Spinners are winners as talent gets thinner

23/09/2021 - 08:00

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WA businesses are increasingly bringing communication professionals in-house, forcing smaller firms and established players to adapt.

Jason Marocchi is managing partner at GRA Partners. Photo: David Henry

There has been a dramatic reshuffle of key players in Perth’s communications industry under way for the best part of a decade.

With 40 staff in 2013, PPR was the largest public and investor relations firm in Western Australia, per Data & Insights.

Today, however, it has a much-reduced presence in the city following a merger between WPP and STW Communications that decimated its client book in the mid-2010s.

Having merged with BCW in 2019, the firm now has just two consultants based in WA, ranking 29th on the list.

Other heavyweights, including CPR Communications & Public Relations and Hawker Britton, have also receded from the market, with Cannings Purple, Clarity Communications and FTI Consulting among the state’s biggest communications and consultancy firms.

In many ways, their elevation has coincided with a surge of economic activity in WA brought on by another boom in the state’s mining sector.

Figures from Data & Insights reflect the uptick in activity for consultancy businesses across the city, with 16 investor relations firms advising companies undertaking $4.3 billion worth of transactions in the past 12 months.

It’s a major turnaround from 18 months ago, when many professional services grounded to a halt following WA’s initial, eight-week lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“We sensed [with] COVID initially we had lots of cries for help early in the piece, sort of March, April last year, then things probably quieted down a little bit through the middle part of the year,” Jason Marocchi, partner at GRA Partners, told Business News.

“From September onwards we’ve seen real confidence in a number of areas across a broad range of industries.”

Annette Ellis, managing director at Cannings Purple, echoed that sentiment.

“We’ve seen growth from both existing clients and new clients coming aboard, notably with a number of new clients in the tech and energy transition space,” Ms Ellis said.

“It’s pleasing to see these sectors growing in WA, alongside our traditional clients across the natural resources, infrastructure, education, aged care and property sectors.”

Much of this growth is happening at the same time as businesses puzzle over a skills shortage aggravated by WA’s closed border with NSW and Victoria, as well as Australia’s strict controls on international arrivals.

Political talking points up to now have focused mostly on the impact of vacancies on blue-collar jobs.

In Perth, though, the market for white-collar workers is booming, as public, government and investor relations firms have sought to meet surging business from new and existing clients.

For some companies, hiring in-house communications staff has proved a more attractive option, adding further pressure to what was already a tight labour market.

“There are more positions than there are people available,” Anthony Fisk, executive director at CGM Communications, told Business News.

“Communications is becoming more important.

“We saw in COVID, particularly in the resources companies, this increased focus on internal communications, and it became understood more broadly how important it was to communicate openly, honestly and frequently with staff.

“I think that’s where a lot of people have gone … which makes it hard to find quality people, because resources companies and other large companies can afford to pay big salaries and attract really great people to those roles.”

Nicole Moody, who has headed Hunter Communications since 2015, agrees more businesses have recognised the need for communications expertise during the past 18 months.

That had arisen in part due to a surge in work-from-home arrangements and general uncertainty attributable to COVID-19.

“All of those challenges have contributed to organisations understanding that comms, both internal and external, are really important,” Ms Moody said.

“So, we’re seeing a lot of new jobs emerge, and that’s really draining the pool – a very small pool – in WA, of comms professionals.”

While many firms have struggled to find experienced staff to fill their ranks, plenty of others have managed to invite prominent former journalists and politicos into the world of corporate communications.

GRA Partners has been among the most aggressive hirers in the past six months, adding further depth to its core offerings with Labor adviser Liz Vivian and state Liberal Party deputy director Richard Newton as associate directors.

Ms Vivian, who was a nurse before cutting her teeth in state parliament as an adviser to Megan Anwyl and Cheryl Davenport, has previously worked with national lobbying firm Hawker Britton and comes to GRA as a government relations specialist.

Mr Newton, meanwhile, brings significant experience in both state and federal politics as an adviser to Dean Nalder and Ben Morton.

Outside of government relations, the firm has also added Tania Durlick as an associate director of corporate communications.

Ms Durlick’s recent career highlights include a stint advising the Department of Premier and Cabinet at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Prior to that, she worked as a journalist with Community Newspapers, Nova 93.7 and Southern Cross Austero.

Elsewhere, the hiring of former financial journalist and Cannings Purple alum Luke Forrestal has allowed the firm to expand its reach in the world of corporate and finance communications.

“Financial [communications] is something we’ve toyed with for some time, but we felt we needed the right individual to bring into the team,” Mr Marocchi said.

“It’s not something we were probably thinking about this year, to be honest … but when the opportunity to recruit Luke came available, we pounced, and he’s been an excellent addition to the team.”

Other notable names to move into the world of corporate communications in recent months include Neil Roberts, who was formerly chief of staff to Bill Johnston and is now a senior adviser for FTI Consulting’s strategic communications division.

Mr Roberts was previously a top executive at ASX-listed goldminer and explorer St Barbara in the 1980s and 1990s before going on to advise Martin Ferguson, who held the resources and energy portfolios under prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Cannings Purple has also made two notable hires, with former political reporter and Horizon Power project manager and communications adviser, Wendy Pryer, and former political adviser, candidate and journalist Isaac Stewart joining as associate directors.

CGM Communications has added two associate directors to its team, with Simon Ward, who was previously Peter Tinley’s chief of staff, and Stuart Crockett, formerly the state’s trade commissioner to greater China, joining in the past six months.

Spoke Corporate has also expanded its government relations offering with the hiring of Josh Nyman as a general manager in August.

Mr Nyman had previously worked as Mia Davies’ chief of staff, and before that was a deputy editor and chief of staff to Seven West Media outlets in Albany.

While many notable names are making the switch to third-party communications, others may yet be tempted away by the sheer number of jobs on offer at present.

Indeed, the most recent state budget included estimates from the Department of Treasury that nearly 30,000 job vacancies were advertised online at the end of the July, rivalling vacancies advertised at the peak of the mining boom.

That’s left several major players to think laterally about staff retention.

Hunter Communications, for instance, is moving its office from West Perth to Subiaco at the end of this month, in part out of recognition that retaining staff will be easier in a more vibrant locale.

Ms Moody told Business News that while she was happy with her firm’s office environment and culture, amenity at the current premises was lacking.

“In that demographic we work with, young professionals want to make sure that there’s good coffee, choice of coffee nearby, lunch, somewhere to go after work, that there’s energy,” she said.

“That’s how creative agencies work; we’re energetic, we’re fast paced, and they want to be in a similar environment.”

Hunter Communications managing director Nicole Moody.

Other benefits including revenue-sharing models, such as the one implemented by CGM Communications, which offers staff an ongoing commission from every client they introduce to the firm.

CGM founder Daniel Smith told Business News that flexibility in how the firm offered financial incentives was just one of the ways his business sought to compete in a tight labour market.

“You can’t compete on dollars with some of the major employers in town, particularly in the resources sector,” Mr Smith said.

“Our staff tell us that there’s some qualities that make us more attractive than maybe some of those employers.”

Offering flexibility is a major selling point for many of the state’s smaller communications firms, including GT Communications, led by founder Gemma Tognini.

Ms Tognini expanded her business into Sydney this past November, where she said she had been regularly approached by prospective employees wanting to work with the business (she expects to hire up to two additional advisers in that office in the next 18 months).

She told Business News boutique firms couldn’t compete with the remuneration and benefits provided by some of the state’s big employers, let alone competitors owned by holding companies based internationally or in the eastern states.

Instead, Ms Tognini pointed to a less bureaucratic structure within smaller businesses that allowed for flexible work arrangements and more professional opportunities as a competitive advantage when hiring and retaining staff.

“My view has always been not to try and compete with [bigger] firms on [remuneration and benefits] because you’re never going to win,” she said.

“You need to be able to say … ‘these are the things money can’t buy’, and I have found when it comes to the intangibles … the bigger firms can’t compete with us.”

Ms Moody largely echoes that sentiment. “Where we [differ] as agencies is that you’re surrounded by likeminded people; people in your industry, it’s that collaborative approach,” Ms Moody said.

“There are some things that agencies just can’t compete with, but there are other things we offer if people are young, hungry and ambitious in that industry.”

Mr Marocchi similarly said GRA Partners – which is affiliated with eastern state-based outfits GRACosway and Clemenger Group – was able to recruit and retain staff on the strength of its workplace culture and its branding in the market.

“I see newspaper articles in other industries, nurses and the like, $6,000 to hire a nurse,” he said.

“We don’t need to offer those types of incentives to attract people interested in working with us.

“I guess what we offer is a great workplace, great clients, interesting and diverse work, a bit of fun, and also, a bit of lifestyle balance as well.”

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