A group of public relations agency leaders met recently in Geneva to talk about their businesses, share ideas and consider ways to collaborate to better serve clients. The agency executives are members of ECP Global Communications and IPAN, two international networks of independent firms. Those in attendance were from countries as diverse as Great Britain and Croatia, Greece and India, and PR professionals from most of the major European countries and North America.
A common theme emerged – the economy has taken a toll around the world, but nearly everyone sees at least some signs of improvement. Why, it was asked, is the improvement occurring? Is it just that, globally, economies are turning around or is there something more?
A little of both, was the answer everyone agreed upon. The something more was the enlightening part.
All the agencies in attendance were independent firms. None are owned by WPP, Omnicomm, Publicis or other mammoth communication holding companies. All make a common pledge to clients – that senior professionals will be directly and daily engaged in the work, and all will be committed to meeting clients’ business objectives.
It seems almost axiomatic that communications firms would make such a pledge, but as the discussion unfolded it became clear that clients find it is not to be taken for granted. More than one agency leader spoke of clients who had left one wholly-owned firm or another after realizing that quarterly returns for shareholders too often trumped client interests. If more proof were needed, Sir Martin Sorrell, head of WPP Group, owner of Burson-Marstellar, Hill & Knowlton and Ogilvy among many many others, reported this week his group posted its best revenue growth in 10 years during the third quarter. He was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying, “Our emphasis on dividends will be quite strong.” Said another way, his group’s emphasis will be on shareholder value rather than client priorities. That’s telling.
If the economic downturn of the last few years has done anything it has made corporate clients far more conscious of what they are spending on marketing, promotion, and brand building. Consumers and government regulators are closely scrutinizing such spending and castigating what to them appears shamelessly self-promotional rather than socially worthwhile. Corporate executives and Boards are making certain such spending is closely monitored and producing measurable business value. If the firm handling their programs is focused first and foremost on dividends, an inherent conflict between client interests and shareholders exists.
It seemed from the discussion in Geneva that this is becoming increasingly apparent to corporations regardless of nationality and, as a result, the move toward independent client-centeric firms is gaining momentum. We happen to think that’s a good thing.