Top 150 PR consultancies 2006: Independent consultancies

In recognition of the independents' achievements PRWeek introduces a new Top 50

The reinstatement of Sarbanes Oxley affected consultancies means 21 of the leading 50 agencies by fee income have overseas-owned group parents - WPP, Omnicom, IPG, Publicis, Havas and Cossette Communications. And leaving aside agencies belonging to British-owned groups - Huntsworth and the Bell Pottinger Group - fewer than half of the top 50  are purely independent.

So to champion the cause of the independents, PRWeek is for the first time ranking the top 50 independent consultancies, with the top three honours going to Financial Dynamics, Edelman and MediTech Media.

Total fee income from the top 50 independents totalled a healthy £195m during 2005 and the average rise in fee income was  18.2 per cent, marginally higher (0.1 per cent) than the overall top 50.

Some of the highest growth figures come, as expected, from the lower end of the table, where the base from which to build is smaller. Strong performers include Frank PR (fee income growth of 59 per cent), Hotwire PR (61 per cent, and Virgo Health (45 per cent).

Adrian Brady, managing director at Eulogy! (which recorded a fee income growth of 42 per cent), says the pendulum is swinging towards independent firms. 'I have certainly noticed that the intermediary organisations are saying clients want independents because they go the extra mile.'

However, Brady is wary of complacency and says the agency is actively trying to break into new areas. 'We've taken on more staff, so we audited what skills they had as a way of targeting new prospects,' he says. This has enabled Eulogy! to move into the software and drinks sector.

The top of the table also showcases impressive growth, with the average of the top 10 standing at more than 24 per cent. The top five reflect an increase in briefs on merger and acquisition activity in 2005 as three of them - Financial Dynamics, College Hill Associates and Lansons Communucations - are financial PR specialists. Fifth-placed Lansons grew by nearly £1m. Chief executive Tony Langham argues that effective growth can only be achieved by those willing to diversify their operations.

'We're looking at 15 per cent a year, but once you become a £5m PR company, growth is harder to maintain,' he says. 'To stay on track we opened a public affairs division last year but we want more professional services and City clients.'

The spotlight is on the 25 agencies between £2m-£4m in size. Langham feels there have never been so many agencies ripe for acquisition by other agencies keen to boost their growth figures. '2006 will be a massive year for buyouts,' he predicts. 'It's something we are looking into ourselves.'

Some agencies will not look as attractive as others. Four of the Top 50 independents reported a drop in fee income, while an additional five report growth rates of less than five per cent.

Even among the top performers there is speculation about whether these growth rates can be sustained. Chandler Chicco Agency enjoyed fee income growth of 56 per cent during 2005, but is already suffering the consequences of emerging as a major player.

Last December, its MD Jennie Talman and new development director Emma Crozier quit, and by February they had launched their own agency, Just.

Of course, it will be interesting to see just how much the table will have changed this time next year. Now that the table is in place, this is year zero for the independents.

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