Top 50 Consumer Consultancies 2008

Diversification, new techniques and battles with ad agencies - a busy year for consumer PR. Alex Black reports.

Andrew Bloch
Andrew Bloch

The Red Consultancy has taken the top slot in PRWeek's Top 50 Consumer Consultancies. Despite a relatively small growth in percentage terms, the agency grew its consumer fees by a quarter of a million pounds to £6.3m. The extra income was enough to push it above Edelman (and its consumer brand JCPR).

Consumer stalwart Lexis came in at number three, while Trimedia and Lansons Communications claimed the other spots in the top five.

THE TOP 50: See a table of the top 50 consumer consultancies 2008

Despite a slight fall in consumer fees, recently sold Cake Group beat Frank PR into the sixth slot. Frank (itself now part of the Australian-owned Photon group) grew its consumer income by 40 per cent, beating the other 'pure' consumer agency in the top ten - the decade-old Shine (see profile on following pages) - by two places.

Frank MD Andrew Bloch describes 2007 as an 'excellent year' for his agency and consumer PR agencies in general.

A particular trend, he notes, was clients asking for 'discipline neutral' solutions to their marketing briefs.

In layman's terms, this means the Frank pitch teams frequently found themselves up against advertising and other creative agencies.

'Clients want a great idea that generates talkability, and they are less bothered by who comes up with that idea than ever before,' he explains. 'There is a move away from a focus on PR concepts generating column inches, and an increased emphasis on PR concepts that generate a buzz spread through word-of-mouth.'

Andrew BlochAlthough he admits the trend is still in its infancy, Bloch is convinced the next few years will see a growing appetite for PR campaigns that grab attention by 'transcending the media'.

While agencies such as Cake, Frank and Shine are well-established in the consumer sector, there are other agencies in the top half of the Top 50 Consumer Consultancies that are less well-known in this field.

'It always surprises people when they find out how much consumer work we do,' says Citigate Dewe Rogerson MD Deborah Saw.

Citigate's consumer income was under half a million pounds in 2006, but the agency expanded that side of the business by a staggering 347 per cent in 2007.

Steve Marinker, head of the agency's consumer practice, explains people should not be surprised about Citigate's consumer success. In his opinion, the changing media landscape mean distinctions such as 'consumer PR' and 'corporate PR' are outdated.

'You can't keep things in silos anymore,' he explains.

Marinker has been building Citigate's portfolio of non-finance brands for four years, and work with companies such as Lloyds-Pharmacy, Premier Foods, Kwik-Fit, computer games outfit Eidos and Carphone Warehouse has helped push fees for that side of the business beyond £2m in 2007.

Because of the agency's range of clients, Marinker's team often finds itself on pitch lists with 'an eclectic mix of agencies'. But the only other financial heavy-hitter it competes against regularly is FD, which also has a consumer arm.

Kelly Walsh, deputy CEO and MD of consumer at MS&L, says three trends stood out in 2007.

Kelly WalshThe first was PR's increasing importance in the marcoms mix, with clients asking for 'high-level consultancy' and accounts being restructured accordingly.

But while some companies got their heads around what PR could do, others went the other way and started to muddle up digital PR and digital marketing.

'You see some strange battles for budgets,' says Walsh. 'Some companies still think of "digital marketing" as putting banner ads on websites. They haven't grasped what can be done from the communications angle.'

This brings Walsh to her third observation: the rise of the 'loop team'. This, essentially, is providing an integrated approach by taking a mix of skills across an agency and putting them together so they can take a lead role on marcoms accounts.

Offering a range of solutions seems to be a theme for 2007. Nicky Forrest, MD of food and drink specialist Phipps PR, says the consumer category is increasingly about diversification and showing clients 'you are the "go to" agency for all kinds of things'.

'It is not enough to say to your client that you'll come up with some great creative media ideas and get them some consumer coverage,' explains Forrest. 'That should be a given. Clients need to know that you can offer different types of support as well.'

Last year, Forrest says her team suddenly found itself doing everything from handling environmental issues for Fiji Water when it came under fire from environmentalists, to working with celebrity agents to set up category promotions in supermarkets for wine clients. It is no coincidence, she believes, that 2007 was the agency's strongest year since 2002.

Nicky ForrestMany consumer specialists cite online social media as a driving force in 2007. Consumer agencies are thinking up ways to use virals, film footage and tapping into citizen journalism and user-generated content to sow the seed of an idea.

Cow PR co-founder Sian Morgan says the agency now films everything it does to provide extra campaign content, and has a library of 'Making of...' films for 'everyone from Burger King to Disneyland Resort Paris'.

Indeed, the agency's in-house film division Cowshed Productions saw its workload double in the space of six months, not least because an in-house facility can keep costs down.

'The tables are turning,' says Morgan. 'Making brands famous is now about direct consumer disruption, getting them talked about in the pub, in office banter and via social networking sites.

'Consumer PR agencies have the head start on ad agencies because we've always done this.'

What is clear is that consumer agencies are bullish about the sector in 2008. Pipelines are strong, pitches are still happening and there is little sign, so far, of budgets being slashed.

Citigate's Marinker believes that if budgets are tightened, the agencies that will feel the pressure are the small generalist agencies, although MS&L's Walsh claims to have seen 'fewer boutique agencies' on pitch lists in 2008.

But in an economic downturn, adding value everywhere you can is key. Given the way consumer agencies appear to be widening their offering, expect the agencies on this chart to still be here this time next year.

NEW ENTRY KAZOO
Kazoo PR was involved in some of 2007's most high profile consumer technology campaigns, including the launch of BT Vision and the relaunch of Sony's iconic Walkman brand as an MP3 player.

Adele PegdenSuch launches helped the agency achieve 25 per cent growth over 2007 and claim tenth spot in its first appearance in PRWeek's Top 50 Consumer Consultancies.

Sheffield rockers Arctic Monkeys came to the Walkman party, but while 2007 had an emphasis on celebrity and glamour, 2008 will be a different story, says MD Adele Pegden.

'There is talk of recession and what we have found is that clients are less interested in organising big launches involving TV, music and film celebrities. Instead they are looking for PR activity that is less ostentatious,' she explains.

Already Kazoo's 2008 work has focused on this. For the launch of Sony's TZ laptop the agency has sought endorsement from businesspeople, such as Nick Jones, CEO and founder of restaurant and hotel chain Soho House Group.

Pegden hopes this less ornate focus will help it achieve its target of a 25 per cent growth in fee income this year.

NEW ENTRY PRIMAL PR
Brand perception was central to Primal PR's work in 2007.

Ivor Peters

Activity included a campaign for Big Issue founder John Bird to raise his profile as a social entrepreneur and work for the Women's Royal Voluntary Services to raise its profile as a support service for the elderly.

'We are looking to continue this brand focus into 2008,' says Primal MD Ivor Peters. 'We are finding that rather than product launches, clients increasingly want to look more at how they are perceived as a brand.'

Branding has also been an important issue for Primal PR itself. The agency merged with marketing firm In2 in 2007 to create the BWP Group but Peters insists the Primal brand will remain.

Fee income increased by ten per cent to £962,830 during 2007, ranking it at 47th in PRWeek's Top 50 Consumer Consultancies list. Peters is aiming for an increase of about £250,000 in 2008.

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