The Top 150 PR Consultancies 2004: Ones to watch

PRWeek selects agencies from the healthcare, financial and consumer sectors - Virgo Health, Powerscourt and TheFishCanSing - that are tipped to do well in 2004 HEALTHCARE

Angie Wiles and Sarah Matthew are former agency rivals united by mutual respect and shared ambition: for their new agency Virgo Health PR to become the UK's 'leading independent healthcare agency' by summer 2005.

The impressive blonde duo formed strong reputations when healthcare MD of Cohn & Wolfe and MD of Shire Health London, respectively, but have left the WPP empire behind to go it alone from a small office in Richmond-upon-Thames.

Predicted turnover for January-December 2004 is approaching £2m (excluding further potential new business wins), and they anticipate growing from ten to 15 staff before the year is out.

Virgo claims a 100 per cent pitch-win rate and, despite only launching last July, has nine clients, 15 individual accounts - and no client losses.

Big-name clients are AstraZeneca, Aventis, Boehringer-Ingelheim, Eli Lilly, Schering-Plough, Wyeth and Wyeth Consumer Health. Virgo also works for GPs' portal OnMedica and North Surrey Primary Care Trust.

Key brands include Wyeth's proton-pump inhibitor Zoton, BI's hypertension product Micardis, Lilly's attention-deficit and hyperactivity treatment Strattera and various AZ products, including respiratory treatment Symbicort.

One campaign that has caught the eye was its 'Maze of Understanding' campaign last November, in conjunction with the Manic Depression Fellowship, to coincide with the introduction of Eli Lilly's schizophrenia and manic depression treatment Zyprexa. Coverage included a full-page in the Daily Mail.

Wiles spent eight years at C&W, where she ran the healthcare team for the latter four years. Matthew spent almost seven years at Shire Health Group, running Shire Health London for four years and then launching consumer marketing arm Sugar Consulting.

In the view of the agency's champions, the fact the pair had never formerly worked together - and thus bring different experiences to the table - positively differentiates them from many start-ups.

Wyeth Consumer Healthcare PR manager Jane Boston had never formerly worked with either Matthew or Wiles, but says their reputation went before them.

Since starting work with them last December, she says the agency has 'promised and delivered' senior counsel.

But Virgo is more than just a two-woman show. Boston says: 'You can tell it's a team effort - they've a very happy team more than anything else.

They're very passionate about what they do and we often feel like we're their only client.'

The joint MDs haven't been shy of recruiting staff from their former agencies: Neil Flash has joined from C&W as an associate director, while former Shire Health account manager Louisa Hull has joined as senior account manager. Other staff have been lured from agencies including Packer Forbes Communications and Good Relations.

Boehringer-Ingelheim team manager (anti-hypertensives) Peter Wheatley-Price is yet another fan. He says: 'Angie and Sarah have the confidence to deliver big-agency results.'

If its growth continues, Virgo will soon need to face up to the question of their optimum size. The agency will this month double its office space, and as Wheatley-Price points out: 'If they grow beyond around 20 (staff), they may lose the reason their clients are hiring them'.

Maybe. But few would bet against Virgo recording a successful next few months and therefore achieving Wiles's and Matthew's 2005 ambition.

CONSUMER

It's been a while since the consumer sector has seen an agency so determined to move away from conventional PR tactics, but independently owned TheFishCanSing is doing its best to do just that.

Born out of a frustration with the lack of specialisation in consumer PR, TheFishCanSing has the right faces to front this three-year-old, 100 per cent consumer-focused shop. Young, ambitious, and dedicated to the 'buzz marketing/metropolitan marketing' approach, co-founders Dan Holliday, the firm's client services partner, and business development director Howard Beale have long been keen advocates of a strategic, creative and brand-focused PR offering.

Their CVs are impressive: Holliday started out at Porter Novelli working on high-profile accounts such as BT and Converse, before moving to Sony Interactive as head of PR. Headhunted by Hill & Knowlton, where he ran accounts for Adidas and Walkers Crisps, Holliday became head of youth marketing in charge of 30 people and worked on accounts for Gillette, Carlsberg and boo.com.

Beale brought media savvy to the company via his career as a journalist on the Sunday Telegraph. He then joined WPP before co-founding Blueberry Frog, the Amsterdam-based creative agency.

Few agencies start life with such high-profile clients. When TheFishCanSing launched in Holland's capital three years ago, its founding client was Motorola (global and EMEA). Other clients soon followed: Microsoft MSN, Proctor & Gamble and KPN NTT/DoCoMo.

In 2002, Beale and Holliday moved the agency to London's Clerkenwell, but it's the last year that has seen the agency gain a stronger foothold. Work in the UK has included an integrated viral buzz programme for an ad for Grolsch, while developing a high-impact media relations campaign for Harpers & Queen's revamp. Motorola continues to be a major client, with the agency having worked on the creation of a digital aquarium outside The Design Museum to launch V70 Motorola.

The agency has worked on more than 50 international projects over the same period. For Nike, it conceptualised and launched Euro 2004 Total 90 boot, ball and kit at Real Madrid's ground, while for Absolut Vodka, the agency devised and organised its Absolut Generations programme of 12 up-and-coming young artists from around Europe to the European media.

The original staff of six has now expanded to 18, with the agency luring former features editor of The Face Kevin Braddock, Nina Zywietz from Hauberlain, Berlin and Andy Whitlock, former creative of Weiden & Kennedy to the fold.

Whether its taste for quirky campaigns can be sustained is another question, as is its distaste for all things conventional - witness its fanzine Froth, dedicated to 'scooping the top off the PR macchiato' and taking a cynical look at all aspects of PR and publicity stunts.

But with forecasted turnover double that of last year's £2m and a fee income of £1.5m, the year looks to be a profitable one for the agency.

FINANCIAL

The painful shake-out in the PR jobs market over the past three years has triggered the launch of literally dozens of PR start-ups. But not many can claim a former Sunday Times business editor and a former Daily Express executive editor as their founding principals. Indeed, the journalistic pedigrees of the two founders of nascent financial PR agency Powerscourt are the key thing that sets them apart from the rest of the agency pack.

Powerscourt, which was named after a stately home outside Dublin in ex-Wapping man Rory Godson's native Ireland, is run jointly by Godson and John Murray, the former Ludgate House hack and business news editor of The Independent, who quit the world of journalism for a PR role at cable company Flextech/Telewest in 1999.

When you consider Godson's first move after leaving The Sunday Times - he was hired to be European director of corporate communications at investment bank Goldman Sachs - the similarity between this pair's professional backgrounds is striking.

Clients seem to like their shared combination of straight talking and media nous; early wins include the re-flotation of Irish telco Eircom, as well as Irish tycoons Jean Magnier and JP MacManus's investment vehicle Cubic Expression on their stake-build in Manchester United plc, and Next Generation - the David Lloyd-owned business that is believed to be planning an IPO for next year.

And despite the pair's ill-fated forays into the commercial world before launching Powerscourt - Murray was ousted from Telewest after becoming too closely associated with doomed CEO Adam Singer, while Godson quit Goldmans after just a year - there is every reason to suppose that they can make a go of it.

An interesting aspect of their attempt to make a success of things will be down to the fluctuating fortunes of the companies they might wish to rival in the City.

Major players such as Brunswick, Financial Dynamics, Finsbury and Citigate Dewe Rogerson, are all going through either management or ownership changes, and there is an opportunity for nimble companies such as Powerscourt to capitalise on any uncertainty created. If last year's One to Watch, M Communications, is anything to go by, the big boys will have to be on their toes to stay ahead.

Knowing what success will look like may be the difficult part, because the key question ought to be: what is the aim here? If it is to build and sell a big-enough company that will allow them to retire on the proceeds, they may struggle.

It takes a particular type of entrepreneur to pull that off, and historically (but with exceptions) successful reporters don't tend to make the best agency bosses.

But if it is their ambition to build a reputation for excellence and make use of two of the best contact books in the City, the year ahead should be an interesting one for Godson and Murray. And if they focus upon the latter of these aims, they may find that the former becomes a more realistic goal. Since Godson describes the company as 'long-term greedy,' it appears they have reached this conclusion already.

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