COMMENT: PLATFORM; Time for realism in the network renaissance

The desire to build national networks never diminishes but few consultancies learn from the lessons of the past, says Charles Keil

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

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