The Rainy City’s becoming a PR powerhouse as regional agencies flex their muscles

19th August 2013

There’s a common popular misconception that the creative and marketing industries are all exclusively based in, and obsessed with, London.

While it’s undeniable that the capital is the centre of the UK marcomms industry, not everything happens there. Over the years at Green Square we’ve worked with all manner of businesses based outside of London – and, as regular readers of this blog will know, we’ve written about the lively regional M&A scene.

One of the great things about working in this business is that it is not particularly capital investment-intensive, in the way that, say, manufacturing is.In this digital age, all you really need to set up on your own is a decent internet connection, a good contacts book and some good ideas. Theoretically, you can be based anywhere – indeed, some agencies find that an expensive swanky London office is as much a turn-off for many clients as it is attractive for others.

Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Cardiff and Sheffield all have thriving communities of agencies – some of them, like Edinburgh’s Leith and TBWA Manchester, of real scale and reach. Even comparatively “sleepy” outposts such as Southampton, Norwich and Tunbridge Wells have good agencies!

Outside of Edinburgh, Greater Manchester is probably the biggest non-London marcomms hub. PR is an especially strong discipline there, with agencies like Weber Shandwick Manchester, Mustard, CityPress, Brazen, Tangerine MC Squared, Wilson Cooke and others. Compared to their London counterparts, overheads are smaller, but they benefit from local pools of talent, a regional client base (although many also have national and international clients on their books), good infrastructure and transport links, and a thriving local media.

One highly-regarded outfit is Mere PR, based in Altrincham, and recently voted one of the Top 50 agencies in the North of England.

Mere was set up 20 years ago by PR professional Tony Tighe, who left his agency Greenwood Tighe Public Relations after selling it to Euro RSCG (now Havas) in 1993. Over the past two decades Mere has established itself as something of a local powerhouse in travel, B2B, tourism, leisure and sport, with clients like Jones Homes, Kitbag and Metrolink on its long-term books.

Late last month it was acquired by BJL, another Manchester-based marketing agency.

Founded in 1987, BJL has long been a leading independent agency in the city, and is still run by its directors. It employs around 60 people full-time, and offers clients a diverse range of integrated services – advertising, brand strategy, corporate communications, design, digital, DM and data analytics, events, promotional marketing, PR, sponsorship, and TV/video/audio production. All in all an extremely attractive prospect for regional or local client looking for a “one-stop” marketing solution.

BJL’s clients include a number of global blue-chips – British Airways, Asda, Subaru, Pilkington, Isuzu – and more local firms such as Warburton’s Rustlers, Yorkshire BS, Swinton, Beaverbrooks, Silentnight and Zugo’s Deli-Café.

What Mere brings to the table is its aforementioned strengths in tourism, leisure and sport. It also allows BJL to ramp up its PR offering. Mere will be moving from Altrincham into the centre of Manchester, to BJL HQ, where the acquirer’s existing PR team will be merged into the incomer’s. The new entity will be known as Mere@BJL, with Tony Tighe retained as a consultant and overall control handed to BJL’s CEO Nicky Unsworth.

PR, as we’ve said many times before in The Drum, is an increasingly important part of the marketing mix (especially with the rise of social media, to which PR, with its awareness-building and consumer engagement capabilities, seems ideally suited), and this acquisition helps BJL establish itself as a PR powerhouse in the North-West.

With the pool of eligible M&A brides in the capital shrinking, I think we’ll see a lot more of this regional consolidation in the coming months and years.

Staying with the regions, an interesting piece of news broke while I was writing this column. Venture capital firm Audere Capital has just bought a minority stake in Cardiff-based Cake Communications, allowing it to open a new office in Canary Wharf – so a PR agency from the Welsh capital is establishing a bridgehead in the UK capital!

Now, whilst I opened by stating many agencies aren’t bothered about a London office (for good reason), it does have to be said that – as long as a London office is sizable – it can make a big difference to the ability to attract global clients (who perceive it to be an agency of scale) and it’s attractiveness to overseas acquirers.

Cake’s client list covers the legal, healthcare, education, retail, property, technology and charity sectors and includes Welsh retailer Cwmbran Shopping, the British Association of Adoption & Fostering charity and housebuilder Waterstone Homes. It was only set up in 2011, but has already won itself a number of awards, so was clearly an attractive investment for an ambitious VC firm like Audere.

It appears that Audere Capital’s founder Richard Alvin will join the Cake board as executive director. Alvin is a former head of PR for the London Docklands Development Corporation and launched business media publishing and research company Capital Business Media so he clearly has a lot of experience (as well as cash) to bring to the table.

A date hasn’t been set yet for the opening of the Canary Wharf office, but it’s clear that the new outpost is intended to attract more clients based in the city.

We’re used to seeing London agencies moving or buying into the regions, but movements the other way are comparatively rare, so it will be extremely interesting to see how this pans out – and, given the success of agencies such as Elmwood undertaking such moves, I wouldn’t bet against them.