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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.
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Winners were unveiled at the 2017 North American SABRE Awards, at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 2.
There are some things Marina Maher’s firm has always done well: it always viewed its role in terms of brand-building rather than product publicity and emphasized engagement over coverage. And there are some things that it has learned to do more recently, staying ahead of the changes roiling the PR industry: MMC has an impressive commitment to data and analytics, and to integrating digital and social tools, content creation, and brand activation in service of its clients’ marketing objectives — and, rather than resting on its many laurels, took the opportunity last year to reorganize its offering into four groups: brand and business leadership; strategy and insights; content, engagement and influence, creative ideation and execution.
From a single office in New York (albeit supplemented these days through partnerships with Omnicom global sister agencies), MMC manages efforts for global giants such as P&G, Johnson & Johnson, Celgene, Eisai, Galderma, Bayer and Merck, as well as for new clients such as Coty, Glenmark, Happy Family Brands, and Braun Grooming.
The scope of the firm's consumer work remains highly impressive, netting it plenty of metal at awards shows, including the In2 SABRE competition, where its work for Covergirl, Kotex and Head & Shoulders all won acclaim from judges, while its Merck for Mothers work also stands out. That helps to explain how MMC grew more than 20% last year, bolstered by a number of new hires in key strategic growth areas including creative, digital, healthcare, corporate and data analytics.
MMC's understanding of consumer work, underpinned by an industry-leading approach to insight and creativity, also extends to corporate work — in recognition of the ways that brand marketing work now requires a sophisticated understanding of corporate reputation. And there has been considerable innovation in terms of MMC's product offering, covering such areas as social engagement, influencer 'acceleration', 'moments-based marketing' and trend analysis — all pointing to an agency that is at the top of its game, regularly outperforming larger global networks when it comes to coveted marketing assignments, and often producing work that delivers ROI and emotional resonance.
While the new structure means that there are a number of new titles, the senior leadership team remains settled. The firm continues to be led by founder and CEO Marina Maher; supported by chief integration officer Diana Littman, executive director Nancy Lowman LaBadie; chief engagement officer Susan Bean; ECD Ted Sabarese; new chief strategy officer Joydeep Dey; and, David Richeson, chief of digital innovation and influence.
Great work included Covergirl’s Star Wars product integration; real-time marketing for Head & Shoulders; work to help Merck for Mothers address maternal mortality; and a great new digital campaign for Acuvue. — AS/PH
Current Marketing (IPG)
In late 2015, Current founder Virginia Devlin came up with a new positioning for her 10-year-old firm (“Marketing for Real Lives”) that appears to have energized the firm’s 50 employees and enticed new clients, including Heineken, Mary Kay, Munchkin, Radio Flyer and the Willow Breast Pump to join a roster that already included Chuck E Cheese’s, The Clorox Company (eight brands), Club Med, Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, Johnsonville, Mars (goodnessknows), Megabus.com, Samsung Home Appliances and Shamrock Farms, growing fees by 14% to around $12 million.
Last year also saw the launch of a new influencer marketing practice (named Akela, after the wolf pack leader in the Jungle Book) and the recruitment of new talent including head of strategy Seth Goldberg, formerly group planning director at FCB Chicago, and San Francisco EVP Erica McCabe, whose background includes roles with Gap, Levi Strauss and FleishmanHilland, and who oversees work on Clorox brands Hidden Valley, Kingsford and Soy Vay while also leading new business efforts.
The firm also picked up a record haul of awards, for its Hidden Valley Ranch “Taste Not Waste” campaign, a CSR campaign connecting Brita and basketball great Stephen Curry, the Glad brand’s #GladtoShare World Food Day campaign and more. The firm is nominated for a SABRE for its work helping Kingsford “Take Back Opening Day,” while other highlights included helping the Willow Breast Pump steal headlines at the Consumer Electronics Show and supporting Samsung’s foray into smart digital devices. — PH
DeVries Global (IPG)
Last year, DeVries Global published research into what the firm calls “brandbiguity,” suggesting that much of the content created by modern marketers was missing the mark, and suggesting that DeVries could help brands restore their relevance—creating “brand imprints” grounded in values and cultural connections. To a certain extent, the research created precisely that kind of renewed relevance for the agency itself, helping to redefine a firm that had been struggling to differentiate itself in recent years, even as it expanded with a genuinely global footprint (fewer than half of its 200 people are in the New York headquarters these days).
Other important developments includes the launch of DeVries+, a bespoke client proposition drawing on IPG resources; [email protected], a scientific communications offering in partnership with sister firms Element and DNA; and DeLuxe, a network of independent beauty specialists. The addition of Colby Vogt from FleishmanHillard strengthened business intelligence capabilities, and Simona Margarito came from JWT to lead the Pantene business.
So while 2016 presented some significant challenges—another P&G consolidation, the loss of Gallo and Sam Adams—there were some equally critical successes. DeVries picked up new work from Altar’d State, BJ’s Wholesale Club, IHOP, Jibo (a “social robot” for the home), Johnson’s Baby (global and US), and Staples, adding to a client roster that includes Celebrity Cruises, Coty Professional Beauty, Markwins International, P&G Beauty (Olay, Pantene and Secret), Samsung Mobile (global fashion strategy), Sherwin Williams and Zippo.
The work included Pantene’s Dad-Do campaign, built on the insight that girls who spend quality time with their Dads grow up to be more confident women; “The World’s Longest Yard Sale” for Sherwin Williams’ Krylon brand; and the launch of #staywild for Wet’n’Wild. — PH
Some of the things cutting edge firms of today are doing—the expansion into paid media, for example—French/West/Vaughan was doing 15 years ago, when the then-Richard French & Associates acquired local creative shop French & Vaughan, a deal followed by acquisitions spanning licensing, multimedia content creation, entertainment and Hispanic marketing and — last year — pet and veterinary-focused PR. The result is that FWV has evolved into a $23 million public relations agency (fees were up 10% last year) that can provide a full-service integrated marketing capability to national clients such as Wrangler (a client since the day the firm opened its doors), ABB, Bassett Furniture, German coffee purveyor Melitta, and Berkshire Hathaway-owned Justin Boots, while providing highly-specialized services, most notably in the sports and western lifestyle categories, to clients including athletes and sporting bodies.
Last year's North American Consumer PR Agency of the Year continued its impressive progress in 2016, adding new business from Greater Raleigh CVB; Concord Hospitality Group; Paralyzed Veterans of America; Fleet Feet; The WHO Cares Foundation/Teen Cancer America; We Text; State of Louisiana Film & Entertainment Office; Locus Biosciences; Pennington Biomedical at Louisiana State University; and Shipt. Many of the Louisana-based clients came onboard alongside new AVP Brad Grantham, while other senior appointments included creative director Dean Logan, SVP Kirsten Levine (via the Fetching Communications acquisition) and Liz Lindley as New York head.
But it is French/West/Vaughan's work that distinguishes it from many of its peers, evidenced by its campaign for Wrangler, which continues to set new standards in branded journalism and content marketing. Another standout effort saw F/W/V Our convince President Obama to visit a client's manufacturing facility in Jacksonville, FL, providing a good example of how PR can serve at the intersection of advocacy and public policy.— AS
Hunter Public Relations (MDC Partners)
Founded 28 years ago, Hunter Public Relations has emerged in recent years as one of the brightest stars in New York's consumer PR firmament. Under the leadership of Grace Leong (herself Hunter's first employee under founder Barbara Hunter), the firm has established itself as the nation's second-largest food and beverage player, with MDC Partners swooping to acquire its operations in 2014. Since then, there has been no slowdown at all, with Hunter growing 15% in 2016 to $23.5m, driven by all three of its practice areas — food and beverage, home and lifestyle, and health and beaty.
Indeed, last year was something of a banner year for client relationships at Hunter. The firm's long-term partners include six who have been onboard for a decade or longer, notably McIlhenny Company's Tabasco brand (28 years), 3M (21 years), and Johnson & Johnson (10 years). There was new business from Plum Organics; Pepperidge Farm (Tim Tam); returning client Idahoan; BIC Consumer Products; Stanley Black & Decker; Johnson & Johnson (Visine, Band-Aid); and, Church & Dwight (Topik).
All of which suggests an agency that is firing on all cylinders, bolstered by a workplace culture that is consistently recognized among the nation's best. Hunter's specialist capabilities made particular gains in 2016, accounting for 25% of revenue. Digital grew by 65%, led by work for Post Honey Bunches of Oats (the 'This is Everything' video customization campaign); Simmons Beautyrest (a social campaign starring Tom Brady); and new assignments from Tabasco and Pepperidge Farm. Hispanic marketing was up almost 50%, including eye-catching work for Johnnie Walker, and the entertainment/sports practice completed 14 major talent deals for Hunter clients including Johnson & Johnson, PowerBar and Smithfield, eight of whom were athletes, growing fee billings from this service by almost 20%. — AS
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