TOP 150 PR CONSULTANCIES 2003: Ones to watch

PRWeek selects three agencies - M, Bell Yard and Red Door Communications - expected to cut a swath through financial, litigation and healthcare PR fields.

FINANCIAL - M Communications

Few in the Square Mile could claim not to have heard of City PROs Nick Miles and Hugh Morrison - the infamous PR double act who bounced back last year after an acrimonious split with former employer Cordiant Communications to launch fledgling agency M Communications.

Used and trusted by many a corporate chairman and CEO, they are known as charmers and as canny businessmen, and are believed to have made millions selling Financial Dynamics to Lighthouse Holdings four years ago.

It was the legacy of the next deal - when Lighthouse was itself bought by Cordiant - and the subsequent breakdown in relations between the two men and their new bosses, that triggered M's creation.

The firm began life last October after Miles and Morrison served out the obligatory gardening leave that ensued from the bust-up with the Cordiant board, the posturing and the inevitable threats of litigation that followed. As is the nature of these things, there was endless speculation over what the pair's next move would be, but showing what has proved consistent ability to surprise onlookers, M launched with none of the anticipated fanfare.

Six months on, M has grown quietly to a respectable team of 12 and already has one of the year's biggest bids under its belt, having been drafted in late last year to handle international communications for French bank Credit Agricole's £12.5bn bid for Credit Lyonnais.

The co-founders appear to be on course to hit their revenue targets of more than £2m by the end of this year. And they have managed to bring in some strong key people, always crucial to the survival of start-ups.

Former FD partner and head of international comms at British Airways Louise Tingstrom came on board soon after the launch, and has been followed in recent weeks by Citigate Dewe Rogerson IR head Jane Astrid More and director Ann Mayhew, who start imminently. Merlin Financial director Nick Fox, a former Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times journalist, is another recent recruit.

One key distinction between M and some of its London rivals is its European potential. Clients signed up so far include continental business group LVMH, parent of the Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior brands, and global services group Suez. M has also developed links with European agencies, such as Euro RSCG.

But Miles and Morrison should not be pigeonholed into one area of financial PR. With expertise in M&A work, M is also in the market for anything from crisis communications to corporate social responsibility.

But the bedrock strength is still City work. 'Corporate communications is the umbrella under which we work, but financial communications is our raison d'etre,' Morrison says.

There have been mixed reactions to the launch of M. Many in the industry expected to hear more from the agency within the first few months. One City journalist speaks for the sector when he sums up M's stage of development: 'They were slow off the blocks, but are now beginning to become more active.'

It is hardly plain sailing for any financial PR agency at present, but for M there is the added pressure of meeting high expectations and making an impact in a well-established sector. The first year will thus be crucial and although the jury is out on whether M can become the next FD, it is an agency that its rivals will be keeping a very close eye on in the year ahead.

LITIGATION - Bell Yard

With legal wrangling for one of its founders and the winning of singer Michael Jackson as a client - 2003 has certainly started dramatically for litigation PR start-up Bell Yard.

After a soft launch last November, the agency burst onto the PR scene in style in February as PR representative for Michael Jackson over his treatment by journalist Martin Bashir.

But it's not just on the client side that Bell Yard is gaining coverage, as co-founder Richard Elsen is, ironically for a litigation PRO, embroiled in a legal battle of his own with former employer Cicero Consulting.

Last month (March), an employment tribunal found in Elsen's favour after he alleged Cicero had constructively dismissed him. With a ruthlessness, more common with his former role as a Labour Party rebuttal chief in the 1990s, he is to follow this with High Court action alleging breach of contract by the firm that he helped set up. Elsen's ambition is also in no doubt as he is the only PRO to be twice-named in our 'ones to watch'. Cicero gained the accolade two years ago.

Bell Yard's four-strong team is entirely made up of former Cicero staffers. Elsen and Melanie Riley, who left Cicero last year, are co-founders and are joined by ex-CEO Stephen Lock and former associate Peter Shackleton.

One could be forgiven for thinking that, in personnel terms, Bell Yard is a Cicero Mark II, but the ethos is different. Elsen says Bell Yard will not go down his former employer's political route, instead fixing firmly on his and Riley's specialism of litigation.

Even before Cicero, the pair had a strong track record in the public relations sector. Elsen as head of the Labour Party's attack unit, before joining Ludgate and co-founding Cicero. Riley is also ex-Ludgate and has headed European media relations at Japanese investment bank Nomura International.

'It's a project-based sector, and that requires good City law firm connections to get referrals,' explains Elsen. He believes it is a growth area within PR that has not yet been properly exploited.

'Litigation PR will become a big sub sector. There's more and more interest in the area and knowledge of what it can offer lawyers and their clients,' Elsen adds.

Bell Yard's 'game plan' is to consolidate its place in the sector, for the next 12 months at least. Then, if the conditions and market are right, the plan is to expand.

Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker lawyer Janie Castle backs up our assertion that Elsen and Riley have judged the market right.

She says the hiring of PR support by lawyers on high-profile cases was once a rare move. Now though, it is vital, 'something you have to do. You have to have someone to deal with the media frenzy'.

Litigation head at law firm MacFarlane Willy Manners also agrees. He said: 'Litigation PR has grown in the last five years, as people are more and more concerned with their image. What I would say, though, is that there are a number of people who say they can do litigation PR and very few who actually can. Richard and Melanie can.'

HEALTHCARE - Red Door Communications

With projected fee income for the year ahead of more than £1.2m, two-and-a-half-year-old healthcare start-up Red Door Communications is on course to record a third successive year of impressive growth during 2003.

Since the agency was established in August 2000 by former GCI Healthcare chiefs Catherine Warne and Julia Tollis, RDC has impressed rival agencies, large and small, by scooping contracts from clients ranging from Eli Lilly and Novartis to Bayer.

The agency has carved a reputation for its commitment to programme evaluation and for being innovative - for example, to launch Dovobet, a psoriasis treatment from Leo Pharmaceuticals, last year it created a webcast, transmitted via doctors.net.uk.

The agency - which specialises in ethical pharmaceutical work and also handles direct-to-consumer contracts - has been known to spurn requests to pitch, with Warne clearly keen to stick to what she refers to as a business plan for 'carefully managed' growth.

Looking forward, Warne says: 'The NHS is evolving and changing - this gives us a continuous stream of opportunities to target new audiences and address new legislation.' Already this year, RDC has won work in urology for Eli Lilly - for which it already handles critical care and osteoporosis accounts - plus hypertension and transplantation work for Novartis.

The agency, which is based in Barnes, south-west London, and is one of the founder consultancies of the Healthcare Communications Association, promotes vaccines for Aventis Pasteur MSD, for which it also handles corporate PR issues.

In addition, at the end of last year, the agency won two four-way pitches to secure work on an anti-depressant and a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis from Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

Wyeth corporate affairs director Gill Markham says one facet that sets RDC apart from the crowd is its pledge of 'continual senior and experienced consultancy, which exudes confidence to deliver what they promise'.

Managing director Warne and director Tollis have an impressive pedigree, having worked in tandem for nine years - before running GCI Healthcare they worked in Edelman's healthcare team - and have devised what they describe as a 'considered and strategic' development plan for RDC.

Of Red Door, Eli Lilly senior communications manager Jeff Smith says: 'Their commitment to clients is just about unmatched.' Smith rates the agency because of its successful synthesis of 'the atmosphere of a small, specialist agency with the experience and savvy of a large consultancy'.

The growth has been consistently positive since the agency was set up, reportedly only ever having lost control of one account (a pre-launch drug for Bayer, lost last October).

Fee income rose from just under £500,000 in 2001 to around £830,000 last year, with staff numbers growing to 15.

Privately owned and financed - arguably a major advantage in these chastened times - around 40 per cent of the agency's growth has been organic, according to Warne.

But one client cautions: 'Catherine and Julia mustn't lose sight of dealing with clients day-to-day - that's what sets RDC apart.'

Such a prospect seems unlikely, with RDC continuing to win respect - and new business - with its hands-on approach to PR.

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