Top 150 PR consultancies 2006: Ones to watch

PRWeek profiles three energetic agencies specialising in travel, retail and reputation management, whose fortunes look set to improve further in 2006

Reputation Management
'We're very selective about who we work with, and turn away as many projects as we take on,' insists 3X1 director Cameron Grant. 'We'll even tell a client if we haven't got the expertise and have already ended our association with one because we didn't think they would get the best results with us.'

Such honesty is just one of the qualities which has attracted a string of blue-chip clients to the Glasgow-based agency, founded five years ago (on 1 January 2001, hence the name) by Grant and co-director Julie McGarvey.

3X1's directors say they have worked hard to build the company's reputation as a successful entrepreneurial business capable of delivering a superior service to hand-picked clients. Recent results prove this hard work is paying off; in the last two years the team has increased fee income by 89 per cent from £381,000 in 2003 to £722,000 in 2005. Had the Sarbanes Oxley-affected companies not been added, 3X1 would have secured a very creditable 140th place.

Both Grant and McGarvey are former board directors of London-based Communication Group. Grant's 15 years in the industry includes consultancy experience in B2B, planning and crisis/issue management, while McGarvey spent 20 years in consumer and corporate communications, B2B, crisis management and brand development.

3X1's major clients include FirstScotRail, Highland Spring, Scottish & Newscastle, Investors in People, the Sea Fish Industry Authority and the recentlycreated Scottish Institute of Sport Foundation. Nearly all  have come through recommendation and despite many coming from the food and drink sector, the agency is also moving into the B2B and financial sectors.

'We like it that way. It's important to be diverse,' says Grant who also plans to address the growing demand for public sector PR in Scotland.

Despite being based north of the border, 3X1 maintains a UK-wide focus, and Grant insists the agency is not all parochial: 'The capital is only a train ride away.' He believes that being Scottish poses no serious problems for recruiting new business, and has cost advantages in the 3X1 can offer a slightly cheaper service than some of its London-based rivals. 'We feel that it doesn't matter where you're based, it's the service you provide that counts,' he says.
Grant and McGarvey are also willing to hook up with competitors. Sometimes, 3X1 joins forces with London agencies to work on an account in tandem, offering advice on the distinct Scottish market and media. For example, it recently hooked up with Camargue  on projects for private care firm Sunrise Senior Living and engineering firm Atkins.

Both  agency principals are highly focused on staff development and are about to apply for Investors in People accreditation.

Highlights for the agency in 2005 included work with Highland Spring to support the breast cancer campaign and sponsoring the New York marathon, which picked up significant coverage. Recently, 3X1 resurrected the Scottish Press Photography Awards for First ScotRail, which generated 500 entries.

Above all though, 3X1 prides itself on its strategic capabilities: 'We're not a press release factory,' says Grant. 'We like to offer ourselves as part of the team and to sit alongside management.'

Mary Dixon, MD of First ScotRail, says 3X1 is always provides solid support and that their relationship is highly productive. 'I look for good value and good representation – and that's what I get.'

Since its launch, 3X1 has won more than 10 different awards, including the CIPR use of media relations award for the Easy Drinking Whisky Company. And its secret for success? 'Courage in our convictions and a focus on the bottom line,' says Grant confidently.

Lucre Communications

It is barely one year old, yet Leeds-based agency Lucre believes it is already the leading travel PR shop in the North. 

Established in March 2005, the company had turned over more than £300,000 by December and plans to grow the team of seven to 25 in the next two years.

Director Sophie Spyropoulos obviously likes to think big and, unusually for a fledgling agency, paid for a massive Narnia-themed Christmas party, on top of treating staff to a trip to Paris.

Spyropoulos had grand plans to go it alone when she worked as head of PR at Poulter Partners and set up the business with Poulter's marketing head Tamarind Wilson. Now, Lucre operates across B2B, B2C, professional services, as well as in the travel, leisure and high-tech sectors. In its first year, Lucre has landed Best Western Hotels GB, budget airline, the QHotels group, and coach company Leger Holidays. More recent account gains include house builder St James, which has appointed Lucre to look after a large 1,100-home development scheme in Reading, and leading digital print company, Océ. 

Spyropoulos argues that being based outside London helps give her team a better understanding of what regional journalists want, but to ensure the capital isn't neglected, Lucre also has a small office in Esher, which helps to service southern-based clients.

Lucre uses what Spyropoulos calls an 'objective hitting' formula for clients: instead of charging them by the hour it sets specific targets and doesn't count any coverage unless it contains a key message relevant to that market. 'It makes us incredibly proactive on their behalf, as well as honest about what works and what doesn't,' she says.

Recent successes include a campaign for Best Western called 'Give Mum a Break' which helped dictate the leisure group's marketing strategy that year. Lucre also arranged an attempt to break the Guinness World Records' paper plane throwing record which gave stacks of coverage.

'Our motto is: 'The best or don't bother',' she continues. 'We don't present with PowerPoint. We prefer to have an element of
surprise to a pitch and also make sure all our of branding is of high quality.'

It certainly works for Janine Teasdale, PR & communications manager at Best Western Hotels GB. She highly rates Lucre's
approach to meeting objectives through creative campaigns and says some of its ideas have been adopted for use across Best Western's integrated marketing campaigns.

'Lucre is always willing to engage in the everyday workings of an effective press office, but also have the ability to think on their feet and go beyond what you'd expect of a consultancy,' says Teasdale.
Plans for this year already include a move into online gaming, and talks with one gaming company are already advanced.

The Ideas Network
Staff at London-based The Ideas Network show real devotion to duty by buying half of their Christmas shopping from Woolworths. It might be one of the reasons why this modest-sized team – just nine strong – not only hold the Woolworths account, but also that of another high street major brand, Boots.

Retail is one of The Ideas Network's specialities as clients appreciate its emphasis on product placement and feature work, explains director Victoria Reynolds. 'We toil hard to make sure they get placed every weekend'.

This work ethic extends to pitch preparation and Reynolds cheerfully admits to putting together a pitch for Woolworths that was 'the size of a telephone directory'. But the retailer's faith in such a small team has evidently paid as off as The Ideas Network has now succeeded in tripling the coverage for the retailer in the first year of having the account.

Reynolds even produces a mini-news-paper to showcase the agency's work to current and prospective clients.

Back in 1998, having been made redundant from Hill & Knowlton, the then 27-year-old decided to go it alone, taking on her first account three months later.

History shows this was a wise decision, as turnover has increased from £261,000 in 2001 to £638,000 in 2005, with fee income a healthy £554,626. As a result of this growth, The Ideas Network has just left its much-loved but rather cramped Chelsea office for a bigger base nearby. But for the inclusion of the Sarbanes Oxley-affected consultancies The Ideas Network would have debuted at 149 in the Top 150 table.

Despite the agency's booming business,  Reynolds insists that she maintains a small, driven and slightly left-field team. 'We have the personal touch, we are determined, and we are prepared to put in the hard work to get the job done,' she says.

Food and drink is a speciality area it hopes to develop further into. The agency already boasts high-profile clients including Pernod Ricard and Queen's chocolatier Prestat.

It recently won the brief for Image Restaurants and it will soon start work with food delivery service, Deliverance.

In a slightly different direction, the agency recently worked on an exhibition stand and brochure for the Race Course Holdings Trust, and clients are now increasingly seeking advice and direction on their own promotional materials. As a result, Reynolds is building up the design side of the business, helping clients by bringing the design of press and marketing materials in-house.

'Everyone at The Ideas Network is  extremely helpful and resourceful,' comments Alessandra Paudice who writes the Shopping Desk section for the Daily Mail Weekend.

She adds: 'They are all able to create a personal relationship with journalists – a quality that makes our job easier and cements the role of the PRO.'

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