2020 Public Affairs Agencies of the Year, North America | PRovoke Media

2020 Public Affairs 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: Precision Strategies (Independent)

Founded by Obama campaign veterans Stephanie Cutter, Jen O’Malley Dillon and Teddy Goff, Precision’s roots as pioneering digital and data specialists have served the firm well since its inception in mid-2013. The business has grown rapidly, up 21% last year to $18m, surely making it one of the fastest-growing startups of the decade. Now numbering almost 70 people across its headquarters in Washington, DC and New York office, Precision’s impressive numbers reflect its expansion into multiple sectors, supported by considerable investment in senior talent including communications MD Mike Spahn, data/analytics director Naimul Haq and advertising director Andy Amsler, along with 2018 COO hire Tom Reno.

Across all of its work, Precision demonstrates an ability to drive earned, digital and paid media via a more sophisticated understanding of grassroots campaigning than most. That includes the firm’s own data integration and analytics platform, which it launched last year to help support decision-making. And with 2019 marking the start of a new presidential election cycle, Precision handled the loss of employees to campaigns without missing a beat, developing hiring standards and establishing a diversity and inclusion team.

That has helped it support such core clients as March for Our Lives, the Sacramento Kings, Families Belong Together, Humana, GE, the ACLU, NWDA and Planned Parenthood, along with news assignments from IBM, Verizon, MGM Resorts, SEIU, Lionsgate, NYC 2020 Census, Hope Town United, MTA, Hickenlooper for Colorado and Global Citizen.

And it is Precision’s campaign work that truly marks it out as one of the nation’s top firms, reflecting its ability to seamlessly join strategic communications with digital, advertising, coalition building, data/analytics and creative development. Most notably, that included continued work for March for Our Lives, helping to generate a 47% increase in youth voter turnout at the 2018 midterm elections, and making gun safety a top issue in the 2020 presidential election. Since the historic 2018 March in Washington, furthermore, more than 137 new laws on gun safety have passed, with Precision’s work on the Generation Lockdown campaign winning six Cannes Lions Awards, including the Grand Prix for Good. — AS


APCO Worldwide (Independent)

Celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2019, APCO enjoyed a record year, with global revenues up by 6% (9% in North America) to $142 million. There was new business from the American College of Cardiology, Dematic, EfficientIP, the Global Cement & Concrete Association, Grab, OnePlus, the Portland Cement Association, REC Group, and Vattenfall, joining a roster that includes Bayer, Bombardier, Danaher, Educational Testing Service, Equinix, Facebook, Gilead, IKEA, Microsoft, and Whirlpool. 

Still best known for its work in public affairs and public policy, APCO has expanded it service in recent years to include a wide range of corporate communications activities, from crisis and issues management to employee relations and change management to financial communications. That diversification continued in 2019. Under the leadership of Kelly Williamson, appointed to the role a little over a year ago, the North America business in particular has been investing in data and analytics, paid media, and integrated campaigning capabilities. APCO ended the year with an acquisition that strengthened its credentials in the social impact arena. The Tembo Group, a New York-based firm founded by former APCO and McKinsey exec Denielle Sachs, includes experts in corporate sustainability, impact measurement, philanthropy and specific issues such as education, workforce development and conservation. It also announced a partnership with Erie Street, a Chicago-based geopolitical risk strategist that will supplement the firm’s strategic advisory offering.

Highlights of the firm’s work showcased its increasing diversity. It launched a first-in-class cardiovascular disease treatment for Amarin, amplifying awareness of the product approval and mitigating misconceptions among media and consumers. It worked with Education Testing Service to address criticism of the GRE and its role in college approvals, It supported the Nuclear Energy Institute on its “Nuclear Matters” campaign to engage stakeholders and advocate for the industry’s role in America’s energy future. And it supported the Gary Sinise Foundation in its efforts to celebrate first responders.

Firehouse Strategies (Independent)

After managing US Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign (and, as they say, losing to a reality TV star in the late stages of the primary process) three longtime GOP operatives — Terry Sullivan, Alex Conant and Will Holley — gave up the campaign trail to start Washington public affairs shop Firehouse Strategies. Their strategy: take lessons learned from that wild election cycle — the one in which Donald Trump upended modern communications —and use them to help clients communicate in the modern age.

Four years in, and Firehouse is running PR and public affairs campaigns just like they led political ones. They call what they do targeted persuasion, which means putting a premium on authentic, organic communications to reach very targeted audiences — all with a focus on results, and spanning more than 15 issue groups, including tech, manufacturing, healthcare, environmental, trade, transportation, and real estate. Led by Sullivan, Conant and SVP Whitney Mitchell Brennan, Firehouse’s public affairs offering reflects its modern bent, encompassing everything from risk assessment to coalition building, grasstops mobilization, paid media and content creation. 

Clients continue to agree with the approach, as the numbers reflect. In 2019, Firehouse’s free income rose to $5.5m, up from $3.2m the year before, while headcount jumped from 10 to 17. There was new business from Americans for Free Trade, AARP, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey along with notable work for the Association for Accessible Medicines, the Consumer Technology Association, FedEx, the US Travel Association, along with several confidential private sector assignments. — AS

Global Strategy Group (Independent)

New York-based Global Strategy Group over recent years has two compelling advantages over many of its competitors in the public affairs and issues management space. First, the firm’s heritage in research—decades of experience in polling—is a big advantage in these analytics-driven times as GSG understands how to derive key insights from a wealth of data, and to measure effectiveness in terms that actually matter to clients. And second, the thought leadership that GSG pioneered into corporate activism on political and social issues has become even more relevant as more and more companies are prepared to take a stand, driving coverage in Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and more and underscoring the agency’s position at the nexus of the business and political worlds.

The firm has grown to a team of more than 100 professionals working at the intersection of business and politics in offices in New York, Washington DC, Hartford, Denver, Chicago, and Seattle, growing in 2019 despite the fact that the firm was coming off a blockbuster 2018 political cycle during which it worked for Democratic campaigns. There was new business from big names such as Facebook, Pfizer, SAS, Google, Patagonia, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Michael Bloomberg for President campaign. They join a client roster of companies in issues-rich sectors: Comcast NBC Universal, ConEdison, ESPN, General Motors, H&R Block, MGM Casinos and T-Mobile, as well as nonprofits such as Everytown for Gun Safety, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

As ever, the firm found itself at the center of some of the biggest policy and reputational issues in the country. It handled regulatory and policy fights for corporate clients such as Facebook, T-Mobile (approval for its acquisition of Sprint), General Motors (autonomous vehicles), MGM Casinos, University of North Carolina Health System as well as major advocacy campaigns on criminal justice (leading the fight to permanently close Rikers Island), the right to choose (working with NARAL Pro-Choice America on media bias) and supporting gun violence reform organizations Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords with messaging and campaigning.—PH

Marathon Strategies (Independent)

Marathon Strategies was founded in 2008 by Phil Singer, a veteran of political campaigns who had worked on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, both of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s winning campaigns and as communications director for Senator Chuck Schumer. Like many others with that kind of campaigning background, Singer recognized the potential in bringing the political campaigning approach—particularly its heavy emphasis on research and its focus on winning—into the corporate world, and today the firm has proven expertise in public policy, crisis and issues management, and a team of 50 working across offices in New York (its headquarters, Washington DC, and most recently Albany.

Singer has been joined Jane Hardey, managing director and chief operating officer, who joined from Singapore-based Baldwin Boyle and handles corporate and crisis work; managing director of research and investigations Ray Hernandez, a former New York Times reporter; and chief creative officer Jim Scott Polsinelli, formerly of DDC. New in 2019 was Liz Benjamin, a former reporter and host of Capital Tonight, who leads the Albany office.

Marathon has doubled its revenue over the past five years, and last year saw the trajectory continue with fee income up by 13% to around $12.2 million. Clients include Walmart, Everytown for Gun Safety, the Government of Japan, Ygrene Energy Fund, the Real Estate Board of New York, Airlines for America, and the New York State Bar Association, with new business from the Cannabis Information Project, the American Land Title Association, and New York City Housing Development Corp. Whether the assignment involves a corporation or a causes, the approach is the same: Marathon likes to ask challenging questions and push bold solutions.

Among the highlights of Marathon’s work, the firm partnered with a prominent New York City law firm to help generate awareness of New York State’s Child Victims Act, which allows more survivors of child sexual abuse seek justice and continued to expand the profile of the big tech watchdog organization it launched and operate, shaping the discussion of Amazon and other tech giants among policymakers and the media. And in Oklahoma, the firm worked with Walmart to secure a legislative victory that will allow the retailer to provide vision care services in the state.—PH