TOP 150 2007: That special something

As PRWeek publishes its annual league table, Steve Hemsley asks whether brands benefit from being promoted by specialist agencies.

There is an old PR maxim that two simi­lar clients makes for a clash, but three makes a specialism. In recent years, however, agencies have built up entire divisions based on catering to a specific niche.

Last July Lexis PR launched a sister agency, Six, focusing on youth PR and marketing. Independent consultant ­Nita Shah set up Sharrp to help companies reach ethnic groups.

‘The move towards specialisation shows the PR industry is not standing still,’ argues Six associate director Lucy Freeborn. ‘There is an appreciation that one must convey a different message to different people.’

But is specialisation mere reductionist spin? Every consumer, whether young or old, black or white, belongs to one group or another. Equally, is labelling yourself a ‘specialist’ just spin? Is there any need, for example, for a PR company that specialises in helping brands target women?

Collette Dunkley certainly thinks so. In February the former communications director launched specialist shop XandY (see below).

Elsewhere, some agencies have deci­ded to concentrate on specific demographics. Lexis PR achieved significant success with Dove’s ProAge campaign without the need for a specialist division of any kind. Yet Weber Shandwick has set up ‘050: A Fresh Perspective’ specifically to help clients win over older consumers.

PRWeek decided to look closely at both XandY and 050 – and ask why they believe their specialities make sense, both for clients and customers.


Men and women are different. No shock there. But did you know that a man's brain is larger than a woman's but that women's brains work more quickly and are more efficient?

Did you also realise that men shop differently to women? While females browse, males have a clearer idea of what they want and complete their shopping in the shortest possible time.

What's more, women place more value on time than money but are richer than ever before, meaning they can spend more on food, drinks, cars and personal care products.

If you think all this is stating the obvious, then it is likely your PR campaigns are already bang on the money when it comes to targeting women. In which case, you will not need the services of specialist agency XandY Communications, which claims companies are ‘failing miserably' to communicate with the fairer sex.

But is such a business model offering clients anything more than what a generalist PR business could and should be providing?

After all, there are 30.7 million women in the UK compared to 29.5 million men and, at all ages over 30, women outnumber men. It would be a poor PR company that wooed clients knowing that it can only convey a brand's message effectively to men.

According to Dunkley (r), executive and creative decisions are often made by men who fail to appreciate women's references and communication sources tend to differ from their own.

She acted on this while at General Motors UK, helping to set up a senior management committee with the brief to discover why most women hate the process of buying cars despite generally having more say than their partners in the final decision.

‘Clients must understand what appeals to women if they are to convey the product features that will engage them,' she says. ‘A man may buy a car magazine to read about how fast a vehicle can go and its mechanical features, but most women reading a lifestyle title will want to know if a car is safe and big enough for the family.

Cynics might argue that it is common sense, and fundamental to a good media relations strategy, to ensure that the contents of a press release appeal to a journalist's audience, whatever their sex.

Also, is XandY in danger of generalising too much by assuming all women are the same? ‘We understand there are many segments within this group,' says Dunkley.

‘But we are helping clients understand why story angles must be different. It can be as simple as exploiting the fact that men and women have a different sense of humour.'

Now that is something we all knew.

What the clients say...

Caroline Anstee, co-director at Elements, a financial advisory service for women: ‘We are empowering women to manage their own finances and therefore have to decide if we are better off choosing a PR agency with a strong knowledge of women, or one that understands the financial media - or both. From a client's perspective, pick a specialist and you could find the same old formulae being wheeled out time and again, with little innovative thinking. Yet a specialist can combine knowledge obtained across a number of clients.' (Elements uses freelance PR consultant Kathy Freeman.)

Pamela Petty, founder of the ladies-only Waterfall Spa in Leeds: ‘We would certainly consider a ladies specialist PR agency because we need experts in how women think. But we need general PR to get coverage in the local press as well as specialist PR knowledge to reach women month after month with a creative message. The key question when choosing a PR agency is whether an understanding of our industry is more important than its understanding of women.' (Waterfall Spa uses The Spa PR Company, which specialises in the spa sector.)

Joss Sharp, manager of internal communications and female buyer initiative at Vauxhall: ‘All agencies say they can cover all demographics but often you need to tap into a specialist's knowledge, especially one that understands the deep biological and neurological differences between men and women. For PR, this is vital because it is what changes a brand's perception among women readers and lifestyle journalists. We have asked mainstream agencies to tackle this area before and they have got it so wrong. Often, this has been because they have had men making the creative decisions. (Vauxhall is a client of specialist agency XandY Communications.)


It is a sobering thought that by 2035 more than 40 per cent of the British population will be older than 50.

The good news for anyone approach­ing this age group is that the over-50s control 80 per cent of the UK’s personal wealth and spend £145bn a year.

But according to O50: A Fresh Perspective — a Weber Shandwick and Futurebrand joint venture — only five per cent of marketing budgets are geared towards these baby boomers.

‘Age is just a number, but marketing is a mindset. Our proposition goes beyond the stereotype and appreciates how older people are more upbeat, savvy and radically different from their predecessors,’ says Fenella Grey (pictured, top), head of O50, whose clients include Unilever and Cadbury Schweppes.

But surely a 53-year-old has little in common with an 80-year-old? Is this not mass-marketing PR by another name?

‘We appreciate you have to filter the over-50s, but it is also important when planning PR not to make this group feel they are being treated differently,’ says Grey. ‘We are not promoting “grey” products or services, but helping brands understand older people.’

Grey also dismisses suggestions that the division is providing a service that Weber Shandwick could offer anyway. ‘This is about adding value,’ she says.

What the clients say...

Lisa Harris, group communications manager at Saga Group: ‘We have yet to be convinced that an over-50s PR division would achieve better results than a mainstream agency. An agency that specialises in specific age bands is far less important to us than one with strong contacts, backed up with creative people who can adapt to any audience or circumstance. (Saga is a client of Lansons Communications.)

Sheila Martin, membership director at Oddfellows, the social organisation for the over-50s: ‘We used to use a specialist direct-marketing agency that focused on the over-50s but found that its thinking became too narrow. It applied the same philosophy to all its clients. A general PR agency can take a more lateral approach. One of the reasons we chose our agency was because it came up with the fabulous line: “Oddfellows — the first youth club for the over-50s”. They got what we were about.’ (Oddfellows is a client of The Souter Stripe Partnership.)

Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern: ‘Issues of interest and relevance to older people are higher than ever on the media agenda. Whether they specialise or not, this is a growing market, and media and PR agencies will need a deeper understanding of this audience.’ (Age Concern’s PR is carried out in-house and by Trimedia Harrison Cowley for Age Concern Enterprises.)


- Click here to view the Top 150 PR Consultancies 2007 (PDF)
- Click here to view the Top 50 INDEPENDENT PR Consultancies 2007 (PDF)
- Click here to view the Top 50 PR Consultancies 2007 OUTSIDE LONDON (PDF)


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