Regional Agencies: Is there a great divide?

You don't have to be in or near London to cut it as a successful PR consultancy, as Jo Bowman's travels round the UK prove.

If you want proof that the long-brewing rivalry between PROs in the big smoke and their counterparts outside London is still bubbling away, ask whether regional or national agencies make better business partners - then take cover.

The voices either side of the M25 are equally loud and resolute. But the truth is that as globalisation and technology make everyone's lives better connected, consultancies from London's West End to Liverpool are finding their PR work is increasingly similar.

The London-based multinational consultancies are running more regional offices, and many regional outfits have grown from respected one-man bands into thriving networks that now count London as one of their branches.

For small, one-city businesses who want only local coverage or internal communications advice, there's still no contest for their trade; a local PR operation is the ideal match, and is likely to be the least-expensive option. The same applies for the property developers who want help lobbying a specific local council.

But for businesses wanting to expand beyond their home region, or national brands wanting exposure everywhere, it matters little where their PR consultant is sitting, whether it's across town or across the country.

National coverage

'It used to be that you had to turn to London to get good PR agencies because that's where the industry started, but in the past few years agencies have set up in other major cities, so that's now changed,' says Nina Wheeler, owner of Brazen in Manchester, which does PR for clients such as Hasbro and Marks & Spencer, along with the Lowry Hotel in the city.

While there's plenty of toing and froing - and there's no substitute for personal contact with the national press - regional agencies say it's possible to get great national coverage from a non-London agency, and that because of the lower property prices and salary bills outside London, their services are usually cheaper.

And plenty of big-budget clients obviously believe it. When Weber Shandwick won the global contract for Shell's PR, it did so from its Manchester office.

Geography should be irrelevant when choosing a PR agency, provided the agency selected can get the results that are needed - whether those results are on a scale that's local, national or otherwise.

Admiral Insurance communications manager Louisa Scadden says the fact that Admiral is Wales-based had little to do with its hiring of Cardiff PR agency Freshwater. She'd even consider using an agency based somewhere such as Birmingham or Manchester if it could offer the best service, and that means understanding the local press.

'When we look for a PR consultancy it depends entirely on the skills they can offer,' she says.

Freshwater handles events and internal PR as it knows the people and the venues, and it is a good fit with the Admiral business. For a recent financial PR project, Admiral did go to London for a specialist financial consultancy, because that's where the skills were. 'But not everyone in London is as good as they think they are,' Scadden adds.

At Harry Ramsden's - still very much a brand of the North despite its international network - marketing manager Julie Barnes says its London-based agency can deliver top-flight press coverage for the company in local papers. The company uses Herald Communications, now subsumed into Fleishman-Hillard.

'We do get them to do quite a lot of regional PR for us, setting up competitions or local human-interest stories,' she says. 'The agency seems to have good contacts with the local press and is building those up as time goes along, and that's very important for us - we wanted to know it could deliver local coverage.'

The blurring lines separating the work of regional and London-based agencies may soon be about to sharpen up, however, if the Government goes ahead with plans to implement regional-level governments across England.

A referendum in the North-East on the establishment of an elected regional assembly is set to go ahead next month and votes in other parts of the country will follow.

If true devolution of power is what results, the potential for public affairs work in each of the new regions will be immense, and it is logical that those consultancies based in the regions will take the work.

In Northern Ireland, this is already happening, and there are several agencies based there that conduct lobbying work almost to the exclusion of anything else, such is the strength of demand.

It's also happening, somewhat ironically, in London, where understanding and having strong relationships with the countless local London authorities has become an industry in itself.

At London Communications Agency, which bills itself as the first agency specialising in London PR and public affairs, consultants split their time between businesses and organisations based in the capital, and those from outside who want to come in.

'It's an incredibly complicated place to do business. London has 33 local authorities, a million and one government bodies, plus a bloody complicated media,' says director Jonny Popper.

The agency has made its name on knowing everything about London, doing what many regional or local agencies in other parts of the country have been doing well for years on a smaller scale.

And, if more authority is shifted from Westminster to new regional-level governments, organisations that need to work with those authorities are going to need help.

Growth in the importance of regional PR specialists needs not be at the expense of everyone else, however; it's foreseeable that a single national client would use a specialist regional PR consultancy for specific projects, and another - based anywhere in the country - for their national PR.

This is not too far a departure from the way that some clients already use one agency for internal comms, another for a new product launch, and perhaps another for financial PR or crisis management. Geography and local knowledge simply becomes another specialty.

Localised experience

Popper says his agency works happily alongside other agencies, focusing on the London-specific work a client needs, and leaving the others to handle the rest.

It may be that the best regional consultancies come to be regarded in the way that the national newspapers see the best regional news wire services - when there's something happening in their patch, they're indispensable.

There are those in the industry who doubt that the power of London PR can really be devolved, among them one unlikely name. Beattie Communications chief executive Gordon Beattie, whose network is the result of years of regional excellence,this month shifted his headquarters from Scotland to - you guessed it - London.

'If you're going to be a senior player in PR there's no future being a regional agency. You must be headquartered in London,' he says.

And it's true that for some clients, the sparkle of London can't be beaten by the cost benefits of taking on consultants who are equally skilled but are located north of the Watford Gap.

But these voices are in the minority, and even multinationals that are based in London say the sparkle of the capital as the only place for quality PR is dimming - something that from a recruitment perspective is hugely significant.

The days of thinking 'I've got to go to London to really cut my teeth' are long gone.

BELFAST - DAVID KERR, DIRECTOR CHERTON ENTERPRISES BELFAST

'We're very much Northern Ireland specialists and our focus is on public affairs and political lobbying. Most of our work is for developers and investors coming into Northern Ireland, lobbying councils and planners, and in organising events and exhibitions.'

MANCHESTER - NINA WHEELER, OWNER, BRAZEN MANCHESTER

'We're in Manchester because we happen to like it here and we live here. But we're a national agency and 100 per cent of our work for clients is national PR - we've got a couple of London-based clients and the rest of them tend to be based in the North West.'

BRISTOL - STEVE HOWELL, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, FRESHWATER (FORMERLY HOWELL PETERSEN), CARDIFF, LONDON, BRISTOL

'We're an agency in transition.

We opened a London office a year ago and we're looking at Glasgow and the North.

So while we've been a regional agency, our new head office in Cardiff is our national service centre.'

EDINBURGH - GORDON BEATTIE, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, BEATTIE COMMUNICATIONS LONDON, EDINBURGH, LEEDS, BIRMINGHAM, MANCHESTER, DUNDEE, GLASGOW, FALKIRK

'Don't call us a regional agency - we're not. We're a national and international agency. We're still perceived, because of our Scottish origins, as regional, but the focus of our business is changing, and in the next 12 months we'll see our client mix being 60 per cent national or international and 40 per cent regional.'

LONDON - JONNY POPPER DIRECTOR, LONDON COMMUNICATIONS AGENCY LONDON

'We describe ourselves as a regionally specialised communications agency - we don't call ourselves local - combining general communications expertise with unrivalled knowledge of London. Most of our clients are organisations with major interest in London, such as those involved in major regeneration infrastructure projects.'

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