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Winner: Argyle (Independent)
Argyle has something of a unique status among Canadian PR firms. It is both one of its oldest, having started life in 1979, and one of its fastest-growing, following a management buyout in 2003. After effectively doubling in size last year when it merged with Western Canada consultancies ChangeMakers and Context and acquired social/digital firm Matchstick, Argyle is now one of Canada’s largest independents, growing its fee income by 11.5% to CAD$14.5m, numbering almost 100 employees in seven cities with considerable strength across corporate, public affairs, consumer and healthcare.
Meanwhile, the firm’s Public Relationships Index also showcases its thinking to good effect, helping explain the longevity of its assignments for such clients as Facebook, Instagram, UPS, Enterprise Holdings, MD Financial, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Desjardins, AbbVie Pharma, Novo Nordisk and Safe Work Manitoba. And there was plenty of new business too, from BC Ferries, Biogen, California Raisins, Canadian Medical Association, Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada, Fort McKay First Nation, Panasonic and the Smith School of Business at Queen's University. Argyle also has ongoing mandates with numerous state, local and foreign governments, along with the likes of Allergan, Bausch Health, Church & Dwight, Dietitians of Canada, GSK, Kal Tire, Saputo and Takeda.
Under the leadership of owner and CEO Daniel Tisch, Argyle's focus has been on integrating its new capabilities and staff. The leadership team includes COO Stefan Moores, marketing EVP Correy Myco and SVPs Alison George, Rob McEwan and Roanne Argyle. Kim Blanchette, a former senior government comms executive also arrived last year as SVP and GM of Western Canada, replacing Krista Bax.
Argyle’s work reflects its expertise across multiple business lines, including new specialisms in agribusiness and international trade, social marketing, indigenous communications and ESG. Campaign highlights include the Hats for Hope effort that helped broaden awareness of of brain cancer on behalf of the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada; the #OurHuman Energy campaign that underpinned the launch and rollout of Efficiency Canada; and, the digital No More Eyescuses initiative that improved conversions for the Ontario Association of Optometrists. — AS
Narrative was founded in 2007 as an extension to ad agency Bensimon Byrne. The two firms, along with OneMethod, now sit under Tadiem, Canada’s largest independent agency group, but Narrative’s progress over the past decade demonstrates how it has outgrown its support act roots to become a major player in Canada’s PR market. Between 2016 and 2019, specifically, Narrative tripled in size, growing another 6% in 2019 to $4.2m from 52 staffers.
Much of that growth can be attributed to Narrative’s creative capabilities, which has grown to 11 people since MD Sarah Spence arrived in 2016, and includes specific expertise in experiential. The firm had more PR credits than other agency in the world at the 2019 Cannes Lions Festival, thanks its work with White Ribbon and Casey House, while a small business program for Scotiabank also made this year’s SABRE shortlist, and there were other notable efforts for Salesforce, Starbucks and 1800 Tequila.
Spence has brought a particular focus on marketing beyond media and influencer relations, and is supported by a leadership team that includes creative directors Meredith Klapowich and Debbie Chan, along with VP Stefania Yarhi. The team’s ability to turn Canada’s ‘test and learn’ status for international brands into a distinct edge has resulted in an impressive new business haul that includes Volvo Car Canada, Neo Exchange, Starbucks at Home, Salesforce Global, JW Marriott, Uber Canada and Shopify Plus. They join an existing client roster that features Nike, Nestlé, Marriott International, Scotiabank, Salesforce Canada, Casey House, Bayer, Rexall, White Ribbon and Nature Conservancy of Canada. — AS
No Fixed Address (Independent)
No Fixed Address caught the eye last year with a couple of integrated campaigns on behalf of non-profit clients, both of which earned SABRE Awards recognitions. The first, on behalf of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, took the word “lollipop” (a term predators and pedophiles use for the victims of child pornography) and visualized the scale of the child pornography epidemic by creating an exhibition constructed entirely of more than 10,000 actual lollipops. The second, on behalf of Sick Kids Hospital, created an immersive experience for reporters and influencers by transforming a boardroom at the underfunded and dilapidated hospital into an exact replica of pediatric intensive care unit and the inviting people to stay there for three hours, bombarded by the sights and sounds staff have to deal with every day.
That’s the kind of integrated, creative thinking that No Fixed Address likes to bring to bear for all of its clients, the majority of whom hail from the corporate world—multinational companies like Aviva, Astellas, Disney, Little Caesars, and Novo Nordisk, and Canadian brands like JP Wiser’s whisky, developer RioCan, investment firm Questrade, and the Dairy Farmers of Ontatio. In every case, the firm seeks to draw on its expertise across multiple disciplines, its top-heavy approach to staffing, and its partnership with clients to deliver truly integrated campaigns that are bold and challenging—like a Questrade campaign that urged customers to “ask tough questions.”
The firm’s willingness to think differently extends to its structure—a lack of hierarchy, the absence of timesheets, and a fluid relationship between disciplines—and its work model, which allows employees to work from home and visit the office as frequently or infrequently as they like (hence the name). President Dave Lafond left a role as president of English-speaking Canada for Cossette to launch NFA in January of 2016, in partnership with Serge Rancourt, former president of Publicis Canada. They have grown the firm to its current stage, with more than 100 people worked across the business.—PH
North Strategic/MSL (Publicis Groupe)
MSL’s Canadian offering consists of North Strategic (a three time Canadian agency of the year over the past five years), along with MSL itself, both led by Canadian chief executive Mia Pearson, one of North’s founders. Pearson spearheads a leadership team that includes fellow North co-founder Justin Creally, along with SVP Nadia Beale at MSL. And North’s status as Canada’s best performing agency of the past five years does not appear to have been hindered by either its 2016 acquisition or by its repeated AOY success. The firm submitted its best ever year of revenue growth in 2019, up 23% with headcount growing by 28 to 93 employees across across three offices in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal.
After moving swiftly to position itself as the communications partner of choice in the newly-legalized cannabis sector, North helped such brands as Aphria and Auxlia navigate challenges as the shine wore off the industry, generating positive storytelling and amid unclear marketing restrictions. And North’s long-term client roster — seven of its top 10 clients have been with the firm for more than three years — drove 16% organic growth in 2019 alone. The firm’s biggest new business assignment was Google, while there was also growth from Air New Zealand, Go Easy, BMW, GoDaddy and Sobeys, joining an existing roster that features AmEx, Samsung, Air Miles, Cadillac Fairview, Tim Hortons, Metrolinx, Canada Goose and Diageo.
MSL’s proprietary Fluency influencer management service was launched in Canada in 2019 and has already grown its client base among North’s accounts, while also helping to establish the MSL brand as the firm’s North American social media hub, supported by its MSL Studio creative services offering. MSL’s client base revolves around its consumer and digital focus, including several P&G brands, and reflected in smart work for Old Spice, Scott’s Miracle Gro and Pampers.
North, meanwhile, launched the NGage suite of personal branding services for C-suite leaders. Campaign highlights included the Amex Business Edge Card launch for American Express, which drove awareness and conversion; Sobey’s drive to eliminate single-use plastics; and the launch of cannabis derivative product line Foray. — AS
Veritas (MDC Partners)
Like several firms, Veritas suffered from softening market conditions in 2019, with headcount down as client budgets shrunk. Regardless, the $11m firm continued to trust in a focus on innovation that has returned handsome dividends over recent years, helping it secure Canadian Agency of the Year honours in 2017 and fuelling its expansion beyond Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal into New York and Los Angeles. Originally established in 1993 as a healthcare communications specialist, Veritas has diversified over the years and today focuses on 'influencing the influencers,' drawing on a 'custom convergence' model that brings together cross-functional teams and multichannel solutions to ensure the appropriate solution for a range of complex challenges.
And that approach was taken a step further with the spin-off of influencer firm Meat & Produce as a standalone entity, aimed at co-creating digital content with clients and influencers. Already numbering a team of 12, Meat & Produce exceeded its first year revenue goals by 12%, delivering a range of influencer programs for such Veritas clients as Subway, Revlon Mass, Airbnb, Church and Dwight, Kimberly Clark and Audible Canada. In addition, Veritas also launched digital media offering Amplifeye in 2019 and became part of MDC network The Alliance, alongside six sibling agencies.
All of which took place under the continued oversight of president/CEO Krista Webster, who is supported by Nina Kalos, promoted to GM this year. On the new business front, there were assignments from Canadian Tire Corp, Dosist, Theragun, Refinery20 and Auxly, joining an existing client roster that already includes Microsoft, Subway, Labatt, Kimberly Clark, Church and Dwight, Revlon, Uniqlo, Airbnb and Tangerine Bank.
Veritas' development into a credible creative contender remains its calling card, showcased by four SABRE nominations this year — for Microsoft’s AI Meets World podcast, Budweiser’s ‘Chief Hockey Officer’ program, Airbnb’s ‘Billet Day’, and the launch of Subway’s Beyond Meatball. — AS
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