REGIONAL LEAGUE TABLES 2002: Local heroes deliver - Agencies outside London have weathered the downturn relatively well

The gloom that pervaded the consultancy business in 2001 proved slightly less impenetrable outside London.

PRWeek's survey of fee income for the top 50 agencies based outside the M25 shows that while some firms did suffer significant downturns - as much as 25 per cent in the case of Brodeur Worldwide - many managed to boost fees.

In all, 17 of the top 50 agencies outside the M25 recorded a drop in fee income during 2001, with four of the top ten showing declines.

The changing business climate and its effect on PR across the country is made clear by the fate of the previous year's big winners. Some of 2000's fastest-growing agencies in the regions - Brodeur, Le Fevre Communications, Midnight Communications and Grant Butler Coomber - all saw revenues decline last year.

In general, and perhaps unsurprisingly, consultancies focusing purely on the tech, telecoms and financial sectors saw a decrease in fee income.

The consultancies that specialise in healthcare and retail, however, were faced with a more rosy outlook.

Slough-based Brodeur became the second biggest agency outside London in 2001 with a fee income of £4.5m. However, faced with the slump in the tech market the firm was forced to slash staff numbers from 83 in 2000 to 57, as earnings fell by a quarter.

Fifth-placed Grant Butler Coomber saw its revenues drop by 23 per cent to £2.7m, and staff numbers at the Surrey-based agency decline from 57 to 24.

The fall was less severe for Le Fevre and Midnight, with drops of seven per cent recorded at both the Oxford-based agency and its Brighton-based counterpart. Despite the fall, both seventh-ranked Le Fevre and 16th-placed Midnight added staff.

In fact, more agencies added staff than made cuts, although some of the redundancies went deep at the larger agencies. Countrywide Porter Novelli, for example, cut 23 staff.

In fact 18 of the top 50 reduced their staff count, while 26 brought in new recruits and expanded their workforce.

Banbury-based Countrywide Porter Novelli remained top of the tree in 2001, suffering a marginal one per cent decline in income to earn £20.6m.

Porter Novelli Europe chief executive Neil Backwith says the company's focus on customer service has paid dividends: 'We found a lot of growth in existing clients, even though in some areas they were cutting back on their traditional budgets.'

Following the retirement of Peter Hehir in 2001, the new management team of Backwith and UK managing director Fiona Joyce report that the Oxfordshire powerhouse performed well in healthcare, consumer and even financial services.

Major account wins included launch PR for Heinz Noodles, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and extensive project work for the Department of Health.

On the other hand, the perils of specialisation were amply demonstrated by tech specialist Brodeur Worldwide. Nonetheless, it still picked up a number of new accounts.

As part of Omnicom's successful One Blue pitch for the global IBM business, it extended its relationship with IBM and also landed extra work for Cable & Wireless. Wins for software company Concord Communications and software and consultancy specialist WRQ also added to the agency's fortunes.

Chairman Mike Copland says there's no disguising the fact that 2001 was a tough year, with US clients cutting marketing spend outside their home market.

'The tech sector was starting to be hit by the end of 2000 and going into 2001 was a tough period,' he says. 'We saw clients that disappeared overnight.'

However, he says three new initiatives worked well. A specialist unit focusing on relations with tech analysts, a speaker bureau to get clients onto conference platforms, and a strategic marketing consultancy to work with small and medium-sized clients, all paid dividends.

At number three, Beattie Media claims to have had a more successful year, with non-London income of £4.1m. During the year it landed work for BT, Specsavers, Disney on Ice and the Scottish Football Association.

The company also opened its first non-UK operation in Dublin.

Founder Gordon Beattie says the agency also managed to change its emphasis in 2001, working more with the private sector and developing its network of specialist teams.

'We spent a lot of the year moving away from public sector PR accounts where margins are not so great into higher margin private sector business,' he says.

Beattie says the company avoided exposure to the dot.com fall-out with major tech clients such as Hewlett-Packard, Agilent Technologies and Abbey Road Interactive continuing to invest in PR.

At number four, Manchester-based Staniforth Communications also recorded an impressive 2001, building revenue by 28 per cent to £3.7m. Wins included event organiser Red Letter Days and fax and sewing machine supplier Brother.

Leeds-based Ptarmigan Consultants recruited three new members of staff and fee income growth of 23 per cent to take the number ten spot in the non-London chart. It won a place on the Nestle roster during the year - gaining work for four of the firm's brands including Aero and Quality Street - and also secured accounts for Portakabin, Humber Trade Zone and npower, pushing fees to £1.8m.

At number 14, Berkshire-based Elizabeth Hindmarch Public Relations recorded growth of 43 per cent to take £1.6m in fee income, while even more spectacular performance was seen from Atlas Public Relations at number 28.

The Leeds-based agency boosted staff numbers by four to 19 and fee income by 47 per cent to £1m to join the ranks of the seven-figure earners.

Spectacular growth was also seen from NP, formerly Northern Profile PR, up 32 per cent to £1.5m; Haslimann Taylor an increase of 49 per cent at £866,736; Prowse & Company a rise of 53 per cent to £816,894 and CIT Public Relations, a 53 per cent improvement to record fee income of £652,662.

If nothing else, these figures appear to suggest that the regional PR industry is in relatively good shape.

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