This has been the year of boutique PR agencies, and Shine Communications has shown itself to be the strongest among them. The agency had started to attract the attentions of blue-chip FMCG brands over the past couple of years, but 2003 brought a critical mass of big-name clients eager for its creative firepower and enthusiastic attitude.
In a year when most PR agencies suffered double-digit percentage drops in income, Shine managed to increase its revenue by 35% to £2m. This was reflected in an increase in staff numbers - another oddity in the climate - which jumped from 18 to 27.
Profit margins sit at an extremely healthy 24%, and the agency won 71% of all new business it pitched for during 2003 - double the industry average, even in good times.
New clients include BT, Polaroid, Egg, Heinz, Rank Leisure and Paramount Home Entertainment, a haul worth £520,000. Paramount represents its biggest win. Shine will promote its video and DVD releases for an annual fee of £360,000.
While it is true that Shine has benefited from clients' eagerness to cut costs by favouring smaller agencies, it still needs to deliver on its promises to be able to hang on to those clients.
All the evidence suggests it is doing so. Client retention stands at 97%, with the agency's two founding clients, Dunlop Slazenger and Timberland, still with Shine five years after its inception.
One of the agency's most innovative campaigns of the year was for BT.
It was asked to promote the telecom firm's flat rate of 6p an hour under the BT Together brand. The challenge was to find a way to dramatise the core concept to the widest audience possible, according to BT's head of consumer PR Damian Peachey. The agency hit upon the idea of paying The Sun to reduce the cost of the paper to 6p for the rate's launch day.
Freelancer Cass Stainton and account director Bethan Lloyd took on the unusual task of financial negotiations with the newspaper, a job made more complex by the Oftel requirement that The Sun print various disclaimers as part of the promotion. Midway through discussions, Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan tried to seal the deal for his paper, giving the Shine team valuable bargaining power.
"Shine scores well on both creativity and client service," says Peachey.
"We gave it a difficult couple of briefs this year (the other was to promote BT's new directory enquiries service) and it came up with some excellent campaigns, which were well-targeted and integrated with our other activities."
Shine has worked with Unilever Ice Cream and Frozen Food (previously Birds Eye Wall's) on its Magnum brand since 2000 - the first time Unilever had invested in PR for its ice cream brand. Over the past three years, it has managed to expand the size of this account by 148% on the strength of its work.
In 2003, Shine was briefed to support the launch of the Magnum Seven Deadly Sins, a range of ice creams named Lust, Gluttony and so on. Helen Park, brand PR manager at Unilever Ice Cream and Frozen Food, says the agency "excelled" in its media relations work, with 95% of coverage featuring a photo or logo, and at least one key message.
"All our consumer agencies are good and we work them very hard, but Shine produced some stunning work this year," adds Park.
So what is Shine's secret? Part of the answer, say the directors, is the emphasis the agency puts on positive treatment of staff. In an industry of over-worked employees who have had to forgo pay increases, Shine is one of the few agencies that has been able to plough time and money into its people.
It spent £400,000 on training and development over the year, having already won the Public Relations Consultants Association's Best People Development award in 2001 and 2002.
In addition, a minimum of 10% of pre-tax profit is shared with employees in the form of bonuses, and the agency claims it always hires in advance of need, avoiding the common situation where account staff have to squeeze new clients into an already packed schedule.
Client service is generally flagged as a priority in agencies, but Shine puts its money where its mouth is by keeping a monthly track of satisfaction levels. It uses its own system of evaluation (ERIC - Evaluating Results in Integrated Campaigns), which offers clients a menu of 12 measures of campaign performance, including share of voice, tone and frequency of key messages, and exact target audience demographics reached.
The only major blip in the year was the departure of two senior directors in July. Michael Frohlich and Graham Drew were poached by Lord Bell's Chime Communications to set up a consumer PR boutique agency.
But the agency has moved to cover their departures by promoting account director Greg Jones to head new business, while the role of managing director returned to chairman Rachel Bell, who founded the agency jointly with Julia Newton.
Claire Murphy is a freelance contributor to Marketing. email@example.com.