Monday, November 12, 2007

What to do if a recession hits

Listening to the investment community either directly or through organs such as the WSJ it is clear that they believe we could be heading for a recession in the next year. Indeed, I gather the probability of a recession is now at exactly 50%. Having gone through a recession that had no impact on tech PR and one that had a profound effect (the dot com crash), it isn't easy to see how a recession may affect the industry, especially since the roots of this one would seem to lie in a mix of high oil prices and the credit debacle. What is clear to me, however, is that PR needs to get ready for the possibility of a recession. What does this mean:

1. We need to help our clients understand the value of PR versus other disciplines. This means we have to jump on measurement in a big way if it hasn't already happened. The facts on the effectiveness of PR are very persuasive but without them...

2. Anticipate your clients demands - what do you think your client would want to do if sales slowed? who are their biggest customers and how can you help them protect the customer base? What kinds of bad news may they have to deal with and how can you help them through that?

3. Avoid taking on clients that are likely to be hit hard in a recession. I noticed an advert for Net Jets in the WSJ today and my first thought was: "well there's a market that will get awfully hard if there's a recession."

4. Expect clients to consolidate their spend. Right now larger companies tend to spread their PR across firms to access the best skills for the job. If there's a recession they may well look to streamline the number of agencies in a bid to save money. Asking yourself if your firm would likely win or lose from such a change is probably a good thing to do now.

5. Don't take on new office space you won't need. During the last recession a lot of PR firms got into trouble because they had expensive offices they had hoped to grow into. Indeed I know of two fifty person PR businesses that effectively went bust because their leases ran to over $1m. Of course taking expensive office space is a silly move at the best of times but imagine having to lay people off because of a glamorous reception area and you will soon opt for the humbler option.

6. Conserve your cash. People based businesses, like most, are often run on overdrafts but when recessions do hit they can become cash strapped very quickly. Agencies need to make sure they have a good handle on how their cashflow could change if revenues were to fall back. A good CFO will be able to model this quite easily and should be able to guide agency heads.

7. Remember your people. When recessions hit agencies can often focus too much on the client and forget that without good people clients will walk. This doesn't mean that agencies should lavish money on their people that they don't have. What it does mean is that they should think about what makes people stay at a firm apart from money. Career develoment, skills, the working environment, their colleagues - these are things that matter to people in any economic climate so don't lose sight of them when an economy changes.

OK - off the top of my head this is my list. Hopefully it is a list we don't need but in truth some of it is just common sense and should be how we run agencies anyway. Right?