What happened to some of 2022’s PRWeek UK new agencies to watch?

Four UK comms agencies featured in last year’s PRWeek ‘new agencies to watch’ list discuss their first full year in business – the highs, the lows and their plans for 2023.

Clockwise from top left: Steffan Williams and Louise Nicolson (Williams Nicolson); Lynsey Barry and Patrick Southwell (Five not 10); John Penman and Anthony Thompson (56° North); and Lucia Hodgson (Charlesbye)

Despite a recent report that the number of new comms agencies launching in the UK has slowed in recent years, 2022 was an exception, with a one per cent rise in start-ups.

Among those brave enough to branch out and establish a start-up in the past few years, there have been some interesting ventures from well-known figures in the consumer, corporate and political comms spheres.

PRWeek UK caught up with four UK comms agencies that launched in 2021 – from our list of new consultancies to keep an eye on in 2022 – to find out more about their first full year in business.

(You can also check out PRWeek’s list of 11 new UK agencies to watch in 2023.)


56° North

Launched in May 2021, 56° North was founded by partners Fiona Stanton, Anthony Thompson and John Penman. In January 2022, Paula Sutherland joined as a partner responsible for strategic comms practice, completing the management team.

(L-R) John Penman and Anthony Thompson

56° North’s ambition is to become a comms powerhouse for business growth in the North East of England and Scotland. Over the past 12 months, the agency has opened offices in London and Whitley Bay near Newcastle, in addition to its Edinburgh base.

Key hires include not only Sutherland but Michael Martins as senior director and four new directors – Sophie Ashcroft, Arron Gatley, Philippa Gerrard and Andrew Sleight.

In 2022, the team doubled in size growing to 15 members of staff, which brings fresh challenges – as co-managing partner Anthony Thompson (pictured above) explains.

“Anyone who’s enjoyed rapid growth like us will appreciate that you very quickly have to add in more back-office functions, build a training programme and ensure a bigger team is properly supported.

“While it’s been our biggest challenge, it’s also been brilliant watching the team grow and seeing a unique 56 culture develop at the same time,” he adds. Important account wins last year include Tandem Bank, Artisanal Spirits Company, Nationwide, Baillie Gifford, Cardeo and Lumon.

“We’ve almost doubled our fees in the last 12 months, expanding well beyond our early focus in financial services and fintech to work with clients in food & drink, transport and sport and more,” Thompson explains.

Being shortlisted in the New Consultancy of the Year category at PRWeek UK’s 2022 Awards was his highlight of 2022. “We were beyond delighted just to make the shortlist and to be highly commended on the night was a wonderful surprise,” he adds.


Charlesbye

Strategic advisory firm Charlesbye is the brainchild of former No. 10 comms chief, Lee Cain.

In December 2021, the agency hired Lucia Hodgson (pictured), Boris Johnson’s former deputy press secretary, as a partner, advising on a range of clients, which include The Premier League, Camelot and the Social Mobility Foundation.

Lucia Hodgson, partner at Charlesbye

Hodgson described 2022 as a year of development for the agency. “We moved into a bigger office, our team more than doubled, we carried on growing both retained and project-based business and carried out our first round of promotions,” she says.

Charlesbye also appointed George Buchan as its director of research, to lead the qualitative and quantitative research stages of their client’s campaigns.

“George has strengthened Charlesbye’s research capabilities, building messaging and strategies that are steeped in expert insight,” explains Hodgson.

Nonetheless, recruitment and ensuring the agency has the right-sized team to handle new business has been a challenge over the past 12 months.

“I would also say that breaking out of the political space and into the world of corporate affairs and reputation was a challenge,” admits Hodgson, “but the clients we’ve worked with have seen the benefit of our experience in the world of politics.

“We have just launched our public affairs offering, and are excited to be able to put our deep knowledge of the political environment to use with new and existing clients,” she adds.

“In the run-up to manifesto drafting and the election, there are several contentious and critical issues that many businesses will need support navigating,” says Hodgson.


Five not 10

The concept behind Five not 10 is to help b2b and tech brands banish complexity. Launched in September 2021 by Lynsey Barry and Patrick Southwell (pictured below) formerly managing director and director of strategy, respectively, at Berkeley Communications.

According to co-founder Southwell, Five not 10’s approach and focus on simplicity is working – especially for b2b clients.

“We worked with 12 clients in 2022,” says Barry, “eight of which are retainers or long-term projects. This includes some big brands.”

(L-R) Lynsey Barry and Patrick Southwell, co-founders of Five not 10

The business exceeded its 2022 financial targets “significantly” and has been sharing its success with the team by awarding bonuses and involving staff in future business decisions.

“We’ve built a fantastic team of five, plus freelancers to support with design and content. We’re now on the lookout for a permanent content manager and are planning other hires as part of our growth,” says Barry.

The pair admit there have been challenges along the way, from adjusting to being a business-owner to recruiting the right people. They have plans to hire an additional three members of staff before September.

“We’re competing with thousands of other businesses in a limited talent pool. Making ourselves stand out through our virtual agency model and flexibility has been important. Our team tells us that having a say on who we work with and company direction is a perk they care about,” says Barry.

Account wins last year included technology manufacturer Epson, cyber-security expert Forescout, software giant UiPath and Envirotainer.

“We were especially pleased to begin working with Epson,” says Southwell. “We create PR and social content for 33 teams across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.”

Even as an independent business, the pair say it’s crucial to have a strong professional network.

“When you work in a large, established agency, it can be easy to rely on the brand. As a start-up, this doesn’t work. Knowing the right people suddenly becomes invaluable,” says Barry.

“Nearly all the work we’ve won has been through some sort of connection to our networks. We wouldn’t have been so successful without their support and faith in us,” she adds.

In addition, the duo appointed external advisors such as a business consultant and a coach. The former gives the pair “hard commercial advice and challenge” and the latter, Lisa Quinn, has helped them to navigate their roles as co-founders, explains Southwell.

Together, Barry and Southwell have created a five-year growth strategy for the business, with big plans for the next 12 months.

As Southwell explains: “This will see us continue to build our core b2b client base, while also creating a Behaviour Change offer dedicated to helping organisations to challenge perceptions and change behaviours – something we are eager to do more of in 2023.”


Williams Nicolson

Williams Nicolson was founded in January 2021 as a strategic comms and change-management consultancy by experienced PR figures Steffan Williams – a veteran of MSL, Portland and Finsbury – and Louise Nicolson, the former boss of PR agencies Bread and Comtext Communications.

The co-founders (pictured below) worked together briefly when Williams was Porta chief executive and Nicolson was a partner at Porta-owned agency Newgate.

(L-R) Steffan Williams and Louise Nicolson, founders of Williams Nicolson

Over the past year, Williams Nicolson has strengthened its team, adding clients to its roster and expanding its data-led capability, as well as relocating from Shoreditch to its own office space on London’s South Bank.

“Our patent-pending ESG product, Connected Impact, went from strength to strength,” says Williams. “It’s now used by a large number of businesses to measure and manage the quality of their ESG communications.”

During the year, the agency moved Connected Impact out of Williams Nicolson to create a separate company so it can be used by new partners and third parties. More information on this will be available in 2023, says Williams.

The war in Ukraine has been the biggest challenge faced by the business in 2022, severely impacting investor confidence and capital markets activity.

“Several IPOs and other mandates we were working on have been mothballed,” says Williams. “On the plus side, we are now starting to see restructuring activity starting to pick up.

“In a year characterised by turmoil wherever you look, it has been inspiring and impressive to see our clients quietly and diligently moving forward. In our experience, business has reacted magnificently to very difficult and changing circumstances,” he adds.

The comms agency notched up two key account wins in 2022, including E2, which Williams describes as “a very exciting scale-up business that is building the UK’s pre-eminent hydrogen distribution network for the haulage and mass-transit industries”, and a global mandate with CHC Helicopter, one of the world’s biggest helicopter operators.

Last year, the company also hired two new members of staff and appointed Mary Walsh, the former head of communications at Eurostar, as an advisor.


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