It has been little more than a year since Huntsworth announced—in August of 2009—that it would be merging its Grayling, Mmd and Trimedia operations under one umbrella, and less than a year since the official launch of the new company in January 2010. And it’s fair to say that the timing, given the state of the global economy, was not optimal. So it’s not particularly surprising that the new, improved Grayling has experienced some difficulties in its first year, with revenues down by about 5 percent in the first half—although management saw a return to growth in the fourth quarter of 2010. Having said that, the firm demonstrated its ability to pitch for and win pan-regional and even global assignments. It picked up multimarket work for hotel management company Accor, the International Federation of Animal Health, Sony (for a CSR initiative), The Economist, Medtronic (with a focus on Eastern European markets), Reckitt Benckiser, a six-figure public affairs campaign for gas pipeline company Nabucco, Aviva (a 13-country program focused on the “pension gap”), Dow, the Qatar Financial Services Authority, and the Portuguese Cork Association. And there was expanded work for Nestle, now one of the firm’s largest clients in the U.K., and Skype (an Eastern European client that now includes work in the U.K., the Middle East, the Netherlands and Sweden).
As one of only three full-service multimarket firms not headquartered in the U.S. (the others, EuroRSCG and MSLGroup, are based in France), and one that has been assembled largely through the acquisition of local firms, Grayling has the benefit of strong roots and local leadership in many of its individual markets. The U.K. operation, with fees of around £17 million (enough for a top 15 spot) remains the largest office, while the firm is a market leader in the German-speaking world (where business improved considerably in 2010) and has strong offers in France, Spain and Sweden (the last growing at a healthy pace following the integration of last year’s Sund Kommunikation acquisition). Grayling also continues to be the strongest player in Central and Eastern Europe, with a network of offices that spans 16 markets, with Poland, Russia and Turkey all turning in impressive performances during 2010, and with the integration of Grayling Momentum is building its presence in the Middle East.
Grayling now has more than 900 people in 70 offices around the world, although the European operations continue to dominate. Its roots in the U.S. date back to 2002, when Huntsworth opened its first U.S. office with the acquisition of Thomson Financial, which was rebranded under the Global Consulting Group banner and operated at the nexus of corporate communications, financial communications, and public affairs—with corporate and financial run out of New York, and supplemented by California public affairs firm Rose & Kindel and recently-acquired Washington, D.C. government relations specialist Dutko Worldwide. In Asia, the firm has a relatively minor presence: a hub in Singapore, offices in Hong Kong and Bangkok, and a network of affiliates. There’s in an obvious need in China, but to compete globally, Grayling will need to significantly expand in this part of the world.
Grayling has a pretty well balanced practice portfolio, although it is not equally strong in every practice in every market. In western Europe, for example, the firm is probably best known for its strong consumer capabilities—especially in the U.K., where the consumer practice is particularly strong—but the former Mmd operation in Eastern Europe had developed a formidable corporate practice and impressive public affairs credentials, which were complemented by Grayling’s public affairs expertise in London and Brussels (and more recently by the acquisition of government relations specialist Dutko Worldwide in the U.S.). In April, the firm rolled out a global practice structure, focused on four broad offers—public relations, public affairs, investor relations and events—and six industry sectors where it has significant experience: consumer brands; financial and professional services; energy and the environment (including a new clean tech officer); healthcare; technology; and the public sector, with its expertise in the U.K. (where its focus on health and skills-related work means it was spared the worst of the recent cuts) now supplemented in Brussels with the launch of a new EU tenders business.
The coming together of Grayling, Trimedia and Mmd created new roles for a number of senior executives. Michael Murphy, who had successful built Trimedia into a significant European force, was named chief executive; Grayling veteran James Acheson-Gray became managing director international; Mmd’s Chris Dobson was named managing director of CEE and other emerging markets; Loretta Tobin was named CEO for the U.K. and Ireland; and in early 2010 the firm also named a team of practice area leaders. New additions include Richard Jukes, who joined the London public affairs team after working in his own consulting business; international client director Adam Robinson (a transfer from Moscow to London); former Pleon executive Bettina Gebhardt, who leads the Zurich office; Katharina de Meulder, who joined to lead the new EU tenders business in Brussels; Shirley Hanley-Ryder, formerly of Bell Pottinger, as country manager in Russia; and six senior-level people in Sweden.
Compared to its better established competitors, Grayling’s culture is distinguished by its flexibility and entrepreneurialism, values that CEO Michael Murphy was instilling in the old Trimedia (which had won our Best Multinational Consultancy to Work For award) and has carried over to the new firm—although it draws on the best aspects of the culture from all the merged entities. The values are critical to Murphy’s vision, which is to avoid the “cookie-cutter” approach that some big agencies can fall prey to and ensure that even international campaigns are delivered with a local flavour and flair: one reason for the Cork win was that the firm tailored its strategy to each individual market. To ensure that the culture takes hold, there has been a significant investment in internal communications, particularly via the firm’s new intranet.
With integration, infrastructure and branding issues dominating the agenda, Grayling has not been as active in new product development or original research as some of its competitors (although there have been some local initiatives, such as a recent report on Influence in Scotland). But the firm has developed a number of thought leadership products and services that underscore some areas of expertise: a stakeholder audit and mapping process that identifies influencers in advance of public affairs campaigns; an NGO perception audit that identified potential threats to reputation; and a CSR workshop that helps companies recognize and take advantage of opportunities in an arena where the firm has a wealth of experience.
In the U.K., Grayling helped Dulux with the introduction of its environmentally-friendly ecosense brand, supported the return of an iconic advertising campaign for Nescafe, and helped the Foreign & Commonwealth Office turn up the heat on issues such as child abduction and forced marriage. In Germany, the firm provided crisis communications counsel to construction company Bilfinger Berger as it worked on a new metro system. In Belgium, it worked with restaurant chain Quick on issues related to Halal foods. In Spain, it helped to launch retail giant Primark. And in Eastern Europe, it supported DHL through a scandal related to drugs trafficking in Hungary, helped Google reach out to small and medium-sized business in Poland, and organized a major health education summit in Warsaw for Schering-Plough.
It’s quite a challenge to take a brand that had been a slightly sleepy midsize player in the U.K. and give it a full-service, global identity, so it might take some time before the Grayling name has the same kind of recognition as competitors who have a 50-year head start in the international PR business. But the firm has made impressive progress in its first year, having commissioned corporate identity specialist Holmes & Marchant to undertake a major stakeholder audit. The tagline, “different thinking for a different world,” denotes a fresh approach to business and seeks subtly to undercut the advantages of greater experience, and the firm is clearly emphasizing its independence (it is one of only two major European firms not owned by an advertising agency) and the fact that it is headquartered in Europe (one of only three firms not led from the U.S.).
After a year of consolidation following the merger, and struggles related to the global economy, Grayling has seen some growth in the fourth quarter and has big plans for 2011. Some of them relate to internal issues, most notably a new global learning programme set to roll out soon and a new desktop monitoring tool that will reinforce the digital offer. Others involve building out capabilities in specific markets, from a public affairs presence in France to the expansion of its affiliate network in developing markets. Overall, Grayling appears to be well-positioned to compete on an equal footing with most of its European competitors; the real need is for a broader North American offer (consumer is the obvious weakness) and more critical mass in Asia.