Welcoming new partners from India, Canada and Myanmar (a country I would love to visit, and hope to get there before the first McDonalds).
  • Gaining a better understanding of how Wikipedia works and how to work within its parameters to protect the reputation of our clients. One of Worldcom’s newest partners specializes in helping brands navigate this “people’s encyclopedia.” They are a resource we will call on when our clients find misinformation impacting their brand.
  • Attending an in-depth panel session on global crisis communications. Partners shared tips, tricks and lessons learned from a wide range of client crises, including how global brands balance local missteps, aggressively addressing misinformation and creating consensus with legal counsel. “Be human, not corporate” should be a guiding philosophy for communications professionals, as is the advice to “deal with the reality that exists, not the reality you wish for.”
  • Evaluating different tools, programs and systems for improving planning processes, client team communications, project management and collaboration.
  • Discussing approaches to ensure successful campaigns. One presentation captured it succinctly: Data + Insight + Ideas + Strategy + Execution = Success. Throw in budget clarity and a client that treats their agency as a partner rather than a vendor, and it would be foolish to bet against that team.
  • Reshaping viewpoints on the metrics that matter in public relations. It’s not media impressions or social media “likes.” Success is best measured by tough situations diffused, third-parties stepping in as brand advocates, stakeholders engaging to create positive outcomes and momentum built from brand experiences.

Paul Holmes’ keynote address on the emerging strength of mid-sized independent firms and partnerships was particularly compelling. Holmes, publisher of the Holmes Report and sponsor of numerous research reports, brand studies and industry awards, believes that a growing number of clients are not willing to substitute convenience for quality or bureaucracy for improvisation. That’s born out in the publicly traded, global agency model where offices have little incentive to share their best talent or even get to know their counterparts in other markets.
The contrast with Worldcom is striking. We are the world’s oldest, collaborative and organized partnership with more than 2,000 professionals and staff and nearly $300 million in combined revenue, not a loose network or informal alliance. We hold each other accountable for “A” level work and we step up when a global partner needs local expertise. We voluntarily undergo peer review sessions and share best practices. We take planes, trains and automobiles to gather for multi-day meetings in far-flung locations twice a year. We know each other. We count on each other. That includes not letting fear of terrorist acts derail us from our commitments.