2020 Creative PR Agencies of the Year, North America | PRovoke
The Holmes Report becomes PRovokeMore here

2020 Creative 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: Day One Agency (Independent)

In today’s noisy — and often bleak — news cycle, Day One's manifesto of creating campaigns that “stop the world in its scroll” has more value than ever. The agency’s breakthrough creative work spotlights its unique vantage into the modern consumer, technology platforms and the overall cultural zeitgeist. 

But before diving into the work, it’s worth looking at the agency’s staggering business performance in 2019. Revenues rose 45% bringing the independent agency from nearly $15m to just over $20m in 2019. This aligns with Day One’s remarkable growth trajectory that continues to amaze — 30% growth in 2018, 84% growth in 2017  — the agency has only been around for six years and its revenues are $21.4m. Combining the best of PR, digital, and social agencies, Day One has attracted world-renowned brands to the agency including American Express, Facebook, Nike, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Comcast, Motorola, and Ferrara Candy Co.

Now let’s look at the work. Day One worked with Chipotle to launch its TikTok presence alongside a star influencer to spotlight free delivery for digital orders for Cinco de Mayo. The campaign drove a digital sales record. For National Avocado Day, the team created a viral dance that became the highest-performing branded challenge on TikTok and set another record digital sales day. When launching its loyalty program, Day One helped Chipotle become the first brand to partner with Venmo on a campaign that drove one million rewards sign-ups with no paid advertising in the first week. For H&M, Day One built a multi-stage campaign to launch its new Hudson Yards store centered on a Love Letter to the city in New York Magazine. All of these campaigns were recognized by judges at the 2020 Gold SABRE Awards (alongside work from Motorola) and Innovation SABRE Awards, in addition to other industry accolades. 

The firm maintains long-lasting relationships by making two-way investments in clients and staff. The agency is built around three centers of excellence that prioritize a story-first mindset: shape, share and fuel. All three centers share the core belief that people don’t share content, they share stories. In 2019, Day One launched its “What Do You Want to Earn?” workshop offering that co-creates ideas with the clients, securing buy-in at the earliest stages. The firm also formalized its  DEI initiative 2019 and created “The Ones To Know,” an Instagram resource to elevate influencers from underrepresented communities. The firm remains under the leadership of founders Josh Rosenberg, Brad Laney and Rob Longert. — AaS

Finalists

Carmichael Lynch Relate (Interpublic Group)

Since winning Small Agency of the Year honours in 2017, Carmichael Lynch Relate has continued to make its mark, thanks as much to its stellar creativity as its impressive business performance. With five SABRE nominations, and two IN2 SABRE wins, CL Relate once again demonstrated that the firm’s creative culture is benefiting from its close relationship with advertising sibling Carmichael Lynch. 

The best of CL Relate’s work reflects the Minneapolis firm’s deep expertise across brand marketing and corporate reputation. For fuel brand Conoco, the firm devised a manga-themed effort that helped increase likeability and engagement among hard to reach 18 to 24-year-olds. For OpenTable, CL Relate developed the incredibly successful #DiningMode campaign. And the agency’s work for Helzberg Diamonds also stood out, creating a retail service that offered free marriage ceremonies at all of the brand’s locations. 

There’s little doubt that CL Relate’s creative capabilities are helping to drive impressive business returns too. In 2019, there was new business from Celestial Seasonings, Sunbrella, Mpower, Caribou, Xcel Energy and Post Cereals, joining an existing roster that features Formica, Garden of Life, Helzberg Diamonds, Kayak, Marvin, Masterbrand, Open Table, Phillips 66, Post Consumer Brands Schwan’s Food Co and Sherwin-Williams. And the firm’s creative spirit extends beyond its integrated capabilities to its cultural mindset too, involving a work-from-home policy before it was unavoidable, expanded parental leave and numerous efforts to improve inclusion and equity. 

Julie Batliner remains at the helm of the organization, supported by chief creative officer Marty Senn, GM Grete Lavrenz and new hires Orlee Tatarka and Régine Labossière, to oversee integrated production and New York, respectively. — AS

Coyne PR (Independent)

Last year’s Creative Agency of the Year, Coyne PR didn’t take its foot off the pedal in 2019, with 10 SABRE Awards nominations for its work last year—more than an agency outside of the “big three” of Edelman, Ketchum, and Weber Shandwick. That’s the second year the New Jersey-based firm—with $32 million in fees—has outperformed many larger agencies in terms of creative recognition.

The firm’s success in the creative realm is a tribute to the power of mission. Tom Coyne’s agency has always had a strong sense of mission, from the early days, when the emphasis was on becoming a destination agency for talent (reflected in several Best Agency to Work For awards) to today, when the firm exists because “we believe great communication can change the world,” as Coyne says. Communication can fund charities, save factories, inspire a movement, and give a voice to the voiceless. It can also help companies sell products of course. And over the course of the past year, Coyne has helped its clients do all of those things, and more.

For Banfield Pet Hospital, for example, the firm created a campaign to address mental health issues among veterinary professionals (one in six has contemplated suicide, according to a report) with an online education initiative. Helping Pacira BioSciences combat the opioid epidemic, Coyne created “Choices Matter,” a national movement designed to empower patients to discuss non-opioid options to manage postsurgical pain. After Snapple was featured in Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” video, the firm helped the brand strengthen its relationship with Gen X. And for Hilton’s 100th anniversary, Coyne developed a thought leadership platform to cement the chain’s place in history and generate excitement for the next 100 years.

The firm saw fees increase from $30 million to $32 million over the course of the year, with new business from Otsuka, the ASPCA, Stevens Institute of Technology, Crook & Marker, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Fox Factory, and Lundbeck, while continuing its work for big name brands like  Bimbo Bakeries, ChapStick, Fiat Chrysler, Hard Rock International, and Shell Oil.—PH

Current Global (Interpublic Group)

Current Marketing was founded in 2006, a consumer specialist with a creative bent that recorded 13 consecutive years of growth before early last year it was merged with sister agency Creation to form Current Global, transforming from a firm with five US offices and just under 60 employees to a global business with 250 employees across 15 worldwide offices. The US operation now accounts for about 75% of the business, and saw 30% growth in 2019—more than half of it organic.

The new business is still dominated by its consumer practice, which accounts for 80% of revenues under the leadership of executive vice president Aaryn Flick and serving a roster of clients that includes Applebee’s, Champion, Chuck E Cheese’s, Hidden Valley Ranch, Omni Hotels & Resorts, Papa John’s and Radio Flyer. But the firm also has strength now in corporate (helmed by Renee Austin and serving the likes of Abbott, Bloomberg Associates and FedEx); technology (led by Michelle Maggs and serving Verizon and recent addition Vulcan); and healthcare (under Jacelyn Seng and serving Novartis and Pfizer). And a growing volume of clients are taking advantage of cross-practice teams.

Joint CEO Virginia Devlin, who has been leading Current since its launch, believes that brands win in today’s environment through a deep understanding of the experiences and attitudes that people bring to their decisions, and aims to help identify the best moments to reach those people, forging “meaningful connections to powerful slices of real-life.” Examples include the firm’s work for Chuck E Cheese’s—helping the company defend itself against fake news after claims that it was selling “recycled pizza”; its support for Champion as it sought to open six retail stores at a time when other brands were moving online; and its pro-bono support for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence and its “Gun Violence History Book.”—PH

Ketchum (Omnicom Group)

Omnicom’s global full-service public relations brands—including Ketchum—have struggled to keep pace with the competition in terms of business growth over the past few years. But one thing that has not suffered, particularly in the US, is the quality of the firm’s creative work: 19 campaigns are among the finalists for the North American SABRE Awards, from the controversial “We Believe” campaign tackling toxic masculinity on behalf of Gillette to Mastercard’s #acceptancematters initiative to telling the truth about opioids for the Truth Initiative to opening the Cheetos House of Flamin’ Haute for Frito-Lay. The firm also took home Best in Show at the Innovation SABREs for its “Keeping Fortnite Fresh” work for Wendy’s.

That impressive variety of work is nothing new for Ketchum, but the organizational design that new CEO Barri Rafferty has put in place is. It is set up to bring both intelligence and empathy, left brain and right brain, to bear on a client’s challenges, from differentiating products in a competitive marketplace to attracting talent and engaging employees. That was accompanied by a new vision—“to be the leading global communications consultancy, combining empathy with intelligence to do work that matters to our clients and to the world”—and new values: brave, curious, inspiring and “a force for good.” The new architecture is part of Ketchum’s evolution into a true consultancy, a reflection of the fact that clients are increasingly looking for a trusted advisor rather than an order taker.

While revenues were down by about 2%--after the agency lost longtime clients IBM and Smuckers at the beginning of the year—there was plenty of new business, with new or incremental assignments from the likes of Alcon, Activision/Blizzard, Ascension, California Milk, the Entertainment Software Association, Galderma, Gillette, Google, Jack Links, Lorissa’s Kitchen, Mastercard, Target, and Wendy’s.—PH