Why is London the centre of the PR universe?

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.

Panorama of City of London

Why is London the centre of the PR universe?
Source: Wikipedia

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.

  • angela may

    Hi Phil – Having recently relocated to Manchester and deciding to get back into
    ‘proper’ work after many years as a freelance,  it’s become all too apparent to me how London-centric the
    PR industry really is..  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more agencies wised up to the fact that experienced/talented/hard-working/etc people do not need to be in the office every day of the week in order to do a great job?   In my experience the vast majority of agencies are still uncomfortable with the concept of remote working. They prefer a traditional working structure in which most work is conducted in the office.  I’ve been told that it’s all down to what clients want, which doesn’t really make sense to me given that so many ‘client’ organisations have been fine with remote/flexible working for years.   

  • http://twitter.com/steve_falla Steve Falla

    Phil, I’m pleased to say I have a team of 10 talented and qualified practitioners from a very limited pool eligible to live in the Channel Islands, they all get access to top end client work and would stand up credibly against their contemporaries in London. We also handle a lot of London work, in fact I’m there tomorrow. We benefit from the best of both worlds – day of meetings in London, an evening sea kayaking and supper on the beach (though not in November!)

  • Phil Szomszor

    Thanks for your comment Angela. I’m a big fan of Manchester – in fact, I seriously considered moving there after being in Derbyshire and see it as England’s second commercial city. It feels as though there are more new business and PR opportunities there than, say, the East Midlands, where I lived (and loved being in) for a long time. 

    My sense is that if you’ve got enough experience to be a freelancer, it doesn’t matter where you’re based, but it’s hard when you’re starting out. Consequently, it’s also hard for those agencies that are based outside London (and to a certain extent, Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh and a couple of other cities) to find good talent. 

    On remote working, I think you need a core team based together, but at Firefly we have an active community – or “friends of Firefly” – who are based all around the world. As time goes on this group will probably become more important for us and the rest of the agency world. 

  • Phil Szomszor

    Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. I’m jealous of your work life balance – it certainly sounds appealing! 

    I’m certainly not saying there aren’t good agencies outside London (that attitude used to annoy me when I was in the Midlands), but the talent issue was a problem. The people that worked in my team were amazing, but we used to have to meet a lot of people before we uncovered the diamonds. Is this something that you experience in the Channel Islands?