Steve Barrett on PR: Firms show big US growth before crisis

PRWeek's Agency Business Report, released this week, detailed strong performance in 2019 and the start of this year, derailed by COVID-19, which is fundamentally changing PR, business and life in general.

The headline on this year’s main feature in the print edition of the 2020 Agency Business Report is written in a new social distance-themed font produced for this COVID-19 era called Times Uncertain.

That’s a pretty good starting point to summarize the state of the PR agency landscape, given the tremendous disruption and turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic that has literally changed everything.

But, when the year 2019 is taken into consideration, overall PR agency revenue numbers are actually encouraging, especially in the U.S. And it seemed January and February 2020 were shaping up well until the impact of COVID-19 started to reveal itself.

Global revenues from firms that submitted or that PRWeek made educated estimates about were up 4% in 2019, down from 5% in 2018. But U.S. PR agency revenues broke $6 billion for the first time, up 6% year over year, two percentage points up from the 4% rise in 2018.

Almost 85% of U.S. revenues are accounted for by the top 50 agencies on the rankings table, 83% of global revenues, and many of them are featured in the Agency Business Report.

But we also comprehensively cover boutique, small and midsized firms too and many are among the 75 agencies we spoke to for this unrivaled and in-depth analysis of the state of the PR nation. We also spoke to clients about what they want from agency partners.

This year, we implemented a scoring system for the agencies profiled, asking each firm to rank itself out of 10 and adding a PRWeek score.

This was an interesting exercise. Let’s just say some are more bullish in their self-scoring than others.

Like last year, the top performers came from outside the large agencies, with Allison & Partners, ICR, Imre, Kivvit, Day One Agency, Walker Sands, Singer Associates and SourceCode Communications standing out.

As several agency leaders stated in the report, nobody knows what lies around the corner. But it’s fairly certain COVID-19 has changed the PR industry forever, just as it has changed business and life in general.

An increase in remote working; smaller inner-city head offices; even more focus on smart, nimble digital work; and less travel will likely characterize the future.

But PR firms excelled themselves last year and are doing so during the coronavirus crisis. And I fully expect them to continue to do so once the world moves on from this unprecedented hiatus.

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