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Consultancy of the Year winners are announced and honoured at the 2021 Asia-Pacific SABRE Awards, which takes place virtually on 15 September. Analysis of all Finalists and Winners can be accessed via the navigation menu or below:
Icon was founded in Melbourne in 2002 by innovative husband and wife team Joanne Painter and Christopher Dodds. Their vision was to combine the disciplines of PR, digital marketing and advertising into an integrated model of creatively-led communications, led by a belief system they call “the pursuit of possibility”. Three years ago the business pivoted from consumer, to government and corporate PR. The team expanded to Canberra, invested in digital and data capabilities, and set up a dedicated behaviour change and media unit. The firm has developed specialisations in digital transformation, public health, business technology and counter-terrorism, and has built a client portfolio spanning 20+ government departments and many major brands. As well as national awareness campaigns, Icon is particularly recognised for its multi-channel behaviour change campaigns.
Icon has offices in three Australian cities: Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.
The firm’s strategic shift has paid off, helping to drive 21% revenue growth in 2020 to AUD $8.8 million (US$6.5 million) and 46% profit growth as the pandemic increased demand for strategic and creative communication programs. The firm added more data, video, strategic planning and content capabilities last year, and set up dedicated teams to manage a mega-contract for the Department of Home Affairs’ Countering Violent Extremism Program. It also launched a crisis business, Icon Reputation, led by former newspaper editor (and now the agency’s director of reputation) Mark Forbes. New clients this year included several more government departments, Schneider Electric, ADP, Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation and the University of Melbourne, who joined a roster including Mondelez, asset consultancy Jana, chemical company Evonik, and software firm Airwallex.
Icon grew to 61 staff in 2020. Its strategy for surviving the pandemic included supporting clients and staff through the transition to working from home, hiring the agency’s first head of HR, plus events, counselling and other initiatives to promote wellbeing. Icon has a positive discrimination policy to attract and retain women in male-dominated disciplines like web development and creative, as well as people of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Asian descent. In 2020 Icon doubled the size of its Chinese-speaking team and made 30% of hires from international, culturally and/or linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. Painter and Dodds are supported by a leadership team including creative directors Ed Bechervaise and Rod Clausen, and head of PR Matt Thomas. In 2020, Icon set up a sales marketing department led by digital marketer Rob Cleeve, who leads a team focused on client retention, outbound sales and sales conversion.
Standout work included a national stillbirth awareness and prevention campaign, and the ‘You haven’t been drinking alone’ campaign for the Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation, an integrated national awareness campaign focused on alcohol harm reduction during the pandemic, which exceeded all targets five times over. The Icon team also developed the ‘Truly Incredible Care’ public awareness and recruitment campaign for Carers Victoria, to raise awareness of the incredible work unpaid carers do, leading to millions of impressions and more than 1,400 new members.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
Now firmly ensconced as one of the region’s top firms, Eleven remains one of the most creative agencies in one of the world’s most creative regions. The agency has always benefited from its ability to fuse brands with culture, but has revamped that approach in recent years to focus on creating more personalised brand stories. The agency has invested heavily in initiatives to help it come up with creative ideas that put brands at the heart of culture, including Backslash, a global cultural trend spotting platform located in 10 key global cities; ‘Edges’ – an annaul study of macro, lasting cultural values; and Cultural Research Labs, Eleven’s bespoke tool to uncover emerging personal values by building panels of cultural creators, commentators and consumers.
Eleven has two offices in Australia, in Melbourne and Sydney, and one in Auckland, New Zealand.
The Eleven leadership team of managing director Roberto Pace, general manager Fiona Milliken and creative director Russ Tucker turned the agency’s toughest year in its nine-year history into its best, nearly doubling revenue and headcount. Major clients grew: Eleven’s eight-year relationship with Tourism New Zealand increased substantially in revenue at a time when no-one could travel. New clients including Brother, Peloton and SC Johnson joined a client roster that includes Campari Group and Mastercard.
Eleven’s focus on culture has proved beneficial during the current challenges. During the pandemic, the agency launched Collective Classes on everything from working from home hacks, fitness (with over 150 classes led by its MD) to tie-dying. It partnered with Heart On My Sleeve to host ‘Dealing with uncertainty’ and ‘Parenting at home’ courses, and gave pay rises to most of its team. Eleven shared its ‘Navigating Uncertainty’ eHub with clients, and provided its services for free to SMEs. The During lockdown, the internship program was migrated online and four interns were hired full-time. Eleven’s talent team was made available for anyone in the industry who’d lost their job, even preparing people for interviews with competitor agencies. The agency also doubled-down on DE&I, creating a Take the Lead taskforce of people of varying backgrounds and partnering with the Diversity Council of Australia.
As a new endeavour, Eleven used its Labs, Edges and Backslash platforms to develop the 'Navigating Uncertainty' report, providing a simple framework to help brands plan across pandemic response, recovery and revival. This is open source for all business to access for free. Work during the year included the multi-award-winning “Play NZ’ campaign for Tourism New Zealand. Since gaming skyrocketed in lockdown and travel was off the menu, the agency marketed New Zealand like a video game, inviting people to explore NZ’s attractions by gamifying the country in an open-world experience through the eyes of an avatar. Like a real game launch, it used teasers and trailers, digital banners and in-app ads in gaming media featuring real gamers’ reviews. The campaign resulted in a 387% increase in intent to visit NZ. And for Campari, the team came up with an idea for the brand to help closed bars in lockdown: ‘Shaken Not Broken’ helped hundreds of venues keep bringing in revenue via a free online delivery platform.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
PR, social, content and influencer agency Poem was launched six years ago by former Freuds and One Green Bean alumni Rob Lowe and Matt Holmes. Its rise is unsurprising, given its founding duo’s pedigree and the appeal of its hybrid creative/PR approach in Australia’s competitive consumer market. Lowe and Holmes set out to overcome big agency fatigue by building a firm that strives to “be more human”, creating campaigns that move people enough that they're willing to invest time, money and attention in a brand. The agency’s work mixes channel-agnostic strategy, insight and creativity, and uses the team’s expertise in publicity, social, content, influencer, events and paid media amplification. In 2020 the agency also launched Poem Studio, a creative hub and content production division.
Poem has one office, in Sydney.
Poem’s income grew 19% to just over AUD$3 million in 2020. It has an average client tenure of 3.5 years, including Sony PlayStation, the New South Wales government, Icebreaker, Krispy Kreme and Blackmores. Recent notable wins include Nespresso (and an introduction to the Nestle agency roster), Audika and Sunglass Hut.
Poem started the year with 15 permanent staff and maintained 100% retention; it has now grown to 22 and is still hiring. During lockdown, the agency stayed true to its “deeply human” values and invested heavily in ensuring the team maintained wellbeing and a sense of belonging, including virtual cooking classes, trivia nights, happy hours and counselling and coaching services. Poem’s hiring policy is all inclusive and its staff are diverse across ethnic types, skillsets and interests, as well as having an even split between men and women.
The agency’s best work over the year included launching the biggest PS4 title of the year, The Last Of Us II, for PlayStation, and getting the game into the mainstream media on a small budget by creating a brand partnership with Sony Music for artist Tash Sultana to record the game’s theme track, which became Australia’s best performing YouTube video for a month. It had 3.1m Spotify streams and the game was the fastest selling first-party PS4 title ever. The Poem team also reached New Zealanders living in Australia, encouraging them to use their vote with a cheeky ‘Meddle in the New Zealand election’ campaign via PR, social, and OOH, helping to achieve the highest turnout of overseas voters on record, with a 42% increase in overseas residents voting.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
Vuki Vujasinovic founded Australian firm Sling & Stone in a shared office 11 years ago with just one client and a compelling positioning as the agency that would “unearth, craft, and share the stories of the most ambitious brands shaping the future.” Sling & Stone doubled in size through each of its first five years and is now one of the biggest independents in Australia, with no external funding, and offices in the US and Asia.
Sling & Stone has three offices in Sydney, Auckland and Los Angeles and is adding a fourth in Singapore.
In 2020, the agency grew in mid-double-digits, and from January 2020 until June 2021 it won 90 new clients – with 95% of leads through word-of-mouth recommendation – including Levi’s, Getty Images, Hinge and Squarespace, who joined long-standing clients on the agency’s roster including Kogan.com, Google, Stripe, Twitter and Uber. In 2020, 46% of Sling & Stone’s campaigns included integrated services, such as social media, influencer marketing, paid or earned content, activations, and 18 clients worked with the agency in multiple markets, fuelling its international growth. Client NPS in December 2020 was an impressive 74.
Vujasinovic is supported by a management team including global general manager Kya de Rome, global head of consumer Kasi Reynolds, global head of business James Hutchinson, and NZ lead Sian Church. The agency now has a team of 69 across its offices and of its 12 leadership roles, seven are women. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Sling & Stone made no redundancies, and there were no agency-wide pay cuts, furloughs, reduced working weeks, or forced leave. The agency’s culture is defined by its values – “gumption, build, tune-in and play” – which are used to make decisions about every area of the business. This year the agency committed to doing everything possible to ensure it was continuing to build and nurture a diverse and inclusive team. This included setting up a DE&I taskforce, investing in a new recruitment and onboarding platform to remove biases in hiring; and more support for parents returning to work. The team is encouraged to participate in movements and causes that will improve how they work, live and play, from inviting Aboriginal elders to talk about why the ‘change the date’ movement holds so much significance for Indigenous Australians, to donating to Black Lives Matter charities and encouraging staff to attend marches and rallies, including the climate strike in Sydney.
Stand-out work over the year included the agency’s work for virtual cycling app Zwift to grow its awareness amongst cycling enthusiasts and shift it out of the cycling trades into the mainstream press, resulting in a year-on-year growth in subscriptions and smart trainers selling out across the region. Sling & Stone also helped QT Hotels & Resorts navigate opening its third New Zealand hotel during a pandemic, resulting in 10% more occupancy than other Auckland hotels, and took Australia’s first plant-based meat startup, V2foods, to a Series A and B funded company. Last year, after looking at more than 20 scoping tools and finding that nothing quite fitted the way it works with clients, the agency decided to build its own. The Sling & Stone scoping platform launched in 2020 and is already driving efficiency, speed, and helping to manage service levels while maximising results for clients.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
Acquired by global agency WE in 2016, WE has expanded its offering to impressive effect under the leadership of Rebecca Wilson, who also oversees Singapore for the independent agency network. That diversification has seen WE evolve beyond its corporate and financial heartland, into consumer, technology and healthcare, with a particularly strong digital, experience and technology (DXT) team that accounts for one third of its overall billings.
Headquartered in Melbourne, WE also operates a Sydney office, with 50+ staffers spread across the two locations.
While revenues dipped by around 5% to US$5.5m, WE’s consistent performance and 2021 rebound reflect the firm’s impressive pedigree. Specifically, WE expanded its key Adobe account beyond social/digital to an integrated assignment that includes PR, while there were also new integrated mandates for Janssen, J&J and AstraZeneca — all three of which demonstrate the firm’s burgeoning healthcare credentials. An uptick in issues management activity helped compensate for the consumer downturn, with new business also including such names as Wilson Security, Hearing Australia, Lilly, Trajan, Wise and SensenNetworks. They join an existing client roster that features Alcidion, Allianz, Amart Furniture, Bayer, Icon Group, and NGS Super.
Wilson is supported by MD Dan Woods, appointed earlier this year, while the leadership team also includes
GM and technology head Nat Bradford, health innovation EVP Gemma Hudson, and DXT head Nichole Provotas. In addition, Remy LeFevre oversees consumer/creative and Libby Woolnough leads corporate affairs. WE’s response to the pandemic, meanwhile, reflected the very best of its independent ownership — with no job cuts or furloughs combining with significantly elevated mental health support and DE&I training.
WE’s Adobe work continues to make waves, this time focusing on the client’s cloud product. For Wilson Security, WE handled a high-profile hotel quarantine inquiry and there were also laudable efforts for Hearing Australia (driving people to get their hearing checked) and Janssen (encouraging people to visit their GPs again).
— Arun Sudhaman
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