Houston Associates is a south London-based public relations agency. Founded in 1992 by John Houston, it now has 14 employees serving clients from the IT sector. It was recently ranked among the top 30 technology PR agencies in the UK by PR Week.
According to Houston, in the past three years, the PR industry has shrunk by around 20%, while his agency has grown by 20%, 24% and then 40%. On paper, the progress seems straightforward - inevitable, even. But in reality, it has been a long and arduous process - one which has proved the undoing of many other small companies.
Houston recalls that four or five years ago he was pitching for the PR account of SKS, a large IT company.
"The team at SKS called me to say that it had heard some very good reports about me," he says. "The problem it had was that all of the reports were about me, rather than about the agency. We didn't win it because we were seen as a one-man band with a few 'hangers on'."
At the time, Houston had around half a dozen employees, and concedes that the company lacked structure and direction.
"We lived entirely on our wits and were constantly firefighting," he says. "It worked but we reached a point where we needed to build something bigger. Apart from anything else, my wife and I had run the business for many years and were keen to develop an exit strategy."
Several of his clients, including Toshiba, advised him to speak to Dave Oseman of management consultancy EBN. Having taken a look at the business, Oseman identified internal communication, delegation and the division of responsibility as the primary obstacles to the agency's development. So, he did some basic psychometric testing and ran some practical workshops to help all the members of staff communicate more effectively with each other.
Oseman also helped the agency define clear job roles and key performance indicators. According to Houston, the main barrier to this process was himself.
"At that time, I did everything in the company, and I found it hard to accept that anyone could do anything as well as I could," he says. "Despite these reservations, we gave individuals responsibility for administration, business development and operations, and I had to learn to delegate."
Although the financial cost has amounted to less than £10