ANALYSIS: GCI restructure signals shift in financial focus - Senior management changes at GCI's UK financial PR arm mark a reassessment of the agency's City ambitions, says Adam Hill

As reported this week, GCI Financial CEO Rupert Ashe has stepped

down following the division's integration last week into the wider GCI

UK.



From the outside, both events at New Bridge Street House signal an

organisation in flux: Ashe is the second senior PRO to move, following

European MD Alex Mackey's departure last autumn after just eight months

in the post. He left under a cloud - 'by mutual consent' in legalese -

as a prelude to both sides staying quiet on the matter.



And consolidating GCI's finance arm into the main group contrasts

markedly with the company's promise at the end of 2000 to 'rapidly

expand organically through major hires and strategic acquisitions'. As

with other firms in a contracting sector, there have been

redundancies.



Keeping GCI Financial separate from the UK agency - and allowing it to

be seen as distinct through the retention of the GCI Focus name after

that acquisition - can be seen as an attempt to compete on a specialist

basis with market leaders such as Brunswick or Financial Dynamics. The

integration of financial into the wider agency suggests a recognition

that this strategy hasn't worked out as planned - and that competing

with the full-service giants is likely to prove more fruitful.



GCI insists the changes amount to nothing more than sensible management

of assets in difficult conditions; its detractors see it as proof that

GCI, globally or in the UK, has no stomach for creating a presence in

financial PR.



GCI Financial's newly appointed CEO Philip Robinson - he was MD until

Ashe's move - insists 'less than a handful' of fee-earners have been

axed 'on performance or economic grounds. Others who went were support

staff who are effectively replaced by the support staff of GCI UK.'



But some former employees suggested this week that the move was at odds

with the original business plan. 'It was always intended to be

ringfenced.



It could just continue this way as a small niche player becoming more

integrated into GCI UK - GCI Financial will effectively cease to exist,'

said one.



Robinson says this is nonsense. From an accounting point of view GCI

Financial will remain 'autonomous'. It will retain profit and loss

responsibility and the name will continue. Although he 'would prefer not

to talk about' fee income for the financial team in particular, the

company is, he claims, comfortable with its position.



Before critics dismiss the integration as a well-spun office move, it

should be noted that Robinson stresses the increase in referrals to

follow a closer embedding of the financial PR unit in the UK business.

If this is true now, it was just as true three years ago.



And despite insisting that the new operation will push for

across-the-board financial work, there is an admission ambitions have

been scaled back. 'At the end of 2000, there was a different market,' he

accepts.



Ashe, who founded what was then Focus Communications in 1991, is not

leaving the company, but will instead work with clients, chase new

business and develop new products. He denies GCI Financial has turned

its back on plc work to concentrate on property and corporate financial

services, although he admits that there was a falling-off in business

during 2001.



'The stock market was dire last year. We did two (IPOs) compared to a

normal six or seven. We shed jobs to maintain the margin.' The client

list, including Advent, Schroders, Prudential and Mitsubishi, is strong,

he claimed. And the agency won a fresh deal with AT&T towards the end of

last year.



But one financial PR industry insider says GCI Financial appeared to be

stuck at a headcount of 30 or so: 'One didn't have the impression of a

snowball gathering pace.' Ashe was 'well-rated and charismatic', the

source added, but 'there is the perception that while the front-end was

compelling there wasn't support around him.'



If the agency's UK financial arm has gone through complex change

recently - senior staff moves are surely evidence of this - the wider UK

agency is in apparently rude and growing health.



In the most recent PRWeek Top 150 table, the agency slipped one place to

eighth, but this can largely be attributed to the acquisitiveness of

BSMG that led to it doubling in size. With just two acquisitions -

accounting for less than ten per cent of its overall fee income - GCI

put on 39 per cent in fees. Its overall income, at more than £16m,

puts it within spitting distance of industry giants such as

Burson-Marsteller.



The global numbers back this up: Combined with PA network APCO, GCI

recorded a 34 per cent jump in global fees to over £100m in the

most recent PRWeek global rankings, keeping it at 11th. Despite being

owned and run by a US-quoted firm, GCI remains in a stronger market

position in the UK than in its home market.



But group CEO Bob Feldman remains upbeat for the global prospects. He

said this week: 'We are optimistic about 2002. We retained 24 of 25 top

worldwide clients in 2001.' He cites new work with Dell and a deal with

General Motors to handle its worldwide internal comms as flagship wins

over the past year. GCI staff will be hoping he's right.



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