Hill & Knowlton UK unveils new agency model based on sector expertise

Hill & Knowlton UK has announced a major restructure of its business based around the industry sectors it serves rather than traditional agency practices.

Hill & Knowlton UK CEO: Richard Millar
Hill & Knowlton UK CEO: Richard Millar

Hill & Knowlton UK CEO Richard Millar said: ‘Today we have swept away the traditional practice areas and created a sector-based business model that emulates the deep industry knowledge of the very best niche players and boasts a broader service offer than the biggest agencies in town.'

With immediate effect, the agency's 200-plus strong London office will be organised around nine sectors: consumer packaged goods; energy and industrials; financial and professional services; food and drink;  healthcare and wellbeing; retail and leisure; sports; technology and third sector.

While sports, technology, healthcare and third sector were existing areas of specialisation, the reorganisations sweeps away separate practice areas for public affairs, consumer, corporate, internal comms and others.

Millar continued: ‘The notion of practices as an organising principle is outdated. Client needs cannot be neatly bundled into the practice areas that we define – be they corporate reputation, marketing communications or public affairs.

'What issue, for example, of public policy does not have at least the potential to have a direct impact on consumers or an impact on how that company is thought of by its myriad stakeholders?'

The agency intends each sector to offer specialist industry expertise across all disciplines and fully integrated traditional and digital communication, but with the emphasis on depth of knowledge of the industry.


Additional comment:

Robert Phillips, UK CEO, Edelman

The H&K move is a clear recognition that both the environment in which we operate and what PR is expected to deliver has changed radically in recent years. Every successful business leader should constantly question how his/her business is best shaped to deliver success. However, re-structuring is a tricky business - it can cause instability and uncertainty and therefore arrest progress at the very time that the firm is looking for accelerated growth. Change to properly address the context in which the business operates is vital; change for change's sake can be easily counter-productive.
Matt Owen, Head of Campaigns, RBS Insurance Own Brands

Agencies are always looking at ways to differentiate themselves from competitors and this looks to me to be what H&K is doing here. I don't really care what practice or division the people on my account are based in - I want the brightest, most creative people there are within the agency, whatever their 'specialism'. Each client is going to be different of course, but for Direct Line and Churchill I would rather that the PR agency teams have no financial services sector experience, as we have that in-house - I want the agency to bring something completely new to the table; new ideas and new ways of doing things to take us out of our comfort zone.
Lucien Vallun, UK MD, Fleishman-Hillard

I wouldn't want to comment on how a competitor goes about doing its business but what I would say is that the practice group structure we follow within Fleishman-Hillard has served us and our clients very well for many years now in every area of the world we operate in. It allows us to attract and sustain leading expertise in all the specialist areas we offer counsel in, and to demonstrate to our clients that we have a depth of expertise in all those areas. That said, I believe fundamentally internal issues like this one are not necessarily of the most critical concern to our clients. Of much greater concern I believe is how we actually demonstrate our expertise and how we add value to their enterprises or institutions over time.
James Acheson-Gray, MD International, Grayling

We have done something similar but are still retaining practice groups. At the launch of the new Grayling earlier this year we outlined a matrix structure of global practices and industry groups, to sit along side our geographic structure, with the expectation that this would add credibility, structure and sophistication to our offering.  As an international group we clearly need to retain geographic structures which will remain the bedrock of our organisation. However, we feel that in order to be effective as a global consultancy we also need to operate with an international mindset reflecting the way that many large companies and organisations work.
Tim Downs, Head of PR, Brahm

It's a good idea and makes sense but the biggest networks have entire agencies rather than departments that specialise in specific sectors so the Hill & Knowlton restructure is nothing new. The only potential issue they'll face is when a client doesn't fit neatly into one of those boxes or, if there is capacity in one sector team with people snowed under in another.
Aldo Liguori, head of global public relations for Sony Ericsson

In my experience, the organizational structure of a PR agency should reflect the requirements of a client. I would welcome a new organizational structure at our global PR agency if this is what will work best for us.

Of major importance to us at Sony Ericsson, for example, is to have the best mix of PR expertise and skills to support our needs, which evolve and change over time. This is especially the case for an industry such as ours, which is fast moving and very dynamic. We work with a team of people who are experienced in a range of PR disciplines including corporate communications and thought leadership, technology, sponsorship, consumer and brand marketing, digital, and social media. These elements need to work together seamlessly, and in an integrated way, and often this also means bringing together specialist agencies in areas such as digital or social media to work closely together with our PR agency.
Neil Hedges, chairman, Fishburn Hedges

It's not earth-shatteringly new - many financial agencies in particular have focused on sector specialisation for a number of years. Our own research has shown that clients want a combination of relevant skills and a real understanding of the breadth of audiences.  Of course sectoral knowledge is important, but so too is the ability to apply the experience of working in other sectors. Speaking personally, if I decided I wanted to concentrate on just one sector, I'd move in-house.
Nan Williams, chief executive, Four Communications Group

Integrated services have been the key to meeting clients' objectives for several years now - and I don't see that changing. But the role for specialist service teams - for example in public affairs or advanced digital services - also remains strong. The key to success lies in a matrix structure. Specialist industry experts in the private sector; experts in communications for the public sector; both working alongside in-depth service specialists.
Nick Fitzherbert, training & communication consultant

The increase in specialization is symptomatic of an increasingly sophisticated PR industry and should generally be welcomed.  The main downside becomes all too apparent when I am training PROs in creative thinking - they end up with a kind of ‘tunnel vision'.  In the old days of working in a variety of different sectors, experience in one area would inspire ideas for clients in another.  Also, working on, say, a fluffy drinks promotion in the morning and some serious issues management in the afternoon, made for happy, motivated and well rounded staff.

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