Magazine article Marketing

Clients Call the PR Shots

Magazine article Marketing

Clients Call the PR Shots

Article excerpt

While consumer PR still fuels the industry, clients now take a far more hard-nosed approach and demand accountability in all things

Despite difficult conditions and the growth in sophistication of corporate communications and other market segments, consumer PR remains the industry's boiler house in the UK. The top 18 shops all derived more than |pounds~1m in turnover from consumer work while the turnover of the remaining agencies is smoothly graduated right down to 50th position.

Nine of the industry top ten are represented in the consumer PR top ten table with Shandwick, through shops like Paragon, Welbeck, PR Consultants Scotland and the Shandwick-branded consumer shop, dominating the ranking with about a third of its turnover, nearly |pounds~17m, coming from this sector. This makes Shandwick as a group five times the size of the next player, Countrywide. Lynne Franks, almost entirely dependent on consumer work, takes third place while Hill & Knowlton and Eurocom's Biss Lancaster fill up the next slots, all making a turnover from consumer work of over |pounds~3m.

A close-knit pack of large consultancies follow -- Grayling, Edelman, B-M and Charles Barker -- while ten to 20 in the league are taken, with the exception of Rowland at 11, by medium-sized firms for whom consumer work is their bread and butter. Turnover from the top 20 agencies in this table exceeds |pounds~56m.

But it was far from plain sailing last year for most of the companies in this traditionally labour intensive sector, one which is particularly sensitive to changes in the economic cycle. Shandwick managing director Colin Trusler says: "Consumer-focused activity, particularly for highly discretionary products and services, was very badly hit last year. Budgets were often radically cut, by up to a quarter in some cases, and PR companies which relied on the High Street for most of their business suffered."

Grayling's chief executive Michael Burrell adds: "On a broad level, consumer work which is historically the most dominant within Grayling and the UK PR business as a whole, has suffered over the year. We have downgraded its importance in Group terms because it is less profitable than many corporate areas and it is is TABULAR DATA OMITTED affected the most by the economic cycle."

One sign of Burrell's vision of the way ahead for UK consultancy business is his moves to acquire financial agency Barnfather Associates rather than make further heavy investment in Grayling's consumer capabilities.

Infopress's managing director Tricia Boyd admits consumer markets have been tough: "Clients are looking for value for money, creativity and how to judge results."

Meanwhile, Kate Newman of Brookes & Vernons says: "Accountability, that is a PR programme's budget and its commercially measurable results, is the most crucial factor in putting together PR proposals."

Brian Cartmell, chairman of Cartmell PR, says: "Clients don't just expect results. The money they give you to spend has to work harder in the current economic climate than it has ever done in the past."

Peter Hehir, chairman of Countrywide, states: "There are signs of increasing budgets in the consumer PR sector but clients have learnt to be so much tougher than in the past and they won't unlearn this. While many more companies acknowledge that PR cannot outperform advertising in delivering measurable results, the challenge we now face as an industry is to agree common forms of measurement based on criteria identifiable to marketing departments."

As always for PR, measurement and evaluation is a touchy subject. Quentin Bell, chairman of The Quentin Bell Organisation, says: "The green shoots of recovery are definitely showing in the consumer PR market and will continue so long as people don't lose their nerve.

"However, I am very disappointed with large PR consultancies and clients when it comes to evaluation. While everyone accepts its importance, practical ways of helping programme measurement and evaluation, like PRECIS, have taken off very slowly. …

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