2018 Large PR Agencies of the Year, North America | Holmes Report

2018 North America Midsize PR Agencies of the Year

Our 2018 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 2018 North American SABRE Awards, at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 1.

Winner: Marina Maher Communications (Omnicom Group)

Celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2018, there is little to suggest that Marina Maher’s firm is resting on its not inconsiderable laurels, which include serial recognition as an Agency of the Year in recent years. While the firm’s growth has always struck an impressive note among its publicly-held peers, 20% topline expansion in consecutive years to around $62m in 2018 suggests that MMC is now playing in a rarefied group of firms that do not just reflect the zeitgeist, but define it. Neither has the agency’s remarkable performance been slowed by a broad reorganisation that has taken place over the past 18 months; instead, it seems safer to say that the restructuring — which includes the deployment of an integrated model that houses critical mass in creative and strategy, design and content, digital innovation, and data/analytics — is underpinning MMC’s turbo-charged progress. 

That reorganisation also includes a new positioning — ‘Artfully Persuasive’ — which distils MMCs thinking around the power of influence, always one of its stronger suits, and now given added heft by a suite of new offerings, including the firm’s proprietary RISE model for social engagement work; its ‘Influencer Moneyball’ initiative for influencer programs; the data-driven Moments approach to realtime marketing; and, its Hive trend capability. All of which has paid off with some eye-catching work — helping Aflac steal the conversation at CES via a giant robotic duck; assisting Tide’s response to the Tide Pods Challenge safety crisis; deploying its ‘moments’ approach for Tide to connect with micro-influencers to drive sales; and, developing an analytics-driven content lab across J&J’s 265+ business units, covering everything from CSR to crisis to employee engagement, securing an In2 SABRE Award in the process. (There was also another In2 SABRE Award for AMAG Pharmaceuticals' memorable trade show effort.)

While the evolved structure has meant plenty of change, 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; ECD Ted Sabarese; chief strategy officer Joydeep Dey; and, David Richeson, chief of digital innovation and influence. Also of note, more than 75% of MMC’s revenue now comes from a mix of disciplines and 58% of its people hail from diversified marketing backgrounds, reflected in an approach that ensures brand management only ever accounts for 50% of a specific account team, supplemented by executives from its specialist units. 

From a single office in New York (albeit bolstered 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. 2017, meanwhile, saw MMC return a remarkable new business performance, thanks to an 80% win rate that helped secure major assignments from Aflac, J&J, Glenmark, Nature’s Path, Dr Scholl’s, Coppertone and Novartis. 

The scope of the firm's consumer work remains highly impressive, but there has also been continued expansion in healthcare under executive director Michele Schimmel and business development lead Lisa Talbot, while MMC’s corporate brand practice grew by 50% in 2017. Understandably, MMC’s transformation has not been without challenges, but the evidence suggests that the firm’s focus on getting people to opt in to their clients’ brands is paying rich dividends. — AS


Allison+Partners (MDC Partners)

The largest PR firm within MDC’s network continues its impressive streak of being one of the most well-balanced agencies in North America when it comes to both capabilities and client portfolio. Last year, Allison + Partners grew 14% globally to $63m and in North America this figure was a respectable 8% to $51m. Much of this growth was organic, fueled by expanding work with existing clients like Seventh Generation and PepsiCo, as well as adding new clients including the coveted global remit for ARM, IKEA and high-profile tech brands.

The firm’s top 20 clients (among these, Toyota, Samsung, Dignity Health) remain notably stable, although Allison did lose the consumer mobile remit for Samsung. Other clients include: Adecco, DanoneWave, Dignity Health, UL, ThoughtWorks, ADT (new), Rodan + Fields (new), among others. Allison + Partners has also cemented an informal partnership as the go-to PR firm for its fellow MDC agency — and entertainment powerhouse — 72 and Sunny, which has resulted in a steady stream of high-profile work. The agency was up for 10 Innovation SABREs and one Diamond, one Silver and seven Gold SABREs this year.

Last year’s digital agency of the year also continues to grow its All Told practice (this combines research, content, creative, digital and measurement expertise into one offering) across its six practice areas and it now accounts for $7m in revenues. The firm also launched its Storytelling for Business Workshop last year. In response to the hackneyed remit from CMOs to do “more with less,” Allison has also started moving away from selling “time” into more product-based offerings and project work. The firm also launched Workplace, to help organizations get recognized as great places to work.

The firm’s global headcount grew modestly to 344 with its North America workforce spread across offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego and San Francisco (global HQ), Seattle, Silicon Valley, Washington D.C. Leadership remains stable with co-founders Scott Allison (CEO), Andy Hardi Brown (COO), Jonathan Heit (Americas president) and Scott Pansky at the helm.

Allison’s signature thought-leadership IP Influence also expanded in 2017 to highlight the the impact digital influencers are having on driving engagement and donations for causes across the US. — AaS


French/West/Vaughan (Independent)

French/West/Vaughn started its 20th year in business in a big way, officially bringing Fetching Communications, the country’s oldest and largest pet and veterinary-focused PR firm, into the company fold on Jan. 1, 2017.  Adding the new acquisition to the existing F/W/V mix posed its challenges; Streamlining processes and procedures and educating employees were among the tasks. So was getting to know clients, and familiarizing them with new ways of doing business.

But with a two-decade history steeped in such strategic acquisitions, and the kind of innovation that often ensues ( (F/W/V adopted an integrated marketing model a decade-plus before it was in vogue), navigating the new and different is, in many ways, business as usual for the Raleigh, NC-based independent firm. In 1998, the agency was the first in the country to create a licensing practice; Today it has deals that boost opportunities to embed client content in film and TV productions. As a general rule, F/W/V believes that when things start feeling comfortable, and business is good, it’s time to disrupt and remake it.

So it’s little wonder that 2017 was a good one for F/W/V, which grew 8% into a $25m agency; the  firm worked for more than 100 separate or brands, with more than half of its clients being under contract with the agency for five years or longer. Having garnered numerous accolades for its Wrangler Network, the multimedia platform built for Wrangler jeans wearers, F/W/V in the last 12 months continued rolling out next-level campaigns. Its work for the Louisiana Film and Entertainment Association resulted in a state legislature vote for legislation that essentially stabilized Louisiana’s declining film industry. The agency’s efforts in support of former US ambassador Jim Cain, whose son-in-law was killed in 2016’s Brussels airport bombing, played a role in the Belgian Parliament passing a measure that allows foreign victims of the terrorist attack to receive the same financial assistance as Belgian victims. — DM


GCI Health (WPP)

Still only 10 years old, GCI Health has established itself not only as one of the best healthcare PR firms in the US — it won Healthcare Agency of the Year last year — but one of the best midsize agencies of any kind. Another year of 25% revenue growth brings the firm close to the $50 million mark, and GCI now has a team of 160 people globally—more than 140 of those in the North American market. New business came from Abbott’s nutrition and diabetes care divisions, Bristol Myers Squibb, and a number of new Pfizer brands — GCI now works for eight of the top 10 global pharma companies — and smaller passion projects like Cohen Veterans Bioscience, which is helping veterans address PTSD.

At the heart of the agency’s success is the patient-centric approach it developed three years ago, which uses both traditional research and its own immersion in client communities to understand consumers’ whole lives, not just their conditions or treatments. That has led to some innovative work in the sector, whether it’s a corporate storytelling campaign for Pfizer humanizing its CSR work fighting neglected tropical diseases; an influencer-driven strategy for device-maker Abbott and its Freestyle Libre diabetes technology; an unusual media partnership with IHeartRadio to encourage patients to “tune into AFib” for BMS/Pfizer. The firm also has its own media partnership — with Redbook — promoting women’s health.

As should be evident from all that, GCI Health is a very “mission-driven” company — something that global CEO Wendy Lund and president of North America Kristin Cahill have continuously encouraged — resulting in one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the industry and regular appearances on our Best Agencies to Work For lists, voted on by employees. — PH

Zeno Group (DJE Holdings)

With Zeno now celebrating its 20th anniversary, and firmly established as one of the leading midsize agencies in North America (and increasingly, the world), it’s slightly surprising to remember that a decade ago this was an agency in disarray, with a succession of short-lived CEOs causing the firm to lurch from one position to another, always feeling like a second-string option for clients conflicted away from Edelman. But Barby Siegel joined in 2009, and eight consecutive years of double-digit growth followed, taking Zeno from 55 people to more than 500, from a consumer boutique to a firm with strong corporate, healthcare, and technology capabilities; a robust strategic planning process; and what may be the most advanced analytics credentials among its peers.

Innovation and disruption are at the heart of the firm’s leadership. It has brought in researchers, planners, and advanced data and analytics people to fuel The Human Project—research into how people relate to the brands in their lives—and other research, including some new insights into millennials. And breakthrough work in measurement has the potential to transform not only PR but the entire marketing mix. Fueled by this approach, the work includes integrated marketing (including paid) “I Move Me” campaign for Asics; repositioning ABB from an engineering company to a forward-looking tech brand; issues management and sustainability positioning for Scotts Miracle-Gro; global brand-building for Turtle Wax; HPV awareness and vaccination promotion for Merck; executive communications for McAfee after its spin-out from Intel; and work for Netflix that included global campaign strategy and development for consumer brand stories.

The agency’s new business performance in 2017 was exceptional. It added work from Bayer and Novartis, and J&J’s flagship Tylenol brand in the healthcare arena; technology clients like AT&T, Lenovo, and Salesforce; consumer brands like Avon, Marriott, Motorola, Nestle and PVH; and ABB, Ace Hardware, Barnes and Noble Education and Fidelity on the corporate side. The new year is off to an equally impressive start, with work from abbvie, Baxter, Coca-Cola and more. And clients like AB InBev, intel, Johnson & Johnson, Lenovo, Merck, Microsoft, Netflix, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Turtle Wax—names any multinational firm would be pleased to add to their roster—are now served in multiple regions beyond North America. — PH