Danny Rogers: H&K's broad offer could pay dividends

Hill & Knowlton's decision this week to 'sweep away' its traditional practice areas - public affairs, corporate, consumer, internal comms - received a lively, yet mixed response from the industry.

Danny Rogers
Danny Rogers

Some lauded it as 'good sense' and a 'step forward' to enable more fluid, platform-neutral solutions for clients. Others were sceptical.

H&K's UK boss Richard Millar talked of creating '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'.

It is interesting to view this in the context of last week's Top 150 UK Consultancies report, which reveals that H&K is one of the biggest 'generalist' PR agencies in the country, alongside Weber Shandwick, Edelman and Freud. These four each bill between £20m and £30m in fees a year, while the rest of the top nine rely heavily on financial or government projects. Understandably, H&K is seeking a USP.

Can it work? The multi-specialist sector approach certainly suggests an increasingly sophisticated PR industry. And it does acknowledge the growth of niche competitors who have done well in sectors such as healthcare, energy/industrials and sports marketing.

Also in its favour is the concept of breaking down barriers between stakeholder groups. It makes sense for organisations to talk, without silos, to policy makers, business partners, consumers and staff alike. However, the potential downside is that a number of new silos are being created. H&K is creating nine sectoral groups from 200-250 staff.

This suggests H&K is restructuring around its existing client base - understandable in a service business - rather than taking the more radical move of pooling talent and creativity across a broad range of sectors. Can it, for example, apply the best creative brains across vertical sectors?

Generally it is encouraging to see one of the sector's best-known names employing a strategic approach to its clients' businesses rather than a tactical one ('here's a corporate PR campaign, now what was the question?').

The more PR agencies can address the context in which their clients operate, then the more they can emulate management consultants: charge higher fees, and create the virtuous circle of investment, training and reward.

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