Following another year of disappointing results, Lord Chadlington this week blamed the European PR market, forecasting that the region will not return to growth for at least another 18 months.
Do those words sound familiar? Two years ago, Chadlington made very similar comments, which we analysed in a post on Huntsworth's future prospects. That post was titled 'Can Huntsworth emerge from the gloom?’, a question to which the answer — so far, at least — is no, given a dismal set of 2013 results from the UK-based holding group.
In 2012, Huntsworth was coming off a 2% revenue increase in 2011. The group's 2013 results, announced earlier this week, confirm that the worst is not over. Apart from the marginal improvement in 2011, Huntsworth has not grown since the recession began in 2008.
Of particular concern is that it's largest brand Grayling contracted 6.4% last year, despite the investment facilitated by the new alliance with China's BlueFocus. In 2012, Chadlington blamed the international PR market, which provided a useful method of understanding why Huntsworth has struggled so much. The group is disproportionately exposed to some difficult European PR markets, which account for more than 50% of its revenues.
Meanwhile, Huntsworth's US presence remains a work in progress, although the arrival of Pete Pedersen as Grayling CEO has brought encouraging signs. At long last, Grayling has combined its various US resources, notably Atomic and Dutko, under one brand, and is aggressively investing in digital and data.
As we never tire of pointing out, the US is not only the largest PR market in the world, but is also growing at a healthy clip. The implications of a below-average presence in this region are correspondingly clear; it remains the critical market for global network growth.
While many of Huntsworth's peers have found Europe difficult, they have been able to mitigate the impact because of strong operations in the US and other high-growth markets. Huntsworth also suffers because of a relatively small Asia-Pacific footprint. The one bright spot is the Middle East and Turkey, where Huntsworth grew 34% in 2013.
The biggest change since 2012, of course, is that BlueFocus now owns almost 20% of Huntsworth, a smart Chadlington move that enabled the group to reposition for growth. Increasingly, it appears that Huntsworth is looking to its Chinese partner to help arrest it's decline. It will be interesting to see what acquisitions materialise from the new joint venture between the two companies; if nothing else, Chadlington at least has a programme of investment to point to.
In 2012, I noted that "until Huntsworth’s efforts to fully build out geographic coverage in North America and Asia-Pacific pay off, it appears that the double-digit growth enjoyed by some of its network rivals will prove elusive.” That observation seems just as applicable today.
Yet it is also worth noting that, even in Europe, Grayling appears to be finding the going tougher than its agency peers. Our Agency Report Card meetings with the big PR firms suggest that many have returned to growth in the region — of the low single-digit variety, no doubt — but growth all the same.
Amid the difficulties at Huntsworth, meanwhile, Chadlington has also had to deny reports of a boardroom rift over his remuneration package. Earlier this week, at an event to mark Weber Shandwick’s 40th anniversary, Lord Chadlington spoke evocatively of the agency he founded in 1974. In the 80s, he took Shandwick from less than £10m to over £100m in a handful of years, a performance that is unlikely to be replicated by another agency anytime soon. As Huntsworth struggles to match those feats, his Lordship could be forgiven an envious glance back at the heady growth of his Shandwick years.
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