2020 Global PR Agencies of the Year | PRovoke Media
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2020 Global PR Agencies of the Year

The 2020 Global PR Agencies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 500 submissions and (virtual) meetings with the best PR firms across North AmericaEMEAAsia-Pacific and LatAm.

Analysis of all of the Winners and Finalists across specialist categories can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or below. Winners were announced at the 2020 Global SABRE Awards, which took place virtually at the 2020 PRovokeGlobal Summit on 21 October. 

Winner: BCW (WPP)

In the first full year since Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe came together in February of 2018, the potential of the deal—which created the third-largest public relations agency in the world—began to move from the theoretical to the tangible. After some predictable and understandable turnover in the first few months of the merger, there was greater stability in 2019, and the combined firm turned in low single-digit growth that was more or less in line with the average of its holding company peers. But the best news was not necessarily in the numbers but in the fact that some of the innovation that helped Cohn & Wolfe to two Large Agency of the Year trophies in the 2010s is now evident across the new organization, injecting new life into the previously stolid Burson-Marsteller culture.

There’s BCW CyberTree, which provides crisis management advice to organizations that are victims of data breaches and other cybercrimes. BCW Eventus is the firm’s sports offer, representing both corporate sponsors and sports leagues. And a new BCW Entertainment group builds on the strengths of the long-dormant BWR operation. The firm is also experimenting with new uses of data and analytics, performance marketing and metrics, and developing a new multi-stakeholder approach to public affairs and issues management.

The approach has attracted—and in turn been fueled by—some exceptional new talent, including brand practice lead Karen Kearns and data, analytics and performance marketing head Jeffrey Cutler, both from Zeno; and chief inclusion officer Carol Watson, a longtime consultant on diversity best practices. They join a leadership team that includes Imperato, North American president Chris Foster, Europe & Africa president Scott Wilson, Asia-Pacific President Matt Stafford, Middle East President Sunil John and chief growth officer Brooke Hovey.

In EMEA, more than 1,000 staffers in 22 offices across 15 Europe and Africa markets have built a new PR powerhouse with a fresh, collaborative culture that has led to it becoming one of the most creative networks in the region under the leadership of Europe & Africa president Scott Wilson. There was low single digit growth across Europe & Africa in 2019, driven by particularly strong performances in areas such as public affairs and healthcare. Many markets outperformed the region as a whole: income was up by nearly 30% in Sweden, 8.4% in London, 7% in Turkey and 6% in Brussels. The French operation also had a fifth consecutive year of growth.

And in Asia-Pacific, the complementary nature of the two operations has ensured a rather more productive union that some might have anticipated — helping the network land its first Asia-Pacific Consultancy of the Year award in 2020. Under the continued leadership of Asia-Pacific president Matt Stafford, BCW submitted its best annual performance since Burson’s Bill Rylance era, growing revenue by 13% to almost $100m, fuelled by the firm’s Greater China operation, which accounts for around half of its regional fee income, and serves as as the engine for BCW’s regional growth. Hong Kong was 30% up, with 100 people in the office focused on Chinese tech companies with global operations, while the firm’s mainland China operations grew 18% in 2019 and are also up 9% in 2020, despite the adverse economic climate. All told, there are 1,150 people across the region, including almost 500 in Greater China (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong) and another 460 in India, across the Genesis and Six Degrees brands — along with smaller operations in Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia), Australia and Japan. — PH/MPS/AS

Finalists

Edelman (DJE Holdings)

Edelman, which was the fastest-growing large agency for most of the last decade before hitting a wall in 2017, returned to modest growth last year, with its US operations up by 1.6%, with North America accounting for $583 million of its $892 million global fee income. While those numbers are not in line with Richard Edelman’s expectations, they are an encouraging rebound after two lean years that did little to diminish Edelman’s ambitions or divert the firm from a strategy that involves rapid expansion of its already-impressive digital and creative capabilities.

In EMEA, meanwhile, the appointment in 2019 of longtime UK chief executive Ed Williams to head the region appears to have brought a fresh perspective, with greater collaboration across the firm’s European operations. That means progressing beyond the firm’s “centers of excellence” strategy—which saw many offices focused on specific areas of expertise—to greater integration, and hopefully a stronger culture. The change feels palpable already, although the numbers have only just begun to turn around: up 2.4% (after a couple of years of stagnation and decline) to around $188 million.

That makes sense, because while Edelman’s growth has slipped, its ability to innovate and disrupt has remained constant—and indeed much of the growth in 2019 stemmed from two areas where the firm has been investing heavily. First, its Edelman Intelligence unit reported double-digit growth, at least partly based on its ability to turn the vaunted Edelman Trust Barometer into a measurement and diagnostic tool that can help clients understand their stakeholder issues. And second, the United Entertainment Group experiential platform saw revenues up by 9%, having now doubled in size since its acquisition six years ago.

The quality of the firm’s work has also remained consistently excellent. Last year saw Edelman take home the Platinum award for best-in-show at the North American SABRE Awards for its emotionally powerful program on behalf of Gerber (one of three Edelman efforts among our 16 Campaigns of the Decade), and it received 19 nominations in this year’s competition, for memorable work that included creating “Hiring Parties” for Taco Bell; multicultural marketing for Unilever’s Dove Hair brand; eBay’s hijacking of Amazon’s Prime Day; and B2B work for Mitsubishi  SpaceJet; as well as a pro bono effort to right a historical injustice on behalf of the Groveland Four, young African-American men wrongly accused of rape in 1949 Florida.

The firm continued to add senior talent throughout the year, including Judy John from Leo Burnett as chief creative officer; Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis from Wunderman Thompson as chief data and analytics officer; and (early in 2020) Kirsty Graham from Pfizer to lead public affairs and Dave Samson from Chevron as vice chair of corporate affairs. New business, meanwhile, came from FedEx, ViacomCBS, Scholastic, and Dolby as well as UEG client Airbnb, while major clients such as Dove and Taco Bell have been awarding the firm a greater strategic role based on its timely “earned creative” emphasis. — PH

FleishmanHillard (Omnicom Group)

Last year’s Large Agency of the Year in North America, FleishmanHillard continued to make progress on CEO John Saunders’ strategic priorities, most notably the global client leadership program, which has evolved into a community that shares knowledge and best practices around the globe, and which was expanded last year with its new “client accelerator” program, which applies the same management approach to clients with the potential to develop into major global accounts.

It was a good year on a variety of metrics: FH picked up more than 500 new clients worth $150 million, including new assignments from Ascension, Cisco, Elanco, Fitbit, General Motors, Hershey, Johnson&Johnson, Samsung, Seagate and Western Union. And it won more than 20 seven-figure pitches—its best year ever in that regard—while 70% of top 50 clients expanded their relationships to include new assignments and 94 of the top 100 clients were retained—including longstanding partners like Emerson (at 66 years, surely one of the longest client-agency relationships in the business); Hallmark (33 years); P&G (28 years); AT&T (27); J&J (26); and Philips (22). 

Another major investment that appears to be paying dividends is the firm’s True Global Intelligence unit, which was launched in mid-2018 and is designed to deliver intelligence and insights informed by data gathered from social and traditional media, public polling and proprietary market research, providing clients with an “always on” intelligence capability that can help them make faster, better-informed decisions. Under the leadership of Natasha Kennedy, the unit now has more than 100 people around the world and is also powering some of the firm’s thought leadership, ranging from its examination of the “Techlash” to “The Future is Female” to its ongoing analysis of the authenticity gap in “Authenticity in Action.” 

Meanwhile, FleishmanHillard celebrated its 25th anniversary in Asia-Pacific last year, now encompassing 17 owned offices across the region after launching in Beijing in 1994.  Under the long-term leadership of regional president Lynne Anne Davis, 2019 saw a welcome return to growth for the Omnicom PR network, with revenues up 3.6% — a performance that is bolstered by further growth in 2020 despite the ongoing crisis. 

Significantly, Davis oversees a leadership team that features local nationals overseeing almost all of its offices, and also reflects an equal male/female split among not only its top 20 leaders, but its senior partners and SVPs too. Fleishman’s Asia-Pacific presence has always been weighted towards Greater China and North Asia, which together account for more than 330 people. And Greater China remains a key growth engine — there are 200 people across offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, with revenues increasing 11% in 2019. Much of that was again led by Shanghai, which grew sharply by 30% in 2019 (and 87% over the past three years) and is up double-digits even amid this year’s pandemic. Other key growth markets included Korea (up 10% thanks to Park’s focus on stakeholder engagement), Tokyo (+3% and still the firm’s largest single market by revenue), Philippines (+38%) and Thailand (+5%). — PH/AS

H+K Strategies (WPP) 

Our EMEA Network of the Year in three of the past four years, Hill+Knowlton Strategies won the region again in 2020 after EMEA revenue growth of 8.5% in 2019. One indication of the firm’s strength in the region is that it experienced growth across 16 markets (and that’s counting the booming Middle East as a single market), resulting in H+K being named a finalist for Consultancy of the Year in three markets (Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Russia/CIS). Hill+Knowlton adopted its distinctive “5+5”structure two years ago, dividing the business into five key national markets (the UK and Germany among them) and five “clusters” (including continental Europe, the Nordics, and METIA, which spans Turkey and India as well as the Middle East).

New business came from ADNOC, Arcelor Mittal, Cotton Council International, Mubadala, Mylan, Pfizer, Ring Central, Telefonica, Tencent, and Verisign, while existing clients such as adidas, Activision, Dell, Ford, Huawei, LG, Procter & Gamble, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Spotify and Takeda also provided growth. Great work included 11 finalists in the EMEA region SABRE competition, ranging from increasing voter turnout in the European election in Lithuania on behalf of the European Parliament Liaison Office to promoting smart energy for Smart Energy GB, from launching a unique credit card with a carbon footprint measuring tool for Doconomy to celebrating Father’s Day with Gillette. 

After yet another restructuring, H+K Strategies has emerged from a relatively quiet period in Asia that included the departure of longtime leader Viv Lines. The WPP firm now splits its regional operations into three segments — HS Chung oversees an Asia cluster that includes Southeast Asia and her native Korea, QC Liang leads Greater China, while India is part of the MENA region that is led by EMEA chief Bashir AlKadhi. And while the structure might hark back to a previous iteration of H+K’s model, there is plenty to suggest that the firm is focused firmly on the future as global CEO AnnaMaria DeSalva attempts to kickstart growth in a region that it once dominated.

The 2019 elevation of Chung has brought significant energy to that endeavour — with the firm’s Asia-Pacific growth led by Korea, Thailand and Malaysia — each of which submitted double-digit expansion last year. Underpinning that was a new business haul that included Huawei, Honor, Tencent, Netflix, Spotify, LG, Unilever, Nestle and Salesforce. They join a roster that features LG, Ford, Huawei, Li-Ning, Han Sung Motor, SK, Schneider Electric, Microsoft, HSBC and Ping An — reflecting H+K’s breadth across FMCG, energy/industrial, financial services, government/public sector and technology, which is supplemented by depth in such areas as creative strategy, data/analytics, M&A consulting, behavioural science, purpose and issues/crisis. — PH/AS

Weber Shandwick (Interpublic Group)

Weber Shandwick’s low single-digit growth during 2019 might not be the most exciting news in the PR industry, but the firm continue to outperform its global, full-service peer group, and a look back over the past five years shows a pretty consistent positive trajectory—with fees up by 14% compared to a much more modest 4% at WPP and 2% at Omnicom. Gail Heimann may be new to the global CEO role—having succeeded Andy Polansky in mid-2019—but she has been part of the leadership team at Weber Shandwick for more than a decade, and her core team has been together just as long, leading to a staggering consistency in both the strategy and the culture. 

The firm’s “We Solve” positioning, unveiled in mid-year, seeks to focus on finding solutions for clients rather than selling specific products and services, operating at the intersection of brand and reputation, of consumer marketing and stakeholder relations, helping organizations promote, protect, and transform. To deliver, the firm draws on an ecosystem that includes not only its own vast network, but subsidiary units like public affairs shop Powell Tate, KRC Research, and—potentially most critical of all—the United Minds operation, which has expanded from Sweden to the US and offers a unique blend of management consulting and cultural vigilance.

While there were changes at the top in EMEA (the departures of of EMEA chairman Tim Sutton and UK chief executive Rachel Friend), Weber Shandwick continued a hot streak: 26 consecutive quarters of growth, starting at the beginning of 2015. Significantly, the firm’s top 40 clients grew by 25% in 2019 (they now account for more than 50% of revenues in the region), driven by the firm’s EMEA client experience programme, focused on providing support for client partners and driving integration solutions and increasdd diversification. 

Weber Shandwick's Asia-Pacific operations, meanwhile, continued to benefit from the stability and steady focus that helped it land Asia-Pacific Consultancy of the Year honours in 2019, capping off a decade of impressive progress. While revenue last year was effectively flat at $120m, Weber Shandwick’s cohesive regional strategy under CEO Baxter Jolly means that the whole often adds up to more than the sum of its parts, thanks to considerable geographic breadth and specialist depth, along with sustained transformation of the firm’s digital and creative capabilities.

In 2019, there was high single-digit growth from several of Weber Shandwick’s key Asia-Pacific markets, including India, Japan, Korea and Singapore. Greater China continues to account for around half of its regional revenues, with more than 400 people across offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Under CEO Valerie Pinto, meanwhile, Weber Shandwick has transformed its Indian operation to an impressive extent, moving from a traditional PR player towards a highly creative, integrated powerhouse that is responsible for some of the country’s most memorable campaigns. In North Asia, Kim oversees two markets (Japan and Korea) that have emerged as the firm’s most reliable sources of growth in recent years. And, in Singapore, Ho Nikolovski is responsible for an office that serves as the key hub for Weber Shandwick’s impressive regional client roster, which now includes 18 assignments worth more than $1m. — PH/AS