Opinion: Even top agencies can self-destruct

Throughout my working life, the first half of each decade has seen the emergence of a dominant financial comms consultancy, and the second half has seen its collapse.

Few PRWeek readers will remember John Addey Associates, and John himself is no longer with us. In the first half of the 1970s, his firm was the place to be. It had the biggest clients doing the juiciest deals. It had many of the brightest young things. But when the market crashed the deals stopped, Addey made a couple of misjudgements, and soon there was no business left.

You could say the same of the 1980s, when Brian Basham’s Broad Street Associates even listed on the stockmarket (in the days when Brunswick founder Alan Parker was Basham’s personal assistant), but unravelled almost as quickly. The only consolation, perhaps, was that its big rivals of the time, Shandwick and Valin Pollen,  seemed to show a similar capacity for self-destruction. Shandwick failed to control  its expansion, and Valin Pollen bought a  proxy solicitation business in the US and was subsequently taken to the cleaners. 

And it is worth noting how two powerhouses almost came unstuck in the 1990s. Chime, which combined the talents of Tim Bell and  the financial skills of Piers Pottinger, had a distinctly rocky time, though is now recovering strongly under new chief executive Chris Satterthwaite. Incepta, parent of Citigate Dewe Rogerson, has also had to fight through more than its fair share of woes, losing its independence in the process.

Given that financial PR will always be a cyclical business, the  common thread in all these booms and busts has been the lack of sufficiently qualified management. This is why Alan Parker’s decision before Christmas to hire former Ofcom chief Stephen Carter as CEO of Brunswick  deserves more than the generally catty remarks that greeted it.

Carter may or may not turn out to be an inspired choice, but at least Parker – unlike so many PR entrepreneurs – realises that he has built a serious business that needs serious management.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London’s Evening Standard

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