Where have all the heroes gone?

"There are not many of them around. They have either sailed off into the sunset or are just too knackered to carry on."

Where have all the heroes gone? asks Martin Currie
Where have all the heroes gone? asks Martin Currie
So said the headhunter when asked about the pool of non-executive talent currently available in the PR sector.

There is in fact a dearth of non-execs for hire in the industry, and unusually the problem is one of both supply and demand. But why, and why should we care?

Flicking back through the PRWeek Top 150 PR Consultancies rankings over the past 10 years, one thing that quickly becomes clear is that it’s tight at the top. The same names feature year after year in the top 10, give or take. 

These behemoths, predominantly owned by the big five holding companies, truly dominate the market. 

Meanwhile, save for some notable exceptions, the sector's mid-tier majority repeatedly fails to achieve the same scale. 

What the data shows is that it's more often a tale of growth, plateau, decline, repeat. 

The exceptions are those whose approaches are truly disruptive, or those who sell or merge. 

To quote PRWeek’s most recent analysis of the Top 150 in 2015, "it is the mid-sized agencies who’ve been hit the hardest". 

And here’s the problem. 

The vast majority of established, mid-tier agencies I’ve seen are owner-managed. Shareholders are hands on, and often have a lifetime’s wealth tied up in the business. 

The idea of taking risks is tantamount to putting the family silver on red, while the challenge of rewiring their business is too great.

Their leaders are often accidental CEOs: highly capable PR men and women who’ve built fabulous agencies on pure charm and hard graft, but have relatively limited management experience outside of their own boardroom to drive the transformation required. 

Yet in most other industries, the use of non-executive talent to challenge and turbo-charge management skill is commonplace. 

They act as antagonisers – forcing shareholders and leadership teams to look in the mirror, cattle-prodding them into action so that tough or bold decisions are made. 

And few would argue that the PR sector needs to be tougher and bolder – remodelling propositions in the face of convergence, building scale in a fragmented market, going global. 

But very few firms invite non-execs on to their boards, and so they lack the catalyst and counsel that big strategic decisions like this require. 

Then there’s the supply issue. 

Building a PR business is no easy road. Nor is selling one. 

Value is created (and ultimately crystallised) from the goodwill of a small group of individuals, hence the conventional structure of a sale relies heavily on earn-outs, which handcuff vendors to the business for anything up to five years.

As a result, when the principals of these outstanding agencies are finally free of their chains, they’ve had 10 to 15 years of slog, followed by another five of KPI-driven performance targets. 

You can forgive them for wanting to spend their time in the south of France rather than jumping straight back into a boardroom. 

Truth is, these are the people with the most valuable experience, particularly for those mid-tier agencies that are charting the same course.

These are the pin-ups of the kind of ambition and risk-taking the mid-tier so badly needs to embrace. 

These are the heroes whose business acumen can help the army of perfectly good mid-tier agencies become great, and the great become global. 

Then who knows - that Top 150 league table might just look a little different in 2020. 

Martin Currie is managing director of Citypress

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