Global Rankings 2010: UK Market Profile
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Global Rankings 2010: UK Market Profile

Given that the UK PR market is best-known for rewarding creativity, it is perhaps no surprise that fortune favoured the brave in 2009. Indeed, the last 18 months may yet be seen as a period that sorted the wheat from the chaff where UK PR agencies are concerned, and not before time.

Holmes Report

By Arun Sudhaman

Given that the UK PR market is best-known for rewarding creativity, it is perhaps no surprise that fortune favoured the brave in 2009. Indeed, the last 18 months may yet be seen as a period that sorted the wheat from the chaff where UK PR agencies are concerned, and not before time.

In the teeth of a recession that first hit the private sector before encircling its tentacles around lucrative public sector spend, those agencies that prospered did so by combining a flair for innovation with an aggressive focus on servicing and value.



Ironically, perhaps, the star performer was financial heavyweight College Hill, which defied the downturn in its practice area to increase fee income by almost 12 per cent. The performance can be viewed as vindication of College Hill senior partner and founder Alex Sandberg’s long-term vision: to assemble a set of complementary businesses under the College Group banner and successfully diversify the agency’s core financial offering.

Thus the agency has spent the past few years building capability in such areas as employee engagement, public affairs, design and branding, digital, and research. Geographic growth has also been steadily pursued, with the agency adding Brussels to a network that already includes Germany and Greater China.

In Sandberg’s eyes, 2009 was the first year when this offering reached “critical mass”. Importantly, the strategy ensured that College Hill could weather the financial downturn in a way that few of its rivals could mimic. While College Hill – providing capital markets advice, corporate, B2B and reputation counsel – remained in sound shape, there was particularly strong growth from the group’s employee engagement, research and digital practices.

Key new business included ASOS, Caledonia, West Bromwich Building Society and Torus Insurance. “What we have here is a rare grouping of very specific consultative talent that doesn’t sit anywhere else in one place,” says Sandberg. “Financial PR is a very fine thing, but if you look at America, the bigger (financial) businesses have spread and become multi-disciplinary”.

Another standout in the UK was Red Consultancy, which reported an increase in fee income of almost 27 percent. In common with Sandberg, Red CEO Mike Morgan puts his agency’s success down to a diversified approach. “We have an increasing number of clients buying across the agency, combining – for example – corporate and social media, or healthcare and consumer.”

In particular, Red saw strong growth from healthcare, where consumer and social media expertise drove revenues from such clients as Pfizer, Novartis and the Department of Health.

In a year when big pitches often seemed to amount nothing more than glorified cost-cutting exercises, it is unsurprising that agencies sought organic growth by targeting existing clients. Mandate is another firm that reaped rewards from investing in new service areas, in this case launching a CSR arm and deepening its digital capabilities. The strategy led to solid growth of six per cent, with CEO Sacha Desmukh pointing to the agency’s employee-owned culture as a key differentiator.

“Some of our rivals have had their growth strategy blown off course by events around the world,” says Desmukh. “Many businesses probably knew what changes they needed to make but were afraid of the difficult choices and internal politics. Some of the successful businesses were unwilling to challenge their status quo.”

Deshmukh points to consumer and financial as areas that have suffered over the past 18 months, but believes that corporate, public affairs, issues management and digital have all prospered. Ultimately, it appears that the UK PR market – wracked by structural and cyclical change – offers opportunities to innovative agencies that possess an appetite for risk.

Another example of such an agency is fast-growing consumer hotshop Frank PR, which remained unfazed by the difficult business environment and grew by almost 27 per cent in 2009. Chairman and founder Graham Goodkind notes that while retained client business dropped, project work took up the slack, with organic growth coming from such clients as Nestle, Whitbread, nPower and Aviva.

While Frank was unscathed in 2009, Goodkind says that 2010 has been “a bit tougher.” However,
he believes that PR’s emergence from a marketing communications perspective, and continuing acquisition interest from independent advertising agencies, bode well for the consumer space.

“Business will be brisk,” he notes. “Whether the same sorts of PR budgets are there I’m not so sure though.”
Goodkind’s comments reflect a prevailing sense of caution about the future. 2010 has already demonstrated that there will be no sudden turnaround, and similar conditions are expected in 2011.

“There is growth but it is extremely hard fought and there is nervousness and a lack of visibility,” says Red’s Morgan. “2011 by all accounts looks like it will be similarly challenging.”
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