NEWS ANALYSIS: The growing PR impact of the 'celebrity effect' - Consumer agencies are increasingly keen to have celebrity clients on their books. The benefits for agencies are more varied than simply greatness by association

Celebrity is power. Celebrity sells newspapers and products. There is now a feeling that, more than ever, celebrity power is needed to sell a story. More consumer agencies are now looking at getting a foot in the door of celebrity PR, because of all the benefits it can bring an agency.

Cohn & Wolfe recently took on Frankie Burstin, who had been running her own agency Public Image. Among her clients is boxer Prince Naseem, who senior C&W staff believe will fit in well with their other clients.

Talk Loud launched a sister company Talk Talent this year, to work alongside its Talk Events and Talk Luxury companies. The idea is that while the individual companies will take on clients in their own right, four companies covering a wide spectrum of consumer-related areas will give rise to natural synergies.

Addie Churchill, managing director of the Talk Loud group of companies, says the importance of a celebrity being hired as the 'face of' a brand may be diminishing. But she believes that as society becomes increasingly affluent, and savvier, subliminal influences will sway consumers. It isn't a new thought, but if a celebrity wears, eats or visits a product or venue, the impact on its image is huge.

The other ingredient consumer PR can bring to the celebrity mix is branding.

When Henry's House added Welsh soprano Charlotte Church to its roster of talent last month, it was charged not with promoting the music (which is still handled in-house by Sony) but, as Henry's House director Julian Henry puts it, 'building the brand'. Addie Churchill is another who subscribes to this philosophy, saying: 'We apply the brand building principle to talent, we're not just publicists.'

Henry says people who work in brands have a formal, analytical approach, whereas people used to working with talent may have a more intuitive approach.

'People in the entertainment industry find it reassuring to hear things laid out in brand language, with strategic insights and rationale,' he says. And Burstin says of Prince Naseem, 'As a personality, he's a brand in his own right.'

But Barbara Charone, partner at MBA and PR adviser to stars such as Madonna, thinks the skills are completely different: 'A can of Tango doesn't care if it gets a bad review.'

The importance of celebrity to consumer PR isn't a new trend - Henry's House has long boasted A-list personalities on its client list. When Freud Communications, which did not want to comment for this piece, began its high-profile relationship with Chris Evans, many assessed it as being good publicity for the agency, although bad in terms of actual fees earned from the celebrity.

In hindsight, it seems Freud's move was clever on other levels, with one industry insider describing that relationship as 'magic dust' in terms of rubbing off on corporate clients.

Other agencies are looking beyond handling celebrities simply to attract more serious, higher fee-paying clients. Celebrities can be a strategic part of the client mix.

Matthew Stubbs, Neil Reading PR chairman, realised a long time ago that celebrity clients give an agency access to high-level journalists. He combines his experience in big brands with Neil Reading's background in celebrity PR and top tabloid contacts. Clients currently include boy bands Westlife and 5ive.

Stubbs talks about access to top journalists and 'getting favours in the bank'. 'The pay-off isn't that bad stories get used. It means good ideas make it, instead of floundering because of lack of access,' he says.

Then there is an agency like Borkowski PR, famous for its theatre and celebrity work, but increasingly focusing on winning corporate clients, and raising those important profit margins.

Agencies are also looking at ways of making celebrity PR pay. Churchill admits that the margins will never be as high as with other clients. But Talk Talent has taken on Storm Artist Management as a retained client, rather than individual people, who, it is generally thought, pay between nothing to over pounds 2,000 a month to be represented by PR agencies.

Others have agreed deals with clients which see them take a cut of any fees earned through public appearances or work obtained through the agency's work for the talent.

One benefit of taking on celebrity clients is getting to know what is going on. If you handle a celebrity, there are bound to be invitations to attend openings, book launches and events. Even though it is the celebrities who will decide which events to attend, it gives the agency an opportunity to know what is going on, should any other client be looking to get involved with that area.

Another hidden benefit - some say a pitfall - is the bonus which celebrity clients can bring in recruiting. While the idea of working with talent may increase the number of responses to those all-important job ads, as Mark Borkowski reveals, it can also attract an odd type of character to the agency. Still, you don't have to hire them.

More important, according to Henry, is the impact on staff morale. 'The benefits of taking on talent might not be financial, in the short term.

But it gives staff a boost. We all feel proud when a celebrity comes in to the office,' he says.

Will the public's appetite for celebrity ever be sated? What will the fragmentation of media bring to the mix? For now, it seems a wise move for consumer PR agencies to be hitching their wagons to celebrity.





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