Marketing's choice of PR Agency of the Year will offend those have been (correctly) trying to spread the word that there is more to PR than celebrities, parties and made-up news. But it reflects the reality that most marketers expect PR agencies to get their brands into the headlines.
Frank PR has had a watershed year in 2005, both financially and in terms of industry standing. It scored a huge amount of publicity with its inspired idea for the relaunch of HP Sauce in February, when it arranged for HP to sponsor the brown ball in the Masters snooker tournament and got Jimmy White to change his surname by deed poll to Brown. His outfit for the event mirrored the colours of the sauce's bottle.
Almost all the national newspapers covered the story, and it was the subject of questions posed on Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway on ITV1 and BBC One's The National Lottery Jet Set on the same evening.
Frank stirred more controversy by writing on behalf of White to urge the BBC to use his new name in its Masters coverage. The Corporation's 'reluctance' to go along with this prompted further publicity.
At rate-card prices, the media coverage was worth £3.5m - all for a cost of £100,000, including agency fees, White's payment and tournament sponsorship costs.
Research conducted after the event found that 59% of the population was aware of the story and HP's involvement in it. Crucially, and unusually for PR, a subsequent sales lift of 10% could be attributed to the campaign because no other marketing activity had occurred during the period.
The toughest task for any PR agency is to create something out of nothing to make some noise about a client's brand. Another of Frank's 2005 campaigns was a classic example: in order to get Nickelodeon coverage beyond the TV pages, the agency instigated a competition to find modern-day nursery rhymes. Extensive coverage was generated both when the competition was announced and when the winners were published.
The wide-ranging coverage from these stories may well have helped Frank's healthy new business record for 2005 - it attracted £1.05m in new clients, yielding a 50% rise in fee income over 2004. Not least among these was being appointed to the Unilever roster and immediately being given five brands to work on - I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, Sure for Men, Birds Eye Frozen Peas, Ben & Jerry's and Hellmann's.
The Birds Eye work involved getting consumers to view frozen vegetables as a positive option. As part of the project to mark the Hellmann's brand's 100th anniversary, Frank arranged for Hell's Kitchen star Jennifer Ellison to pose with some scantily-clad male chefs - a sure-fire tabloid winner.
Frank also got onto the roster for mobile phone brand 3, and in November 2004 was a new entrant on the COI's PR roster. Other wins included Discovery Networks, Anheuser-Busch and dmg World Media, which hired it to run the PR for four shows, including The Autumn Ideal Home Show.
Frank had three losses - one client no longer required consumer PR and another pulled a planned UK launch. Homechoice was the only account lost to another agency.
Frank had to almost double its staff in 2005, adding 15 people to the 22 with whom it started the year. Two of these were senior appointments - Shine's associate director Alex Grier, who was instrumental in some of the wins, and Cohn & Wolfe's creative director Frankie Burstin, who became deputy, and subsequently joint, managing director.
Frank has tried to bring some theory to the thorny issue of evaluating the effectiveness of PR. Its directors believe lots of coverage isn't enough to prove PR is effective - it has to get people talking. Its Buzz Barometer operates via an online survey that asks people whether they remember coverage and have heard people talking about the story.
Five years after Frank's launch, directors Graham Goodkind and Andrew Bloch (with ex-Ketchum director Nadia Gabbie) have finally shaken off the substantial shadow that came from being directors of the legendary Lynne Franks PR - although, given their choice of agency name, the association has clearly brought its own benefits.
Part of the legacy of that link is that Frank has a reputation as an old-fashioned phone-basher. As one senior industry observer put it: 'They're proper publicists.'
PREVIOUS WINNERS 2004: Lexis PR 2003: Shine Communications 2002: The RED Consultancy
BEST OF THE REST
Four of Marketing's five shortlisted PR agencies brought in new business worth at least £1m in 2005. While the industry is unlikely to see a return to the mega-bucks fees of the turn of the millennium, this does at least show that agencies that hang on to good staff and come up with strong creative ideas can still produce healthily growing businesses.
All the shortlisted agencies have above-average records for staff retention - Resonate has held on to all but one of its staff in its two-year history, while Consolidated Communications' staff stay on average for four years, well above the 18-month average.
Fifteen-year-old Consolidated, a strong contender for PR Agency of the Year, brought in £1m in new business, 75% of which was derived from new clients including Yahoo!, Eurostar, American Express, Chelsea Building Society and Alliance & Leicester. The rest came from incremental business.
The agency's projected fee income for 2005 is £5.8m.
The Amex win was especially significant as the agency won it from Hill & Knowlton, which had held the business for nine years. One of Consolidated's first pieces of work for the credit-card firm was to promote its sponsorship of the Wimbledon tennis championships with charity matches at the Tower of London.
The agency opened an Edinburgh office with a staff of seven in March, a development that was soon justified by a clutch of wins from Scottish organisations, including the Scottish Institute for Enterprise and Quality Meat Scotland. Consolidated also gained a place on the first PR roster for the Scottish Executive. Its first work for this client involved supporting the smoking ban in Scotland.
Its public affairs capability has been boosted by the hiring of ex-Hill & Knowlton CSR director Ian Hagg.
Four Communications came of age this year, adding £1.55m in new business to reach a fee income of £4.55m, a rise of 55%, from clients including Barclaycard, Granada Ventures (notably the licensing of Little Britain merchandise) and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.
The agency has expanded significantly in its fourth year of business.
Its merger with the Gritti Partnership brought design, media buying, digital and direct marketing capabilities and means Four now pitches itself as a mini-marketing services group. It also added offices in Dubai and Bahrain and poached Hill & Knowlton's sponsorship director, Alan James.
Notable activity during the year included ongoing work to establish chip and PIN; two years after the campaign started there is now 97% awareness of its existence. Four ran another campaign for APACS (The Association for Payment Clearing Services) to increase consumer awareness of how to responsibly use credit cards, and organised a campaign to publicise the English Cricket Board's grassroots work ahead of the Ashes.
The Fish Can Sing is getting on many pitch lists at the moment and has a reputation for edgy creative thinking. It won a D&AD commendation for a poster produced for Motorola, and a merit award from the prestigious Art Director's Club of New York, also for its Motorola work.
The agency began life in Amsterdam four years ago, adding a London office in 2002, and is still fairly reliant on three key clients - Motorola, Absolut Vodka and Nike. It boosted its fee income by 50% this year, up to £3.1m, and added six staff to the 15 it had at the end of 2004.
It provided PR support for the launch of the Nike Free shoe with the help of Paula Radcliffe, and launched the Motorola RAZR phone in New York, prompting the opening of a New York office in May. New client wins included Egg Money, Carling C2 and Amnesty International. The agency also gained a COI roster place.
The final runner-up for PR Agency of the Year is Resonate. Founded two years ago by former Shine Communications directors Michael Frohlich and Graham Drew, the agency earned an early accolade for the substantial PR campaign it produced to help IPC launch men's weekly magazine Nuts. It also now handles Loaded magazine, Fox Channel and Pot Noodle.
This year, Resonate has moved beyond its 'blokey' image by adding new business from clients including WH Smith, Muller, Homechoice and Disney.
This tally, worth £500,000, takes Resonate's fee income to £720,000.
Although still a minnow in the industry, the agency has started to punch above its weight. Its campaign to drive buyers into WH Smith for the launch of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince resulted in the retailer getting its biggest ever share of a Harry Potter launch.