Grayling boss: We've 'liberated' ourselves from several 'exploitative' clients

Grayling "fired" a number of clients last year due to their "exploitative" practices, the boss of the agency's holding company has told PRWeek.

Broadly, Grayling has become a happier place, says Paul Taaffe
Broadly, Grayling has become a happier place, says Paul Taaffe

Like-for-like sales at Grayling fell 17.4 per cent in 2016, parent company Huntsworth reported yesterday.

Grayling has been undergoing a restructure since 2015 that has seen the closure of several offices. Last year its office in Sweden was shut, and other disposals included London-based Hudson Sandler and US lobbying specialist Whiteboard Advisors.

Huntsworth CEO Paul Taaffe - who reiterated that the restructure is now complete - pointed to some successes at Grayling, including in its Eastern European business, which has been taking market share from major rivals that have exited countries including Russia and Poland.

"Broadly [Grayling] has become a happier place," said Taaffe. "We did client wins around the world last year, and we also fired a number of clients because it what pretty clear that, for whatever reason, they were exploitative clients."

Asked if these clients were expecting too much for what they were paying, Taaffe said: "I think there's an element of that, but equally if you're an agency and you're so addicted to revenue, you allow yourself to be abused as well."

"We spoke to some clients and they changed and other clients were not prepared to, and we said, 'sorry, we can’t serve you'. That was a liberation for some of the teams", he said. Taaffe declined to name the clients in question.

Taaffe said he expects revenue at Grayling to decline in 2017, "but it will become profitable". The agency reported a loss of £800,000 ($1m) in 2016.

Client wins at Grayling in 2016 included tech specialist media company Techonomy and Lloyds Banking Group on a public affairs brief.

Elsewhere, UK revenue at Huntsworth’s corporate and financial PR shop Citigate rose by a "dramatic" 14 per cent last year, Taaffe said, with margins in line with rival FTI’s Strategic Communications division. Global like-for-like revenue at the agency grew 4.5 per cent.

Taaffe said market uncertainty around the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump "didn’t seem to affect us". He pointed to growth areas at Citigate, with new clients among hedge funds and private equity firms, plus life and health sciences companies.

Taaffe said recent client wins at Citigate have included Allied Irish Bank.

"Broadly, we’re very happy with where Citigate is going. They continue to do well on all fronts, really. It’s a volatile world that they live in, but we’re comfortable with that fact."

Asked about his focus for expansion, Taaffe said: "It’s really more the addition of services within the existing agencies than a dramatic international push. We’re pretty happy with our footprint as it is."

He spoke of the "existential threat" to PR as an identity, pointed to the "rapid metamorphosis of most PR agencies" into areas including content, digital, and social media, and becoming less dependent on media relations.

Huntsworth's losses narrowed in 2016 thanks to a strong performance from the holding company's health comms arm, and despite a "difficult" year for Grayling.

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