2018 Public Affairs Agencies of the Year, North America | Holmes Report

2018 Public Affairs 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: SKD Knickerbocker (Stagwell Group)

Bucking the challenges of a non-election year, SKDKnickerbocker spent much of the past 12 months making sure the year’s hot-button issues — from Obamacare to sexual harassment — were top of mind among the American people. Coordinating the campaign to save the Affordable Care Act, serving as a hub of the “resistance,” and helping companies navigate the new Washington ensured that the progressive public affairs firm played a pivotal role during a unique political era. SKDK was one of the lead agencies supporting the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, Hollywood’s organization to help victims of sexual harassment. When a government scientist was reassigned after speaking up on climate change, meanwhile, SKDK launched an aggressive media campaign aimed at halting other transfers.

Under the leadership of high-profile political veterans Hilary Rosen and Anita Dunn, SKDK's growth continues to impress, up almost 20% in 2017 to $43m, thanks to the addition of new clients including Delta Airlines, Under Armour, Pepsico Foundation, Google, Center for Reproductive Rights, NAACP and Time's Up Legal Defense Fund. They join an impressive list of existing companies and organizations such as Planned Parenthood, American Airlines, Human Rights Campaign, AT&T, Open and Fair Skies, Disney and Rockefeller Foundation.

SKDK also expanded its offering in 2017, hiring Heather Wilson to lead public affairs on the West Coast and adding a new digital division to better meet clients’ objectives by examining the cultural signals, human insights and industry context that affect business. The firm also stepped up its focus on litigation and regulatory support, along with cybersecurity prep and response. Most notable, perhaps, is that SKDK’s efforts reaped results. Representing a coalition of Affordable Care Act advocates, the agency fought to save Obamacare by mobilizing community activists, developing strategies to reach members of Congress and leveraging paid media, all centered around dispelling misperceptions about the program. The repeal ultimately failed. — DM



APCO Worldwide (Independent)

There have been times in recent years that APCO’s search for new investment seemed to consume too much of the management team’s time and energy, with growth taking a back seat to securing long-term stability. But when APCO finally found a solution — minority shareholder WindRiver was bought out with support from longtime banking partner Citibank and private credit company Monroe Capital in July — the change in mood was almost palpable. APCO founder and chairman Margery Kraus and CEO Brad Staples were able to lay out a clear vision for the firm going forward, and with 70 employee-owners joining them, there was an excitement about the future that helped the firm record 5% growth, ending the year with record fee income of $128 million — more than half of it in the US.

If the firm’s growth has been hindered by its ownership struggles, its ability to innovate in the public affairs space never was. In fact, APCO has been redefining and expanding the definition of public affairs, both in its early embrace of research and analytics, and in its investment in digital and social capabilities. Its “Telescope” model identifies emerging influencers and redefines stakeholder mapping. As the worlds of politics, business, and civil society have intersected in ever more controversial and confusing ways, APCO’s unique ability to help clients see around corners has become more valuable in the policy arena and beyond, in areas ranging from investor relations to CSR. Its new report on “Corporate Advocacy in Five Acts” helps companies understand evolving consumer and societal expectations.

This manifests itself in the agency’s work, from working with Honda around the idea that what the company stands for is now just as important as what it makes, engaging with consumers, dealers and policymakers around a wide range of issues, to helping McCormick articulate its new mission and vision, and public its first purpose report. There has been new business from IKEA, Microsoft, Cargill, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and from several government clients—a key strength that has been formalized though the firm’s new global solutions offering, which works with government agencies and other sovereign clients at a highly consultative level. — PH


Global Strategy Group (Independent)

There’s a pretty good case for Global Strategy Group as the most prescient public affairs firm on the planet: the firm — well known for its work with Democratic candidates and progressive causes — might not have predicted the rise of Trump, but it was way out ahead of the politicization of business in America. Drawing on its rich heritage in polling and research, GSG produced a report three years ago suggesting that consumers and other key stakeholders were increasingly demanding that corporations take a stand on critical political and social issues — that neutrality would no longer be an option — and 2017 meant that those who listened to that advice were not blindsided by the polarization produced by Trump.

Needless to say, the trend GSG identified has been a boon to its business, since the firm operates squarely at the interaction of business and politics and the firm has once again been involved in some of the most high-profile issues in the new landscape, advising foundation and advocacy clients on issues such as criminal justice reform, gun control, immigration reform, healthcare, funding for the arts and humanities, LGBTQ rights, women in leadership, and choice. GSG worked with the Rockefeller Foundation on its widely-recognized 100x25 Campaign that aims to have 100 women in Fortune 500 leadership by 2025, and supported efforts to save arts and humanities funding from budget cuts, close Rikers Island and reform criminal justice in its home market of New York, and secure free school lunches for 1.1 million New York public school kids.

Historically, GSG has seen overall revenues decline slightly in non-election years, because of a drop off in polling, but the effect was diminished in 2017 as GSG’s public affairs and communications practices set records. In the public affairs realm, the firm worked with General Motors to promote autonomous vehicles amid the patchwork quilt of local regulations across the US; with CVS Health to advance pharmacists as caregivers; and with America’s Health Insurance Plans to protect Medicare Advantage for seniors. And the growing corporate impact practice supported Subaru’s CSR thought its foundation, other philanthropic efforts, and volunteerism; the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance,m and FSG. — PH

JPA Health Communications (Independent)

In the 10 years since Carrie Jones launched JPA in her home basement, the healthcare-focused agency has grown to more than 50 employees across three offices, driven by the overarching goal of contributing to society through scientific advancement. And while that’s easily enough said, JPA has challenged staff to focus on this idea via the JPA Why Project, an internal initiative that asks each employee to understand why they are in the field, and what drives them professionally.

Bolstered by that sort of soul-searching, and the creativity it engenders, JPA's growth trajectory has been impressive, up 19% to $9.1m in 2017. That stemmed in part from new client wins, with JPA in the last 12 months adding Epizyme, Medicines360, Milestone Pharmaceutical and Phytecs to its roster, while continuing key relationships with the American Liver Foundation, American Medical Informatics Association, College of American Pathologists, Merck and Together for Safer Roads among others. Other 2017 hallmarks included forming The Coalition to Save NIH Funding to protect biomedical research and innovation, and being recognized at AARP’s 2nd Annual Supplier Diversity Awards & Recognition Program as Supplier of the Year.

Over the last 12 months, JPA has also responded to the rise in clients wanting to work with just one strategic partner, rather than an array of specialists. The agency expanded its integrated capabilities, including investment in JPA Labs, a cross-functional team comprised of specialists in analytics, visual communication, social media and web design.  — DM


Kivvit prides itself on working with organizations that have big ideas and robust agendas. With a broad offering across public affairs and communications, the agency in 2017 crafted initiatives that translated into action surrounding some of the year’s biggest issues, such as the opioid crisis. The independent agency — staffed with 65 professionals across offices in Chicago, Miami, New Jersey, New York and Washington — was also an active player in helping organizations delve into next-generation CSR, as companies increasingly focus on changing their own culture and business mission in ways that improve the greater good.

For example, in the spring of 2017, Kivvit launched ReachNJ, an eight-figure, state-backed multichannel campaign aimed at raising public awareness of the heroin and opioid abuse epidemic, while driving people to recovery by reducing the stigma associated with addition. Kivvit tackled the charge by creating and managing the day-to-day operations of an effort that included strategic guidance, creative production, media buys and placement and budgeting to social content, website design and SEO, ad design and metrics reporting. Over the course of the nine-month campaign, the ReachNJ call center received 17,026 calls. The ReachNJ website logged roughly 638,000 unique site visits, with users spending an average of eight minutes on the site.

Also in 2017, Dutch life sciences multinational Royal DSM tapped Kivvit to elevate its visibility in the US by promoting its transition to a sustainable company, while driving the idea that profitability and sustainability aren't mutually exclusive, Kivvit executed an aggressive media relations campaign highlighting DSM initiatives and innovation. When DSM launched the first 100% recyclable carpet (the second largest occupant of US landfills), Kivvit drew attention to a little-known but pressing environmental issue, moving DSM from a relative unknown in the US to a recognized leader in CSR: the company jumped 42 to spots to second place on Fortune’s Change The World list.

All of which helps explain healthy growth of 12% for Kivvit in 2017 to $22m, powered by a client roster that includes Exelon/ComEd, Anheuser-Busch, General Dynamics, Aon, Allstate, Google/YouTube, Lyft, Airbnb, BlueCross BlueShield, National Restaurant Association, the United States Olympic Committee and Cushman & Wakefield. The firm remains led by managing partners Eric Sedler and Maggie Moran, who have overseen consistent expansion over the past decade as Kivvit has grown from its Chicago base into a national public affairs powerhouse. — DM