Just why are there so many PR people in London? It’s a question I’ve asked myself since I started in PR and marketing in the late 90s.
Just taking a sample of the PR Week top 150 agencies, 76% are based in London. Traditional media is still important, but it’s not like we’re networking with journalists every day, so proximity to London publishing houses is a lot less important than it used to be.
While London is still the powerhouse of the UK economy, it’s by no means the sole centre. For example, regions like the Thames Valley are extremely popular with big technology firms, Cambridge is known as a tech and science incubator and Bristol is big in financial services. So, being close to clients doesn’t hold as a good enough reason for the industry to be so disproportionately London-based either.
In the last 5-10 years, the advent of faster access and cloud computing mean that it’s technically just as viable to have an agency in, say, Solihull as Soho. So, why is the public relations industry still so London-centric? To me, it’s all about talent.
The first 10 years of my career were in the East Midlands. Being close to friends in my university town and on the doorstep of the Peak District appealed from a work-life balance point of view, and I always disagreed with the notion that London should be the centre of PR universe.
I used to find that I was quite chippy about what I perceived to be London snobbery about the regions (one agency I worked for was in Rutland; “Rutland– where on earth is that?”, I’ve heard more than once.) But there was one issue that I could never get over: it was always hard finding good quality PR people to hire. It was quite common to have to interview 10 or 20 would-be account executives before we found a good one – all the talent migrated to London.
The flipside is that employee retention rates tend to be higher. Fewer jobs and the prospect of having to move towns to get a promotion mean that people are more likely to hang on to a good job when they get one.
So, the question is, will London remain the centre of the PR industry in the future?
In a word, yes. Well, kind of. For hundreds of years there have been clusters of expertise (think in London of Hatton Garden for jewelry, Savile Row for tailoring or Denmark Street for music), so it’s natural for there to be a PR cluster in a single city.
And frustrating as it is for people who switch jobs every year, a certain amount of movement is important for enhancing skills and knowledge.
However, factors such as improving communications technologies, people having a different focus on work-life balance, the cost of commuting and childcare, and challenging marketing conditions translating to poorer financial visibility, mean that agencies will increasingly be using London as a hub supported by freelancers around the country. Which is great news if you’re based in Rutland.