Manchester in particular, often regarded as the region's hub, boasts a thriving PR community.
According to the 2005 PRWeek Top 150, North-West agencies generated a fee income of more than £29m in 2004 (PRWeek, 22 April). While this is small compared with the fee income generated by London and South-East agencies, the North-West is certainly not surviving on London scraps or solely servicing small, local clients.
Notably, the North-West is one of the most prolific regions in the country for urban regeneration, which should provide a steady stream of funds for the PR industry. Inward investment has poured into its cities: Manchester has witnessed significant regeneration programmes and Liverpool is preparing for its reign as 2008 Capital of Culture. Furthermore, the Royal Bank of Scotland is building its northern HQ in Manchester, which is still capitalising on the legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The BBC is also considering moving some departments to the city.
From Manchester to the world
'There are some very creative PR shops and a number of big clients in the North-West,' confirms CIPR North West chair Sally Sykes. 'Electronic communication means it's even less important for an agency to be based in London to attract national accounts.'
For Manchester-based Communique, for example, 20 of its 33 accounts are national campaigns. And last year Brazen PR, also based in the city, was the fastest-growing agency in the PRWeek Top 150 – posting a 114 per cent increase in fee income on the previous year. Brazen is now on its way to a projected turnover of £1.8m for 2005, according to owner Nina Wheeler.
'Brands are now using North-West-based agencies because the expertise in the region has expanded over the past five to ten years,' she says. 'Plus we can offer good value for money as we don't have the huge overheads incurred by many London agencies.'
The consumer sector is cited by many experts as the most vibrant in the North-West. Macclesfield-based Bell Pottinger North – launched in July 2004 when Bell Pottinger bought Insight Marketing & Communications – is considering a dedicated consumer arm, according to MD Chris Warham. Big wins for Brazen this year include accounts with T-Mobile, Littlewoods Home Shopping and Choices UK.
Brazen has also delved into the predominantly London-centric fashion industry, setting up Brazen Fashion earlier this year. It has proved itself in this sector with campaigns for client The North Face, demonstrating that a North-West agency can overcome
supposed geographical barriers to London-based media.
'There will always be misperceptions but we are proving that we're as good as any London agency, and we're on the doorstep of clients based in the North,' says Wheeler. Because of the fragmentation of the media – freelances located all over the country and journalists becoming desk-bound due to under-resourcing – pitching a story to a journalist over a drink is not the sole method of relationship-building.
The North Face marketing manager Keith Byrne agrees: 'We initially turned to London because that's where the media are, and where we assumed the best lifestyle or fashion PR agencies would be. But Brazen was head and shoulders above the rest and has generated coverage across our key titles and helped us achieve a 55 per cent increase in sales year-on-year.
'I'm now convinced that it's not the agency's postcode that counts but the intellect, imagination, drive and passion it consistently shows.'
Staniforth's Manchester office has also tapped into fashion. The agency has worked with Marks & Spencer for a decade and this year won an account with mail-order group Redcats, encompassing its La Redoute, Empire Stores and Daxon brands.
Thanks to the high level of regeneration in the region, its agencies have strengthened their position in the public sector. Spin Media is just one agency capitalising on these developments (see box, p26) – its clients include ISIS Waterside Regeneration, the government agency responsible for revamping Britain's waterways.
While CIPR's Sykes says the region's strengths lie in the consumer, B2B and public sectors, with many North-West agencies described as 'generalist', there are increasing signs that lobbying and public affairs could also be on the rise.
Citypress PR managing director Charles Tattersall argues that North-West agencies' expertise is evolving fast (see box, p26). Citypress last year won a healthcare brief on drug testing for Altrix Healthcare, involving some public affairs work, and has taken advantage of its affiliation with Edelman and the group's PA specialists. It is also promoting Google's opening of its first regional British office, in Manchester (PRWeek, 11 November).
Tattersall also says the influx of international and national companies setting up in Manchester, such as client the Bank of New York, is fuelling the PR industry in the region. 'Agencies here are becoming more sophisticated and recognise they have to diversify to win these accounts,' he adds.
The professional services sector is also being watched closely. Chime Communications beefed up BP North's quota of professional services clients with the acquisition of Macclesfield-based agency Baxter-Hulme in July. Trade and technical expertise was further ramped up with the acquisition of Pragma PR in February.
Elsewhere, for Weber Shandwick North, travel PR is proving lucrative. Part of its national and international remit for client the Liverpool Culture Company, for instance, is to showcase the city as a travel destination.
For these reasons, property is another burgeoning market, adds deputy managing director Julie Hayes, whose portfolio includes property firms McInerney Holdings and Jones Lang LaSalle. 'Just look at the skyline across the region and you'll see lots of investment,' she says. 'Liverpool, in particular, is the city to watch, with the [retail and leisure] Paradise Street development one of the biggest in Europe.'
Networks vs independents
However, some networked agencies in the North-West claim that having a London base with a national and international reach gives them the edge when it comes to pitching for business. Communiqué managing director Justine Stevenson adds that from a resources point of view, being part of the Burson-Marsteller network is useful. 'We can oversee a client from here and the work can be done through the network operation,' she says.
BP North managing director Chris Warham says being part of a network should help the agency generate business in more specialist areas. 'I share the management board with Bell Pottinger Public Affairs and we can apply those resources for a client,' he says. Warham, who used to be the owner-manager of Insight Marketing before it was bought by Chime, acknowledges that independent agencies have a lot of passion, but claims it is harder for them 'to marshal the resources' because they are 'not part of a network'. On the flipside, Citypress's Tattersall argues that staying relatively small enables a greater focus on clients. 'We've had talks in the past about opening a London office, but I think that in the North-West an owner business does well,' he says.
Brazen's Wheeler explains this is why smaller independents can hold their own against the larger networks. 'With 30 or fewer people in an agency, you never lose the personal touch. Clients get to see the owner or the managing director,' she says.
Lancashire-based Catapult PR has just three staff, yet this means MD Jane Hunt can get involved in every campaign. 'We work nationally for accounts ranging from Farm Tourism North West to the Institute of Professional Willwriters – if we were a large, networked agency we would be more pigeonholed,' she says. 'We also work with people who own their own companies – they often see us as an extension of their own team.'
Henry Dixon, MD of Altrincham-based Barrett Dixon Bell, also agrees that independents can rival the big players. He says his agency tends to come up against Weber Shandwick, Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller when pitching for international accounts, and often wins because of its size and expertise. 'With a dedicated team of our size we can give clients a lot more attention,' Dixon adds.
But if North-West agencies are to continue to prosper, they must convince talent to forgo the capital and work in the region. From a resources point of view, the University of Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire offer specialist PR degrees. But does the North-West offer enough to entice good PROs and retain them?
According to the CIPR's latest report on the UK PR industry,conducted with the Centre for Economic and Business Research, the average annual salary of North-West practitioners is £42,477 – making the region's PROs the best-paid in the country after their counterparts in central and Greater London and the South-East (PRWeek, 11 November).
'With the exception of London weighting, North-West salaries are not dissimilar to the capital's, plus money goes further in Manchester than in Soho,' says Dixon. Sykes claims the same applies for in-house PROs. 'There are global and national companies based in the North-West whose communications teams are unlikely to be paid much less than their London counterparts,' she says. Tattersall, however, notes there is still a gulf in terms of salary between the larger North-West agencies and the smaller ones.
Retaining good staff is as crucial to a North-West agency as it is elsewhere in the country. One of the region's strengths is that PROs can quickly climb the career ladder, explains Wheeler. 'They won't be a senior account executive for five years here, as agencies want young people to come and take over from them at some point. For the ambitious PRO there's plenty of opportunity,' she says.
And there is anecdotal evidence that many PROs relocate to the North-West from London for personal reasons, with some agencies often receiving CVs from people who have experienced life in a London agency and want to return to their home town. At Brazen, where staff have been with the agency for an average of three years, four PROs joined from either London agencies or in-house positions elsewhere in the country.
It should be noted that while there is plenty of positive attitude from North-West PR shops, there are still challenges to be overcome.
Tattersall believes the priority will be keeping abreast of the changing comms environment. 'We're looking at strategies on how to influence pressure groups, blogging, etc,' he says. 'The North-West is probably a year behind London on new methods of communication, with still too much focus on media relations. I think the region will see steady growth, but I can't see us competing with London just yet.'
Fee income generated by North-West-based agencies is a fraction of that generated by those in London, but there is plenty of optimism among the PR community that business in the region is steady. The next few years will see a lot of changes in the North-West, and this should spark more business. And the fact that agencies are exploring different sectors and wooing national and international clients is evidence that confidence continues to grow.
Winners of last year's CIPR PRide Awards for Best Small Team, Peppermint PR has been punching above its weight since its inauguration last year. Managing director Suzy Glaskie reveals the Cheshire-based agency now employs just four staff but has seen fee income rise by more than 90 per cent, from £55,000 in its first year to an estimated £180,000 by the end of 2005. 'We've certainly developed a specialism in education and parenting, and in professional services, an area we're looking to grow,' explains mother of two Glaskie. 'Smaller law firms in the region are recognising the need for PR as they look to grab their share of the market. Furthermore, Manchester is a very entrepreneurial community in which SMEs are thriving.'
Clients include The National Teaching & Advisory Service, the Connections Employment Agency, Nightnight.co.uk, The Dalya Group, The Childcare Recruitment Company and www.myfirstbigday.com. 'We want to be open about the fact we're all mothers here and aren't going to be taking out clients until all hours,' says Glaskie. 'The high standard of work is still there and clients all receive national coverage.'
Glaskie does not plan for the company to grow extensively. 'There is definitely enough business in the region to sustain small PR agencies,' she explains. And the agency's clients seem happy enough with the service: 'Peppermint has given us national and specialist-interest media coverage which has regularly resulted in sales leads,' says The National Teaching & Advisory Service chief executive Tim Walker.
Local movers and shakers
Bell Pottinger North managing director Chris Warham
How would you characterise the North-West?
It's pretty vibrant, there's a lot of activity going on with great business up here, but it demands real value for money, enormous focus on quality and measurement of results. There's no longer the appetite for old-fashioned stunt campaigns and PR here has become much more commercially minded.
Who do you see as your main competition and why?
I don't think there's any such thing as a main competitor – it's the guy with the great idea who could operate on a freelance basis or in a global network.
What is the main threat in the year ahead?
Staffing, and finding the right quality of people, is going to be a challenge. I'm excited about what's happening for the region but access to the right staff with the right skills and experience will be key.
Weber Shandwick North deputy managing director Julie Hayes
How would you characterise the North-West?
It's got quality and is professional, but with local character and humour.
Who do you see as your main competition and why?
This year we've been increasingly pitching against London agencies in addition to the big players up here. It's probably because of the specialisms we offer, and a lot of our business comes from referrals.
What is the main threat in the year ahead?
Finding good people, and staff retention. Finding people with the right experience is difficult and is an ongoing challenge for every agency.