Franco-Gabonese entrepreneur Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard is the founder of the APO Group, a leading media consulting firm and press release distribution service in Africa and the Middle East. The company, which Pompigne-Mognard founded in 2007, employs close to 80 employees across its offices in Switzerland, Dubai, Senegal and Hong Kong, and has an annual turnover of several million dollars. APO’s bluechip clients include GE Africa, Dangote Group and DHL among others.
Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard recently stepped down as CEO of APO Group, and will now assume the position of Chairman, focusing on delivering high-level counsel for APO Group clients and developing his own investment fund dedicated to Africa.
He recently recounted the story of APO’s early beginnings and mused on the evolution of the media relations business in Africa.
You founded APO Group 11 years ago while you were working as a journalist for Gabonews, an online publication. Relive that period for us and walk us through the series of events that led you to establishing the company.
I was a European correspondent for Gabonews, and I soon realised how difficult it was to get hold of Africa-related press releases, press briefings and official statements issued by European-based institutions, NGOs, diplomacies and governments.
As a journalist, I needed to receive all this information in order to stay on top of everything that was happening between Europe and Africa at a diplomatic, economic – even a cultural level. To access press releases, I had to subscribe to all the mailing lists and RSS feeds. Most organizations were only publishing their press releases on their websites, naively hoping that journalists would be constantly monitoring them all to see if anything new had been published. I was spending hours and days trying to reach the relevant people so they could send me their press releases.
And as the European correspondent at an African media organization, I was also supposed to monitor all content issued by African governments and institutions about any European matter. Receiving press releases issued by these organizations was even more difficult. As I struggled, I realized that it was extremely problematic for any journalist to get all this Africa-related press release content – and that had some very bad consequences:
First, the inability of African journalists to access this information was reinforcing their dependence on Western media and press agencies. Second, most of the press releases issued by African governments and African institutions never reached the international media community at all. Many even failed to reach the African media community.
We have to remember that, back then, international institutions like the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were having serious discussions about the role of African media in the promotion of good governance, and we were starting to hear about the concept of “communication for development” – that is the part media has to play in the transparency and accountability of organizations involved in public investment in the region.
But what really triggered my decision to act was a series of discussions I had with the President of the African Development Bank at the time, Donald Kaberuka, who explained to me how crucial the dissemination of news about Africa’s economy was to the development of the continent. We needed to reverse the tide and make sure the international media community and all African media had access to news releases announcing new investments in Africa, new CEO appointments, new startups, new international events, new awards and so on.
Of course, all this positive news is typically spread via press releases.
A few months later, APO started signing strategic agreements with Bloomberg, Reuters, LexisNexis, Dow Jones Factiva and other major international players to guarantee the worldwide distribution of thousands of Africa-related press releases in a standardised, internationally-recognized NewsML format for the first time.
That’s how it all started.
APO Group is currently the leading media relations consulting firm and press release distribution service in Africa and the Middle East. What else does the company do apart from these flagship services?
APO Group manages an extensive variety of services, ranging from TV and photo production, distribution and monitoring, to Online Press Conferences, government relations and more. But what really makes us unique is our ability to not only advise clients, but also to implement their plans using our own proprietary tools across all 54 markets of the continent.
And this is what our clients really need: a single interlocutor with deep knowledge of Africa, the tools to deliver the right results and an ability to stand alongside them in whatever challenges they face in their communications strategies.
The company’s turnover grew by 50% last year and is forecasted to grow by 60% in 2018. Much of this growth is because of the amazing success of our Advisory division.
Most of our clients understand that the most effective way to use APO Group is not as an ad hoc press release distribution function, but as a holistic consultative partner.
57 of the biggest PR agencies in the world worked with us in 2017 because they truly understood the value of what we provide. We have over a decade of experience so we can benchmark their strategies at a local level and throughout the continent as a whole. Not only do we immerse ourselves in their clients’ communications plans, we implement them and provide monitoring data to evaluate their success and return on investment.
What were some of the challenges you encountered in the beginning, and what were some milestone moments for APO Group?
It’s actually quite difficult for me to mention milestone moments for APO Group. When a company is growing fast, you are living milestone moments quarter-by-quarter.
But I certainly encountered plenty of challenges in the beginning!
I was a journalist. I studied law. I really was not prepared to create, much less develop a multinational company.
I built APO Group from my living room – literally – and during the first years I had to be the IT manager, the sales consultant, the PA, HR, Finance, Marketing – everything. I had to learn it all from scratch.
Not to mention, my English was very poor.
I remember one day, I was calling the head of communications at Boeing. I had noticed they just made an announcement related to Africa and I was hoping I could convince them to try my press release distribution service. The problem was my English was terrible.
During the discussion, and most probably to get rid of me, my contact says, “you know what, why don’t you just send me a quotation.”
“Quotation?” I had never heard that word before. I didn’t know what it meant. But with my tiny amount of English I said “Yes, of course, I will send you a ‘quotation’. Thank you, bye!”
And the first thing I did was to search Google for ‘quotation’. I wasn’t even sure about the spelling. When I realised that the guy just asked me for an estimated cost, I started doing somersaults. I called my wife in to tell her the good news: “Boeing just asked me for a ‘quotation’!” And of course, I’d never done a quotation before so we had to find a template on the internet to create the very first one.
Since then I’ve never stopped learning. The past 11 years have been a constant education. And many mistakes have been made along the way. My most rookie errors in the beginning were hiring misjudgements. I made poor choices with the first three people I brought on board.
This is not a criticism of those three individuals. They were my mistakes. I had wrongly assessed the profiles and skills the company needed at the time. I realize that now. When turnover is starting to take off, and the company is still very small and fragile, you really have to make the right choices or the dream can be over within just a few months.
In my experience, creating and developing a company is one of the most difficult things a human being can do. It requires a huge amount of time and energy, a lot of sacrifice, a healthy lifestyle and a lot of others ingredients too, which – even if they are all put together with love and care – do not always guarantee success.
It goes without saying, you will also need a little bit of luck. The right encounters, the right timing, not to mention (and in my view, most important of all) the unconditional support of a loved one or family.
How has the media relations business in Africa evolved over the last decade, and how has APO Group evolved along with it?
What I think what has changed the most is perception.
Ten years ago, I was in the European headquarters of PR Newswire, in London. At the time, they were considered the leading global press release distribution service and there I was explaining to several of their senior executives how Africa will soon represent a huge market for press releases – and why it was time for them to invest in the continent. It was 2008, remember, and they basically laughed at me.
Ten years later, APO Group is receiving purchase offers, strategic partnership offers and M&A transaction offers from some of the leading players in the industry.
They are seeing unprecedented demand from their clients for press release distribution in Africa – and they simply don’t know how to serve them. And this is just the beginning. According to the World Bank, the African population will double by 2050, reaching 2.4 billion. The latest United Nations population report, published in 2017, says that by 2100 Africa will be home to 40% of all humanity!
A recent McKinsey study said “Africa is poised for economic acceleration akin to the Asian boom”. There are around 440 US companies and 480 German companies who have been operating in South Africa for several years now. Today, most of them are planning their expansion across the continent to get their chunk of this huge untapped market.
This will obviously translate into more media relations spending, especially if you consider a growing trend where communicators are re-evaluating their mix of advertising versus PR.
African consumers are becoming savvier. They are starting to value news and information above blatant advertising – and that creates opportunities for the media relations business.
In your experience, what are the biggest problems that news agencies are facing today?
It’s partly to do with this idea of African evolution: More savvy Africans means a better educated, more demanding audience. Their expectations are higher, so they require more diverse, better quality content.
And as the audience develops, so too the media must follow – and that means better technology, better innovation, better content and – crucially – better journalists.
I’ve been in touch with a lot of African journalists, and when you ask them what they need most desperately above everything else, they all say: training.
That tells you everything you need to know about the evolution of African audiences: They are moving too fast for the talent to keep up. So, finance plays a big part. If you want to attract the best talent to produce the highest quality content, you have to invest in their development.
Talent will always mean the difference between success and failure – so the greatest challenge facing African media houses is making sure their journalists are meeting the expectations of their audience.
How do you see the future of news agencies, particularly regarding technology and its changing role in the news industry?
Clearly, continuous digital transformation is key. Media houses must keep evolving if they are to survive.
The days where they could rely on advertising as a sole revenue stream are long gone. Consumers are not browsing for advertisements – they are browsing for content – so that’s where the focus of these outlets needs to be. The challenge is to find new ways to monetize content and invent new models.
One area we’ve been focusing on at APO Group is media monitoring.
Right now, in Africa, it’s very poor.
That is partly because a lot of African media are offline, and print, TV and radio monitoring across 54 countries is impossible to do cheaply and painlessly. As the digitalisation of media continues and technology improves, monitoring becomes a critical part of the content value proposition. It produces metrics, data and insights that, in turn, encourage spending.
In the last few years, big international media players have started to come to Africa. CNBC, Euronews, Forbes, CNN and BBC have all increased their presence on the continent. The Washington Post announced this week they will be opening a new office in West Africa, explaining that they want to extend their reach in Africa – “because the continent is projected to account for more than half the world’s population growth over the next three decades”.
If the international media can see the potential, the African media needs to make sure it keeps up.
What are your greatest accomplishments at APO Group? Could you share a ballpark figure of APO Group’s annual revenues?
A lot of the work we are doing – around 70% in fact – is providing strategic advisory services for leading multinational companies, therefore many of our biggest accomplishments are covered by non-disclosure agreements. Let me just say that in 2017, we organized 250+ interviews, including off-the-record interviews, placed dozens of opinion pieces, organized tens of journalists round tables, press conferences and press trips, and actively participated in helping to shape some of the most important business stories in Africa.
Our project managers are in constant contact with some of the most influential media in the world, from CNN to CNBC, BBC to Al Jazeera, The Financial Times to The Wall Street Journal. We are organising interviews and media events in the US, in London, in Oman – but also in very complex African markets such as Eritrea and Somaliland. That’s something we are extremely proud of.
While I’m not allowed to disclose our exact turnover, I can give you some figures. Our turnover grew by 50% in 2017 and is projected to grow by 60% in 2018. Our press release distribution activity grew by 44% in volume in 2017 and is projected to maintain that growth in 2018, while our advisory division is projected to grow by 50% in 2018. Our five-year-plan consists of multiplying our profit margin 4.5 times.
But I would say my greatest accomplishment is to have turned my 10,000 euros of savings – which I invested to create APO in 2007 – into a multimillion-euro business without the aid of any loans or investors. That means that, 11 years later, I’m still the 100% owner of my company.
Why did you decide to step down from APO, and what’s next for you and the company?
Being able to create a company does not necessarily mean that you are the right person to develop it and allow it to reach its full potential.
I built a race car. I did it on my own and I’m very proud that the car can reach 300 km per hour. But just because I built it doesn’t mean I’m the best driver to take it to 300 km per hour. That requires another set of skills.
Often, by sticking to the helm, the founder of a company can become the main obstacle to its development.
I’m not that person.
APO Group has huge potential. As we’ve seen, the situation in Africa is such that, in many ways, we are the right company at the right time with the right services on the right market. Our performance in the last three years is proof of that – and if you factor in the projected growth of the continent as a whole, the figures will back you up.
I always knew that someday I would have to hand the reins to a “professional CEO” so he or she could make sure the company realises its potential.
The new CEO I have appointed, Lionel Reina, has a fantastic track record in helping companies scale up quickly and break new ground. Lionel is the former Vice President and General Manager for Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Orange Business Services, the B2B division of French telecoms giant Orange. He has also served as Middle East Director in the Gulf region for Accenture.
Lionel and I met in Africa and we have known each other for years. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better CEO.
I am now officially the chairman of the company and I remain its 100% owner. My focus will be on delivering high-level counsel for APO Group clients and continuing to contribute to the growth of the continent by developing my own investment fund dedicated to Africa. I will also continue to oversee our relationship with the World Rugby’s African association, Rugby Africa, of whom we are the main Official Sponsor. Today, Rugby is the fast-growing sport in Africa. In 2002, only six African countries were playing the game, and now the Rugby Africa boasts 38 countries! APO Group is also helping its clients to enjoy the unique sponsorship opportunities offered by World Rugby’s African association, Rugby Africa.
Any advice for budding, young African entrepreneurs?
It would be a very long list! And it would really depend on which stage of the company’s development you are in. But if there are two things common to most self-made entrepreneurs, it’s hard work and resilience. If it was easy, everybody would have already done it. If it was easy, it wouldn’t have any value. You need be ready to work 12 hours a day – and don’t make any plans for the weekend, because you’ll be working then too.
As for everything else I’ve learned? That would take an entire book to cover…