2020 Large PR Agencies of the Year, North America | PRovoke
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2020 North America Large 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: W2O Group (Independent)

The narrative is well-known at this point: W2O Group continues to astound the industry with its extraordinary growth, relentless ambition and uncanny foresight that has kept the agency several steps ahead of the industry when it comes to digital and analytics. W2O, which recently became the first agency to break into the large agency category in more than a decade, ended 2019 with $220m in revenue and 12.5% organic growth. W2O got here with 18 consecutive years of double-digit growth.

What’s particularly interesting is how W2O doesn’t operate like most of the others in the category. For one, the firm operates under one P&L across its 16 global offices. And because founder/CEO Jim Weiss made the strategic decision, more than a decade ago, to place data and analytics at the center of its offering, the firm’s expertise in this area remains unparalleled across the industry.

In 2019, the agency marked another financial milestone. The agency sold a piece of the company to New York investment firm New Mountain Capital, marking the second round of funding the company has received to further its expansion. This spurred another buying spree that include the New Jersey-based agency Radius Digital Science, the Philadelphia science communications firm Arcus Medica and 21Grams — a New York-based agency focused on healthcare.

“We’re not growing to grow,” Weiss says. “We’re adding what clients are asking for.”So far, that seems to be the case. The agency continues to retain its core pharmaceutical clients, such as Takeda and UCB, among many others — in addition to biotech like Genentech. New clients in 2019 included: AIDS 2020, the 23rd International AIDS Conference, Aimmune Therapeutics, Mycovia Pharmaceuticals, Oscar Health and  Signify Health. Notable work includes the “With Love, Me” with Merck and an augmented reality booth designed for StallergenesGreer, while the firm scored an impressive seven nominations at the 2020 North American SABRE Awards.

In this pandemic era, it’s worth noting how active W2O has been around this crisis — the agency works with 23 of the top 25 pharma companies in the world, Oscar Health and also counsels healthcare companies within New Mountain Capital portfolio. The agency also launched COVIDcheck, a free public digital health service aimed at helping mitigate the impact of COVID-19 around the world, as well as a real-time dashboard tracking all COVID-19 conversations on Twitter. — AaS


Finalists

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. All of that is tied together under the firm’s new “Moving People” positioning, a rebrand that speaks to BCW’s approach to public relations—focused on changing minds and behaviors—and its core purpose. And it is driven by a new approach to leadership and professional development that emphasizes “sustainable growth” through values such as inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility.

The approach has attracted—and in turn been fueled by—some exceptional new talent, including chief strategy and operations officer Ben Boyd from Edelman; brand practice lead Karen Kearns and data, analytics and performance marketing head Jeffrey Cutler, both from Zeno; and managing director of inclusion Carol Watson, a longtime consultant on diversity best practices. They join a leadership team that includes Imperato, global president Jim Joseph, North American president Chris Foster, and chief growth officer Brooke Hovey.

There has been growth from existing clients including the United States Census, Accenture, AstraZeneca, Bank of America, Dow, and Merck, and several new assignments including the American Chemistry Council, Hellman’s, Gilead, Emirates, Country Crock, and Waste Management. BCW and its clients received eight nominations in this year’s North American SABRE Awards, for campaigns ranging from financial communications for resurgent retailer Office Depot Office Max to managing issues around the launch of a new BPA-free packaging for Sherwin Williams to consumer health work for Walgreens and sponsorship support for Chipotle.—PH

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.

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 couldn’t match its impressive 2018 growth last year—revenues were essentially flat—but it did continue 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.” 

The firm’s culture has been another Saunders priority, with his “cabinet”—a “a collaborative leadership group” to which senior execs are appointed for a year at a time—beginning to reflect his push for greater diversity. There were promotions for Marjorie Benzkofer, the firm’s first ever chief strategy officer; Ken Fields, American crisis lead; Lauren Walters, who leads the Texas operation; and Alison McNally, North American technology lead. The firm’s “unconscious bias” training continues to be a benchmark for the rest of the industry, and the F4 Inclusion program now supports more than 90 social inclusion organizations. One metric of its success: more than 25% of global hires last year were diverse.—PH

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. The firm also retained 92% of its top 50 clients, growing assignments from AB InBev, Coca-Cola, Glaxo SmithKline, IBM, Mars, Mondelez, and Sanofi and adding new accounts such as Buick, GE Appliances, Global Citizen, Kellogg’s, Michelin, Sleep Number, and USAA.

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, including corporate practice leader Micho Spring, chief client officer Sara Gavin, healthcare practice leader Laura Schoen, chief innovation officer Chris Perry, and head of public affairs Pam Jenkins have been together just as long, leading to a staggering consistency in both the strategy and the culture. New talent over the past year has included chief impact officer Sung Chang, formerly of MRM/McCann; Will Ludlam from Edelman as president of the western region; and executive VPs Lee Ann Townes (social impact), Melanie Janin (sustainability), and Lisa Talbot (healthcare); as well as Michelle Giuda, who returned from the Trump administration to add her counsel in geopolitical strategy and risk.

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. Another exciting development is the Media Genius platform, which draws real-time insights from data to help marketers and communicators understand and prioritize information and act on it speedily.

As for the work, Weber Shandwick has led PRovoke Media’s Global Creative Index for each of the past three years, and an industry-best 27 nominations in this year’s North American SABRE competition, ranging from some stellar high-profile stunts (the Area 51 “invasion”), corporate reputation work (commitment to wind power), and issues management (supporting the US women’s soccer team) work for ABInBev to corporate transformation at Mars to launching the Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse for Airbnb and Mattel to safe water solutions support for Honeywell Hometown Solutions.—PH