Analysis: Chadlington charts PR course for Huntsworth

Quoted minnow Huntsworth last week signalled its growth ambitions with the appointment of former IPR boss Alison Clarke in a group new business role. Ian Hall reports on the future of Lord Chadlington's marcoms group

Given the industry-wide belt-tightening that characterised last year, winning more new business can rarely have been higher up PR firms' must-do lists as corporate boardrooms plan strategy for 2003.

One boardroom that has certainly given greater priority to new business is at central London's Huntsworth Mews, where Huntsworth Group CEO Lord Chadlington and his colleagues have drafted in a big hitter - former Weber Shandwick Asia-Pacific boss Alison Clarke - in a newly created new business director role.

Huntsworth - the holding company for advertising, marketing, design and healthcare research firms, as well as PR firms such as Counsel and Harrison Cowley - bucked market trends in 2002, posting in September year-on-year operating profits up from £28,000 to £418,000.

The PR firms' performance stands in contrast to that of the non-PR interests inherited by Chadlington and chairman Jon Foulds, who took over the original Huntsworth Group in 2000.

Last September's interim results report that 'the non-PR businesses inherited as part of the original Huntsworth Group have had a more difficult time with revenues and operating margins falling dramatically'.

Spurred on by the PR firms' results, last autumn Huntsworth acquired Windsor and London-based EHPR (PRWeek, 25 October 2002), in addition to Thomson Financial's investor relations arm Global Consulting Group.

As to whether the role that has been created for Clarke signals a policy-change towards organic growth, Chadlington concedes that he feels 'enormous pressure' to build Huntsworth organically. However, both he and FD Roger Selman say further acquisitions remain possible this year.

In addition, Chadlington says affiliations or start-up shops in the public affairs sector could be on the cards, augmenting Huntsworth's existing offering in areas such as consumer.

Chadlington reports an encouraging start to this year, citing wins such as Dutch insurance giant Aegon and an account for healthcare firm Janssen-Cilag. He is hoping Clarke can deliver more similarly 'big-name clients'.

In typically robust form, Chadlington predicts that economic conditions during 2003 will be 'ghastly', saying he expects a worse environment than last year and 'everything to be much more competitively fought for'.

'We need to improve our hit-rate on these big accounts. If we're up against the major international networks, these firms have much more room to do these things as loss-leaders,' he says. 'Business is much more difficult to win now. You need to do more homework and clients are getting better deals.'

Chadlington says Clarke's 'extraordinary' presentation skills should help Huntsworth agencies win more business: 'If we can improve our hit-rate by 20 per cent, it will make an enormous difference.'

On a day-to-day basis, Clarke - who officially starts work on 3 February - says she will have both an 'active and background' role, providing both 'creative content' and also a 'hand on the tiller, non-interfering' function for the firms operating under the Huntsworth banner.

Chadlington - who says he has a target list of other 'young' personnel whom he wants to recruit to Huntsworth 'to make up for the grey hairs I am losing' - says there are no plans 'for the foreseeable future' to merge any of the Huntsworth brands.

This will be welcome news to EHPR chief executive Elizabeth Hindmarch, who agreed to Huntsworth's advances when selling her agency last year, on the basis that 'this deal ensures we retain our identity'.

On the need for a group-wide new business director, Hindmarch says: 'When the market is tougher it raises standards but I don't think there's ever been an "easy win". When the market becomes more difficult, more and more firms put an emphasis on new business.'

Both Hindmarch and HC chief David Heal both welcomed Clarke's appointment but were reluctant to comment on the extent to which they envisaged their agencies working with her, saying details had yet to be decided.

Clarke herself admits her role is 'somewhat exploratory for all of us', but, almost a year after her Asia-Pacific role was axed by WS, she is relishing a return to the fray, with a group that she describes as 'going places'.

Lorna Tilbian, media analyst at investment bank Numis Securities, says: 'In Clarke, Huntsworth has made a heavyweight appointment. I suspect Huntsworth might make some opportunistic acquisitions this year, but mainly they'll try and grow it organically.

'I don't think they want other people's remedial cases this year - by that I mean crippled agencies that need to be turned around,' she adds.

Chadlington and Clarke both agree that increased group revenue can be the only real measurement of whether the latter's appointment has been a success. The proof of the pudding will be in the numbers - something that will be true not only at Huntsworth this year.

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