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,