ANALYSIS: Is Manchester 'new London' for PR?

Last week's 'It's Grim Down South' PR campaign by Manchester development body NWDA marked a revival in the city's fortunes. In PR too, the city is booming, says Andy Allen

When the North West Development Agency unveiled its new slogan 'It's Grim Down South'for the increasingly vibrant and confident region, Londoners may have felt a sneaking admiration for the chutzpah involved. There may have been a few snorts of derision, too, among those who see London as the only place to be.

In the PR industry, Manchester is on the rise, with the city increasingly able to compete with London. A PRWeek roundtable in Manchester last week saw local PROs keen to position the city as The New London. The number and standard of entries at the regional Cream awards held the same night led IPR director-general Colin Farrington to say that Mancunian firms were 'easily the equal' of their southern peers.

But how can Manchester cope with London's big accounts, lucrative lobbying work, the contacts, salaries and career opportunities ? Very well indeed, is the overwhelming verdict of Manchester-based PROs.

They point to the revival of Manchester's business scene after the 1996 IRA bomb, the success of the Commonwealth Games this summer and the wealth of bar and restaurant openings as evidence that Manchester is becoming The New London. In PR terms, they say their agencies are more competitive, their clients frequently rival those of the capital in terms of clout, their quality of life is better and their salaries, while smaller, go further.

Even Manchester's most ardent advocates will not try to claim that salaries can match their London equivalents. According to one agency boss, staff can expect to start off at between £12,000 and £14,000 (though some agencies will try to get away with paying £10,000). A senior account executive will earn £17,000 to £18,000, while a junior account manager can expect to get between £19,000 and £30,000. A select few agency heads break the £100,000 barrier.

But the New London claim isn't just a brave face through the drizzle.

Agencies report receiving large numbers of speculative CVs from the capital.

Weber Shandwick Manchester joint MD Rob Salmon says that while ten years ago consultants would have been put off working in the city by losing the prospect of working on national accounts, this is no longer the case.

Rather than fighting for slices of a regional pie in the north-west, Manchester's agencies are increasingly competing for national accounts. As a result, combined turnover of the 25 largest shops rose to around £40m last year.

WSM, for example, manages national accounts for brands such as Peugeot and Wimpey Homes.

Such is the pattern across the city. Newcomer Brazen PR MD Nina Wheeler already runs national briefs for UCI cinemas (based in Manchester) and Hasbro UK (by Heathrow). Wheeler says that while some prospective clients from outside the north-west sometimes feel unease at dealing with a Manchester-based agency, it can easily be overcome.

A helping factor may well be the significantly reduced accommodation overheads and lower salary costs which enable agencies to offer lower fees. While it is not something the city's PROs like to make much of (preferring to talk, naturally, of the value they add), many privately estimate they will usually charge a half or two-thirds of what a London-based rival would.

All this has led to a dramatic expansion of Manchester's PR industry.

Leedex MD Brian Beech cites a host of relatively new agencies such as Brazen and Spin Media, now competing against the established trio of medium-sized firms - Mason Williams, Communique and Staniforth Communications.

For Beech, tech advances have minimised the impact of the city's distance from the capital: 'Weekly briefings simply aren't necessary any more - it's ability that matters.' He concedes the city will never compete with the capital in financial PR and public affairs work - the location of the markets and national political institutions sees to that. But he adds that 'any consumer account could be pitched for, won and managed by a Manchester agency'.

The same goes for trade and technical PR, according to Simon Shrouder, account director at IT specialist TDM, which counts three London-based companies as clients. Shrouder says after spending years cultivating contacts with journalists, the relationship can survive a bit of distance.

Shrouder says economic difficulties in London and the fact that a 'critical mass is now being reached in Manchester', mean the city is now seen as a viable alternative for London-based PROs in terms of lifestyle as well as career opportunities. A case in point is Anna Watson, who has moved from Weber Shandwick Square Mile in London to the Manchester office, to escape property prices and a hellish commute. Watson says that while she has taken a pay cut, she pays just half of what she did in London on accommodation and gets to work in under 30 minutes. Though she had hoped to work fewer hours, she says the 8.30am to 6pm working day is as typical in Manchester as it was in London.

Watson now works mainly on the internal comms account for oil giant Shell, so it isn't as if she has moved to a professional version of Sleepy Hollow. The revived confidence of Manchester is reflected in the reaction of her London colleagues when she moved: 'Any more jobs going up there?'

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