LOCAL EXPERTS: Client companies stress that local knowledge is an
important factor in choosing PR agencies
ACCESS: Electronic communications allow regional agencies to overcome
the barriers of geography
MOVING OUT: Relocated staff benefit in terms of transport, housing and a
more creative environment
Business is picking up for consultancies based outside of London, as
companies seek agencies with local knowledge and national contacts.
Rebecca Dowman goes coast to coast
‘Because we are in Wales we are considered second-rate hicks. I call it
a ‘bless ’em’ attitude and it gets right up my nose.’ So says William
McNamara, managing director of Oakwood Leisure Park, Dyfed, who retains
Cardiff-based Golley Slater.
It’s a statement that neatly encapsulates the condescension still meted
out towards the regions - at least, according to some practitioners - by
the London public relations scene.
In reality, the balance sheets and client lists of regional agencies
show them as anything but second-rate hicks.
Last year the five top-earning regional agencies, headed by Banbury-
based Countrywide Communications, notched up pounds 25 million - 25 per
cent up on the previous year, with other regional PR companies also
beating London agencies to such clients as Walt Disney, Nintendo and
One of the factors behind such success is the continuing movement of
businesses out of greater London. Such migration recently led to Dixcel
tissue producer, Jamont signing up Golley Slater’s Cardiff office, after
it relocated its marketing department from Harrow to south Wales.
‘We consider PR to be a very hands-on job,’ says Steve Raher, Jamont’s
marketing manager. ‘We needed an agency that we could work see around
once a week.Obviously we could have communicated with a London agency by
e-mail or fax, but we wanted a local agency.’
Raher stresses that of the marketing disciplines, PR inparticular, has
this local bias. Indeed Jamont has retained other London agencies,
including previous PR incumbent Team Marketing Communications, for other
Migration from London is, however, hardly an exodus: last year the
decentralisation of jobs from central London was at its lowest point for
more than a decade. And, of those businesses that do move out of central
London this year, two-thirds will stay within the outskirts of the
The trauma of getting into central London is another reason behind the
growth of regional agencies. Gareth Zundel, group account director of
Harvard PR, says the agency’s Middlesex location, by the junction of the
M4 and M25, is ‘the perfect bridge between our big clients and the
‘We are a hi-tech specialist and have a number of clients nearby in the
M4 corridor. We can easily reach the southern home counties and the rest
of the country via the motorway. On the other hand, in the middle of the
day we can also get to the centre of London in 25 minutes for a press
Zundel says the convenience of access, that comes from being outside
London, is also a bonus for clients and that one potential client even
said he wouldn’t consider Harvard if it was in central London.
Constitutional developments far beyond greater London are also boosting
the regional band. In Northern Ireland, the peace, however uncertain,
has prompted a flurry of PR opportunities. The lessening in media
coverage of the troubles has given PR agencies a greater chance to fight
their clients’ corners.
In Scotland, April’s local government reorganisation offered change
management and communication opportunities, although the disappearance
of a whole band of councils cancelled some previous roles. The prospect
of some form of devolved Scottish government after the general election
promises to spark a surge in lobbying agencies or in-house specialists.
Wales reflects a less positive picture. It has survived the worst days,
which saw agencies such as Leedex close their Cardiff operations but,
according to Golley Slater’s Cardiff managing director Jonathan Smith,
the PR market is still very flat.
‘One has to work very hard to ensure business development is going on
all the time,’ says Smith. ‘There are not that many huge companies here
and we are very much a public sector-driven economy.’
In such circumstances expert local knowledge is what often gives them
the edge over London firms.
Welsh leisure park operator William McNamara, who argues passionately
against the ‘second-rate hicks’ damning of regional business, insists
that a London firm could not have matched Golley Slater Cardiff’s recent
success in promoting the launch of Megafobia - the biggest wooden roller
coaster in Europe.
‘It was vital that our agency knew the product very well, and the beauty
of Golley Slater is that they are in our backyard. We probably got a
ten-fold return on our investment and I defy anyone to have done a
better job than they did,’ he said.
The convenience of having an agency nearby is also a significant factor
in clients using a local firm. Roger Green, public relations manager of
Chester-based BICC Cables, approached a number of local firms before
selecting Harrison Cowley’s Manchester office to run the company’s
‘We have about 20 factories in the north west, all within 40 miles of
Manchester,’ says Green. ‘The road network here is very good and from
Manchester the agency can get to any of our factories within an hour.’
Despite this stress on local knowledge, many leading agencies outside
London are quick to emphasise that they do not consider themselves to be
regional agencies but, rather as national agencies that are based out
of town. Indeed, to certain agencies - and their clients - the location
Mike Evans, chief executive of the Oxford and Shrewsbury-based Mistral
Group, which has traditionally specialised in agricultural PR, says:
‘All our work is national. With agricultural clients it doesn’t matter
where you are based - you could be in Aberdeen.’
In an attempt to offer clients a national, or even international,
service comparable to major London firms, regional networks are
increasingly linking formally, or informally, with other firms.
For instance, two years ago Mistral’s Mike Evans initiated EnviroComm, a
network of a dozen European and North American environmental
communication specialists. And Malcolm Cowing, deputy managing director
of Leeds-based Brahm PR, says one of the reasons his agency bought
Harrogate agency Paul Sowerby PR last year was because it had embryonic
links with Europe.
To improve their links, major regional companies are also taking
advantage of electronic networks, via investment in ISDN lines, e-mail
and the Internet.
‘The way communications and technology are developing, a central London
office is much less necessary than it was ten or 15 years ago - unless
you are in financial PR,’ asserts Malcolm Cowing.
As well as stressing benefits to clients, regional PR firms also
highlight the advantages to staff of being out of town.
Marcus Robertson, whose agency Craigie Taylor International moved from
west London to a large country house in Surrey two years ago, says the
location offers an improved quality of life, easier travel, a more
creative environment and less pressure.
Although such rural bliss may seem like heaven to harassed city workers,
many regional PR bosses say recruitment is one of their biggest
Robertson says that, although there are no problems attracting
administrative and senior staff, Craigie Taylor does have difficulty
recruiting people in the ‘middle of their careers’. ‘There is a
perspective that working in London has more status than working in the
country,’ he says.
This sentiment is echoed by Mistral’s Mike Evans who reports
difficulties in getting account executives and account managers ‘out of
London’ despite offering pensions, private health insurance and company
cars to all levels of staff.
But despite emphasis on the advantages regional firms still seem
inexorably drawn to the capital. Harrison Cowley opened a London office
last year, McCann-Erickson PR opened a capital base in April, Mistral is
due to launch one next year and even Malcolm Cowing says that a southern
base - if not a London one - may well be on the cards in 1997.
The lure of the capital, although partly spurred by financial
opportunity, still seems to be a matter of credibility.
Mistral’s Mike Evans says: ‘We have a three year rolling plan, part of
which identifies the need to move into London. Some research we did
showed that certain clients believe that if you are not in London you
are not in PR.’
Scotland: Market buoyed by electoral promise
When Tim Bell announced the closure of Lowe Bell Good Relations’ Glasgow
office in July, his outlook for the country’s PR future was far from
The market, Sir Tim said, did not have great potential. Furthermore,
from the evidence of major clients handled by Lowe Bell’s London
offices, Scottish companies ‘don’t want to work to work with agencies in
Scottish agencies deny this Anglo-centric prediction, reporting a client
base which increasingly prefers to look to its own agencies to provide
regional, national and international PR.
Chris Lansdell, managing director of Countrywide Communications in
Scotland, which was established in 1990 and includes Allied Distillers
and the Scottish Tourist Board among its clients, insists that London-
based agencies do not function effectively north of the border.
‘They do not understand the marketplace’, he says. ‘One of the major
things to remember is that Scotland is not a region, it’s a country. Its
media structure is completely different to the rest of the UK. By and
large, the national papers are based around the city with, for example,
the Scotsman in Edinburgh and the Herald in Glasgow.
‘Consequently, Scottish-based companies seeking publicity have always
tended to gravitate towards Scottish agencies.’
Helen Cree, managing director of Shandwick Scotland (which is based on
Shandwick’s purchase seven years ago of PR Consultants Scotland) and
which works for such organisations as Tesco and Scottish Widows,
stresses that Scottish agencies cannot risk insularity.
‘Organisations do want to have publicity nationally’, she says, ‘but
they don’t want it confined to the national borders. You have to deal
with all sorts of media, wherever it is: trade publications, for
example, are normally based in London.’
Both Lansdell and Cree report that business is buoyant, due to such
reasons as the growing realisation that, in a stakeholder economy
Scotland’s cultural difference must be respected. It can also be
attributed to a growing internationalism among Scottish businesses, and
the fallout from April’s Scottish local government restructure, Cameron
Walker, Safeway’s public affairs manager in Scotland, also asserts that
PR is ‘quite healthy’, from both an in-house and consultancy
Walker, who is also chairman of Scotland’s IPR group, predicts that such
buoyancy can only increase if, as is widely expected, the coming
election is followed by the establishment of some form of Scottish
‘It is very likely that you will see an influx of new agencies and cases
of existing agencies offering a broader range of activities, such as
parliamentary lobbying and public affairs.’
With the planned opening of lobbying company Market Access’s first
Scottish office later this year, such developments seem highly likely.
Northern Ireland: peace shaken, but still valuable
The easing of hostilities in Northern Ireland has sent a peace dividend
to both mainland and indigenous PR agencies.
The last 18 months have seen at least two major GB firms set up shop in
Belfast. Last year Citigate acquired the province’s largest PR firm,
Alan Burnside Communications, renaming it Burnside-Citigate
Communications, and this summer Harrison Cowley launched its own
Northern Ireland office.
Alan Burnside, managing director of Burnside-Citigate - whose client
wins during the last 12 months include the International Fund for
Ireland and Mercury Communications - says the peace process, along with
a reviving economy, has boosted PR business in the region.
One lucrative spin-off has been a planned move into the province by GB
supermarket giants such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Their plans for
English-style out of town super-stores are being opposed by local stores
such as the Stewart and Crazy Prices group, which has recruited
Burnside-Citigate, and the 60-year-old Wellworths chain which has signed
up another leading local agency John Laird PR.
John Laird, chairman of the eponymously named company, which also
supports Waterford Crystal, B&Q and the high street bank First Trust,
also reports an upturn.
‘During the early 1990s, along with our colleagues in Great Britain, we
suffered in the recession,’ he says. ‘But there is a lot of interest and
activity now, and things are certainly better than year.’
Both Burnside and Laird divine differences in PR between Northern
Ireland and the mainland. Laird says it is easier to target particular
areas, as communities are much more tightly-knit, but that due to the
small population, of just 1.5 million, agencies cannot easily specialise
but are rather forced to be ‘Jacks of all trades’.
Burnside feels that Northern Ireland PR agencies have to work harder
than their GB counterparts to get coverage. ‘In many ways, we have had a
tougher coal-face than London PR firms because we have had to compete
constantly for space against the toughest political and security news,’
However, he adds that, with the peace, this is changing as journalists
who were formally ‘fed’ copy by the conflict, suddenly have to find new
But, along with his mainland colleagues, Burnside finds that clients are
becoming ever more sophisticated and are increasingly demanding more
advanced PR operations and better evaluation techniques.
Wales: Beginning to see the light in the west
Wales’ capital city is, according to Jonathan Smith, managing director
of Golley Slater’s Cardiff office, ‘the biggest village in Europe’.
‘Everyone knows everyone here. The pitch process, other than for
government business, is much less formalised than in London.
‘There have been many occasions when we have developed new business by
keeping our ears to the ground and by knowing what is going on in
organisations,’ says Smith, whose agency’s clients include the Welsh
Development Agency, the Bank of Wales and the Swansea Bay Partnership.
Hand-in-hand with this sense of a ‘village’, is the imperative to show
allegiance to the Welsh community, according to Mike Smith, chairman of
both the Welsh IPR group and Golley Slater.
‘Wales is a very competitive market and you cannot do anything in public
relations unless you are obviously committed to the country and based
here,’ he says.
‘The idea that you can open some kind of branch office in Wales when you
are really operating at the other side of Severn Bridge has been shown
not to work, time and time again,’ he adds.
In asserting the ‘flatness’ of the Welsh economy Jonathan Smith says
that, perhaps contrary to popular assumption, foreign investment into
the region does not inevitably boost the public relations economy.
‘Inward investment will bring bits and pieces of work in from
organisations, particularly community relations work, but it does not
bring fantastic opportunities for Welsh-based agencies.
‘Investing companies generally bring in a manufacturing wing but leave
their marketing department in Japan, London or Germany,’ he says.
An exception to this rule was Dixcel tissue producer Jamont which, on
relocating its marketing department to Bridgend, recently awarded its PR
contract to Golley Slater.
David Heal, chief executive of Harrison Cowley, also stresses the
competitiveness of the Welsh PR market, which has recently seen various
agencies close up shop.
He asserts, however, that under Melanie Faithfull, who joined this May
as director at the agency’s Cardiff office, the Welsh base has turned
‘We formerly had a black-spot in south Wales. We had not been there very
long and were not doing very well but it’s now been significantly turned
‘It is very important to us to have offices in London, Edinburgh,
Belfast - and Cardiff,’ he concludes.
North: Cautious optimism both sides of the pennines
‘The difference between Liverpool and Manchester is probably as great as
the difference between Manchester and London,’ asserts David Heal, chief
executive of regional public relations network Harrison Cowley.
However, even considering the huge variations in culture, history,
dialect and sporting loyalties between England’s major northern cities,
there still seems to be a uniform sense of positivity across the region.
Malcolm Cowing, deputy managing director of Leeds-based Brahm Public
Relations, whose clients include the Bank of Scotland and Essex-based
Rhone-Poulanc Agriculture - for whose national PR work it won an IPR
Sword of Excellence award - says last year’s pounds 1.6 million-plus
turnover marked the agency’s best year ever.
‘Leeds was hit by the recession, but I don’t think it felt it as badly
as other places.
‘But now the city is experiencing real growth, particularly in financial
services, such as banking and the law. Leeds is becoming a major
corporate law centre and I would say it now rivals Manchester as the
north’s commercial centre - and that certainly helps us.’
Cowing emphasises, however, that Leeds is a very competitive market - a
competitiveness that can only intensify when Harrison Cowley moves into
the city next year, as planned.
On the other side of the Pennines, Rob Brown - who, since July’s
acquisition of his PR agency ProAction by Leedex, has been managing
director of that agency’s Manchester office - also reports a business
‘My impression is that the economy has been improving significantly over
the last 12 months. My gut instinct is that there is a cautious optimism
and that means that companies are probably, and perhaps significantly,
increasing their marketing budgets.’
Brown says that the majority of pitches involve regional agencies - for
example, when North West Water pitched recently for community PR it
stipulated that it would only see northern firms.
Furthermore, in a sentiment expressed commonly by regional PR figures,
Brown believes London-based agencies do not do well on his patch.
He says: ‘The successful firms are those that treat Manchester as an
important business centre and do not act as satellites of large
‘The really big London agencies are noticeable only by their absence or
by their lack of success.’
Doubtless, major public relations companies with Manchester offices,
like Shandwick and Hill and Knowlton, would disagree with his
Midlands: feeling good
Ian Hunter is bullish about PR in the Midlands. Hunter, managing
director, of Citigate Birmingham, says: ‘The Midlands has been through a
very tough time and I think that includes the PR side. But now there are
opportunities for the taking and we want to be there to take them.’
Citigate Birmingham, which focuses on financial, corporate and business
to business PR, has just moved into a Birmingham city centre office that
is twice the size of its former base and Hunter says this is indicative
of Citigate’s confidence in the Midlands PR market.
Hunter insists that being outside the capital does not hinder the
office’s success as a financial PR player, stressing that it works
closely with Citigate’s London office and that staff travel to their
One Citigate Birmingham client, Chris Ellis, financial director of
London-based software company Cedar-data, confirmed the ease of using a
Midlands firm. He explains that his company had recruited Citigate,
partly due to its reputation in the smaller plc market and because it
wants to attract investment from the regions.
Dianne Page, managing director of Barkers PR Birmingham, also says her
agency is not confined by geography, with around half of her clients
coming from outside the West Midlands, from as far afield as Hull,
Manchester and Andover.
Page also echoes Hunter’s business confidence. She says that, in the
last two months new agency clients have included the National Grid and
national pharmacy chain Numark, and that, generally, ‘people were taking
stock of what is possible with PR and are recognising it can prove a
more effective use of their marketing budgets’.
However, Sam Warnock, chairman of the IPR’s Midlands group and PR
director of Birmingham Marketing Partnership, is a little more guarded
with his optimism.
He believes that agencies have noticed a definite increase in interest,
enquiries and, indeed, business but that many clients still have
memories of the recession clear in their minds and are holding back from
investing in PR.
And he reports that, although marketing activity is increasing in-house,
companies seem to be expecting more work from their existing staff
rather than recruiting more people.
South: Niches thrive
All but three of the agencies that filled the top tenslots of this
year’s regional PR agency league table come from the south.
Not surprising, considering that this heavily populated region hugs
London at its centre. And, indeed, if one were to find one
characteristic common to successful southern agencies, it is that being
outside the capital seems to do no harm to their coffers: Banbury-based
Countrywide, which was first and does have a central London office, saw
fee income rise by 32 per cent to more than pounds 13.5 million and
runner-up, Slough-based A Plus experienced a leap of 35 per cent to
almost pounds 3.5 million.
A significant key to such successes, for many out of town agencies, is
doubtless their early targeting of niche markets.
The hi-tech sphere has doubtless been the most lucrative regional
specialism benefiting such companies as Harvard PR, whose account wins
last year includedNintendo, and A Plus.
However, the Mistral Group took the rural route. Chairman Mike Evans,
who started Mistral 20 years ago in Shrewsbury, explains: ‘We identified
the agricultural niche market, which all London agencies failed to do,
and we are now the market leader in that sector.
‘Having been in a market that has traditionally commanded low budgets
has made us lean, hungry and very client-focused.’
Having established itself in agriculture, which still represents about
two-thirds of Mistral’s work, the company is now looking to broaden the
base of its accounts and move to London.
Based in Milton Keynes, The Reputation Managers - which focuses on
business and professional services, IT and communications and
manufacturing and industrial markets - is one example of a broader-based
successful agency, operating outside the city.
Like many leading regional agencies, The Reputation Managers offers its
clients international reach by forging links with firms in Europe and
The south-west and Bristol, despite being eclipsed frequently by the
south-east, is also experiencing growth. Earlier this year, one sign of
regional PR prosperity was the opening of a Harrison Cowley office in