There was a time (not too long ago) that I set out in the world of PR, a bright-eyed graduate with designs on becoming the new Max Clifford, or at least a slightly rounder, more Northern version. I was, in part, drawn to the industry by the (suggested) glitz and glamour, the parties, freebies and celebrities, not to mention the salacious scandal involved. And, whilst my eventual chosen speciality (technology) is more about servers and storage than Sex in the City, I like to think I’ve been lucky in some of the restaurants I’ve eaten in, places I’ve seen and campaigns I’ve been involved in running.
Big budget PR is great, and as professionals in the industry why not enjoy the perks while the sun is shining? The problems start when the dark clouds of austerity set in. I’m repeatedly told that PR and Marketing are the first things to go when cutbacks need to be made. I was always sceptical, but at this year’s IT Expo, I took the time to speak to 20 major brands about their plans for PR over the next 12 months. From those 20 questioned, 16 had plans to reduce PR spend, three were looking to increase, with the other company remaining flat. That may be a small sample but it does give a clear indication of how priorities are changing, even for some of the bigger tech brands.
Before I’m accused of missing the point here, I’m not being a monger of doom, or sounding the death knell for the free PR lunch, I’m simply stating that as belts tighten, the scrutiny placed on PR agencies will increase dramatically and clients will be looking even more closely at cost vs level of service. If the Marketing budget is cut by 30 percent, that has to come from somewhere. For the big boys, that means toning down the glitz and focusing on the essentials, for the smaller brands there is a different debate to be had. Do we cut our PR budget? Do we move from a retainer to a more project-based approach? Do we axe PR altogether? These are extreme options, especially for brands that see the value of communications and understand the importance of a good PR agency.
So how about looking beyond the capital for PR? A decade ago, this was probably a laughable concept. The regions did solid regional PR, for everything else you looked to London. Big brands turned to the big smoke because it made sense in every sense. Regional PR was cheap and cheerful, but if you wanted premium then you had to pay the price for it. Wages, cost of living, property prices and rent are a cocktail for more challenging margins. When times are good, clients don’t baulk at covering these costs through their retainer. Less so, when times are harder.
So, let’s forward to today; broadband internet (though at times temperamental) and the advent of real mobile working, a transport network that can take you from Newcastle to Kings Cross in less than three hours and perhaps most crucially a shift in the mindset that has taken skilled PR professionals out of London and into the regions in search of a better standard of living. In fact, to make a bold call, to be ‘in London’ you don’t actually need ‘to be in London’ anymore. You have the staff, the communications, the ability to get to clients quickly if need be, yet you don’t have the overheads of a London-based firm. Smart agencies can pass on these savings to clients and suddenly you have a recipe for cost efficiency without a reduction in the level of service.
Of course, some clients prefer to have an agency ‘in town’, and at Admiral we’ve blurred the lines further, using Newcastle as our HQ and hub to keep costs low, with a London presence to ensure we meet the needs of clients who want that local support.
And what of the journalists, do they care where they get their stories from? As one of my favourite tech journalists said to me “as long as you get me the info I need, when I need it and throw in the occasional dinner, I don’t care if you’re based on the moon.” He might have to make do with a Tesco sarnie at the moment, but even in times of austerity, irrespective of location, the right agency, with the right team, can serve up great PR and ensure our clients get the results they want.