It used to be that public relations agencies put on elaborate dog-and-pony shows in reviews as clients sought out the best agency to suit their needs. Now it's the agencies that are interviewing the clients.

Last year was a heady time for the communications business in general, with newspapers, radio and TV stations, billboard companies and ad agencies pulling in record revenue thanks to a strong economy and the billions being spent on marketing by fledgling Internet companies.

But of all the industries reaping the benefits of the dot-com explosion, perhaps none were as blessed as the P.R. business.

"Frankly, we're drinking from a fire hose," said Sue Bohle, whose Century City agency the Bohle Co.'s fee income is up 100 percent this month over January 1999.

Not too many L.A. agencies doubled in size as did Bohle largely because the agency specializes in technology. But most are reporting gains in the double digits, and calls to a dozen or so agency heads turn up a common refrain: Many actually are turning down more business these days than they're accepting.

Too much work

"In 23 years in the business, I've never seen this kind of pick-and-choose among every level of agency," said Marci Blaze, whose Blaze Co. in Venice grew by 38 percent in 1999 over 1998. "We're finally coming out of the dark ages, and there's enough work for everybody."

Actually, there seems to be too much work for everybody. Jerry Swerling, a consultant who helps companies choose a P.R. agency, says he got a lot of business last year simply because clients were having so much trouble attracting the attention of a P.R. agency on their own. Many firms are just too busy to take on new business.

Rogers & Associates in Century City, which won one of the biggest new accounts of 1999 when it picked up a one-year, $3 million anti-smoking contract from the California Children and Families Commission, imposed a new-business moratorium in October.

"Our big story on dot-coms is, we've probably rejected 80 percent of the clients that have come to us," said agency President Lynne Doll. "If we don't think there's a branding opportunity, we're walking away."

Such selectivity isn't just a function of agencies being overworked. A lot of dot-com clients are fly-by-night operations, and taking them on can be risky.


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