2019 Creative PR Agencies of the Year, North America | Holmes Report

2019 Creative PR Agencies of the Year

The 2019 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 70 finalists across 14 categories can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or below. Winners are unveiled at the 2019 North American SABRE Awards on May 7 at Cipriani 42nd St in New York. 

Winner: Coyne PR (Independent)

There was a time when Coyne PR, with its values-driven, people-first culture, was a fixture on our Agency of the Year lists and a frequent visitor to the center stage at Cipriani. Then there was an interruption — financial shenanigans by a former CFO throwing the management team for a loop that took time to close. But if the quality of the work submitted to our SABRE competition is anything to go by, Coyne is back to its best: the firm garnered 11 nominations this year, the only firm outside the big three of Edelman, Ketchum, and Weber Shandwick to reach double-digits.

That work includes helping Red Robin demonstrate its support for National Teachers Day and drive traffic into its restaurants at the end of the school year; showcasing energy efficient technologies for Shell Lubricants via a coast-to-coast roadshow; positioning Banfield Pet Hospital as a leader in pet disaster readiness in the wake of several high-profile hurricanes; supporting Pacira Pharmaceuticals as it sought solutions to the opioid epidemic; peeling back the blue sticker for Chiquita bananas to drive trade media coverage; and — on the principle that bacon improves everything — helping Einstein Bros Bagels sell out its “cheesy shampoo and bacon conditioner.”

But it’s not just the work that stands out at Coyne. The firm has always understood the value chain in PR, that good people win good business, and that good people and good business translate into good profits, and so its mission has always been to focus on being the best place to work. To restore its pre-eminence in that regard, CEO Tom Coyne conducted meetings at every level of the organization to seek out ideas for improving both work life and client service, and then implemented unlimited time off, work from home programs, an onsite gym, extended maternity leave and paid paternity leave, and unique office amenities.

So even beyond the quality of creative work, 2018 was a good year. Fees were up by about 7% to $30 million, with new business from Chiquita, CSL Behring, FloSports, Happify, Hudson Group, and the International Code Council, joining a roster that includes Beam Suntory, ChapStick, Fiat Chrysler,  Hard Rock International, Pfizer, and Timberland. — PH



Carmichael Lynch Relate (Interpublic Group)

Two years ago, Carmichael Lynch Relate broke through as our Small Agency of the Year for its unprecedented growth. But this year, it’s the agency’s unprecedented creativity that lands it on our list. CLR was one of three agencies to garner almost 20 nominations for the 2019 Innovation SABRE Awards, to go with seven SABRE Award nominations in North America.  

This year, the firm stretched into new expertise areas with new clients and new scopes of work, all the while maintaining its bottom-line margin. Most impressive is CLR’s work that stunned judges with its ingenuity and business impact. For instance, Innovation SABRE judges commended the Helzberg Diamonds’ Breaks the Rules of Engagement campaign for “solving a problem for consumers”; the Taste is Blind work for Arla doubled sales in six months and reinvigorated the upstart’s retail placement; and the Conoco Chooses Go campaign was awarded for being “a creative and effective way to target younger drivers.”

Other key clients across its two practice areas (brand marketing and corporate reputation) include: Sherwin-Williams, Schwan’s Company, Garden of Life, The Marvin Family of Brands, US Bank, Rapala and MasterBrand Cabinets. Among its new clients are Aveda, IBM, OpenTable, Kayak, Hartz, the Red Wing Shoe Company, Grupo Bimbo and the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Its recently created content studio has nearly quadrupled in size.

Julie Batliner, who took over for founder Doug Spong in 2016, remains at the helm of the organization, supported by EVP Emily Buchanan, chief creative officer Marty Senn, managing director Cavan Reagan Reichmann and chief strategy officer Lachlan Badenoch. The firm also launched Carmichael Lynch Relate IQ (Influencer Quotient), a proprietary approach to influencer marketing, that includes original research and findings. — AaS

Edelman (DJE Holdings)

Much has been made, not surprisingly, of the travails faced by Edelman during 2018. Seeing fee income decline at the world’s largest PR firm — and the pacesetter when it comes to growth over the past decade — came as a shock to many industry observers. Indeed, the 1% decline in global revenues, coming on the heels of a relatively modest 2.4% increase the year before, means that Edelman is not on the shortlist for Large Agency of the Year in North America for the first time in more than a decade.

But whatever challenges the firm is facing in terms of growth, it’s important to remember that it has invested more than any other agency — with the possible exception of Weber Shandwick — in building out the kind of data and analytics and digital and social capabilities that will enable it to compete for creative briefs that span paid, earned, shared and owned channels and compete with advertising agencies to serve as the lead on creative briefs, and deliver the kind of ideas that can serve as platforms for everything a brand does. Richard Edelman is justifiably proud of the 600 creatives and planners the firm has added over the past few years, and of the fact that the digital practice now accounts for more than 20% of the firm’s global revenues—almost $200 million, a number that doesn’t take into account the vast majority of clients where “traditional” and digital and social PR now work seamlessly together.

The firm’s vast array of talent imported from adjacent disciplines — including Judy John from Leo Burnett, Carol Potter from BBDO and Jesse Lin from DDB — has brought new perspectives and critical skill-sets, while the arrival of Thomas Crampton from Ogilvy to take the reins of the global digital offer demonstrates that Edelman is still a destination workplace for the industry’s most forward-thinking talent. And the addition of former White House spokesman and NFL and Facebook chief communications officer Joe Lockhart is a reminder that Edelman is also a leader in the corporate and public affairs realm.

Finally, it’s also important to note that Edelman’s work continues to be among the best in the business. The firm has worked on some iconic campaigns, challenging the idea of an ‘All-American Family” for HP and giving legs to the Dove's “Real Beauty” effort by forming a production company with Shonda Rhimes. For the WNBA, it created a fan recruitment campaign that began life in earned and social before ultimately turning into a 30-second TV spot. And the firm’s 19 SABRE nominations (bested only by Weber) include helping Dove for Men campaign for paternity leave; creating a dream residency program for the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau; introducing the “world's sweetest internship” for Mars Wrigley Confectionery; and managing a smart business-to-business campaign for Mitsubishi’s new regional jet. Work like that is why most expect Edelman to bounce back stronger than ever from its recent struggles. — PH

Ketchum (Omnicom Group)

Ketchum’s growth in recent years has been anemic, a fact that becomes especially surprising when one focuses on the quality of the firm’s creative work, which is not only undiminished but arguably better than ever. Last year’s pick for Creative Agency of the Year garnered an impressive 19 SABRE nominations this year (only Weber Shandwick had more), but it also enjoyed great success beyond the traditional PR competitions: credited on 30 Cannes Lions winners, including a Grand Prix and a Titanium Lion; recognition from the Clios (30, including music and health), The One Show (16) and more.

A quick run through the SABRE nominations shows the impressive breadth of Ketchum’s creative output. Yes, there were plenty of great consumer campaigns: Lay’s Taste of America and the Tostitos Royal Wedding for Frito-Lay, the Milk-Bone Dog of the Year award, and Clean is the Beginning for Clorox. Yes, there were great digital and social efforts, like Wendy’s We Beefin’? Yes, there was purpose-driven work for General Mills (cultivating a crop of young food innovators) and Michelin (road safety for teen drivers). But there were also reputation management efforts for 3M, championing science, and for Discover Puerto Rico, as the island recovered from a natural disaster and sought to #Covertheprogress. There was employee communications, driven by the firm’s Daggerwing unit, for Axis Capital. There was innovative measurement — underscoring Ketchum’s data and analytics capability — for Whirlpool.

The pervasive creativity is underpinned by Ketchum’s core values — brave, curious, inspiring, and (a force for) good — and facilitated by the refined “no borders” approach driven by president and CEO Barri Rafferty, now into her second year in the role. The company’s creative toolkit — crowdsourcing community Mindfire, internal networking platform Passion Panels, innovation incubator SparkTank — has been supplemented by a suite of impressive consultancy services that point to Ketchum’s commitment to taking on a broader strategic role with its clients. The approach helped to attract new business from the likes of Alcon, Alliance Data, Amazon Web Services, Fidelity, Groupe SEB, and Sandals — all of which helped to offset the loss of IBM last year and keep revenues relatively flat.

It’s also worth noting the creative contribution of the firm’s Harrison & Shriftman operation, acquired by Omnicom in 2003, which specializes in experiential campaigns (more than 80 events last year) that combine the scientific and the sensory and influencer marketing programs that deliver real impact and which—in a less competitive year—would be worth a place on this list on its own. Its clients include Bacardi (for 14 years), Booking.com, Omega, and Sotheby’s. It grew by 7% last year (and by around 50% over the last two) and maintains its boutique culture and entrepreneurial energy while working closely with its larger parent company. — PH

Zapwater (Independent)

Zapwater is one of those agencies that genuinely punches above its weight with the caliber of its work. With revenues just shy of $3m (up 16% from 2017), Zapwater consistently goes toe-to-toe with agencies many times its size. This year, the boutique garnered five nominations across the Innovation and SABRE Awards North America and took home the Innovation SABRE for its #UpInFinnair work that judges called out for being “scrappy, low-budget with fantastic results that moved the needle.”

Founded in 2005 by David Zapata, Zapwater has built a niche with consumer, travel and lifestyle brands. Clients include Skydeck Chicago (Willis Tower), Tyson Foods (new), Accor Hotels (new), Finnair (new), PrivateFly, National Tourism Office of Serbia, Visit Finland, Tourism Montreal (new), Fairmont Mayakoba, Pacifica Hotels, among many others that are serviced across offices in Chicago and Los Angeles.

The agency integrates multidisciplinary services — digital engagement, experiential tactics and media relations — to deliver campaigns with notable business performance. For instance, following Zapwater’s influencer campaign for Fairmont Mayakoba, the hotel experienced 12.4% more affiliate revenue year-over-year, 110% more traffic and received 39.06% additional transactions. For SkydeckChicago, Zapwater launched the #StreettoSkyChi campaign, after which Skydeck Chicago visitors and revenue exceeded projections by almost 10%.

Zapata’s leadership bench includes CFO/Partner Mayra Bacik, SVP Jenn Lake and managing director Jennifer Barry. — AaS