In late 2016 PR consultancies were rushing to hire senior politicos. Edelman signed up Will Walden – Boris Johnson’s former adviser and communications director – as its public affairs chief. Teneo hired Sir Craig Oliver, the comms director in 10 Downing Street under David Cameron, as senior managing director. Portland brought in both James Helm, formerly comms chief at the Department for International Development, and Victoria Dean, after 15 years at the Foreign & Commonwealth office, as partners.
These appointments illustrate that public affairs and politically savvy corporate affairs are the boom sectors. Companies are hungry to understand the new political landscape being created following the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump and an increasingly turbulent Europe and Middle East. Organisations need to form new relationships and test fresh positions in a febrile political, economic and social outlook. Brands know they must understand consumers better. The public sector is also feeling as buoyant as it has since 2010, as civil servants get their heads round the legal and practical challenges of disentangling the UK from the EU.
This all creates a massive opportunity for the consultancy world, but PR firms have some big strategic decisions to make; because although their briefs have potentially become more exciting, other specialists are muscling in.
In the brand communications space Accenture’s purchase of Karmarama – one of the biggest indie marketing groups, including PR agency Kaper – saw a global management consultancy making further strides into the digital comms world. Meanwhile, Deloitte’s purchase of crisis and issues specialist Regester Larkin significantly upweights the management consultancy’s offering in reputation management.
The comms firms that are selling to these behemoths have recognised the scale and investment required to compete at the top table of clients. We should expect more independents and smaller consultancy groups to sell up accordingly.
This does not mean that 2017 won’t be good for the boutique comms businesses. There will, however, be a further shift toward project work rather than retained business, because here clients seek bespoke, local creative solutions. Smaller consultancies would therefore be wise to form alliances in order to manage their resources and possibly share overheads.
Overall, then, this will be a buoyant year for PR – providing the economy holds up (a big ‘if’). The industry however, must completely remould itself.
Danny Rogers, editor-in-chief