Strong FY profit growth at Huntsworth PR agencies; chair Derek Mapp steps down

Huntsworth saw operating profit across its PR agencies grow strongly in 2017 despite a revenue dip, in what the company described as a year of "strong progress".

In its full-year results, the holding company – which announced that chairman Derek Mapp is to step down amid other changes at the board - said it has divided its business into four divisions.

The Communications arm (comprising Grayling, Red and Citigate Dewe Rogerson) reported operating profit of £7m ($9.7m), up from £5.5m ($7.6m) in 2016, a rise of 24 per cent on a like-for-like basis.

Revenue in the division fell seven per cent on a like-for-like basis to £77.6m ($107.3m), largely the result of closing loss-making parts of Grayling in 2016 and 2017, the report said, while CEO Paul Taaffe, talking to PRWeek, added: "There's no more negative operations to close."

Taaffe also said of the division's revenue "we're not expecting it to do more than [remain] flat this year, it may even decline a little", but said it would remain profitable. He went on to say: "There has been a lot of doom and gloom lately in the PR sector, but we're cautiously optimistic."


Grayling turned around an operating loss of £0.8m ($1.1m) to report operating profit of £1.1m ($1.5m) in 2017 – Huntsworth earlier announced that Grayling had returned to the black in the first half of 2017.

The company said Grayling "has responded well to the prior year restructuring". The recovery was led by the UK, which saw a "particularly strong rebound in performance".

Like-for-like revenue at Grayling fell 11 per cent to £40.5m ($56m).


Huntsworth said consumer agency Red had a "good year", with revenue and operating profit up three and four per cent respectively. This was "despite a difficult marketplace and client churn largely driven by procurement-led tenders".

"The agency won a number of significant new mandates, and we anticipate little net effect on trading in 2018," the company stated.


Operating profit at its financial agency Citigate Dewe Rogerson (CDR) fell slightly, from £3.6m ($5m) to £3.5m ($4.8m), on revenue up from £22.1m ($30.6m) to £22.2m ($30.7m).

Huntsworth said Citigate "performed solidly" and the results reflect a "mixed performance", with a "strong performance in the Netherlands offset by a weaker UK performance".

"A quieter Asian market impacted the Greater China business early in the year, however, all CDR operations benefited from an improving market towards the end of the year," the company said.

Overall pre-tax profit at Huntsworth rose 52 per cent to £24.4m ($33.7m) in 2017, excluding factors such as acquisition and restructuring costs. Revenue rose nine per cent to £197m ($272.3m).

Group restructure

Huntsworth said it restructured into four divisions following the acquisition of healthcare specialist The Creative Engagement Group last year.

The other three divisions – Marketing, Medical and Immersive - are focused on healthcare marcoms, which has been Huntsworth’s strongest performing element for some time.

Taaffe said healthcare remained the company’s "primary focus", but that the Communications division "remains an important part of the group", contributing 21 per cent of profits before central costs.

Huntsworth said the performance in 2017 "primarily reflects a combination of strong growth from the three Healthcare divisions, the impact of a favourable move in exchange rates and Grayling's return to profitability".

Taaffe said: "Huntsworth made strong progress in 2017, led by its Healthcare agencies. Our focus is to better serve our Healthcare clients by developing and adding capability to the group, and with a strengthening balance sheet we are well placed to continue to do so. Despite increasing FX headwinds, the year has started well with good trading momentum and Huntsworth is well positioned for further growth in 2018."

Asked about the war for talent in the sector, Taaffe said: "It's very tough in healthcare PR, but Grayling in the UK has not had any problems with hiring some very important new people, and Red has not had any [either]."

Heads of creative (Andrew Ferguson) and corporate (Tom Nutt) and public affairs director Paul Montague-Smith were given as examples of these, with Red said to have new appointments to be announced shortly.

Chair departs

Mapp, who replaced Lord Myners as chairman in 2014, said that with "much sadness" he would be stepping down "subject to an orderly succession process", a decision he communicated to the group yesterday.

Taaffe said: "On behalf of the board, I would like to thank our chair Derek Mapp for his leadership in guiding us all through the restructure of Huntsworth to where we are today. His contribution through a period of significant change can be seen in these results and we are delighted that he will stay with us until a new chair has been appointed."

Huntsworth also said senior independent director Tim Ryan stepped down from the board in 2017, with his role taken by non-executive director Andy Boland. Liz McKee Anderson, a pharmaceutical industry veteran who has worked for companies including Johnson & Johnson, joined the board on 1 January.

This story was updated after publications with comments from Taaffe, who spoke to PRWeek UK's Sam Burne James

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