It is rare that economic commentators all converge to agree on one thing. However, to a man (and women) they say 2009 is going to present some of the most challenging conditions businesses have experienced in almost two decades.

Adding to the difficulties is impending deflation as consumers hoard cash and cut back on spending, despite recent incentives provided by cuts to interest rates and VAT.

All this has a natural knock-on for local businesses – big and small. Those who sell direct to consumers will feel the pinch as spending stalls and those who trade with other businesses will see revenues decline as many of their clients see a drop in demand.

When businesses pull back, so-called discretionary spending comes under the spotlight. Public relations (or reputation management) along with advertising, design, events and other creative services are often first in the firing line when cuts have to made.

There are some very good business reasons for rejecting this strategy, however there’s every chance that in this downturn, short-sighted financial directors will revert to type and agencies will see revenues drop – perhaps suddenly.

So how will the marketing industry in the UK adapt to the coming financial perfect storm of rising debt, lack of credit and failing consumer confidence?

Increasing, as clients struggle themselves, they will look for flexibility from their suppliers and that could mean moving from retained work to less-secure projects on a campaign-by-campaign basis. This presents a problem for the larger agencies as they can have account teams waiting for project briefs. One solution is to negotiate an agreed level of work to cover key periods in the business cycle. Going down this route might just keep the relationship alive until confidence returns.

Offering added-value is not just the preserve of retailers – it goes for service providers too. PR agencies are going to have to go the extra mile (or two) to cement their position with clients and make them an integral part of their business. It might mean over-servicing; a major influence on profitability and definitely a no, no for most agencies, but serious times mean taking exceptional action.

The coming year could be a boon time for small agencies and individual practitioners as companies look for more tailored services to cover peak periods such as exhibitions, product launches and events. With their lower cost base, smaller players can afford to take smaller fee business and at the same time provide experienced hands-on help.

In short, it’s going to be a tough year. PR people are known for their applied creativity, so perhaps it is time to turn the spotlight on their businesses. The Smart Start was launched to offer cost-effective, on-demand PR and marketing services for small and medium-sized businesses.

News Reporter