The biggest Public Relations agencies; stuckness and market dynamics

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The Holmes Report came out with their top 250 (biggest) PR agencies around the world in terms of billings. I decided to delve into the numbers for financial years 2014 – 2017.

Macro picture

What the numbers suggested at a macro level were three things:

    • Overall billings growth was declining year on year
    • The amount of agencies that were appointed into the top 250 (and were dropped) declined year on year. There is less market disruption

Aggregate billings growth & top 250 list churn

    • The bottom 190 agencies (by size over successive years) accounted for less than half the billings of the top 25 for financial year 2017

Bottom 190 out top 250 PR agencies billings

Top 25 out of top 250 Pr agencies

This supports a hypothesis of slowing market growth and solidifying market dynamics at a macro level. Strategic acquisitions start to make less sense compared to improving efficiences and effectiveness. But if you were going to buy an agency MC Group in Germany looked to be the stand out choice in terms of changing the fortunes of a large agency billings

We’re also seeing a likely tyranny of large numbers kicking in for the biggest agencies. Mid-sized agencies can be more agile due to less layers of management and less complex environmetns to worry about. They may be multi-market; but they’re not truly global. Which makes strategy and planning much easier.

PR agencies are people businesses. At the core they sell manpower by the hour. Bigger agencies have more people, which means a greater management overhead, not unlike Fred Brooks’ The Mythical Man-Month essays on software engineering. There are more processes, which have built up over time and greater inertia to change. Then you get office and intra-office real politik. You can try and keep this down, but it is a function of scale; the battle against it becomes ever harder and you can only focus on its worst excesses. It tends not to surface when its impact only goes downwards in the management structure.

Agency-specific hypothesis

This next part was inspired by David Brain’s post on the performance of large agencies.

PR seems to be acquired in a more tactical manner than previously. This has been happening for a number of reasons.

A decline in Full Metal Jacket syndrome in comms planning. This nonsensical quote about Vietnamese people in Full Metal Jacket makes similar false assumptions. I’ve seen similar false assumptions in past global comms campaign planning that I have seen. Usually that meant creating something in the US and then expecting it to work on a fraction of the budget elsewhere. This means that there is less international work for agency networks. This has a negative impact on inter-office best practice transfer and building relationships.

The influence of Byron Sharp. For many consumer marketers, How Brands Grow – based on years of marketing science research is the bible. When you look at Sharp’s work there are a couple of clear points when you use public relations as a tactic.

Zero-Based Budgeting

Zero-based budgeting (ZBB) has changed the marketing planning game. It pits public relations campaign efficiency and effectiveness versus other disciplines in sharp focus. In addition, some organisations have mistaken ZBB as a one-way ratchet tightening marketing spend. ZBB isn’t about continual cost-cutting, but continual optimisation – something that seems to have been lost in translation.

PR agencies haven’t taken full advantage of the opportunity afforded by digital and social for a number of reasons:

  • There is a tension. Between the focus on financial efficiency and effectiveness that the macro numbers suggest versus the investment in tools and personnel required. Where are the studios, strategists, planners and media desks?
  • There has been an expertise drain across the industry as agencies deskill; paying new people into roles less than the person who previously filled it. This means that over time there is a trench in expertise between office leaders and the rest of the team, making it harder for the office to scale and a loss of institutional knowledge. This has led to a lack of diversity in thinking amongst many PRs; let alone gender, race and age diversity. From experience I’ve found that digital natives aren’t necessarily the best digital strategists
  • Clients haven’t embraced the change. Social in particular sits elsewhere amongst the marketing team. There is a similar division with paid media. The focus (particularly in Europe) on performance marketing over brand marketing hasn’t helped. Hubspot-style content marketing is a reductive process that isn’t the friend of PR agencies; despite their expertise in content
  • The window of opportunity closes as organic reach declines. Social media marketing effectiveness requires paid media budget. Agencies have jumped in too late with insufficient confidence. Traditional senior management agency PRs have been curiously hung up on this. Yet we see: corporate communications as adverts in the FT and WSJ and consumer PRs do paid advertorials and paid product placement

More information
David Brain’s post: Why Are The Biggest Global PR Agencies Stuck? Does It Matter?
Holmes Report