Danny Rogers: Portland purchase signals industry upswing

After a rather downbeat first quarter to this year, one now senses growing optimism in the British PR industry.

Danny Rogers: Portland purchase signals industry upswing
Danny Rogers: Portland purchase signals industry upswing

The PRCA's latest business barometer shows a definite upswing in sentiment among PR consultancies, with more than half of bosses saying that they now feel more optimistic about their fortunes. Encouragingly, 80 per cent now believe the overall business climate will improve or stay the same.

Let's be clear; this is hardly boom-time. One quarter of agencies said they had seen client budgets increase, slightly more than the 14 per cent that had seen a decrease. But anecdotally headhunters say they are busier now than they were a year ago. And it was particularly heartening last week to see Omnicom's vote of confidence in one of the UK's fastest-growing consultancies.

The US marcoms giant's purchase of Portland in a deal reported to be worth up to £20m was another reminder that Britain can still create world-class marketing and PR agencies.

In just over a decade Tim Allan - former press secretary to Tony Blair and comms director at BSkyB - has created a public affairs and corporate consultancy billing more than £8m per annum, employing 85 staff and serving clients such as Google, McDonald's and the Kofi Annan Foundation.

Significantly, Omnicom appears to see Portland as a high-end 'boutique' consultancy that can expand to key international political and business centres, rather than absorbing the shop into its already large portfolio of global marcoms brands.

This is an optimistic premium model that has so far been difficult to achieve. Brunswick is perhaps the best example of the international high-end consultancy brand, although its expansion has not always gone smoothly. FTI Consulting has also had mixed success following its purchase of Financial Dynamics seven years ago.

Portland will also improve Omnicom's public affairs offering to rival WPP's recently bolstered H+K Strategies and a resurgent Burson-Marsteller.

Many marcoms groups are reporting an upswing in confidence thanks to 2012 being an Olympics and UEFA European Football Championship year, with the added bonus of a US Presidential election in the autumn.

The big question is whether this momentum can be carried over into 2013. I believe it can as long as the consultancies have the bravery to reinvest improved profits in their businesses. This means keeping a lid on the over-servicing of clients and - as Portland has done so well - continuing to hire the best talent, both in terms of graduate intake and more experienced professionals from politics and the media.

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