2020 Digital PR Agencies of the Year, North America | PRovoke
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2020 Digital 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: Kivvit (Independent)

Kivvit was created in October of 2014 through the merger of ASGK Public Strategies and M Public Affairs, two firms with a common ownership that traced their heritage back to Chicago in 2002, when Eric Sedler (former AT&T PR director) and David Axelrod (a high-profile figure in Windy City public affairs who would go on to hold senior roles in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and administration). Sedler remains in place, as co-managing director alongside Maggie Moran, presiding over a firm that has grown to close to 90 people in six US offices, generating fee income of $33 million (up by 36% for the year).

Kivvit is best known for public affairs and issues management work with a variety of clients in the non-profit sector, labor organizations, and higher education, as well as a growing number of corporations including Anheuser-Busch, Delta Airlines, Exelon, Lyft, the Obama Foundation, Princeton University, the State University of New York, Tesla, the University of Chicago, and the US Olympic Committee. High-profile assignments include support for Legalize Illinois as it advanced the “most equity-centric” approach to cannabis legalization in the nation; helping Pace University’s law school climb the college rankings and strengthen its reputation in environmental law; defending civil rights on behalf of the National Fair Housing Alliance in the face of a Trump administration proposal; and empowering patients and physicians to make personal medical decisions around end of life for Compassion & Choices.

But what truly differentiates Kivvit is a commitment to building a future-facing operation driven by the most comprehensive suite of data and analytics tools and the best proprietary technology in the category. The firm named veteran of the firm Zach Silber as its chief innovation officer in early 2018, and last year added Dave Beattie, formerly of EMC Research, as chief of data and analytics last year. 

Under their leadership, Kivvit has partnered with and developed a host of technology solutions covering news analytics, influencer identification, audience analysis and segmentation, custom audience development, social listening, competitive analysis and more—proprietary products include automated, AI-powered impact dashboards, and purpose and ESG tool mESG and more—all of which can help it to either simplify or mitigate issues on behalf of its clients in real-time and with a thorough understanding of the media, political, and audience landscape.—PH

Finalists

Huge (Interpublic Group)

It’s hard to believe Huge has been around for more than 19 years, launching as a design agency with a focus on user experience. Of course, UX was a different world in those days, but Huge’s user-centric approach lives on and now applies to PR. In 2017, then-CEO (and founder) Aaron Shapiro hired Kwittken veteran Jason Schlossberg to lead that effort. The PR offering was intended to be a full-service communications capability. But last year, Huge shifted gears when the PR fees/margins didn’t match with the rest of the agency’s profit formula.

The new strategy, spearheaded by Schlossberg, is to compete at the highest-end of the PR market by creating more interdependencies between communications and Huge’s other offerings. The rallying cry for this new endeavor is, “make newsworthy things that people love.” The idea is, by integrating newsworthiness into the framework, clients will take more ambitious, innovative, and ownable stances. The pivot has put the communications offering on track to double revenue this year.

Huge is the US communications AOR for Early Warning/Zelle and Pantone (new). The agency also handles editorial and content work for Verizon and UCSF Hospital, as well social and influencer work for Federal Student Aid and Dolby. Other new clients include: Converse and Citrix. Many of these communications clients are engaged in multi-part, integrated projects within Huge.

Among its most notable work, Pantone engaged Huge to reimagine the 2020 Color of the Year after several high-profile publications declared the gimmick to be played out. Huge responded to the challenge by expanding the color — Classic Blue — beyond the visual and bringing the color to life through a multi-sensory experience. In addition to Schlossberg, leadership includes Rebecca Moeller and Nicole Kuang. While Huge has 13 offices around the world, the communications team is centered in Brooklyn, Oakland and Washington, DC.— AaS

ICF Next (ICF)

It’s been more than a year since ICF jettisoned the Olson Engage brand and pulled all of its agencies under the ICF Next umbrella. And so far, so good. ICF Next continues to be one of the most prolific producers of breakthrough creative work in the industry. Last year’s Digital Agency of the Year winner in North America continues its creativity streak with eight North American SABRE Award and 21 Innovation SABRE nominations in 2020, among many other industry accolades. 

The vision behind the move is also more clear. ICF spent the last decade moving into marketing services. But unlike its management consultancy peers that skew heavily towards paid and owned channels, ICF has integrated public relations with loyalty, change management specialists, and social marketing. The common denominator being: “a relentless focus on earning and enabling participation, whether through earned media, earned loyalty or earning engagement, from colleagues, customers or citizens.”

In 2019, ICF Next saw an 8% increase in global PR revenue to more than $170m, up from $157.8m in the previous year. North America eclipsed this with low double-digit growth. Key clients generating PR revenue include Mars Wrigley, Kraft Heinz, Molson Coors, Hotels.com, Target, HP Enterprise, Spalding (new), PepsiCo, Rosetta Stone (new), Halo Top (new) Beam Suntory, Hotels.com (new), Reynolds, Serta Simmons Bedding (new), Avanir Pharmaceuticals (new), and the CDC, among many others. The agency also significantly expanded its relationship with DanoneWave, including adding major brands, Silk and Oikos.

Expectedly, there were some big changes this year. Most notably, longtime Olson Engage head Bryan Specht parted ways with the new company. Managing partner Tricia Ewald continues to lead the marketing & communications vertical, reporting into president Jon Armstrong. Notable additions were former Golin veteran Patti Temple Rocks and Edelman alum Jeff Caporizzo.

ICF Next’s inventive streak remains unchanged. The agency’s longstanding — and hugely creative — relationship with Skittles included ICF Next promoting the brand’s much-lauded 30-minute Broadway musical on Super Bowl Sunday. Other award-winning work include, a shockingly effective Twitter call-to-action asking couples to mention Hotels.com in their wedding vows; and a clever Twitter gimmick in which Heinz offered Patrick Mahomes free ketchup for life if he threw 57 touchdowns. — AaS

Rogers & Cowan PMK (Interpublic Group)

After years of speculation, last year it happened — Interpublic Group merged Hollywood powerhouse agencies Rogers & Cowan and PMK·BNC, creating a global entertainment marketing and communications giant with a roster of 500+ personalities and more than 50 brands.

The newly merged agency is being led by Rogers & Cowan CEO Mark Owens and PMK·BNC CEO Cindi Berger as chairman. They both oversee the 325-person operation, mostly based in the US but with 50 people in the UK. The agency’s value proposition echoes that of PMK*BNC’s legacy: its roster of high-profile celebrities, artists, and other creators and accelerators of culture, gives its experts a unique vantage into the intersection of  popular culture & entertainment and brands.

New clients Beyond Meat, Red Bull, Verizon Media, Northwell Health, Weston Foods, Girl Scouts and YouTube join the existing roster with a bevy of household names, among them: McDonald’s, Heineken, Activision, Mastercard, Hasbro, Prive Revaux, Masterclass and Cisco. Among its notable work, which helped secure four SABRE nominations, Rogers & Cowan PMK spread the word when McDonald’s flipped their iconic logo to a “W” in honor of International Women’s Day, the agency helped Verizon Media win a slew of prestigious awards for distributing its first-ever film 5B, in addition to working with the client to bring the first-ever immersive AR experience to the UN General Assembly Climate Action Summit.

Leadership also includes Shirley Hughes as president of the firm’s brand marketing practice, Craig Greiwe as chief strategy & transformation officer, and Stephen Macias as EVP of multicultural marketing. — AaS

WE (Independent)

Fiercely independent firm WE made some strategic digital investments in 2019 that are already elevating the agency’s well-established digital capabilities. In particular, WE expanded its content and design expertise by acquiring Codeword, a content marketing agency with a client list that includes Netflix, Google and Github, among others. The move was part of the WE’s 2019 plan to double-down on its vision to build a next-generation agency designed to tell stories of transformation. The agency did this by focusing on three key pillars: enhanced operations, integrated client work and purpose leadership.

Organic growth in North America was up 3.2% landing at $107.1m, while global revenue soared to more than $143m. After an ambitious acquisition spree, the agency focused on cooperation between regions and WE companies last year. WE has 19 multiregional clients — up 36% from this time last year. Coming back to the work, it continues to be more impressive than ever. For instance, WE’s portfolio includes working on Gilead’s interactive year in review and an integrated campaign with McDonald’s that spanned everything from clothing design to digital creative to influencer outreach.

Founder/CEO Melissa Waggnener Zorkin last year made Kass Sells  global COO and president of international, meanwhile Dawn Beauparlant became president of North America.  In May, WE codified its approach to purpose into a set of actionable client services. — AaS