2020 Consumer PR Agencies of the Year, North America | PRovoke
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2020 Consumer PR Agencies of the Year

The 2020 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 64 finalists across 13 categories can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or here.

Winners are unveiled at the North American SABRE Awards ceremony, which will take place on Thursday May 28 as the first virtual awards dinner since the competition launched 20 years ago. You can find the 2020 SABRE Awards North America finalists here.

Winner: MSL (Publicis Groupe)

Diana Littman’s first full year at the helm of MSL’s US operations—she took the helm in October of 2018—was primarily one of transition, although one could sense the momentum building by the end of the year, with an energetic new leadership team in place. Early in 2019, Littman brought in Alina Diaz as chief strategy officer from Cassandra and Marc Levy as executive creative director from Ketchum, and has since promoted Nicole Scull to lead the firm’s Procter & Gamble business and hired Kelly Jankowski (formerly of Edelman and DuPont) to lead the corporate reputation practice and early this year Stephanie O’Donnell (formerly BCW and Edelman) as managing director for the healthcare operation.

Those latter two appointments will be critical going forward, as the firm seeks to develop its full-service credentials, but it is the consumer practice (which still accounts for more than 50% of US revenues) that has been driving growth and innovation over the past 12 months. In her new role, Scull is responsible for a portfolio of P&G brands that spans seven market segments and brands like Always, Bounty, Pampers, Mr Clean, Vicks and Oral-B. But P&G accounts for less than half the firm’s consumer work and Diaz, who is also serving as interim consumer lead (following the departure of Rema Vasan), oversees the rest: equally big brand names such as Smucker’s, Campbell’s, Abbott, Sandals, Home Depot, and Cadillac.

The consumer practice saw healthy 10% growth in 2019, with new business coming from Cadillac and Wing Stop and Dixie among others. The firm helped White Claw establish the hard seltzer category and become the number one drink of summer; helped to reignite home luxury brand Brizo, driving a 23% sales increase; and worked with Tampax to confront stigma and misinformation, educating 9 million women worldwide. It helped Jif settle the argument about how to pronounce gif, worked with Marshall’s on the launch of the retailer’s online store, and helped make the 2021 Escalade the star of Oscars’ week. And perhaps most notably, it produced an online film featuring John Legend on #stinkybootyduty for Pampers.

All of that was achieved on the back of a focus on three centers of excellence: strategy, creative (not just a department, but baked into the DNA of the agency), and digital innovation, the latter including a significant investment in data and analytics that has seen MSL co-developing new tools with data industry leaders. The firm also doubled down on its leadership in influencer marketing with Fluency, an end-to-end solution that identifies key influencers, activates campaigns, measures and optimizes, and then amplifies using paid media and sales conversion tools.—PH


Finalists

French/West/Vaughan (Independent)

2019 was a good year for French/West/Vaughan, which, 22 years in, has grown to be among the Southeast’s largest PR agencies, independent or otherwise. FWV recorded its 23rd consecutive year of year-over-year growth in 2019, recording annual fee billings of  $32.5m ($27m of which comes from the firm’s PR, digital and social media practices) and an 11% increase over 2018 results. The past 12 months saw F/W/V, a 121-person operation, onboarding clients including LED and lighting company Cree, restaurant chain BurgerFi, mattress manufacturer Select Comfort and Tree Top juices, adding to a roster of big-name clients from Volvo and LS Tractor to the non-profit CityPak, American College of Veterinary Medicine and North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

2019 saw the firm acquiring a 50.1% interest in NYC-based AMP3 PR and folded its longstanding Manhattan office, its people and revenues, under the AMP3 banner. The combined office grew by 73% year-over-year, winning major assignments from the likes of Fossil, Sequential Brands (Ellen Tracy, Joe’s, William Rast) and Derma E skin care and cosmetics, while also picking up the only part of Wrangler’s business that F/W/V didn’t already handle, its influencer marketing assignment. And F/W/V has continued furthering its growth into 2020. In February, the agency announced acquisition of Boston-area based CGPR, an outdoor lifestyle and brand marketing agency that will operate under its own brand as a wholly-owned F/W/V Agency.

Then again, F/V/W has never been an agency that has sat still. Its two-decade history is 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). So 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, F/W/V has more than a dozen specialized practice areas, a Hispanic marketing subsidiary and a long-form film and television production division — assets that reaped the impressive campaigns rolled out in 2019 for Teen Cancer America and Volvo Trucks among others. All of which has occurred while F/W/V has cultivated its strengths beyond the consumer product and service launches for which it was historically known. — DM

Golin (Interpublic Group)

It’s a little more than a year since Golin declared itself a “progressive public relations agency,” reclaiming a term that had fallen from favor in some segments of our business while also pledging a forward-thinking, earned-centric approach to building stakeholder relationships. And it’s only a few months since the firm dispensed with its clumsy-looking co-CEO structure and handed the reins to Matt Neale, who built the London office into one of the UK’s most creative midsize firms before moving to New York in 2015. But Golin doesn’t feel like an agency in transition; it’s more like an evolution, and one that is progressing particularly fast in the consumer sector, which continues to account for 55% of agency revenues (with the rest of the business split pretty evenly between corporate, healthcare and technology).

There was healthy single-digit growth across the board in 2019, with some marquee new business successes including Carsberg, First Direct, iHerb, Lego, Lilly, and Twitter (there was a notable increase in seven-figure wins, too, particularly in a strong fourth quarter), and growth from existing clients such as Ferrara and Ferrero, Johnson& Johnson, McDonald’s, Pepsi and Walmart. The firm’s best work included several campaigns for McDonald’s—from the “Apply Thru” voice-activated job application drive to celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Happy Meal with a retrospective of all the toys involved—but there were SABRE nominations too for the #thisisparenthood campaign for Water Wipes; Luna Bar’s campaign for equal pay for the women’s soccer team; and Adobe’s “Creative Camp.”

The firm’s creative approach was fortified with the introduction of a new “playbook” that includes a research and discovery phase, strategy and planning, creative and experience ideation, channel planning and evaluation—with a focus on the customer journey from awareness to consideration to preference to purchase to advocacy (with a keen understanding of the different roles that earned media can play during each of those phases). At the center is the idea of finding “cultural relevance” for every client, helping them to connect and engage with the audience to make brands both famous and authentic.

A key part of all this, obviously, is Golin’s workplace culture, and there has been progress there too, with an emphasis on diversity, inclusion and belonging, and on the mental health issues that plague the profession. New appointments, meanwhile, include global chief strategy officer Paul Parton, formerly co-founder of Brooklyn Brothers; 22-year Golin veteran Carrie von der Sitt as global head of growth; Ron D’Innocenzo as chief creative officer; Greeta Patel as head of analytics North America; and Dawn Langeland has president, New York.—PH

M Booth (Next15)

Margi Booth’s creative consumer boutique was acquired by Next Fifteen in 2009, at which time M Booth had fee income of a little less than $10 million. Since then, the firm more than quadrupled in size and after an 11% increase in 2019 now boasts fee income in excess of $44.5 million—after recording its seventh year of double-digit growth. And that doesn’t include last year’s acquisition of the US operations of Health Unlimited—the agency’s first acquisition—which added new capabilities to the portfolio and takes its overall revenues to around $65 million. 

While the healthcare business (and a burgeoning corporate practice) means that M Booth can no longer be defined as a consumer boutique, it was our Consumer Agency of the Year in 2019 (and our Specialist Agency of the Year) and it is the firm’s extraordinary portfolio of consumer business that continues to set it apart from the competition. Its work for Tinder in recent years—positioning the company as a serious dating site rather than just a hookup app—has been a particular standout, other recent highlights include Procter & Gamble’s Cascade “Do it Every Night” campaign, featuring husband and wife actors Sarah Michelle Geller and Freddie Prinze; the creation of a guest suite based on the movie “Elf” for Wyndham Suites; and the “Evolve the Day” branding effort for Evoluton Fresh.

Those campaigns provide a terrific illustration of just how far the firm’s creative capabilities have evolved, leading to a high-quality digital video in one case and complete brand development ((logo, typography, color, illustration) in another. That reflects a creative team that expanded from about 20 people last year to nearly 40 today, attracting creatives from top shops in the advertising and digital world, including VaynerMedia, DDB, and Droga. (The analytics team has also been growing, and becoming increasingly billable, with data revenues up by 127%.)

M Booth is known for its ability to nurture long-term partnerships with clients like Wharton (37 years), American Express (15 years), JCPenney (10 years), and Brooks Running (eight years), among others, and growth last year came from a mix of organic (new assignments from clients such as Google, HP Hood, Beiersdorf, and Evolution Fresh) and new business from Conagra, YouTube, Constellation Brands (Svedka Vodka), Sovos Brands (Noosa Yogurt, Rao’s Homemade, Michael Angelo’s), First Data, Gallo Wineries, and Heidrick & Struggles. And perhaps most significantly, M Booth became a Procter & Gamble agency, picking up brands such as Dawn, Febreze, and Cascade.—PH

Marina Maher Communications (Omnicom Group)

Last year was certainly not a bad one for Marina Maher Communications, which had won our North American Agency of the Year award in 2018 and did nothing to undermine our confidence in 2019—even if 2018 did end on something of a sour note with the departure of longtime chief integration officer Diana Littman. Any concern about that was diminished early in 2019, however, when Rema Vasan, a veteran of Pfizer’s consumer healthcare operations and the digital group at Publicis, moved in the opposite direction, from MSL to MMC, to take on the new role of chief innovation officer.

Vasan had led the Procter & Gamble business at MSL, and the consumer products giant continues to be a massive client for MMC, alongside the likes of Johnson & Johnson, Aflac, Merck, Novartis (corporate), Novartis Oncology, and Coty. New business in 2019 came from Exelon and Exelon Utilities, Apple Watch and Johnson & Johnson’s Heartline, Gelesis, and Akili. Standout work included continuation of the firm’s Merck for Mothers campaign, a multiple award-winner, the #BandTogether initiative for Johnson&Johnson’d Band Aid brand and AIDS charity RED; and work for the Head & Shoulders brand and its partnership with the NFL.

MMC’s great strengths include its long history in the marketing to women space, and its ability to tap into—and influence—the cultural zeitgeist with insights drawn from nearly 40 years of experience. But recent years have been defined by a willingness to keep innovating, in areas like influencer marketing, performance marketing, and data and analytics, with new additions in 2019 including a content studio that fosters collaboration between the firm’s social strategists and a burgeoning creative and production team. Also of note was the launch of The Empathy Indexx, designed to promote a more empathic leadership style, and use the power of empathy to advance women into more leadership positions.

In addition to founder and CEO Marina Maher and Vasan, the leadership team includes chief strategy officer Joydeep Dey; executive creative director Ted Sabarese, formerly of Porter Novelli; and chief people officer Diane Fakhouri. New additions in 2019 included Jen O’Neill from Lippe Taylor as managing director of the healthcare practice and P&G vet Laura Brinker as group SVP, consumer practice and agency marketing.—PH