Coronavirus: Three in four UK PR agency chiefs report new business slowing

Almost three quarters of UK PR agency leaders are seeing new business opportunities slow due to the coronavirus, although other opportunities are emerging as agencies and clients adjust.

That's according to a survey of 127 senior UK-based agency chiefs – primarily founders, CEOs, MDs, and practice heads – from the 2020 PRWeek UK Power Book.

The survey, conducted between Tuesday 17 and Thursday 19 March, found almost four in 10 PR chiefs are "extremely concerned" about the impact of the pandemic on their business. But some stressed that opportunities still exist, and the industry could even emerge from the crisis stronger.

Respondents were asked whether they had noticed a slowing of new business opportunities. Almost half (48.2 per cent) said they had to "a small extent" and 25.3 per cent to "a great extent".

"We have clients asking for their retainer fees to be put on hold for the next three months," said Julian Vogel, chief executive of ModusBPCM.

"It's early days but it has a big impact on the live industry," said Stuart Bell, managing director of specialist music and entertainment PR agency DawBell. Mark Borkowski said his eponymous agency's entertainment division is "severely affected".

"Our pipeline remains strong; however, some new biz prospects are, understandably, putting the conversations and opportunities on hold for now," commented Angie Moxham, founder and CEO of The Fourth Angel (below).

"Immediate opportunities we had been working on are mostly on hold, as clients really don't have bandwidth," said one anonymous respondent. "That said, all our clients need additional help and are looking for sounding boards."

Pitches

Other have seen little change. "Weirdly, no, not yet," was the response of James Gordon-MacIntosh, founder and chief creative officer at Hope&Glory.

"We'd expect there will be a slow down now that we've all gone into a higher level of isolation. But we've got four pitches this week and three next.

"The trick is going to be adjusting to a totally new way of presenting and creating a team dynamic remotely. The opportunities are there."

Indeed, several respondents flagged up the switch to online video pitches.

Others said the impact has yet to be felt. "Our clients are b2b technology businesses," explained Guy Walsingham, chief executive of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. "New business opportunities can take three months to come to fruition and clients plan long-term."

Several more respondents painted a mixed picture. Nick Barron (below), deputy chief executive of MHP + Mischief, said: "Our pipeline is thinner, but we have been pleasantly surprised that, so far, new briefs are still being issued."

Gabrielle Shaw, founder of Gabrielle Shaw Communications, said there had been "delays generally but an increase in our consultancy services in term of helping them refocus their offering to fit with our new reality".

Indeed, asked whether they are getting more business from clients who want advice on communicating around the coronavirus, a narrow majority (53 per cent) said they were.

For many, however, it's the nature of the work, rather than the amount of it, that has changed. One anonymous agency boss said his business has been "switching from activation to crisis counsel and advisory".

Peter Rawlinson, founder and chief executive of automotive comms specialist PFPR, said: "We are advising all of our clients, either reactively or proactively, but as most of our clients are retained, this is all part of our day-to-day service. We are not asking any clients for a wider brief or more budget."

"Some clients are diverting budgets to different projects, but we're not winning more business," said Charlotte Heath-Bullock, managing partner at Cultural Comms.

Specialist practice

Meanwhile, one-third of PR chiefs who responded to the question "Have you set up a specialist coronavirus practice or dedicated team?" said they had.

TVC group managing director Becky McKinlay said it has happened "informally at this stage as we react to such swift changes", and it is "likely to formalise in the coming week".

Raoul Shah (below), founder and joint chief executive of Exposure, said his business had done so "to manage the daily changes and rapid adjustments to the situation as it unfolds". Exposure's coronavirus operation includes staff from IT, HR, finance, legal and comms, as well as the board.

Many respondents reported that such work is being handled by existing teams, while others said their operations are too small to launch a dedicated service.

Some opposed the idea of a dedicated coronavirus offer in principle.

"This would be ambulance-chasing, IMHO," said Moxham. "Good consultancies will already have the capabilities within their corporate teams. And the client relationships to step in with a trusted relationship without having to rebrand in this tasteless way."

Rawlinson said: "Communicating our clients' messages and stories to their audiences, whether its good news, bad news or a reaction to a crisis, is what we do – as a team – all the time. All agencies should always be prepared for crises of this magnitude – they certainly will be in future!"

APCO Worldwide London MD Steve Earl said: "The past few weeks have been an extraordinary shock to the system for everyone, but the focus is just beginning to extend to immediate, short-term and mid-term requirements."

Concern

PR agency leaders were asked how concerned they are about the negative impact of the virus on their organisation, on a scale of one to five (with five being "extremely concerned" and one being "not concerned at all").

The average response was 3.9, and 36.9 per cent gave a score of five.

"Five doesn't do it justice!" replied Pitch Marketing Group founder Henry Chappell. Sadly, many others echoed his sentiment.

"I cannot begin to tell you how concerned I am," said PLMR chief executive Kevin Craig. "We have gone into huge emergency mode. We are assuming the worst."

Heath-Bullock stated: "We've had two clients resign in 48 hours. We have identified further high-risk clients and expect more resignations. Our immediate priority is to scale back and protect our team while ensuring the continuity of the business."

MSL London MD Jo Grierson (below) said simply: "Revenue will be hit and there will be a decrease in new business."

"Businesses without money in the bank and/or [that] fail to manage their cash will be in trouble," added one agency founder, answering anonymously. "Every agency needs to be in survival mode. This is going to get worse before it gets better."

Jo-ann Robertson, Ketchum UK chief executive, said: "The overall economic impact is as yet unknown, but given the number of large-scale events that have been cancelled or postponed, there [will] inevitably be some level of impact on business."

Future

Others find some optimism by looking to the future.

"When coronavirus passes, the uplift in work and budgets should also be unprecedented," said James Brooke, managing director of Rooster PR.

Jori White, who runs her eponymous PR agency, is stoic – emphasising that, whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead, we are all in this together.

"I know when this situation is over that Jori White PR is going to come out fighting so hard that we will thrive. Our loyalty to clients in this tough time is second to none. We need to support each other and work through it together.

"Yes, it's scary, but we won't stop working in the down time. We are all going to get prepared for our comeback! Good luck to everyone – I know what you're feeling."

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