Top 50 Tech Consultancies 2004: Tech turnaround

Despite a cautious couple of years, the sector is finally looking up. Adam Hill reports.

After three years of belt-tightening, there is a feeling that tech PR is no longer on the back foot. Nearly half of the top ten in PRWeek's Top 50 Technology League Tables posted positive year-on-year growth in 2003.

The primary source is increased stock market confidence, with telecoms, software and services accounting for the bulk of fee income across the board.

'Over the last six months, stock market improvement has had a multiplier effect on morale, recruitment and capital investment,' says Chris Lewis, CEO of Lewis Communications, which leads the table. Indeed, the last of the dotcom darlings have disappeared and repositioning has left agencies more able to take advantage of decent results from clients and an increase in new business leads. In short,this year looks as though it will be better than last.

Brands2Life's climb from outside 2002's top 20 to inside the top ten for 2003 has been based largely on software and services, with clients including Ask Jeeves. For the first time since 2000, the market has started to come back a bit, say co-founders Giles Fraser and Sarah Scales, who point to growth in the mobile sector, new types of B2B software and a rise in M&A activity.

Broadband and wireless remain massive areas of opportunity as consumer and business applications for flexible working develop and 3G licence holders look to make good on their massive investment. Band & Brown Communications head of technology David Vindel, whose clients include Logica CMG, says: 'We've noticed that over the past 12 to 16 months, IT clients have been spending less, perhaps with two or three agencies on board coming down to one. But the market is picking up. Telecoms is through the worst of it and there's a lot more investment in tech software.'

While niche markets such as smaller software applications and e-learning remain tough, enterprise software and technology have rallied and the public sector remains keen to boost productivity through technology.

'There is lots of activity still in telecoms, with new entrants such as supermarkets selling telecoms services. There are also fast-moving areas in storage and networking, and CRM is a big area,' notes Firefly Communications director Mark Mellor.

Although base budget levels are beginning to look more realistic, money is slowly freeing up. Pitches remain tough, and as Bite Communications director Rachel Bachmann says: 'We are finding ourselves one of eight, or even of 12, in a three or four-stage pitch process.'

Tech PROs are finding that clients are putting more emphasis on return on investment, evaluation techniques and ensuring the chemistry between them and their hires is right. It's not unusual for whole PR teams to be summoned at pitch stage, rather than just senior management.

But the flipside of this may be a greater recognition of PR's status.

'The people who commission agencies are much more savvy about measurement and evaluation, but they also understand PR's business leadership role more than in the past,' says Scales.

Many big players remain prohibited from supplying figures following the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. But their performance has been a useful guide, with big wins such as Porter Novelli's tech practice's global work with Hewlett-Packard. Elsewhere, Fleishman-Hillard head of tech clients Stephanie McLeod has seen big infrastructure players such as Intel, HP and IBM, software vendors and professional services firms showing consistent growth.

Larger networks are also alive to the possibilities of Asia, with F-H working closely with the billion-dollar Mumbai-based Tata consultancy services. 'Asia is becoming the hub, whereas a couple of years ago it was the US,' McLeod says. With an eye outside Europe, Lewis has opened offices in Spain, Italy, Denmark, Singapore, San Francisco and Washington, and is looking at New York and Hong Kong. Lewis says the main thought for 2004 is keep your nerve and don't stop investing.

It is a suitable note of optimism. Agencies have justifiable confidence in a more mature sector emerging during 2004 and beyond.

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