THE TOP 150 PR CONSULTANCIES 2002: Ones to watch - PRWeek selects three agencies - Cohn & Wolfe, hatch-group and Gavin Anderson & Co - and explains why they all have the potential to outperform their rivals in the year to come

'For every domestic market we operate in, we want to be a top three player,' he says.

Though this is an easy statement to make, GA seems to have the strategy to see it through. While keeping details of his plans under wraps, Bennett has said he will be hiring people to add to the 50 existing staff.

The client list - which currently includes British Energy, American Express and Morgan Stanley - is also likely to see a few additions, particularly in the financial services, pharmaceutical and leisure sectors.

While the company focuses its efforts on building up the London operation, the office is to be central to GA's European plans.

With five European offices and Frankfurt CEO Michael Kruesmann now in charge of Europe, Lee is hoping the firm will develop its capital markets offering across the region.

Mainland Europe is fast becoming a growing region for financial PR activity and, if the signs pointing to a recovery in the UK market by the end of the year are correct, GA is likely to be well positioned to make the most of the sector when it bounces back.

HEALTHCARE

Cohn & Wolfe

Amid difficult times for the PR industry, the healthcare sector has proven the unexpected boom sector of the past year.

The result has been that almost every major agency has either established a healthcare arm, or is in the process of jumping on the bandwagon. Yet while the offerings of many are still in their infancy, Cohn & Wolfe is ahead of many of its rivals having established its healthcare division as far back as 1995.

The benefits of this heritage are not to be underestimated. There is a clear pattern to expansion into this sector: agencies lure a PR manager from a major pharmaceutical company, who, in turn, brings business to the agency from their former employer. The agency instantly acquires expertise and links within what are often very specialised practice areas.

Having been around longer than other similar divisions, C&W is well-placed to boast a further skill. Thus while director Fiona McMillan boasts in-house experience (at Bristol-Myers Squibb), the agency's seven years of healthcare experience ensures that both client-facing and support staff are sufficiently well versed in the sector to avoid over-relying on a trophy staff member.

While one could be forgiven for thinking that many agencies are merely following a trend to possess a financially expedient add-on, healthcare is at the heart of C&W's operation.

A third of the agency's income now comes from the sector, the second largest proportion among full-service agencies in the top 20 of the healthcare league.

The proportion means that the continued success of the division is crucial to C&W. The increased major agency presence in a market already well populated with specialist shops will inevitably lead to a shake-out and consolidation of agencies.

Yet the appointment of healthcare head Angie Wiles as one of two deputy MDs, and the presence of two healthcare-specific directors (McMillan and Caroline Page) on the board, is indicative of its commitment to the sector. Its 25-strong team of last year has been bolstered by a further 12 hires. Clearly structured teams are now in place in the spheres of policy, consumer health, online, ethical - both domestic and global - and clinical trials.

Last year, C&W enjoyed a modest leap from 11th to ninth in PRWeek's healthcare league table, adding almost £1m to its annual fee income. The internal expansion is a clear signal of the agency's intent to progress in to the upper echelons of that table.

With the increasing deregulation of prescription drugs to over-the-counter treatments, the ability to mix healthcare expertise and consumer knowhow will be important.

Industry-wide arguments as to the benefits of larger agencies against smaller specialists are less relevant in healthcare, since business is usually assigned on a product-by-product basis. However, the allure of a broader offering to clients than pure healthcare communications should not be underestimated.

Inevitably much will depend on the success of C&W's rivals - it would be churlish to expect all of the newly established healthcare divisions to fail purely because they are younger than others. However, C&W's impressive client list - including the likes of AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Aventis - and a solid 40 per cent of new healthcare business generated from existing clients bodes well for the agency.

FULL-SERVICE

hatch-group

To call Michael Murphy's hatch-group a full-service firm a year ago would have been to stretch the truth. It is a mark of how far the agency has come since its creation that it now catches the eye as the likely full-service success story of the year ahead.

Formed with a £20m cash fund from venture capital company Bridgepoint Capital, the agency run by Murphy - a former deputy global CEO at what was then Shandwick International - is on the acquisition trail as it bids to fill gaps in its offering.

Agency managers maintain they are on course to hit the target set when the acquisition vehicle made its first buy last year.

With consumer agency MacLaurin as founding subsidiary, Murphy made the bold claim that he would be running a top ten UK operation within three years and would hit £50m fee income in the same period.

So far, that has held true. The last year has seen office openings and practice group launches. In addition to its core consumer offering based in west London, the group now has a wholly-owned financial PR arm, Prospero Financial, run by former Edelman PRO Michael Oke, and a dedicated PA arm run by former Flagship director Simon Elliott, both based in London's West End.

With offices in Birmingham and Glasgow as the first steps in the creation of a UK-wide network, the agency now has four divisional MDs, reporting to Brian MacLaurin (as group MD) and with Murphy at the helm.

Observers can expect plans for growth this year to revolve around sector disciplines rather than geographical areas.

There are plans to buy in Europe - French and German markets will have some hatch-group presence by the end of the year, says Murphy. But 'bedding down' time is being given to the UK operations in the meantime before more provincial acquisitions take place.

Rather, it is to filling the gaps in hatch's product range that Murphy is turning attention in 2002. With corporate, consumer, financial and IR, public affairs and, most recently, a niche B2B practice under the hatch belt, there are a few gaps to fill before hatch can realistically compete with the major networks on an equal footing.

The company is remaining tight-lipped about which sectors exactly it expects to branch into, but don't be surprised if internal communications, corporate social responsibility or property PR feature in hatch's big buys in the year ahead.

The company will also make a concerted effort to continue reshaping its client base in the direction of solid blue-chips.

Although MacLaurin always had a reputation at the entertainment end of the PR spectrum, it has long since worked with such firms as Orange and BT.

Names such as EDS, Aberdeen Asset Management and the Inland Revenue have already been added in recent months. Expect more of the same.

If the ambitious plans hinted at above come to fruition, Murphy and MacLaurin's wish to double in size by spring 2003 may be the very least investors can come to expect.

FINANCIAL/CORPORATE

Gavin Anderson & Co

City eyes are likely to be on financial and corporate firm Gavin Anderson & Co this year, following the news that former Sunday Telegraph City editor Neil Bennett will be running the show in London from May.

The appointment of Bennett as London chief executive is seen a surprise coup for GA and a move that could herald the start of a more prosperous phase for the agency.

Despite GA's international strengths - it is, alongside Citigate Dewe Rogerson, one of the only truly global financial PR firms - London has not been its strong point in recent years.

But now, GA bosses are turning their attention to the City and, with the full support of parent company Omnicom, the agency is ready to do battle with its higher-ranking rivals in the Top 150.

GA chairman Howard Lee says the agency aims to raise the stakes in City PR but also build a name for itself in public affairs: 'We're looking to develop our market presence in the UK and build our presence from a financial PR perspective.'

'GA is possibly better known for its financial work rather than either corporate PR or public affairs, so our aim is also to build up what we have in the corporate area and develop a PA capability in London,' he adds.

It is widely expected that Bennett's arrival at GA will see the agency get more of the transaction work it has been missing out on.

And in terms of public affairs, GA is looking to recent recruit Nick Andrews - the former APCO European MD of strategic communications who joined in January - to boost its offerings in London and across mainland Europe. Lee explains that PA is key to the strategy over the year ahead.

According to PRWeek's 2001 M&A financial PR adviser league, GA ranked sixth with 33 deals worth more than £20bn overall.

This year will see GA make a challenge for a higher place in that ranking. CEO Richard Constant attests to this.

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