The desire to build national networks never diminishes but few
consultancies learn from the lessons of the past, says Charles Keil
The promise of fame and fortune offered by a successful national network
of consultancies is irresistible. Ambitious PR firms, preponderantly
London-based, have reached for the elusive prize. Many have challenged
but few have prospered.
In 1966, I joined the thriving London consultancy of John Fowler and
Partners Ltd which, by the end of the Swinging Sixties, had established
a highly-profitable, four-consultancy network - in London, Birmingham,
Southampton and Manchester - and planned for further expansion. Despite
a strong client base, growth ground to a halt, the early promise
withered on the network vine and a much diminished JF & P was eventually
the subject of a takeover.
Over the years, a similar scenario has been acted out time and time
again. Yet, despite those echoes from the past, there is today a
renaissance of network ambition.
The appeal of a network is primarily the ability to win business by
offering a quality ‘locally-based’ service with cost benefits.
Increasingly, high-profile clients nationwide are choosing consultancies
on their doorsteps who can handle national and international campaigns
To achieve the maximum benefit from a network it needs to be ubiquitous
- with operations wherever there is a significant concentration of
business, commerce and media. The importance of being able to offer
consultancy services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as
from key English locations has not always been fully appreciated.
The network should be truly integrated and this integration requires a
common culture, not simply common operating procedures. A common brand
name reinforces this aim.
Achieving a common network culture, as well as staff confidence and
pride in being part of the network, without destroying the
entrepreneurial and creative spirit of each individual consultancy, is
vital. Building a network by step-by-step acquisition is quick but
risky. Too often it leads to a clash of cultures. Organic growth is
It is important, too, that the collective knowledge and experience of
staff from all the consultancies in the network can be focused quickly
and easily to support a client or win new business. IT, involving a
central data base and sophisticated networked communication between
consultancies, is essential.
Regional and local knowledge is important as is the London link. But
beware the London culture! Attempts to build networks have failed
because they have been launched from a London base by people who believe
that they can foist a ‘London culture’ on out-of-London consultancies.
They can’t and they shouldn’t try.
The successful national network culture recognises the importance of all
its constituent parts and seeks to benefit from them - to produce a
special character that is the network’s personal USP.
Strong and decisive management at all levels is crucial but particularly
leadership with a truly national (and ambitiously international) outlook
as well as hands-on experience of the joys and heartbreaks of running
network consultancies. This single-minded leadership is unlikely to be
available in networks where PR is offered ‘integrated’ with - and
perhaps subordinated to - advertising.
So, the race is on to become the UK’s most comprehensive, fully-
integrated and most successful network. Will that glittering prize at
last be grasped? Or will history be repeated?
Charles Keil is chairman of Harrison Cowley