PRWeek Top 150: A year of 'purpose, pause and pivot' in consumer PR as agencies battle unprecedented decline

If 2019 was a ‘golden age’ of consumer PR, 2020 was a sobering correction with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the revenues of consumer PR agencies.

Clockwise, from top left: James Wright, Maneeze Chowdhury, Jo Vyvyan-Robinson, Warren Johnson, Helen Bennett and Sophie Raine
Clockwise, from top left: James Wright, Maneeze Chowdhury, Jo Vyvyan-Robinson, Warren Johnson, Helen Bennett and Sophie Raine

The past year has been ‘U-shaped’ for the consumer PR sector, which suffered huge drops in demand when projects were placed on hold for several months as brands came to grips with the global pandemic.

PRWeek UK Top 150 2021: Consumer PR rankings

This forced clients and agencies to ditch brand work and pivot to purpose-led work that showed a supporting hand during the worst months of lockdown. In the latter part of the year, many businesses jump-started brand campaigns, albeit with slightly different rules of engagement, but this helped consumer agencies claw back some of the ground lost in the first half of the year.

The full Top 150 UK PR consultancies table can be viewed here

Nonetheless, it was still a brutal year, with several leading agencies reporting unprecedented consumer PR revenue declines. The top 50 consumer PR shops had an average fee income contraction of 10 per cent in 2020.

The most notable of these is Freuds. The leading consumer PR shop of 2019 (when it reported a 21 per cent revenue increase) reported a decline of 45 per cent, down from £27.8m to £15.2m.

This has paved the way for Weber Shandwick, whose consumer PR revenue fell only six per cent, to take over the number-one spot on this year’s table. However, last year’s second-placed consumer PR agency, Edelman, did not provide figures and is not included on this list.

Top 50 consumer PR table

Check out how agencies' consumer PR practices perfprmed in 2020.

Another notable riser was W Communications, whose 11 per cent growth in consumer saw it climb five places into fifth, while Tin Man Communications and Havas PR were among the handful that reported healthy growth (see charts below).

The importance of authenticity, purpose and agility are among the notable trends in consumer PR, according to agency leaders and consumer PR chiefs.

Helen Bennett, London managing director, Weber Shandwick

It used to be somewhat provocative to tell a client that consumers had little interest in their brand. Now it’s a well-recognised truth – meaning our primary role as communicators has become less about helping brands earn attention for attention’s sake, and much more about helping brands earn a meaningful role in people’s lives. 

Last year undoubtedly accelerated this. In a year with so many inflection points, we saw increased appreciation for the ability of PR to not just adapt at pace, but to also foresee and navigate the fault lines between risk and reward that so often exist for brands looking to build relevance in challenging times.

When the country first retreated into lockdown, we worked from our kitchens, bedrooms and home offices to help clients quickly adjust. We used our data analytics capabilities to provide evidence-based and real-time direction on how to shift strategies and programmes. We created content at newsroom pace to help brands reassure, inform and support their customers and employees. Our digital team launched Conference +, our virtual event platform, which has enabled us to keep delivering press conferences, launches and events throughout the pandemic.

As the year unfolded, the tidal wave of civil unrest and outrage represented a pivotal moment for brands – and brought into sharp focus the deepened intersections between culture, business, policy, media and technology.  Against this backdrop, a new playbook for brands has emerged – one in which PR is well placed to play a leading role. No longer a bolt-on for amplification, we are seeing brands across all sectors elevate the role of PR as the discipline best placed to navigate complexity – and translate that complexity into competitive advantage.

James Wright, global chairman, Havas PR Collective

Our consumer teams had a resilient year under challenging circumstances. It was a ‘U-shaped’ year, as the uncertainty of the summer gave way to increasing confidence from clients towards the end of Q3 and through Q4. This has strongly continued into 2021.

The pandemic accelerated many trends we were already experiencing and gave greater meaning to them. Renewed vigour from clients has led to much clearer briefs that desire work that stands out and makes consumers feel more connected to the brand.

In 2020 brand purpose was pressure tested like never before and has moved from pledges to progress. Demonstrating authentic action and progress is now absolutely key to consumer and employee expectations. This has led to the end of purpose campaigns standing as a separate stream. Purpose is now an integral part of all brand communications and our advice is to only stand up if you mean it and are willing to see it through.

There is also a continued blurring of the lines between corporate and consumer communications to ensure consistency of messaging. We saw this as a strong trend pre-pandemic and has only strengthened because of it.

Our pioneering merged media approach has also been playing well as clients continue to look for creative that is channel-agnostic. The pandemic enhanced even further a brand's ability to talk to consumers and stakeholders directly through digital and social platforms, so storytelling that spans multiple platforms but still has earned at the core is more important than ever.

Jo Vyvyan-Robinson, partner and head of consumer brands, Freuds

2020 was a year like no other, personally and professionally. It seems unimaginable that an industry so reliant on creative storytelling, conversation and connectivity has spent a year working from home. But in spite of the lack of physical interaction we made some of our most emotionally charged, responsive and humanising work in our 35-year history. Generated within 275 living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens, our consumer work continued to push the boundaries. 

Helping brands to maintain or build cultural relevance was more business-critical than ever to our clients last year, and we focused on guiding them on how to show up, retain salience and drive engagement during a time where a misjudged tweet, a badly timed campaign or apathy could be fatal. 

Navigating consumer PR in this period has been incredibly complex and fragile, often in step with our crisis team as the mood and needs of the nation – and therefore the role brands can play – changed weekly, if not daily, throughout the year. Leveraging consumer insight and pushing for bold, standout creative ideas have defined our year. 

We have always believed in the importance of brand purpose to drive relevance and in 2020 this became the predominant thread of our consumer work. Words are not enough: consumers want to see action. Consumers expect and are demanding more from brands than ever before, and that is great for our industry because we are best placed to advise on what that purpose is and how best to communicate it authentically.  

Standing for something, driving emotional connection through meaningful action and leveraging a brand’s reach for good is now fundamental in the broader comms mix and will, no doubt, continue to be critical to comms in 2021 and beyond.

Sophie Raine, managing director of consumer brands, Ketchum

Our consumer practice was hit the hardest in 2020, a year that began with a projected period of growth.

It’s said one does 70 per cent of learning from “on the job” experiences, and I don’t think there could have been a steeper learning curve than 2020 for the consumer team. Our discipline evolved more in the past 12 months than the past decade. Existing plans were ripped up and new solutions offered to meet the ever-changing needs of clients and consumers. These solutions then had to be executed at breakneck speed.

As such, we’ve been able to get closer to clients as trusted and strategic partners as we helped them navigate the turbulence. The result? Deeper and ‘longer-term’ relationships and significant organic growth from some of our biggest clients as we headed into 2021.

It also meant we achieved growth in other facets of our business. Design and production thrived – whereby planned activity was quickly and skilfully adapted for the virtual world – such as the taboo-busting ‘Pain Museum’ for Bodyform. We saw double-digit growth in research and analytics in 2020. At a time when every penny counts, brands sought to increase the sophistication of measurement metrics.

The future looks promising. New business ramped up dramatically at the end of last year with meatier, multidisciplinary briefs, and that trend has continued into 2021.

Maneeze Chowdhury, chief executive, Exposure 

2020 was the year of the great pause and pivot – from forced change to a year of transformation, regeneration and progress.

Exposure came out the blocks fast; trading was strong with progressive briefs to match. Spring was turbulent and tough as the pandemic set in, which hampered the bottom line. Our retail and fashion clients were notably impacted, counterbalanced with strong demand from consumer and tech brands, which were striving to maintain cultural relevance and create community connections.

Overall, our industry is well-equipped to reset and be agile. With our foot firmly on the accelerator, the very best of the Exposure spirit emerged. Our team’s resilience and adaptability was unwavering – they equipped the business to confront the challenges, whatever the regulations and restrictions.

Innovation ensured we adapted to the changing business environment. We launched a streamlined creative product and our brand experience offer was fully digitised as we opened virtual pubs, showrooms and gigs alike. 

The crisis inspired creativity, as we tackled the cultural and societal issues of today. We steered clients to lean on value systems to 'walk the talk' and instigate consumer action. For others, we were getting the house in order.

With 21 June on the horizon, audiences want to be entertained, as brands continue to seek stand-out while driving value. 

Purpose will remain at the fore, as brands recognise the vital need to create meaningful campaigns to build a better society. Movements, not just messaging, will rule the agenda. There has never been a more important time to inspire cultural change with ideas that bring company commitments to life, as brands step up to leave a positive impact.

Warren Johnson, founder, W Communications

No year in memory has demanded a greater, more granular understanding of consumer engagement. The challenge was cutting through increasingly loud digital spaces. The answer was an undying entrepreneurial spirit. 

It was the Year of the Pivot. Our core PR and social functions are best in class and grew stronger as we adapted to the reality of distressed media. But it is what we added that truly makes us stand out. 

Through our entrepreneurism, we embarked on several joint ventures across multiple disciplines, from earned advertising with Brothers & Sisters to experiential with XYZ, and deep insights into diverse audiences with Word on the Curb, to evolve beyond consumer PR to become a consumer engagement agency. 

We’ve redoubled our commitment to diversity, expanding our social enterprise, WX, to bring young talent from diverse backgrounds into the industry and backing black-owned businesses, introducing them to our clients for mutual benefit.

Defying the pandemic required agility in our ways of working to grow our own and our clients’ businesses. Take Pizza Pilgrims; we helped create the ‘makeaway’ category, copied infinitely worldwide.

Lockdown didn’t stop us expanding our offer into Europe, with major client wins across the region for Papa John’s International. Closer to home, we completed the acquisition of an Edinburgh-based agency to launch W Scotland.

We also added another considerable string to W’s bow in 2020: W Studio – a full end-to-end, multidisciplinary team of creatives, art directors and strategists. The studio has already created award-winning global TVCs for Unilever, social strategy and content for Levi’s in EMEA, interactive Instagram product drops for Adidas, and experiential events for The Children’s Society. Not bad before its first birthday.

More from the Top 150 UK Consultancies Report:

Top 150 analysis: Revenue slides, but optimism reigns for 2021

PRWeek reveals the Top 150 UK PR consultancies in 2021

PRWeek UK Top 150 2021: Consumer PR rankings

PRWeek UK Top 150 2021: Independent PR agency rankings

PRWeek Top 150: Pandemic triggers client demand for public affairs while agility is rewarded

New name tops PRWeek UK Top 150 table as Edelman falls to second

PRWeek UK Top 150 2021: Public Sector comms rankings

PRWeek Top 150: Bumpy year as pandemic places spotlight on public sector 

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