Let's hope MEPRA doesn't kill the golden goose

I fear Campaign is about to have a new competitor for the attention of PRs and clients.

Now, I know you're probably assuming that I mean Bovine and Ovine Middle East and North Africa -- the must-read trade mag for any self respecting cow or sheep lover. And, indeed, you can read all about this title and its trade press compatriots in our feature on the B2B sector on page 18 of today's edition.

It's a natural mistake, but I'm thinking of a less obvious source. I'm referring to the forthcoming bombshell from the Middle East PR Association. And that's a phrase I didn't expect to use.

As we report on the front page, the association is to make the intriguing move of publishing the average hourly rates that all its members charge for their time. The intention being, of course, to stop them from undercutting each other -- and even, perhaps, driving up the price a little, although they would be mad to admit this.

As one PR man put it to me: 'The cake's growing all the time and we can all easily grab a bigger slice, so why are people coming in so cheap?"

And, of course, you can see how the conversations between agency and client are likely to go once this is published. Those charging below the going rate are going to be negotiating from a much stronger position to raise fees. And those coming in above will be hoping that clients won't be savvy enough to even be aware of the guide and ask awkward questions about it.

As a result, prices could go even higher, triggering yet another cycle of client-agency conversations when the next survey comes out.

And while remuneration is potentially a dry subject, it's not to those involved -- wherever they are in the world. Last week, Campaign's UK edition reported how when the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising conducted a seminar on how advertising and media agencies should be paid, the London venue had to be changed twice because of the sell-out demand for places. There's every chance MEPRA could have a similar hit on its hands with its advice on PR pay.

Further evidence in this market comes from NettResults' now notorious payment-by-results deal to guarantee a certain level of press coverage to its client, Creative Labs, or forfeit part of its monthly fee. The subject has been hotly debated, with many agencies fearing it leads to commoditisation of their services -- although many clients will quite like the idea.

And a further lesson from abroad is worth bearing in mind.
Again in the UK, the British Medical Association --effectively the trade union body for doctors -- published for many years a set of recommended prices for doctors to carry out private surgical procedures. It meant that, for instance, an orthopaedic surgeon knew what the going rate was to perform a hip replacement. Over time, the BMA was able to adjust the figures upwards and grab more money from medical insurers.

Those insurers eventually went to the authorities, complaining that they were facing a cartel. After a long legal battle, the BMA was forced to stop publishing the figures after the powers that be judged this was a distortion of the market.

It is, of course, difficult to see the region's PR agencies finding themselves in quite as powerful a position as the UK's doctors. For one thing, there are plenty of agencies -- including many bottom-feeders who sustain themselves by doing the job cheaply with poor staff -- who are not MEPRA members and will always undercut everyone else.

But, at the same time, MEPRA will need to make sure it does not kill the golden goose -- guidance to what the market is doing is one thing, but attempts to drive up the price will eventually create resistance.

But the move is a positive one, particularly when accompanied by MEPRA's proposals to staff-up what has until now been a voluntary organisation. It will hopefully inject further professionalism into the market.

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