Don't think the September acquisition by WPP Group of a 49.9% stake in the 115-person PBN Company means the Moscow-based firm will lose its independence, says founder, president, and CEO Peter Necarsulmer.
Building on PBN's established presence in Russia, Ukraine, and the other former Soviet Union nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States, WPP's stake will surely give PBN new means to add staff and offices. For instance, PBN most recently opened an office in Sochi, Russia, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
In addition, Necarsulmer notes that along with its main offices in DC, London, Moscow, Kiev, and Riga, Latvia, PBN, whose 2006 revenues totaled $10.6 million, can now partner with WPP firms to more easily represent clients in cities around the world.
"WPP is a real strategic partner that believes in PBN," he says. "They're committed to extending and growing that brand in all markets in which we operate."
Indeed, WPP would be unwise to mess with PBN's identity as the oldest Western PR and public affairs firm operating in Russia. Founded in San Francisco by the Stanford University graduate and his wife in 1983, the firm, which moved to Moscow in 1991, has adeptly promoted itself as the first to plant a flag in the country before the Soviet Union fell and the investment boom began.
PBN got its first big introduction to Russian public affairs with its pro-bono representation of then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's 1991 visit to San Francisco, a 10-day event that drew more than 3,000 media. The agency has since seen the PR and public affairs markets in the former Soviet Union reach a potential $150 million a year.
While Western media reports often focus on the state-run media in Russia, the killing of journalists, and other evidence of a quashed free press, as well as indications of high-level business corruption, Necarsulmer says that only people who live and work in Russia and nearby countries can appreciate the very real opportunities of foreign and domestic companies to operate in a basically free market.
"There is much more state involvement and control in certain key sectors," he concedes. "You know which they are - oil, gas, electrical energy, precious metals, aviation. But there's been an exponential increase in foreign direct investment across all sectors of the economy. This is what I would call a generally free market economy, with a significant state sector."
As for freedom of the press, apart from the big state-run TV networks, there are many independent print titles, no control over Web access, and thriving arts and cultural communities, including music and food, with a boom in new restaurants opening up all over Moscow, notes Necarsulmer.
For communications pros working in Moscow, meanwhile, life and work are much like they are in other big cities, though the work day tends to be much longer - an average of 12 hours, he notes.
A long day, indeed, but Necarsulmer manages to lives his work life to the fullest. Paul Nathanson, PBN's DC-based SVP and MD, notes that when PBN organized Moscow's first independent press center more than a decade ago, Necarsulmer persuaded the chef of his favorite restaurant in California to move to Moscow and run the press club's restaurant.
"Peter never does anything halfway," Nathanson says. "Why get any chef when he could get the one from the restaurant he loved?"
Founder, president, CEO, The PBN Company
Lobbyist, California hotel and beer industries
VP, Solem & Associates