REGIONAL FOCUS: State of independents

Atlanta's recovery has been buoyed by a strong backbone of freelancers and independent counselors.

Atlanta's recovery has been buoyed by a strong backbone of freelancers and independent counselors.

What a difference a year makes. While reconfiguration in the face of a devastating recession characterized the Atlanta PR market last year, recovery is the buzzword of the moment, and it is being touted with the statistics to back it up. Atlanta's economy grew by 5.8% in the third quarter of this year, doubling its pace during the previous period. Although the increases still lag behind the impressive 7.2% growth registered nationally last quarter, regional economists believe Atlanta's pace is sustainable as opposed to that of the nation.

The difference is jobs, and that includes PR jobs. In the state that experienced more job losses than anywhere else in the nation, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle's recent joint study with SunTrust Banks, last quarter more jobs were created in Atlanta than in any other US city. Nearly every Atlanta agency interviewed by PRWeek reported new hires and open positions. Senior counselors with healthcare expertise are in hottest demand, but the most new openings are for young account executives and coordinators with between two and six years of experience. The latter indicates that clients need more tactical ground support as they start to spend money again.

Job creation in the PR market is not confined to agencies, with some corporations, such as AFLAC, beefing up their internal teams. The insurance powerhouse recently ended its years-long relationship with GCI Group. Company PR manager Laura Kane says the need for a change was indicated after survey results revealed that although AFLAC enjoys 89% name recognition, consumers do not know what the company sells, or stands for.

Kane says the move away from big-agency representation at this time in favor of building a core internal team does not mean the company is reducing its investment in public relations. "We do see the value of a PR agency, and I can't imagine that we would ever be without one," says Kane. "At the same time, the idiosyncrasies of our business are such that we really need someone who lives and breathes what we do because there is no way the average PR person can grasp it." She says the company plans to staff internally with experts who will develop a new communications strategy. In the meantime Kane has hired a spate of independent consultants and freelancers to support ongoing programs and projects.

AFLAC's liberal use of freelancers exemplifies one of the more unique aspects of the Atlanta market. During the height of the 1990s economic boom, freelancers and small independent firms enjoyed the fruits. As the market collapsed and massive layoffs increased the number of freelancers in the field, the amount of work offered to independent contractors and boutique firms also increased as clients sought high touch and low overhead from their representation. This has provided a measure of stability to the Atlanta PR market, and prevented accounts from migrating to other regions.

Advantages of being freelance

This year, as the market cycles into recovery, many of those who were forced into freelance status are aggressively pursuing new job openings, but not everyone. Many are choosing to stay independent because companies from blue chips like AFLAC to midsize and emerging enterprises routinely hire freelancers. "In the '80s, 'freelance' used to mean 'flake' and someone who couldn't hold down a job," observes Jennifer Grizzle, owner of a virtual agency called The PR Studio. "As technology allowed top executives to telecommute, it removed the stigma."

Grizzle is the incoming president of the Georgia PRSA chapter, the second largest in the nation. Her stature in the local PR industry seems to symbolizes the respect this market has for independent PR consultants. Shortly after she resigned from The Headline Group (now Edelman Atlanta) in 1997 to start her own firm, she asked the association to start the Independent Counselors Forum to address the operational and networking needs of freelancers.

Owing to the success of that program, the Georgia chapter initiated the "PR people in transition" group for the many people who had suffered layoffs. Michael Manning founded the group after successfully managing his own transition to an independent consultant after being laid off by GCI. "Layoffs are nondiscriminating," says Manning. "The ones who are making it are networked very well to become independent consultants or reengineered practitioners, both with much to offer prospective clients or employers."

The most startling proof of the respect Atlanta independents enjoy is that they often get invited to compete against large and midsize agencies on key accounts. "Competition in this market is more diverse, says Barri Rafferty, partner and director of Ketchum South. "You can compete against a small firm or a freelancer." Rafferty says she did not experience that in New York, where she was Ketchum's global brand practice leader, nearly to the degree that she does in Atlanta.

Grizzle says independent counselors can compete because they keep overhead low by cooperating on key infrastructure costs such as contact-management software and by creating joint ventures for specific accounts. Bob Hope, of midsize Atlanta agency Hope Beckham, says it's a Southern thing. "There's no feeling here of taking a job at all costs," says Hope, who recently exchanged referrals with MS&L. "If we feel there is someone who can do a job better, we send each other the work."

This year, MS&L is seeing a lot of action from several market sectors and claims healthy growth, with the roster of account wins this year far outweighing the losses. The Home Depot and Krystal hamburgers number among the brands being managed directly out of the Atlanta agency.

MS&L credits its momentum to investment in senior counsel and retention of existing staff. MD Jim Tsokanos has not laid off an employee in the 24 months since he assumed the helm when Jan Lewin retired. Instead he added significantly to his roster by recruiting Rob Baskins, former Coca-Cola communications director, to lead corporate marketing; Doug Duffield from Weber Shandwick in Seattle to run technology and healthcare; and Wendy McGill from Publicis to direct consumer marketing. He also decentralized the shop's management structure to encourage each VP to run the practice group in a more entrepreneurial way. "This allows us to be more nimble, yet disciplined," says Duffield.

This year, MS&L's previous acquisitions of employee communications firm Deeley Trimble and IR firm Pondel Wilkinson have bedded down so these specialties will fit under the MS&L umbrella. The senior leadership of these companies has remained on staff - another reason, says MS&L, for its stability through last year.

Tsokanos' moves mirror those of Ketchum, which began hiring a spate of senior professionals two years ago to form a "strategic task force" that could bolster its own account representation in Atlanta, and be leveraged throughout the Ketchum network. It took a while, but last year the investment began showing dividends. Despite suffering many layoffs and some account attrition, since Rafferty took over, Ketchum has stabilized in this market and is again expanding its client roster.

Healthcare specialist Laurie Mobley has brought in two substantial accounts for Ketchum in medical devices and life sciences, and is frequently tapped to consult across the network on regulatory and other issues. The biggest wins of the year for the agency, however, are Cox Communications and The Home Depot. The firm was engaged to help Cox wage a pitch battle against sports networks over cable pricing. Ketchum is also the first-ever agency of record for The Home Depot's marketing and merchandising. Convincing Jerry Thompson, partner and director of Ketchum's Pittsburgh office, to relocate here and anchor account management for Cingular Wireless and The Home Depot, is also considered a coup.

In-house reshuffling

In a year that saw very little business movement, changes at AFLAC, The Home Depot, and Georgia-Pacific indicate that internal reconfigurations are impacting the way PR is done by Atlanta companies. Home Depot spokesperson David Sandor joined the company a year ago, when PR was handled through the HR department. Since then communications has been given equal importance at the marketing table. Sandor says the agency consolidation from 30 regional shops to MS&L and Ketchum for corporate and merchandising, respectively, shows the company is thinking about itself and its position in the marketplace differently. "While local stores are still where the action is, when it comes to national merchandizing opportunities we want PR to be in sync with all of our corporate concerns," says Sandor.

In a similar vein, this year Georgia-Pacific combined its marketing and communications functions. "The division of labor is now almost completely transparent," says Ken Haldin, VP of corporate communications. "We're completely aligned, and bring our specific disciplines to the same table to work on the same project at the same time." Unlike The Home Depot, however, Georgia-Pacific prefers to use multiple agencies and consultants on a contract basis. "We want the best thinking and specialist for the job," says Haldin. For example, the company contracted with Atlanta-based independent agency Hayslett Sorrel this year to roll out a teen-safety program in high schools throughout the country that leverages Georgia-Pacific's NASCAR sponsorship .

If there is any continuity exhibited in the Atlanta market at this time, it appears to be the division between senior counsel and tactical deployment. "You can't match the reach, contacts, and objectivity of big-box agencies," says AFLAC's Lane. "But first you need the subject-matter expertise and the senior counsel to make sure you have the right strategy to meet your business objectives. You can get that anywhere."

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FACT FILE

TOP 10 PUBLIC COMPANIES

- The Home Depot

- Mirant Corp.

- UPS

- Georgia-Pacific Group

- BellSouth Corporation

- The Coca-Cola Company

- Coca-Cola Enterprises

- Delta Air Lines

- Southern Company

- SunTrust Banks

Source: Fortune 1000 list, 2002.

Population: 416,474

Caucasian: 138,352

African American: 255,689

Native American and Alaska Native: 765

Asian: 8,046

Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander: 173

Hispanic or Latino: 18,720

Source: US Census Bureau, Census 2000.

10 LARGEST INDUSTRIES BY EMPLOYMENT

- Education, health, and social services: 675,593

- Manufacturing: 568,830

- Retail trade: 459,548

- Professional, scientific, management, administrative, and waste-management services: 362,414

- Construction: 304,710

- Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services: 274,437

- Finance, insurance, real estate, and rental and leasing: 251,240

- Transportation, warehousing, and utilities: 231,304

- Public administration: 193,128

- Other services (except public administration): 181,829

Source: US Census Bureau, Census 2000.

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