War with Iraq, Sars, terrorist attacks - all these crises occurred at a time when the PR industry across the globe was already working to rebuild itself following the aftermath of September 11 and trying to recover from the economic downturn of the last two years.
Every year, PRWeek runs global league tables, which would go some way towards confirming how far the industry has been affected by worldwide issues. However, due to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that prevents PR companies owned by Omnicom, Interpublic, WPP, Grey, Havas and Publicis from releasing figures, we have been unable to publish global rankings this year.
Despite this, PRWeek asked the biggest players in the industry, the top 25 from last year's global rankings plus smaller firms with international reach, such as Gibbs & Soell and The Jeffrey Group, to submit information on their top international accounts and which regions they operate out of, to determine whether the industry is still operating across continents.
However, out of the 19 agencies that did submit global information, only 42 per cent could disclose whether international revenues fell or grew, and out of those, only half reported a rise in the last 12 months.
It's clear that for many industry players, 2002 proved to be a year of taking stock, consolidation, reviewing client relationships and rethinking operational structure. If 'leaner and meaner' was the motto of 2002, this has spawned the universal rallying cry of working smarter, harder and adding value to the client mix in 2003.
'Clients are forcing agencies to ensure whatever activity we undertake is bringing value to the bottom line,' says Gibbs & Soell president and chief executive Cos Malozzi. 'Our focus has been much more on customer-directed communications, as opposed to other areas that are nice to have when times are good.'
Despite the regional footprint the global multinational consultancies have, the impact of the respective crises on a market-specific basis has varied considerably.
While a number of firms report that Sars has had a detrimental impact on their business in Asia, Ogilvy Public Relations chief executive Marcia Silverman says the region is still an active one for the firm, with Intelsat and Jones Day among the clients the agency works for in the region. Elsewhere, Weber Shandwick CEO Harris Diamond says that despite Germany being a problematic area for growth, Europe, overall, seems strong.
There are pockets of optimism in certain sectors across the globe, namely in healthcare, while in some regions the tech and financial sectors are showing encouraging signs of new life.
Agencies agree that finding the right people to staff regional offices is one of the most difficult, but crucial, keys to success. Local hires, and heightened sensitivity to regional differences, is imperative. Most firms agree it is essential to get local leadership in place as quickly as possible, but that it is also important to have the right depth of experience for each market.
Global business may not be exactly booming, but there is an underlying optimism. The onus on much of the industry, then, has been to add value to long-term client relationships, and translate project wins into compelling retainer business.