What the world needs now…

Stephen Waddington MD of the newly born (from the merger of Loewy’s PR firms) Speed Communications, posted yesterday about the recession and as he so clearly put it “bollocks to denial and despair”. I started writing a comment and then realised it was getting rather lengthy, so hence this post. I strongly advise you to read it first.

Firstly, and very importantly, I would strongly suspect that everyone so far in this conversation sympathises greatly with those who are suffering the “human” cost of the recession pointed out by Linda in the comments.

I also I agree with the point raised by Stephen Davies – we have got fat. The West has consumed and consumed, fed through a diet of credit financed by the East to feed its own desire for economic growth and facilitated by bankers’ personal greed. My personal favourite observation of this is the massive growth in storage centres. We have all bought so much “stuff” that we have to hire somewhere to store it! We are therefore going to have to have some degree of “pain” while we lose the weight.

It seems to me the key point of the post though is not whether the recession is causing/will cause suffering – unfortunately that is a given – but whether an attitude of despair or denial is likely to improve the situation?

In this regard I find myself agreeing with the quote that Bill highlights “we can have a depression if we really want one”. The problem is we haven’t had a recession with 24/7/365, always on, accessible from everywhere, fighting tooth and nail for attention, media coverage. The internet was literally in its infancy and mobile telephony and 100+ channel broadcasting were not widespread in 1990-92 so it was arguably easier to try and remain positive. In the face of such relentless negativity it is easy to see how people despair.

What we need is leadership. Leadership of the kind Barack Obama showed in his Inaugural address – things will be tough, hard work will be needed, but if we believe in ourselves we can achieve great things. For me the key distinction highlighted in the piece Linda links to is action. Making decisions, taking opportunities, changing, responding, not just accepting. This is what leadership is all about. We might make mistakes, but at least we tried to ride the wave of change, not let it wash over us.

Unfortunately Mr Obama is a bit of a one off. However in our own industry it seems to me that posts like these from Stephen are trying to show leadership by asking us all to focus on the positive. As an accountant, and therefore a bit of an outsider, I am inclined to think that the PR industry, as communications experts, has an opportunity to lead the way in trying to get a more positive conversation started.

Monty Python and the 0.5% base rate cut

I replied to a question posted by @wadds this morning about when the base rate economic stimulus would kick in. My answer was that the problem is there is little point in reducing the price of something that you can’t buy.

As I have said before many lenders are not passing on cuts unless they have to contractually and consumers are trapped in current deals because of reducing equity levels. The reality is therefore that for many the base rate reduction doesn’t have much impact.

For businesses it is great as long as they have a fixed margin above base rate. But with most overdraft facilities being on annual terms these margins are likely to be revised upwards offsetting the impact. That is if the facility isn’t pulled completely of course.

Hence the second part of my answer to Wadds. It is like Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch. What’s the point of advertising something if you haven’t got the product to sell? Quantitative easing, printing money or any other term you like to use might solve this problem though it could have its own risks. Arguably like waiving chocolate bars in front of someone who is trying to lose weight! Still it would at least mean that the shop would have more products to buy.

IMHO though the real answer lies in creating true wealth not manufactured wealth. To do this requires investment in the one part of the economy that actually creates real jobs – the SME sector. As I have also said in the past the current government has actually taken steps to discourage this not the opposite. Next month Mr Darling should announce radical tax and spending plans to boost the prospects of the engine room of the economy and link this to the government’s apparent Digital agenda. But I won’t hold my breath.

Anyway enough of this lets get to the best part of this post! For anyone who hasn’t seen this sketch before I heartily recommend it and for anyone who has it is always worth another look :-)

Profitability of the PRWeek Top150: Scope for improvement?

I thought it was about time I turned my attention back to some good old analysis of numbers. With all the talk about the prospects for 2009 and following on from my analysis of the PRWeek Top 150 I thought I would try and have a look into profitability. But then I thought, why stop there? Why not use my financial skills to come up with some practical suggestions for improving profitability in these challenging times and being an accountant I have even created a spreadsheet so you can test the veracity of my conclusions :-)

As I have already commented, profitability is much harder to get figures on than income. However if one uses income per staff member as a proxy you can start to build a model of the underlying picture.

The table below summarises the income per staff member of the 120 agencies within the 2008 Top150 that are based in London or the Home Counties. I have selected these on the basis that they should have relatively comparative cost bases – all things being equal – a simplifying assumption I accept.

PRWeek Top 150 Income Per Head

PRWeek Top 150 Income Per Head

The combined fees of these 120 agencies – £721m – represents 92 percent of the whole of the Top 150.

So what do these figures tell us about profitability? An MD of an agency – name withheld :) – told me recently that £100,000 per staff member was a target figure to achieve circa 20% profitability. It also happens to be the overall average for these 120 agencies – coincidence? Anyway having reviewed the staff costs and margins disclosed in a few of the larger agencies’ accounts I suspect these figures may be a bit on the aggressive side. My guess is nearer 10 – 15 percent at £100,000.

Now obviously different agencies will have different cost structures e.g. premises costs could vary significantly depending on location, but they would suggest a cost base per head of around £80,000-£90,000.

Fight the recession; increase efficiency

From the table we can see that this means that as many as 66 out of 120 agencies might have been struggling to do much more than break even in 2007, the year these figures would have related to (i.e. ones with per head fees of below £90,000). These agencies have a combined income of £206m and employ approx 2,800 people i.e. one in three of the staff in these 120 agencies.

Others have already asked how the recession will affect the PR industry. The above analysis would suggest the first question to ask in return might be how does the industry become more efficient and increase its fee income per head at the same time?

Now I am not naive. I realise that unfortunately these numbers may suggest that there could be some pain on the way, in terms of potential job cuts, for some amongst these firms. However I prefer to drink from a half full glass and see this challenging time as potentially an opportunity for the industry to try and improve this situation in a positive way.

Outsource process work; focus on better audience engagement

I would suggest that there are two areas that could be focused on. Firstly **disclosure here I have a vested interest in this** the industry could benefit from making better use of outsourcing solutions and technology to fulfil more process driven requirements – administration, database building and maintenance, distribution, tracking, reporting, project management/collaboration etc.

This would increase the flexibility of its cost base in these times of uncertain demand and benefit from the potential for these organisations to have better economies of scale and potentially lower overheads and people costs, particularly if they aren’t located in the South East.

The second is to focus on the areas where PR can achieve the most value for the time spent. IMHO (and apologies here to anyone who thinks who is this accountant to tell us PR professionals how good PR works!) I would suggest there is greater value to be secured, for client and agency, by spending more time on:

– identification of the dialogue/s organisations should be having;
– better targeting of the relevant communities they should be conversing with;
– using their creativity to engage with these communities in a more effective and influential way; and
– listening to and learning from these conversations and to the extent that one can, measuring them.

Perhaps this seems like stating the obvious, but I do wonder what proportion of a lot of PRs’ time is actually spent on these activities compared to process tasks as a survey in PRWeek found last year.

A high proportion of this process based work is carried out by more junior staff. A great opportunity exists for instance to employ this capacity in these higher value areas in helping clients engage in the online world, as it is these very staff that are often most comfortable engaging and conversing in online communities.

Greater value; increased profitability  

The effect of these two things would be to increase the potential value per head on the one hand and free up the capacity to do more of this higher value work at the same time. It would also have the added benefit of potentially more motivated staff that are doing more creative work. The top three causes of job dissatisfaction in the Aurum survey being repetition of the same tasks, length of working hours and volume of administration.

My detailed analysis – worked example can be downloaded here, spreadsheet tool here – would suggest that the following could be achieved:

1. More value for the client due to time being spent on added value activities.
2. Improved margins for the agency.
3. Increased motivation and productivity from staff due to reduced hours and more interesting and rewarding work.

What do those who have first hand experience of this think? Am I living on a cloud with the proverbial cuckoo?

The 1.5% base rate cut won’t make a difference

An aggressive statement I know and one I suspect some people will tell me I am mad to claim. I am only relating this to consumers however not too business where the impact on lending that is more often linked to base rates and the potential benefits to exports of lower exchange rates may produce some positive results. But my own current experience of remortgaging has got me thinking about the effect on Joe Public.

Leaving aside the debate about whether stimulating demand through cheaper debt is really the best thing for the economy in the long run or merely trying to recreate a bubble that has already burst, consider the following:

The average age of first time buyers reached 34 in 2006 having risen from 27 over the preceeding 30 years. So lets assume that the average age as a first time buyer of people who still have mortgages outstanding was 30.

Assume the average term of a mortgage is 25 years and therefore people finish paying it on average around the age of 55.

The average price of a house has apparently fallen by 15% over the past year and is therefore back to the levels it was at in 2006.

Tracker rate mortgages that would benefit from the reduction are only held by a small minority of people as fixed rates have been in vogue and the new deals being offered are either at hefty margins that pretty much wipe out the benefit of the reduction or require LTV levels of less than 60%.

Implication 1 – the majority of people under the age of 45 will be unable to benefit from the reduction either because they are already locked into a fixed rate or can’t switch to a competitive tracker even where one is available because their LTV is likely to be assessed at more than 60% through a combination of being too early in their mortgage term and/or their house price has fallen.

Implication 2 – If you are over 50 your mortgage is likely to be low as you come to the end of your term so even though you qualify for the sub 60% LTV the reduction in your outgoings will be relatively small in absolute terms. Meanwhile your investments including your pension fund which are now much more important to you than debt prices, as you near the end of your working life, have fallen in income terms – due to the very same base rate cut – and asset value terms due to the fall in the stock market.


The people who could benefit from a reduction in interest rates in their pockets and so potentially stimulate demand i.e. under 45s, won’t because for various reasons they can’t get a hold of the cheap money and the ones who can get a hold of the cheap money i.e the over 50’s have lost far more on their investments than they will gain in reduction in debt cost so are also unlikely to start spending more either.

So its all down to everyone between 46-49 to bail us out :-) A simplistic analysis I accept but one with more than a grain of truth?

I Don’t Like Mondays – Recession 2008 PR Industry Remix

I was talking to one of our team the other day about music and the Boomtown Rats classic song from 1979 came up. The scary thing was the person concerned had never heard of it. I played her the song – still no recognition.

And that got me thinking. Here is a song from my childhood, that I love by the way, and here is this 24 year old to whom it means nothing and to be fair why should it? She wasn’t even born until years after it came out. But what else has this child of the Eighties missed out on that it looks like she is about to experience?


The last recession effectively ended 16 years ago when she was eight years old. She wasn’t even born when the previous one ended in the early 80’s. But to be fair this doesn’t just apply to a 24 year old. If you were born in the year IDLM was released and are therefore 29 now you would have only been 13 when the last recession ended. You may have some appreciation of that period – maybe your Mum or Dad lost their job or your house was repossessed, but I suspect a very high proportion of people in their 20’s can’t really recall what life was like living and working during an economic downturn.

So what has all this got to do with the PR Industry you ask? Well I don’t have the exact figures but I would hazard a guess that the proportion of staff working in the PR Industry who are 29 or less will be somewhere around the 60-70% mark. If my guess is right then that’s the vast majority of people working in an industry who have never known what it is like to work in a recession.

How will they respond? Positively because they won’t be laden down with feelings of inevitability? Or negatively if they don’t recognise the need to up your game big style during times like these?

Only time will tell, but in the meantime let us console ourselves with a truly great piece of music (even if the story behind it is clearly not a pleasant one). Particularly anyone for whom it is new.