Nine UK PR agencies to watch in 2020

Departures, arrivals, new owners... recent weeks and months have brought major changes at some of the UK's biggest PR shops. Here are nine to keep an eye on in 2020.

This is not a particular endorsement of the agencies mentioned, but rather a list of those we think have an interesting story and are likely to have an impact this year. They are listed alphabetically and we've chosen only one agency per holding company.

Cicero/AMO

Adding a strong public affairs specialism to a 'traditional' corporate/financial PR offer (or vice versa) has been favoured by many agencies in recent years, particularly in these uncertain political times. Here's an interesting take: Cicero/AMO, the public affairs outlet led by Iain Anderson (below) - the charismatic former Tory adviser, author and sometime Question Time panellist – is to work alongside Havas-owned Maitland/AMO, the renowned corporate PR consultancy, initially as partners in the Havas-led AMO global network.

The move is seen as a prelude to Havas taking a stake in Cicero/AMO, which last year topped the PRWeek UK list of the largest public affairs shops. Cicero/AMO's UK staff moved into the 'Havas Village' in London's King's Cross yesterday, and the hard work starts now.

Eleven new UK PR agencies to watch in 2020

Finn Partners

Office space is getting tight at the UK HQ of the privately owned American PR agency, with three UK acquisitions in just over two years. Soho-based consumer shop ZPR was the most recent, with that agency's team of about 20 set to move into the main office near London's Old Street Roundabout this year, taking Finn's UK headcount into three figures.

Integrating teams and physically moving staff always brings challenges, and with more acquisitions likely – Finn also acquired Paris-based Medical & Health Consulting in 2019 – the firm has arguably taken the baton as the most acquisitive privately owned PR company operating in the UK. However, with Teneo looking at a return to the acquisition trail under its new private-equity backer (see later), that mantle could be short lived.

Below: ZPR founder Zaria Pinchbeck (left) and Finn's Chantal Bowman-Boyles

Golin

It's all change at the top at Golin, in the UK and indeed globally. In November the agency announced that London MD Bibi Hilton (pictured, below) was moving to a role overseeing the Unilever business across Interpublic, with her deputy Emily Luscombe also departing. A second shock announcement came soon after, with news of a global restructure that will eliminate the co-CEO role and see the departure of UK-based Jon Hughes, one of the agency's three chief executives.

What changes can we expect globally under now-sole CEO Matt Neale? And what difference will the new, as-yet-unannounced UK MD make to the London business? Stay tuned.

Note: PRWeek's rule of one agency per holding company means we had to choose between Golin and Interpublic stablemate Weber Shandwick, which would otherwise be a worthy inclusion on this list, given the recent stepping-down of UK chief executive Rachel Friend.

Hotwire

To call 2019 a year of upheaval at Hotwire in the UK doesn't really do it justice. The first half brought a slew of changes at the top: the appointment of Chris Paxton from Leading Edge to the new role of chief strategy officer; the departure of global chief operating officer and EMEA head Alex MacLaverty; and, in March, news that UK MD Matt Cross was moving to a new role of head of B2B, EMEA.

Group finance director Emily Rule left for Tyto, the agency co-founded by former Hotwire chief executive Brendon Craigie. Then, in June, PRWeek reported that global head of consumer Emma Hazan had resigned, alongside the tech PR agency's UK consumer chief and creative director.

Such a succession of changes would be a challenge for any agency, and Hotwire will be hoping Cross' successor Tara O'Donnell (pictured, below), the former UK boss at Text100, will keep the ship steady.

M&C Saatchi Talk

PR agencyland welcomes a new name this year, with news that two M&C Saatchi shops - M&C Saatchi Public Relations and Talk.Global – are merging to create an enlarged entity, boasting a near-90-strong workforce and annual revenue of about £8m.

M&C Saatchi Talk chief executive Jane Boardman (pictured below, with MD Chris Hides, inset) hopes the merger will help "super-power" growth, admitting that expansion has been "really difficult to achieve" as smaller agencies. How will the integration and office move (to a currently unidentified location) pan out in 2020? How will the new leadership team fare, especially with the absence of M&C Saatchi Public Relations co-founder Molly Aldridge, whose abrupt departure caught many by surprise? And, perhaps most pertinently, can the operation thrive amid the accounting crisis engulfing its parent company?

MHP/Mischief

As our next entry we've chosen to include two Engine firms – because, over time, they will increasingly operate as a sole unit.

It's the 'i' word again; integration has been a big theme at both agencies since it was announced that MHP and Mischief would run under the Engine banner. The MHP and Mischief names will be retained, for the time being at least. In practice, the move has ushered in changes, such as integrating the firms' creative services into a centralised hub.

Mischief also lost its highly-regarded chief executive Frankie Cory last year; she went in-house at Fremantle. With the new Mischief leadership team – led by MD Greg Jones and head of operations and client services Daniella Bertolone (pictured, below) – now in place, and other key appointments including Edelman's former corporate reputation lead Rachel Bower as MHP head of brand and reputation, 2020 will be a crucial test of whether the combined entity can be greater than the sum of its parts.

MSL

There's also a new team in charge of the UK's ninth-biggest PR agency.

Chris McCafferty abandoned management consultancy life at Accenture/Karmarama last year to take the MSL UK chief executive role, and last week announced his first major hire: former Freuds deputy MD Jo Grierson (pictured) as UK MD. With backgrounds at independent creative shops (McCafferty founded Kaper, the former PR part of Karmarama), will the duo spearhead a different culture at the UK arm of the Publicis Groupe network agency? A new positioning based on the concept of "belief" is being pursued – stay tuned.

It comes alongside a new era at MSL globally following CEO Guillaume Herbette's departure. Local MSL offices will now report to Publicis leadership teams on a regional basis, perhaps suggesting more autonomy for regional MSL leaders. Back in London, strategic development director and former interim UK boss James Warren has departed, and consumer chief Andrea Donovan is also leaving.

Portland

Portland lost its founder late last year, with Tim Allan (pictured, below) leaving the agency he launched 18 years earlier to pursue other interests.

Despite his departure, the agency will hope a settled team led by MD-turned-chief executive Mark Flanagan, who marks a decade at Portland this year, will ensure continuity. It is understood Flanagan will 'freshen up' its executive committee a little, but other senior partners will remain.

Will Omnicom be tempted to revise its relatively 'hands-off' approach to Portland, which has continued to climb the PRWeek UK Top 150 table throughout the 2010s, generating north of £30m annual revenue by the decade's end? It seems unlikely, but interesting times are ahead.

Teneo

While the world was distracted by chief executive Gordon Tempest-Hay's leaked email threatening to close Teneo's London office bar, after calling out the 'out-of-hand' behaviour of some staff, the agency was finalising a deal that heralded a new era.

In June, Teneo announced it had sold a majority stake to UK-based private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, as former majority owner BC Partners exited after four-and-a-half years.

Teneo suggested the company could return to the acquisition trail; it had acquired nine agencies during BC Partners' tenure, although none since 2017 until last week's news that it had snapped up Montreal's Hatley Strategy Advisors under the new ownership.

There have also been senior management changes, with the departure, revealed by PRWeek last month, of Tempest-Hay (pictured, below) and Teneo vice-chair Fiona Joyce. This is shaping up to be an eventful year at that business formerly known as Teneo Blue Rubicon in the UK.

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