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

2017 North America Small 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: Carmichael Lynch Relate (IPG)

2016 was a pivotal year for the agency previously known as Spong, with president/founder Doug Spong stepping down after 26 years, succeeded by agency veteran Julie Batliner. The Minneapolis-based firm rebranded as Carmichael Lynch Relate and reeled off one of the best years in its history, growing 47% to around $25m, powered by 10 new clients, including Garden of Life, Formica Residential, Frito Lay/Stacy’s, Truvia, Marvin & Integrity Windows and Doors, Best Buy and Panasonic. 

The new business joins a client roster that features Arla, Bath & Body Works, Jack Link's, Sherwin-Williams,, MasterBrand Cabinets, Post Consumer Brands, Rapala, The Schwan Food Company, Genuine Thermos Brand and US Bank. CLR's refreshed mission revolves around a focus on integration, sometimes in tandem with sister ad agency Carmichael Lynch. Although CLR prefers to call this 'interdependence', supported by a new process and training program, and highlighted by an in-house content lab that features  social media analysts, community managers and content journalists — developing, for example, media campaigns with audience-targeted display and video via programmatic buying; geo-fencing messaging based on consumers’ GPS mobile device signals; retargeting consumers based on their actions on sites, and syndicating content created by media partners/influencers.

That kind of thinking paid off in some impressive campaign work for Stacy's Pita Chips (using influencers to elevate everyday snacking); Arla (building broader awareness vs more established brands); and, Lorissa's Kitchen. — AS 


Havas Formula (Havas Worldwide)

It’s been 25 years since Michael Olguin founded Formula PR in San Diego with deep roots in Hispanic and general consumer outreach. But the firm has taken on a second life since its 2014 Havas Worldwide acquisition that transformed it to Havas Formula, part of the Havas Creative Group. 

With 18% growth in 2016, the acquisition seems to be paying off. The $17m firm employees 115 people across offices in New York (HQ) Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and San Diego who work on clients like Heineken USA, Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin-Robbins, Schlage, Bugaboo, Wonderful Pistachios, Nestle, Justin's, Shure, TurboTax — along with new wins Jaguar/Land Rover, Panda Express, among others. Notable work includes launching the East Coast donut giant Dunkin in Los Angeles with a two-pronged campaign appealing to the nostalgia of East Coast transplants while also emotionally connecting Los Angeles locals.

The firm has dealt head-on with perceptions that PR is purely earned media, educating clients that if a brand really wants to connect with consumers, micro-influencers — who tend to come at a cost — are often the most effective option. The result of this effort is now 60%-70% of its clients include a paid line item in their PR budgets. In 2016, Havas Formula also  developed crisis credentials that could be marketed to existing clients and prospects and launched a thought-leadership effort for its top leadership. — AaS 

(MDC Partners)

If the first decade of the 21st century marked an age of specialization for the public relations agency business, the second decade has been about convergence, vindication—not that any was needed—of Aaron Kwittken’s approach to building one of the best smaller firms in the business. Kwittken has eschewed specialization—its business is split almost evenly between consumer and corporate/B2B assignments—and prefers to be known simply as a great creative firm.

That’s not to say there aren’t things that Kwittken does particularly well. The corporate side of the business, for example, has been developing expertise in financial and professional services, while the consumer business has expanded to include consumer health work (its work for Zicam was a real highlight last year). And the firm’s “design thinking” approach incorporates traditional PR, influencer marketing, content creation, social media expertise, and (increasingly) paid advertising to build brands.

A strong new business year brought new assignments from Amway, BMW North America, Cervelo Cycles, Deloitte, Dataminr, Ironman, Rubicon Project, S&P Global, Wyndham Rewards and YOTEL, joining a client roster that includes Amadeus, American Express, APT, CGI, frog, Hisense, One Medical, Pantone, PURE, and Zicam. Fees were up about 10% to around $11 million, and Kwittken now has 50 people in New York, eight in Toronto, and a team of 15 in its London office. — PH


PAN (Independent)

Twenty-two years since its founding, PAN Communications has hit a new stride. Impressive growth (19%) has pushed the firm over the $15m marker while also producing some of the best work we’ve seen — not only from PAN— but among its tech peers.

The new era of PAN seems to have started in December 2015 when the firm bought Vantage PR to raise its visibility in the highly-competitive San Francisco PR market. Yet founder Phil Nardone’s vision for building a formidable mid-size independent tech firm didn’t stop there. The Allison + Partners’ longtime Western region chair Phil Carpenter joined the firm to lead its West Coast expansion last year. The management team oversees 100+ people across offices in Boston (HQ), San Francisco, New York and Orlando.

The firm’s work broke through in two of the most competitive Innovation SABRE categories landing a well-deserved place on the shortlist. For GreatCall, a company that produces mobile devices and wearables for seniors,  PAN crafted a striking narrative that successfully landed with a parade of top influencers, including at the mega-saturated CES show. The firm’s thinking also comes through with its work with CloudBees that includes a targeted podcast series and meme generators.  

Other technology clients include: SAP, SDL, Symantec, Hybris, Black Duck Software, RSA, meanwhile its healthcare roster has grown to include PAREXEL, Quanterix, Trinity Partners and RediClinic. New wins also include Informatica, SS&C Technologies, Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit, InContact/NICE, Liberty Mutual, SAP IoT and SAP Retail. — AaS 

Spectrum (Independent)

Leadership changes have derailed many PR firms, but Spectrum continues to demonstrate how well-executed transitions can make an agency stronger than it has ever been. Spectrum (last year’s healthcare agency winner) had another stellar year with 34% growth, reaching $20m in revenues in its 20th year in business.

New CEO Jonathan Wilson is constantly evolving the firm by building teams that reflect the style and speed of the five main business areas the agency serves: biopharma, biotech, consumer science, healthtech (new in 2016) and public affairs (new in 2016). Spectrum’s Lab –its digital, creative and social capabilities — cuts across all sectors.

Eighty-five employees work across offices in Washington DC (HQ), New York, Atlanta and Chicago (new in 2016). Clients include Astellas, Medtronic/Covidien, Roche, Zafgen, 23andMe (new), AdvaMed (new) and Dermira (new), among others.

The agency’s work with Astellas Oncology C3 Prize won an Innovation SABRE Award for pulling together a dynamic multi-channel campaign that engaged influencers and produced strong web analytics. — AaS