OPINION: Time for an end to recession-marketing

PROs may be keen to distance themselves from spin, but with agencies' own backsides on the line it seems that they will spin with the best of them.

So much so that when I asked how business was going over the past couple of years, I was frequently amazed by the level of obfuscation that many are willing to employ on their own behalf. If even half of the protestations of profitability were true, the industry would not only have climbed out of Martin Sorrell's metaphorical bathtub, it would be halfway out of the bathroom door.

So I admit to a slight scepticism when it comes to industry confidence surveys. However, the CAF Agency barometer that was released this week does seem to indicate that at least some light is now visible over the rim of the tub. According to CAF, not only are 73 per cent of medium-to-large PR agencies positively optimistic about their own performance, but 65 per cent have revised their income forecasts for the year upwards and client expenditure on PR appears to be on the rise.

Nevertheless, if the much-vaunted prophecy for recovery in 2004 is to be fulfilled, agencies need to rapidly revise many of the short-term measures they have employed to survive the past couple of years. Put politely, some agencies have been committed to pretty thorough 'recession-marketing' - putting on the PR equivalent of the pre-Christmas high-street sale.

It's true that PR is not the only industry to have done so, and it is a natural reaction in stringent economic circumstances to do everything necessary to maximise sales. Methods have varied, but range from an increasing willingness to sign performance-related fee agreements to the slashing of research and evaluation back to the bare Advertising Value Equivalent minimum necessary to justify fees.

Many small to medium-sized agencies have been bewildered to find themselves battling top-20 agencies for accounts that wouldn't even have registered on the latter's radar in better times, while agencies across the board have been guilty of over-pitching, giving away creative ideas at the credentials stage in a desperate bid to bring in business.

All this is understandable, but if confidence is returning, agencies must have the balls to reverse this creep towards the commoditisation of PR. Procurement officers are obviously here to stay, but at least agencies must hold out for agreements that recognise the value of consultancy, rather than column inches, and clients must be weaned off AVEs if PR consultants are going to be able to argue for a sufficiently sophisticated measure of their worth.

If the tide is turning, then agency expectations must be revised upwards.

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