2017 Boutique PR Agencies of the Year, North America | Holmes Report

2017 North America Boutique PR Agencies of the Year

Our 2017 North America PR Agencies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 150 submissions and 50 face-to-face meetings with the best PR firms across the US and Canada.

Analysis of each of the Agencies of the Year for every category can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or here.

Winners were unveiled at the 2017 North American SABRE Awards, at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 2.

Winner: LDWW (Independent)

Helping Carnival Cruises introduce the first US cruise to Cuba in four decades; coordinating a nationally televised discussion on the issues of sexual assault and campus violence; helping a client manage a crisis situation in Yemen; supporting a national campaign encouraging people to talk openly and honesty about mental health; producing more than 100 pieces of content to promote an athletic scholarship. That would have been a bumper year for many large agencies—for a four-year-old firm with a team of 15, it was remarkable.

Perhaps that’s because LDWW is headquartered in Dallas, where the competition from national agencies or local specialists is limited—despite the fact that Texas is home to more Fortune 500 headquarters than any state except New York. Perhaps it’s the ability to deliver creative consumer campaigns and strategic corporate and crisis counsel, as well as content creation capabilities.

Or perhaps it’s because founder Ken Luce has decades of experience in senior roles with Weber Shandwick and Hill+Knowlton, and has assembled a senior team—Chris Cradduck, Mike Flanagan, Ken Maxwell, Jody Venturoni—with impressive credentials.

In any event, LDWW now has fee income of around $6.5 million and a client list that includes Bell Helicopter, Carnival Cruises, GameStop, Omni Hotels and is making a name for itself with 19 national awards last year—making it one of the top four firms on our Creative Index weighted for headcount. — PH


Bulleit (Independent)

When Fast Company released its most innovative companies of 2017, four of Bulleit’s clients were on list — meaning one-third of its client roster was chosen by Fast Company. So it’s not surprising that Bulleit is quickly becoming the go-to boutique to create narratives for cutting edge technology like biology and electrical engineering, robotics and material science. Just take a look at its sector specialities: artificial intelligence, computer vision, neuroscience/neuropriming, future of work and autonomous cars, to name a few.

It is somewhat surprising, however, that a firm that’s only been around for four years has such precise subject matter expertise that’s clearly filling a market void. Bulleit grew 55% in 2016 to $3.1m with a client set that includes Google (nine divisions), LinkedIn, Orbital Insight, Halo Neuroscience, Jumpshot, Bloomberg Beta (new), Flexport (new), Elemental Cognition (new), Paul Hastings (new) and Puppet (new), among others.   

Unlike many of its Silicon Valley peers, Bulleit’s expertise extends far beyond product launches — the firm deals in high stakes, holistic PR programs for the majority of its clients, including policy, crisis, employee and corporate communications. For Orbital Insight,Bulleit broke news with Bloomberg's Beijing based economy and oil editors that China is stockpiling oil as seen by satellite imagery which moved the oil futures market. Bulleit’s tagline “Storytelling for the Digital Age” came through in its work for the LinkedIn Engineering Blog that won an Innovation SABRE Award. (One judge called the work “a category killer.”)

Co-founders Kyle Arteaga and Alex Hunter lead with a management team that includes VPs Kelly Mayes, Stephanie Donily and Leslie Green. — AaS 

C+C (Independent)

There’s a simple formula that seems like the winning ticket for PR firms — engaged employees produce standout work that best serves clients, resulting of course, in healthy profits and strong growth for the firm. This seems intuitive but more firms get it wrong than right, but C+C is definitely on the right side of this equation.

The $8m boutique (up 23% from 2015) employees 45 people across offices in Seattle (HQ), Boston, Portland and Washington DC. This is an impressive run for a firm that started in 2005 by co-founders Julie Colehour and Bryan Cohen. Clients include Energy Star, Waste Management, Department of Energy, WaterSense, Puget Sound Energy with new clients James Beard Foundation, Washington State Department of Health, Osmosis, Efficiency Vermont and Social Venture Partners, among others.

Over the last two years C+C has rolled out a cross-functional structure designed to help its team play to their specialties without a traditionally siloed structure. For instance, the firm established an in-house creative team that is integrated with project teams to encourage clients to take creative risks. The firm credits its 20%+ growth  to its expanded capabilities for creative, video production, multicultural strategy and research.

Notable work includes the Better Buildings SWAP that turned a commercial energy efficiency campaign into a reality-style web series that swapped energy management teams to uncover savings in each other’s buildings. Season one featured Hilton and Whole Foods, meanwhile, Season 2 included Air Force vs Navy (the work was shortlisted for an Innovation SABRE). For “This Pill Can Prevent HIV” C+C worked with Public Health Seattle & King County to raise awareness among high risk men about PrEP, a new treatment that can prevent HIV infections. — AaS


When you consider how far Praytell has come in just less than five years since it was founded, it’s not surprising that it was snatched up last year. In 2016, Praytell broke new ground by joining the Project agency network as the first PR firm to in the employee-owned group.

The Brooklyn-based shop grew a staggering 74% last year, closing the year at $9.2m with 56 employees across offices in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Austin. It’s still early days since the sale, but founder Andy Pray recognizes what has powered the firm’s trajectory: its core values (“do the right thing”), employee engagement (96% retention, he says) and an embrace of the chaotic pace of change (he calls this the “golden age of PR”).

Like many of its nimble peers, Praytell has a single P&L with capabilities across media relations, social, video, design, dev and measurement that services clients, including long-standing customers Logitech, MAC Cosmetics, Anheuser-Busch, Barnes & Noble and Twitter. The boutique welcomed 44 new brands in 2016 including  Google Waze, Zappos, Nasdaq, Macy’s, Guitar Center, Tile, Evofem Biosciences and UNAIDS, and eight new Anheuser-Busch craft beer brands including Elysian, Breckenridge and Blue Point.

Perhaps the most powerful marker of a flourishing boutique is innovative work. Here, Praytell delivers with producing two documentaries for the MAC AIDS Fund on the lives of young people with the disease and another on transgender rights, respectively (the first debuts on Netflix, the second on Showtime and Refinery 29). Its work with Twitter and SoundCloud also incorporate video in a way that engages and converts, meanwhile its content hub for Macy’s was built around optimizing SEO.

In addition to Pray, the firm’s leadership includes managing partners Beth Cleveland, Claudio Taratuta, VP Nate Jaffee and creative director Jon Chew. Last year, Pray said “we sensed an acquisition might be in our distant future.” It’s fitting the event happened sooner rather than later because for Praytell, it seems, the future is now.— AaS 


Walker Sands (Independent)

Last year’s “dark horse” tech agency lands in the small category for capping another year of double-digit growth (nearly 19%) to more than $8m with 79 employees across offices in Chicago and San Francisco. This comes after five years of consecutive growth that comes to 172% revenue expansion.

There seems to be two key growth drivers for the firm: its deep expertise in B2B and its model that prioritizes collaboration. From its start 16 years ago, Walker Sands built the firm around the full spectrum of earned, owned, and paid media with offerings such as online reputation management, content marketing, data-driven campaigns and digital marketing. This thinking is applied to clients like Accenture Interactive, CompTIA, Grubhub, OneLogin (new), Sprout Social (new) and Worldpay, among others.

Notable client work includes #MakeTechHerStory with CompTIA (a non-profit IT association) to close the IT gender gap. The integrated campaign included a research driven e-book, interactive microsite, documentary-style video, social promotion, media relations and direct mail. Walker Sands also helped Manta, an online resource for small businesses, survey small business owners on a range of topics, from their top political concerns to ballot picks. The data fueled a Manta blog series, and garnered 230+ placements in outlets such as CNBC and The Associated Press. President even Trump retweeted one of the placements, prompting his campaign to cite it across multiple external communications.

The firm calls its 2016 expansion to San Francisco “inevitable” and ultimately decided on the challenging route of re-locating two veteran employees to the remarkably insular market. In 2016, Walker Sands also began to document best practices for successfully executing projects across its PR, digital and creative practice areas, and establish new roles to oversee cross-functional campaigns. Also its in-house video team launched and grew a portfolio of thought leadership, event coverage and documentary-style productions to showcase clients’ stories and amplify its own marketing efforts. President Mike Santoro has been at the helm since 2008 (growing Walker Sands from six to more than 75), COO Ellen Hanson leads strategic planning, budgeting and corporate training, alongside the rest of the management team.

The firm has excelled at producing interesting thought-leadership like the State of Marketing Technology 2017 that explores how B2B organizations approach marketing technology; the Free Donut Experiment to understand how employees receive and share information; and the Where They’re Going,They Don’t Want Roadmaps on how US college students perceive careers and employers in the consulting industry. — AaS