Maxim Behar for Capital: The priceless lessons of the incredible 2020
Maxim Behar, Founder and CEO of M3 Communications Group, Inc., speaks to Capital magazine about the many successful projects and impressive achievements accomplished by his company in 2020, despite the challenges and changes his team faced during the pandemic.
What impact has COVID 19 had on your business and what changes have you made?
- The pandemic taught us things we would never have learned if COVID hadn’t occurred, no matter how many books we read, no matter how many projects we realize. The main lessons were in the field of management. At M3 Communications Group, Inc. we managed to extract all possible lessons. The results we reported at the end of last year are indicative of this. We have maintained our financial stability by generating additional revenue through new services and attracting more customers. Even though the year was difficult for the entire business, we managed to enrich our portfolio with impressive names, such as the global technology giant, Huawei, one of the most innovative beauty-tech brands currently on the market, FOREO, international financial services provider, Euronet, the global satellite company, Gilat, the global leader in the production alcoholic beverages, Pernod Ricard and the list goes on.
We took the necessary precautions at the right time and we did not allow the pandemic to negatively affect our business. Since March 2020, the whole company have embraced the home office because the health and well-being of the team has always been number one priority for us. The transition from a dynamic everyday life with lots of meetings and events to work from home was the most difficult part for all of us. Indeed, we adapted quickly and, most importantly, this change did not result in lower performance for our clients. On the contrary - as soon as we felt where the situation was going, we immediately contacted all of our clients to reassure them that we support them and we will be there whenever they need us. Moreover, in due course, we changed the already prepared 2020 strategies for all of our customers to ensure that we best address the challenges of the pandemic.
What did you learn about the business thanks to COVID?
- M3 Communications Group, Inc. is a company with more than 26 years of history. So far, we have encountered a number of crises and challenges, but the current situation is far different from all of them. The world stopped and we had to manage our businesses remotely. Despite the initial shock, we quickly adapted to the “new normal” and became more flexible and even more focused on our customers. The most valuable thing I learned about myself, is that it is important to be pragmatic, whatever the circumstances. The remote working gave us an opportunity to understand that we do not need mandatory face-to-face meetings and constantly being in the office to be efficient and serve our customers with quality. On the contrary, we save valuable resources, such as time and money and we are far more productive.
A surprise for me was the positioning of my book “The Global PR Revolution” among top ten best PR books in the world of all time, according to the ranking of the American company BookAuthority, less than a year after it was published, by the American publishing house, Allworth Press. After all, I am an author from a small country called Bulgaria! The international rankings of BookAuthority are based on recommendations by thought leaders and experts such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Jack Ma and Richard Branson. Indeed, some of them vote on which books they prefer. This motivated me to publish my next book, just a few months later “The Morning After” whose two circulations have been almost sold out in just three months since its publication. The book is completely subordinated to what happened in our business, and in the world, during the last few months of this strange 2020. I am currently working on my third book, which analyzes everything that awaits us after this severe and unpredictable crisis.
What are the innovations that you introduced in 2020 or are about to be introduced and offered to your customers and the market?
- The most important change is that we have completely changed the way of management in the company. Now I rely much more on the collective decisions on board, we have fully implemented horizontal management structure - everyone is already a leader in their workplace, everyone makes important decisions on the various projects of our clients, brings complete responsibility for them and in fact, that’s how managers became leaders, literally in a day.
And the difference is too simple to say, but not so easy to implement. Managers rule, while leaders guide. This is what happened here in M3 Communications Group, Inc. last year. I claim that sooner or later it would’ve happened, the pandemic accelerated this process. Even a cursory glance at “The Global PR Revolution” immediately proves that this is something I have always considered as a trend in our business. And yet the change is drastic, revolutionary and extremely innovative, it requires a lot of experience and a lot of courage, and that's it appreciated extremely highly by our partners from the global corporation Hill + Knowlton Strategies, which we represent in Bulgaria exclusively for more than 20 years.
Immediately after the announcement of the state of emergency in the country in March 2020, we presented an entirely new specialized service - COVID-19 monitoring. It was developed by HeadLine, a media monitoring company that is part of M3 Communications Group, Inc. Clients still receive daily monitoring of the most up-to-date pandemic information, as well as independent reports in case of extraordinary news concerning the development of their business. So we attracted a lot new customers who subscribed to this service. We also emphasized a lot more on market analysis and we assessed what communication niches there represent, we expanded the social media team and made strategic decisions on how other departments of the company can work more efficiently with the new media.
What is the biggest and most intriguing communication campaign you have worked on
- Despite all the turbulence, 2020 was an extremely fruitful year for M3 Communications Group, Inc. The changes in the management immediately paid off. Our role as a consultant with experience and expertise has been further strengthened and therefore, we actively participated in the decision-making process together with our clients, not just in its implementation. We worked on many valuable and successful campaigns in the past year for customers such as Loreal, Shell, Huawei, Danone, MARS, Wizz Air, Allterco, Pernod Ricard, Gilat, Cash Credit, FilmBox. You may be astonished, but one of the projects that provided us with great professional pleasure, and for which we partnered entirely pro bono, is the NEVEREST expedition. You all already know 17-year-old Maxim and his father, Stefan, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a rowing boat and set a few world records. It was an honor for our entire team to be global communication partner for this project, which glorified Bulgaria around the world and proved that nothing is impossible for people who have set high goals. With our help, their achievement became top news for Bulgaria and the world, and we made all professional efforts to tell an inspiring story, in response to the backdrop of the avalanche of grunts and complaints that flooded us.
The strange and key 2020, was undoubtedly the “Year of Virtual Events”. We organized dozens of such for some of our largest clients including L’Oréal, Wizz Air, MARS and many others. We also brought to fruition some extremely interesting digital campaigns for Danone brands - Activia and Danonino. Another exciting project, which we worked on last year, is M3 College - the first fully-licensed PR College in Bulgaria, which our company created more than 15 years ago. M3 College has already embraced the distance learning and offers the expertise of amazing professionals like Georgi Milkov, Maya Gerasimova, Rosen Bachvarov, Niya Kotseva, Anka Kostova, Cornelia Yulieva, Kiril Kalev and my colleague Simona Medarova. That’s the high-end of public communications specialists in Bulgaria and we will continue to develop in this direction.
I do not mention the dozens of crises that we have worked on successfully and resolved for our clients. Many of them, of course, are protected by professional secrecy, but one day I hope to describe them in detail in one of my next books.
What are the strengths of the agency?
- Two are the pillars of M3 Communications Group, Inc. - the team and the experience of the company. Undoubtedly, the strongest side is the team - intelligent, creative and energetic people, who are true professionals and thanks to whom, we are among the leading PR companies in the country and in the region for 26 years. During all these years, we managed to maintain our leading position in the market and constantly increase our standards. The clearest evidence for that is our wide portfolio of clients - a wonderful mix of small and large, local or international companies.
Another strength of M3 is the fact that we offer full communication service - PR, social media management, graphic design, events management, media monitoring and media analysis, influencer marketing, web services, and distance learning. In simpler words, everything in the company is done internally. There is only one reason for that – to guarantee absolute precision in the services that we offer and absolute responsibility for the results. However, we should not neglect the experience. For the last 26 years, we have implemented over 6500 projects, we have solved hundreds of communication crises, we have organized a variety of events and we have successfully adapted to market changes. This is what makes us professionals as we should be.
Indicative of this is that in 2020 the most influential publication in the world in our business, PRWeek awarded me with the title “Best PR Professional in Europe” and our company M3 Communications Group, Inc. reached the second place in the ranking for “Best PR Agency in Europe”. These are successes that actually obliged us to become even better professionals and which, due to the strict measures, we did not even have the opportunity to raise a glass of champagne as it should.
Do you operate in international markets and on what campaigns?
- M3 Communications Group, Inc. is the only company in Bulgaria that is a partner of one of the largest communication corporations in the world - Hill + Knowlton Strategies. We have been working for 20 years, and I am one of the well-known managers to the headquarters in New York. Often, I am asked to do consultant and presentation services on behalf of Hill + Knowlton Strategies and until recently, I managed the corporation’s office in the Czech Republic. As part of such a large family, we regularly work on international campaigns for foreign markets. The last projects we implemented were of the European Commission and they were extremely large - scale and inspiring, including online and offline activities in Bulgaria and involving a number of stakeholders - institutions, businesses, citizens. The campaigns we worked on together with Hill + Knowlton Strategies are one of the most enriching for us, due to the nature of international expertise, and as we absorb from their experience, I think they have something to learn from their Bulgarian partners too.
What are your expectations for the communications market in 2021 - will there be growth in communication budgets in the country, what are the trends and changes?
- We cannot expect that 2021 will be radically different from the previous one. I think that customers will continue to be cautious about budgets and therefore will rely mostly on the creativity of communication companies to implement effective ideas that do not require serious financial resources. Surely, customers will continue to be increasingly interested in the concrete results of their campaigns and the funds they invest in them. Having that said, there will be no compromise. I expect the merging of the three main business in public communications - PR, advertising and social media - to accelerate further and introduce new business. Probably it won’t be this year, but it will happen very soon.
What does your mid-term strategy for 2021 include?
- We’ll continue to be strongly focused on our current customers, and our ambition in 2021 is to enrich our portfolio with new clients. A key point our strategy is the gradual and pragmatic union of our main departments – PR, graphic designers, software and social media. In 2021, it is unthinkable to have PR without social media. The two activities are increasingly complementary and even overlap. Therefore, there’s no need to divide them. Using both as one will optimize significantly our work and will further enhance the quality of services we offer.
What advice would you give to your clients - future and current ones? How can a customer get the most out of your PR agency and why is it important to work with one?
- 2020 showed us how important the role of quality communication is, especially in crisis situations. I would advise our clients to listen to the opinion of professionals and trust our experience. This is the biggest advantage of partnering with a PR company - you work with experts who are faced with a variety of situations and can find the most effective solution for your business. Our role embraced an impressive evolution. In my books, as you know, I even call it “revolution”. Customers delegate more and more responsibilities of PR companies and involve them in the decision-making process. From consultants, we already have the role of “decision-makers”, we are the ones making the solutions and this change entirely our business. Maintaining a good reputation and quality communication with the public and stakeholders of a business is an increasingly challenging task, and can hardly be entrusted to the internal department in any company. That is why partnering with a PR agency would bring irreplaceable benefits. For me personally, the biggest challenge for 2021 in terms of customers is to continue to perform even better, what has always been among my main tasks - to manage their expectations wisely.