News Analysis: Manchester agency chiefs bare all

PR agencies located in the North-West are booming, but leading lights are concerned about recruitment difficulties in the region. Ian Hall reports from a roundtable event convened in Manchester last week.

Unprecedented investment in city marketing and urban regeneration projects are fuelling an economic boom in pockets of the North-West, and local PR agencies are reaping the rewards.

This was the upbeat message expressed by some of the best-known faces on the North-West PR circuit, brought together by accounting and business advisory firm Tenon, 3 Monkeys Communications and PRWeek on Thursday last week.

Recruitment problems
Despite the positive view of the economic climate, participants expressed concern about the quality of applicants for senior-level jobs. Tangerine PR managing director Sandy Lindsay said: ‘There don't seem to be any good potential recruits at middle-management level. We have met many candidates with a worrying lack of understanding of commercial issues.'

The sentiments expressed tally with Tenon research (which formed the basis of a similar roundtable event in London earlier this year) that found that attracting and keeping good staff is the biggest challenge facing PR agencies nationwide (PRWeek, 21 April).

Bell Pottinger North MD Chris Warham also bemoaned a lack of creativity in PR graduates looking for their first rung on the career ladder. He said: ‘We get so many applications that are little more than standard CVs with "dear sir or madam" at the top. You would expect more in this ­industry.'

He also referred to the trend for staff demanding more flexible working. Tenon business services director Chris Harland suggested agencies need to develop remuneration and benefit packages that incentivise staff without increasing their tax burden. He said options such as ‘salary sacrifice, childcare vouchers and share schemes' should all be considered.

There was dissent among the group to a suggestion that London-based agencies will inevitably have better ­relationships with journalists working in the capital. Lindsay argued: ‘We make a virtue of being based outside of London when we talk on the phone to journalists in London. We say to them "we're in London next week, we'll come and see you", and they appreciate it.'

Warham pointed out: ‘In a sector such as technology, where we are actually located is irrelevant. Almost all the correspondents with whom we deal are freelancers anyway.' Tracey Saunders, head of PR and corporate affairs at Marketing Birmingham, has used various agencies from outside Birmingham in the past year on projects - ‘whether they can do the job' is crucial, not their location, she explained.

Emma Parker-Goff, a director at Liverpool-based Kenyon Fraser, said: ‘Regional clients are always impressed with national expertise. But they will also require the reassurance of personal contact with local journalists.' All participants believed they had to ‘work harder' to bring in new business than their counterparts in London.

Brazen PR associate director Gary Bramwell cited a recent example of one fashion client based in the North-West that shortlisted four London agencies to pitch for its business - the client excluded agencies from its home turf because ‘it wanted to get in the fashion press'. Bramwell said Brazen convinced the client it was misguided, its shortlist became five-strong - and it duly won the business.

Andy Spinoza, MD of Spinoza Kennedy Vesey PR, admitted: ‘We envy the fact that in London the low-hanging fruit is all around - new business seems to fall into agencies' laps.'

Reflecting the fact that London inevitably is the epicentre of the PR ­industry, Weber Shandwick North MD Jo Leah said: ‘There aren't many £15,000-£20,000 a month accounts in the North-West - at Fox Court [WS London HQ] they come in all the time.'

She added: ‘This is a big issue and must affect our ability to become [sector] specialists and attract people to the region.' Warham agreed, adding that he was concerned by the paucity of high-fee retainer-based work in the ­region and the dominance of six-month project contracts, specifically for B2B work.

Bramwell and Lindsay, both consumer specialists, argued that this was less of a problem in their sphere.

An eye on London
There was concern generally about ­recent changes in the media. Spinoza said: ‘Empowerment in the media is increasingly concentrated in London.' He claimed, for example, that The Guardian - whose heritage is in Manchester - is covering fewer stories from its northern correspondents. He warned: ‘They are going to lose their readership outside London.'

Perhaps surprisingly, most participants were dismissive of the importance attached by some in the industry to trendy comms channels such as blogs.

Spinoza, a Londoner, opined: ‘Viral marketing and other internet marketing techniques are certainly of increasing importance - but a lot of this interest in social media is simply clients and agencies responding to "media chatter" and other London nonsense.'

Warham triggered nodding by saying: ‘The average readership of a blog is one person - the guy who writes it.'

As discussion continued, one participant declared his imminent departure from the session, citing an important new-business pitch the ­following day. Win or lose, it seems the market's buoyancy means there will be plenty more similar opportunities round the corner for him and all those present. 

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