Global Report

Why learning the local language opens clients' doors

Zenergy Communications benefits from founder's linguistic dexterity

(Tuomas Kujansuu/Getty)

(Tuomas Kujansuu/Getty)

Growing up in Montreal, communications entrepreneur Linda Farha soaked up the city’s bilingual, multi-cultural ambience, effortlessly switching between French and English. Later, while living in Tuscany in the mid-1990s, Farha taught herself Italian, and has since picked up some Spanish.

Farha’s linguistic dexterity turned out to be a door opener when the commerce graduate set up Zenergy Communications in 2003, an integrated marketing and PR agency that has embraced the strategic importance of connecting with international clients in their own language (Zenergy ranked 166th on the 2013 PROFIT 500 with $3.2 million in revenues, up 366% from the previous year). “We’ve put ourselves out there as a company that can understand different mindsets,” says Farha.

For a firm that helps client companies drum up media attention and shape promotional messages, that kind of cultural synergy is a key point of differentiation in a highly competitive sector and has helped Zenergy win over large European and Asian clients looking to build market share in Canada.

Farha cites the case of Saniflo, a French bathroom fixtures manufacturer. When the company decided to begin selling its products more aggressively in North America in 2003, its marketing managers went online to look for an agency that could provide services in both French and English, and stumbled on Zenergy.

“When they saw that we had great capabilities in this area, they requested that we provide other services across all communications and marketing channels,” Farha explains. “Saniflo wanted us to help them maintain their Quebec roots and extend their strength across the country. We now provide all of our services to them, and a lot of these services are offered in both Canada and the U.S. Our bilingual capabilities helped the company maintain a stronghold in Canada.”

The 15-person firm later won over another client, the Italian Trade Commission in Canada, because Farha could organize promotional events for export-minded Italian firms and provide written materials in both English and Italian. As a result of that connection, Zenergy ended up working with numerous Italian wine importers as well as other Italian firms looking to attract investors and financing. Farha’s fluency was not only a good way to establish a connection, but also a key factor in honing pitches. “It was almost like coaching people to do business in different ways,” Farha says. “It comes down to these cultural differences. If you don’t speak the language, nuances are hard to pick up.”

In fact, Farha deliberately hires people who are fluent in several languages. “We have staff who speak English, French, Italian, Korean, Spanish and the list is growing.”

Long before she set up Zenergy, Farha had pursued a communications career that exposed her to the international business environment, working with Japanese companies and traveling extensively. The idea of Zenergy took hold a decade ago, when Farha was working in the marketing department for Boomerang, a Montreal tech company that used cell phone networks to track stolen cars. When the company went public, she tried unsuccessfully to find an agency that could provide a full range of communications services, including PR, brand marketing and investor relations.

In 2003, Boomerang was sold and Farha found herself looking for new employment. Remembering the difficulty she encountered when Boomerang searched for an agency that could meet a suite of marketing needs, she figured there was untapped demand for smaller, flexible firms that can provide integrated communications services. Dipping into the circle of connections she’d created while working at Boomerang, Farha hung out her shingle in Montreal and quickly attracted customers. Seven years ago, she moved the company to Toronto. Today, Fahra’s client roster includes companies in Germany, Britain and South Korea. Forty per cent, or $1.3 million, of Zenergy’s revenues are from off-shore clients.

With international customers and a small satellite office in New York, Fahra says Zenergy’s “outbound” expansion will now unfold in three distinct phases, all of which are meant to solidify the company’s export orientation. “Our goal is to take that multi-cultural profile and really build on it.”

The first step is to join PR World Alliance, an international network of integrated communications and PR firms that rely on one another’s services to deal with large clients that have varied communications needs in different geographic markets. The Alliance board has an admissions process, which Farha is currently navigating.

The second phase of her strategy is to consummate a formal business partnership, now under negotiation, with a Toronto translation firm that will be able to produce written materials in a wide range of languages for Zenergy clients and events.

Finally, Farha plans to narrow the focus of her marketing efforts to targeting international companies that want to establish a Canadian presence, something she intends to accomplish by networking with entrepreneurs and young presidents’ organizations.

Farha is keenly aware that Toronto, her firm’s home base, is an ideal locale to achieve the third component of her strategy. As a city that attracts immigrants and investors from around the world, she doesn’t have to venture far to find people with international business contacts. “At the end of the day, we live in a multi-cultural city and country,” she observes. “How do you build on all these ethnicities?”