Analysis: Fishburn chiefs keep eyes on future despite mounting departures

Fishburn's management has defended its reinvention of the 23-year-old agency amid industry mutterings, fed by a series of director-level departures, about the direction in which it is going.

Ali Gee:
Ali Gee:

When Paul Sweetman moves on next week after 13 years to launch his own consultancy, he will be far from the first director to leave since Fishburn Hedges, consumer PR agency 77 and design specialist Further were integrated as Fishburn at the turn of the year. 

Earlier this month Adam Keal left after 11 years to join MasterCard as head of b2b PR, and in March Alexander Martin moved to Atomic PR after nearly three years leading social media. These previously unreported departures follow that of Clare Anderson, who was made client services director in January after 14 years but decided to join the Lansons management board in March.

Ali Gee, the Fishburn CEO, acknowledges that the restructure she and chairman Simon Matthews have led "will cause difficulties and challenges" and that departures are a "sad consequence of the fact that sometimes things need to change".

PRWeek spoke to Gee and Matthews after taking soundings from several former agency staffers who have left at various points in the past few years.

To recap its recent history, the Fishburn Hedges Group was hit particularly badly by the economic downturn as government cuts ate into the amount of public sector work it had built up.

As fee income dropped from £17.7m in 2008 to £14m in 2012, according to estimates [the group cannot provide exact figures due to Sarbanes-Oxley restrictions], the agency fell from 10th to 16th in PRWeek's Top 150 ranking. Staff numbers shrank from 170 to 127 over the period, which was also marked by the departure of the top team at 77 in 2011.

Claims that out of the 17 board directors only five remain from two-and-a-half years ago are not disputed. However, other assertions are, including the idea that Omnicom did not give the agency enough room to manoeuvre after the credit crunch and allusions to mass departures last year. Gee insists that churn for 2013 was in line with the industry average, although she acknowledges that this year has been different.

Another rumour comprehensively put to rest is that the agency’s long-standing graduate scheme has been cancelled. The scheme is going ahead as normal and Fishburn has also signed up to the PRWeek/PRCA Internships For All initiative. Confusion about the graduate scheme is likely to have stemmed from the fact that the agency is no longer working with an external supplier for the recruitment process.  

But whether true or not, other perceptions are perhaps potentially more damaging. With the merging of sectors that followed November’s changes, one recent leaver alludes to "a homogenising" of the agency's specialisms, while others who accepted the need for Fishburn to evolve questioned whether it still carries both the corporate clout and "family atmosphere" of the Fishburn Hedges Group of old. 

"For a long time the people who worked there said they’d never work at another agency," said a former senior figure, who added there was still plenty of "good people" remaining.

"But in wanting to present themselves in a slick new way and show themselves as looking and feeling fresh they have lost some of what made Fishburn Hedges special." 

Another puts it more bluntly, stating that the longer-term "repositioning" that predated this year's change to Fishburn "has ripped out the soul of the organisation".

In amalgamating its practices Fishburn is by no means unique among agencies, and Gee defends the move as breaking down "skills ghettos".

She promises that corporate work will "absolutely be at the heart of the business" and reveals that the agency is hiring a senior corporate figure, but explains that she needed to take account of discipline blur, such as the growth of "corpsumer" work.

"The changes are in the belief that corporate often isn’t solely corporate, and there cannot be a corporate campaign that should be standalone without awareness of other connected stakeholders."  

The loss of a long-standing Barclays PR account – it still retains some work – to Lansons and Hope & Glory late last year would have been a blow, but as a counter the agency leadership points to recently expanded corporate work with the likes of Network Rail, SABMiller and Prudential as well as big-name wins such as EE

Claiming a pitch win rate of 55 per cent for this year's first quarter, Gee adds that more than 40 per cent of growth in that period has been through corporate work, and recent research by The Client Relationship Consultancy put it ahead of the competition for average client satisfaction. 

Laurence Evans, who worked with Gee at Edelman and whose strategic consultancy Reputation Leaders has been brought in by Fishburn for research work, sees the agency’s current strengths lying in corporate communications, sustainability positioning and brand positioning. 

In accordance with others to whom PRWeek spoke when Gee was made chief executive late last year, he rates her strategic skills and, crucially in the current context, her "intuitive ability to build a team". He also talks of a "positive energy in the team when it comes to clients".

For those nostalgic about the Fishburn Hedges of old, Matthews, who has been at the agency for more than two decades, says he is conscious of the balancing act of keeping the agency’s "family atmosphere". 

"The culture is part of the essence of Fishburn," he says, "and what we are trying to do is take the best bits of that culture and create something fresh to move the business on."

The strength of that culture is evidenced by plans for a reunion for 400 or so Fishburn Hedges alumni next month, but one senses that Matthews and Gee would rather look forwards.

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