Danny Rogers: College Hill's sale points to sector growth

At a time when positive indicators are thin on the ground, this week's majority sale of top 15 UK PR firm College Hill, to private equity firm Vitruvian Partners, is a vote of confidence in the comms business.

Danny Rogers: College Hill's sale points to sector growth
Danny Rogers: College Hill's sale points to sector growth

The sale of PR firms during a recession - and boy is this proving to be some recession - can often be put down to distress. But this example looks to be the opposite.

PR consultancies are more typically sold to other, bigger PR consultancies, or to marcoms holding groups such as WPP. A sale of a stake - in this case just over half - to a private equity firm is much less common.

This is because private equity firms have rarely recognised the potential in PR consultancies; partly because few agencies have the scale to excite your average venture capitalist; and partly because they are wary of investing in businesses whose assets (principally the consultants) are so flighty.

There have been a few examples in the past, mainly in City and corporate PR. Back in 2003 Financial Dynamics sold to Advent and, more recently, M:Communications was backed by The Riverside Company.

But the College Hill deal is particularly encouraging because the agency has diversified into many specialist areas of PR and is using the investment to spearhead its global ambitions.

It is the same reason WPP recently merged two comms consultancies, Finsbury and RLM, to bridge the financial capitals of London and New York.

Indeed, while the papers are full of doom and gloom, we are seeing some very clear areas of growth in the comms sector. These include creative digital content solutions for brand building, but also in reputation management. This is particularly pertinent at an international level, because UK budget growth is likely to remain sluggish for some time.

The awareness of big corporations that they need to manage reputational risk - writ large by BP and Toyota last year, and more recently UBS - continues to grow apace. So does the recognition that they need the best external advice to develop strategies in this area.

The strongest UK PR agencies are rising to the occasion. But these consultancies realise that if they are to be taken seriously they must operate on a truly global scale with best-in-class consultants across the network. All of which requires constant investment.

If private equity can provide such funding it is good news. The challenge will come in allowing the PR firms enough time and space to develop their offering, providing structured, long-term returns. And, of course, in effectively tying in those oh-so-flighty consultants.

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