Warren Johnson on the PRmoment podcast: “As with any recession there is a certain thinning of the herd, but on aggregate there will be a re-professionalisation of the industry”

This week, we're starting a new series called PR Reset, where I'm catching up with the CEOs of some of the UK's most prominent PR firms to talk about how they see their business, the PR world andthe wider economy resetting post the Covid-19 lockdown.

First up, we've got the founder of W Communications Warren Johnson. Frankly, Warren’s on even more punchy form than ever! Here’s a summary of what we discussed:

2.12 mins How Warren has managed the coronavirus lockdown crisis for W.

2.50 mins Warren describes the first week of lockdown as “the worst of his professional career.”

2.52 mins How Warren and his FD had to renegotiate “something like 42 client contracts in the first two or three weeks” of lockdown.

3.20 mins How he saw his “job as trying to make sure money didn’t leave (W Communications) for good.”

3.40 mins How W took an “aggressively commercial approach to its cost base” during the lockdown.

3.52 mins How W’s “EBIT didn’t take much of a hit during the lockdown, but revenues were 8-10% down.”

4.16 mins Warren denies that W was spending £4K a month on cereal, beer and flowers pre-Covid. And how not being in the office actually “saves a vast amount of money”.

07.05 mins Why being independent and being able to make quick decisions helped W during this period – for example getting out of the office before lockdown started reduced a lot of costs.

07.48 mins Why W has not reduced any of W’s staff salaries during lockdown, but instead took this as an “opportunity to trim the herd a little bit from some underperforming staff.”

08.10 mins W has brought in new CEO inn Rachel Friend (she started 1 July). Why did Warren decide that now was right the time was right to bring in an outsider into that position?

08.46 mins Warren explains he wants “W to be an agency as big as Weber, I don’t know what that looks like, so I need someone who does.”

08.59 mins Warren says: “There are very few people that we can work in partnership with. but when I put that list together, Rachel (Friend) was number one on that list.

09.35 mins Warren says independents have had a better lockdown than the group owned forms because of their agility.

10.15 mins Warren predicts a two-speed recovery for the PR sector: “the better operators are already back on their A-game”

10.45 mins Warren says: “There is a slight nanny state evolving where people believe they need to be as far away from the office as possible.”

10.58 mins Why after three months of working from home people need to come back into the office to collaborate.

11.04 mins “Zoom is not the right format to be creative.”

12.11 mins Many PR firms are looking to return the office in Sept – but W returned to the office from 1 July in a “beta” phase.

13.51 mins Warren’s “fog of lockdown has already lifted” and why he’s “keen more people experience that.”

14.09 mins How W’s employees were about “a third, a third, a third” when it came to their keenness to return to the office.

14.34 mins Most of the employees who were concerned about returning to the office were worried about the travel.

15.17 mins Some of W’s younger employees have given up flats in London and have moved back to their parents’ homes.

16.55 mins Warren says he’s “not sure whether we (W) can be in a position where we can have people working remotely permanently...so that is going to present a few problems.”

17.05 mins PR people, especially junior PR people have become overconfident in their sense of job security”.

18.05 mins This should be a reflection point within the PR industry: “people should be thankful for jobs, they shouldn’t take them for granted.”

18.18 mins “This is effectively a correction to the market, there are too many agencies out there.”

18.38 mins “As with any recession there is a certain thinning of the herd... on aggregate there will be a re-professionalisation of the industry”.

18.40 mins “Some of the poor performers, both agency wise and talent-wise will leave the industry, which is a good thing.”

19 mins Warren applauds the start-ups that we’ve seen over the past few weeks: “when you’ve got nothing to lose you take risks.”

20.51 mins “The furlough scheme needs to start winding up now, there is a lot of big international plcs who are just leaning on it.”

21.40 mins Why Covid has created a greater sense of camaraderie between agencies and clients.

22.15 mins How the PR sector has generally been a “pretty good partner to its clients” during the lockdown. A lot of good work has come out of PR firms during the lockdown.

22.45 mins Warren has “seen less innovation from the ad industry... it all seems to be people at home on Zoom.”

24.20 mins This idea that we’ll all be able to work virtually from our homes all over the world is just not the case.

24.31 mins “You cannot lead a business over Zoom”

24.56 mins Warren thinks people will be “surprised with how quickly things will probably return to a fairly big degree of normality.”

27.08 mins “Working from home creates an over-blurring of home and work life that is not healthy.”

27.40 mins One of the major challenges of people working from home is the impact it has on knowledge transfer from senior to junior people.

28.50 mins Warren says he’d have “struggled” to take a pay cut if he’d had been an employee during the Covid crisis. He doesn’t agree with it as a strategy because it means that you demotivate, potentially, your best people at the same time as you’re asking those people to steer your business out of a recession.

31.15 mins “Employee pay cuts and over furloughing mean that some of the big corporates will become zombie businesses for the next six months”

32.14 mins How does Warren see the public relations sector getting back to growth?

32.50 mins Warren predicts a patchy second half of the year for W – “we’ll make our numbers, but in quite a painful way.

33.01 mins “There will be a quarter that knocks it out of the park for everyone, my best guess is that that will be early next year”.

33.31 mins “The fact is that there is a huge amount of untapped consumer spending at the moment”.

34.41 mins Warren worries about implications of a contracting media sector for PR firms and questions whether many print editions will ever return.


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