Financial PR: Market Watch

Alistair Ray discovers emerging confidence among financial PR firms amid new corporate priorities and hopes that the bear market has finally bottomed out

The smart-suited swagger has become less exaggerated, and job losses depopulate increasingly spacious offices - these scenes are evidence of a City hard hit by the economic downturn of the last three years.

As a direct result of this slide, the financial PR world has also felt the pinch. Teams once reared on the easy cash of the late 1990s mergers and acquisitions and the initial public offerings boom have become a rare sight.

This is corroborated by PRWeek's most recent set of financial league tables (25 October 2002), which revealed the extent of the pain felt by PR practitioners. Even Brunswick, the top agency by deal volume in the nine months to the end of September 2002, saw the value of the PR deals it worked on drop by 37 per cent on the previous year.

One agency consultant, who has recently delved into analyst relations, is not particularly optimistic about the state of the market place, describing much of the financial PR market as 'moribund', resulting from the lack of deals and flotations. Anyone claiming to be doing well is, she says, doing so merely for their own benefit.

'People want to look like they are bucking a trend, so assumptions will be made that they are fantastically good and they can beat the market,' she adds. 'The truth is, you do have to be good to survive in this market, but no one is good enough to beat the market entirely.'

Tulchan Communications foun-der Andrew Grant also points out that although many mergers and acquisitions are in the planning process, that does not mean they are guaranteed to come off. 'There have been plenty of meetings that have contained a lot of air shot,' he claims. 'Much of it has been venture capital driven. (To proceed) much of this requires access to the board to open the books, and there have been a lot of those kind of approaches that have come to nothing.'

There is another area that has also suffered, says Citigate Dewe Rogerson deputy chairman Jonathan Clare. IPO work, which boomed during the late 1990s, remains depressed. 'Simply put, there are no major IPOs around,' he sums up.

There is a further train of thought among financial PROs that flotations pulled 18 months ago will not come back the minute confidence returns, because companies will want to be able to present a track record of growth for their agencies to sell to the market.

Caution, therefore, remains the watchword. Has the bear market finished or is it one of those things that will only be known with hindsight?

Penrose Financial managing director Gay Collins believes the bear market has had two significant effects on the industry: 'Number one, less confidence, and number two, the need to be more creative when producing a PR programme.

'These days, you are not faced with hundreds of pieces of good news that you can just churn out,' she notes. 'While clients need to appear confident in both the bad times and the good times, PROs also need to be inspired about what can be used to show off that confidence.'

Emerging optimism

Nevertheless, opinions remain split on the outlook for the financial PR industry. Optimists point to the fact that there are signs of confidence returning, following the end of the uncertainty created by the Iraq conflict.

There is more positive news on the horizon. Although the City is still seeing little recruitment, there is hope the departures have also come to an end. Furthermore, financial PROs believe financial specialists have now adapted their workforces to the size of the new market.

'I believe the shift from the boom times to adjusting to this new environment has probably, in great part, taken place,' says Grant. 'People have changed their cost bases to reflect the current levels of business.'

Agencies insist retained accounts, rather than project work, is now the driving force behind their business. Financial Dynamics CEO Charles Watson believes he echoes a number of his counterparts when he says: 'This business runs at a decent margin on its retained work, whereas the project work is the icing on the cake'.

Collins agrees: 'There's still margin to be made in PR. It might not be as good as it was in the bull market, but there's still a margin.'

Cubitt Consulting managing partner Simon Brocklebank-Fowler cites the insurance market as a growth area. It has certainly proved profitable for Cubitt, on the back of wins from AIG and Marsh Europe.

The corporate mergers market has also received a boost thanks, primarily, to the retail sector, with the five-way battle for Safeway, in particular, providing plenty of opportunities for work.

And, with many businesses also operating in a global market, this has helped cushion the larger agencies from the effects of the UK bear market.

'As clients and their investors become more international, so is our business, and I believe the trend will continue,' adds Clare, pointing out that Citigate Dewe Rogerson is currently working on seven transactions in the German market.

So, following a somewhat cataclysmic start to the new century for financial PR, there is some feeling that things should now begin to improve as emerging market confidence is starting to feed through to public relations advisers.

Clare admits that, although markets are still very tough and the levels of business aren't coming through just yet, there has been a pick up in confidence over the last three to four weeks.

Institute of Public Relation's corporate and financial PR group chairman Richard Pollen, too, maintains there is a degree of quiet optimism among financial PROs, particularly in areas such as corporate social responsibility.

Pollen also points to smaller clients as a potential area for gains: 'I think that among the small companies that have outperformed the FTSE 100 and 250 indices, you are seeing a solid recovery there too. Some of the specialist agencies that have retained their small company expertise are experiencing the benefits.'

The same feeling of positive news pervades those who regard the depressed stock market valuations as an opportunity for private equity firms to seek valuable assets at low prices, creating profitable work for PR advisors.

'The absolute low ebb (in mergers and acquisitions) was the last quarter of 2002 and the first quarter of this year,' explains Watson. 'But, subsequent to that, we are now seeing more activity.'

Collins agrees the current level of company pricing has raised private equity interest. 'Since the really tough market conditions have set in, the private equity clients have found better value,' she says. 'We are starting to see these types of players coming back into the market, because they are seeing good value once more, and we expect that trend to continue.'

Some financial PR agencies are even claiming growth. 'We are growing,' says Brocklebank-Fowler, who attests revenue has seen improvements of 20 per cent, although he does admit that while business is okay, it's not great. 'For us, it's an absence of jam rather than a drought,' he comments.

New start-up company M Communications co-founder and former Financial Dynamics CEO Nick Miles points to another area of potential growth: 'Over the last few weeks, there has been a huge influx of what you might call speculative bid interest. If all the interests that are in the book come through, it would signify a dramatic resurgence of bid activity.'

New horizons

Even during the bad times, the need for struggling corporates to communicate to their stakeholders has continued to provide an abundance of ongoing work for PR agencies. The appointment of The Maitland Consultancy to handle the fall-out from the defeat of GlaxoSmithKline's over-generous remuneration strategy illustrates the potential in this area.

Elsewhere, FD has seen its fair share of good fees from big crises, according to Watson, having worked on the big Swiss airline corporate disaster, and now working on the restructuring of British Energy. That, to some extent, he admits, is the company's transaction work at this point in the cycle.

The sector still faces further challenges - one being internationalisation.

Changes in US law, in the shape of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act - which threatens jail for executives who disclose financial results that do not conform to basic accounting standards - have also made a strong impact on this side of the Atlantic.

'In some respects, I think the new laws that came into force in the US do constrain the work we can do even in the UK, because on transatlantic work there is a heightened state of nervousness,' notes Brocklebank-Fowler.

'The volume of media placement you can do, particularly ahead of an IPO, has become more constrained.'

However, in the long term, agencies insist the new rules coming from the US in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals will give the sector a structural boost.

'These rules have instilled a legal requirement for greater openness and transparency in companies' dealings with their stakeholders into the US corporate world,' says Watson. 'Anything that is going to encourage corporations to be more cognisant of what their shareholders think of them, and to communicate in a much more open way, can only be good for our business at a strategic level.'

Another change that many see as inevitable, particularly given the focus on cost in the last couple of years, is the increasing pressure on companies and institutions to outsource their communications needs.

'Fund management moved to outsource a lot of their non-core business, they outsourced all their back office stuff that's quite technical and needs a lot of investment in systems,' says Collins. 'Companies that have been investing more in in-house PROs might therefore decide to outsource more.'

Another City agency boss concurs: 'I think in-house people are under more pressure internally because they've got fewer people to do the job, and the outside demands are relentless and undiminished.'

It is this mix of returning confidence, as well as long-term strategic changes that agencies will be hoping means a return to slightly better times.

'Financial PR is absolutely crucial for the industry. There is already demand for consultancies that help companies explain their strategy to financial audiences, and this will continue to grow,' sums up the optimistic Clare.

Investor relations the other side of the coin

The waters of the recession appear to have been decidedly less choppy for the investor relations market.

With a higher proportion of retained work and the fact that, in bad times, companies need to have a tighter grip on what their stakeholders think, it seems IR has avoided most of the calamity of the financial specialists.

IPR corporate and financial PR group chairman Richard Pollen describes IR business as 'picking up very slightly'. Others, too, echo the point that investor relations is a more stable specialism and even a growth area. 'The classic media relations is on the whole relatively flat, but IR is holding its own,' agrees Cubitt Consulting managing director Simon Brocklebank-Fowler.

'The more effort people put into investor relations, the more they will need assistance,' says City Insights director Simon Hudson. '(They may) need help to get into the private clients market, which would be very difficult to do internally.'

Hudson adds that the growth City Insights has experienced has been driven by consolidation and the desire of clients to get their financial PR and investor relations advice from the same company. Since it joined forces with Tavistock Communications, six or seven companies, including Benchmark Group, NHP, Prelude Trust and Teesland, have become joint clients.

The changing market

The Investor Relations Society paints a more cautious picture. The first in a new series of quarterly economic surveys, published this month, suggests companies are bracing themselves for 12 months of difficulty.

'Without an improvement incorporate profitability we should not expect a significant improvement in the financal markets,' says IRS director general Andrew Hawkins. 'But with 42 per cent of investor relations practitioners expecting general corporate profitability to actually get worse over the coming year - compared with 16 per cent expecting it to improve - our economic problems are far from over.'

Sainsbury director of corporate affairs Jan Shawe, too, argues investor relations companies are now more exposed to the state of the market.

'Ten years ago, a lot of PR companies doing investor relations had a real place in encouraging more plcs to develop distinct IR programmes,' she points out. 'But a lot of plcs have now taken a lot of the bits and bobs of that work in-house, which has left the consultancies much more exposed on the mergers and acquisitions side.'

Nevertheless, Hudson cites the fact that clients are focusing on existing relationships with investors as the major determining factor in the industry.

'Clients are probably spending less effort in trying to attract new investors,' he says. 'The success of IR is really being driven by the market, and by the fact that companies find they need to spend a lot more time on these issues in order to avoid the kind of nasty AGMs that we read about in the papers, which is embarrassing.'

The way forward?

For some, consolidations are a sign the financial public relations and investor relations supermarket, first proposed by the now defunct City PR superhouse Valin Pollen in the late 1980s, could become a reality.

This will be a key trend for the next five years, according to Financial Dynamics chief executive Charles Watson: 'There is the chance to bring financial PR and IR in together, as they really should be,' he says. 'That will become an integrated offer that makes enormous sense for our clients and presents a great opportunity for our types of business.'

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