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The 2021 Asia-Pacific PR Consultancies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 125 submissions and meetings with the best PR firms across the region.
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:
Former Weber Shandwick EVP Emma Smith launched her own firm (The Consultancy) in 2003, before selling the business to become part of the UK’s MHP Communications in 2013. After smartly concluding that the firm had better prospects as an independent outfit, Smith led an MBO of the business in 2019, creating Sandpiper Communications as a 100% employee owned operation. That move helped unlock considerable growth at a consultancy that focuses squarely on the wealth (asset management, insurance, wealth management, ESG), health (healthcare, healthtech, pharma, wellness) and tech (fintech, enterprise tech, cybersecurity) sectors.
There are now more than 40 employees with around 13 based at the firm’s Hong Kong HQ and a further 30 in its fast-growing Singapore operation. Sydney is a recent addition and Sandpiper also has a small presence in Shanghai.
Sandpiper’s performance since the MBO are as good a reminder as any of the merits of independence. The firm grew revenue by 47% in 2020 to US$3.7m, with its newer healthcare and technology capabilities to the fore. The firm’s key clients reflect its financial and professional services depth (account for almost two-thirds of fee income), including such names as Cigna, Eastspring Investments, Workday, St James’s Place and Refinitiv, along with new business from Munich Re, Peak Re, Affindi/Trustana, Sun Life, Keyestone Properties, Family Office Association of HK and Great Eastern. In terms of healthcare, there were new assignments for BMS Group and Cardinal Health, joining existing clients Zuellig Pharm and Astra Zeneca, while major tech clients include Cisco and Western Digital. Notably, Sandpiper is forecasting $5m in fee income by the end of 2021 which would reflect a further 36% expansion on 2020 — an impressive showing during a period when many firms have struggled.
Smith is very much a hands-on CEO, but the firm owes much of its recent success to an expanded leadership team, which also features chief operating officer Kelly Johnston, Singapore GM Sarada Chellam and Hong Kong GM Natalie Siu. Other key hires include CFO Phil Channon and ex-Huawei UK comms head Ed Brewster. The MBO has not only meant increased ownership and partnership opportunities for Sandpiper staff, but has also ensured increased investment in processes and systems, as the firm builds the infrastructure required of a regional agency network. Recent rapid growth has meant an elevated focus on culture, including training and social events, reflected in Sandpiper’s creditable Best Agencies to Work For showing and strong D&I metrics.
Sandpiper’s focus on ESG has helped to drive revenue, and includes the launch of two dedicated reports, along with a video series. That reflects the increasing attention the firm is paying to thought leadership and product development, which also features a Consumer Expectations Index and Covid-19 Gen-Z survey to coincide with World Mental Health Day. Campaign highlights include the highly-awarded ‘Beast the Asthma Blues’ effort for AstraZeneca, along with Cigna’s Covid-19 response initiative.
— Arun Sudhaman
APCO’s Asia-Pacific presence includes operations across Greater China, India and Southeast Asia, bringing its typically sophisticated corporate and public affairs expertise to a range of clients in ‘issues-rich’ environments. In particular, the firm has benefited from a focus on the healthcare and technology sectors, along with depth in terms of in-demand areas such as geopolitical counsel, social impact and ESG.
There are around 115 fee earners spread across APCO’s Greater China footprint, which includes around 50 in Greater China (Beijing and Shanghai), 15 in Japan, 25 in India and another 28 in Southeast Asia, which includes Singapore and Korea.
Many of the unique challenges posed by 2020 played to APCO’s strengths, so it should not come as a surprise to find that the firm grew in Asia-Pacific to US$12.5m in fee income, powered by specific expansion in Southeast Asia (+25%), Japan (+17%), with sectoral growth favouring healthcare (+19%) and technology (+34%). In healthcare, new business came from Edwards Lifesciences, Sanofi, Hummingbird Bioscience and I-Mab Biopharma, while the technology haul included Dell, HP, Airbnb and Adobe. These join a key client roster that features Dell, Microsoft, ResMed, ASTM International, Lego, Lockheed Martin, International Copper Association, Educational Testing Service and the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries. In Southeast Asia, revenue is driven by a mix of public affairs, corporate and digital/media — helping power 400% growth in the past two years for such clients as Gilead Sciences, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Mars, AdvaMed and I-Mab Biopharma. In Japan, the focus on healthcare and technology netted new business from the Japan Cabinet Office, Eli Lilly, Align Technology and Softbank. In China, all key clients were retained, including Walmart, Charles Schwab, Estee Lauder, Airbnb and AdvaMed, with APCO’s global China business development taskforce helping to provide regulatory counsel at a time of unique geopolitical challenges. And, in India, the firm’s work includes major assignments for the Government of Karnataka and global mandates for homegrown Indian brands.
Leadership is split by market. MD James Yi and deputy MD JJ Lee oversee Southeast Asia and Korea; Rahul Sharma leads India; Masayo Nagai is in charge of Japan; Greater China includes veteran chairman James McGregor, along with COO Anne Wang and Shanghai MD Jeff Astle. The firm has also significantly expanded its international advisory council in Asia-Pacific, adding such names as Richard Burn, John Lin, Dr Chew Suok Kai, Dr Maria Radyati, Fredrik Nyberg and Aida Greenbury. More than two-thirds of APCO’s Asia-Pacific workforce are women, while the voluntary turnover rate is less than 19%, with more than 38% of staff having been with the firm for more than three years.
The firm’s geopolitical expertise is particularly well illustrated by regular insight into China developments, include the daily ReformWatch newsletter and weekly US-China Trade Relations Monitor. The firm’s ‘come back stronger’ strategy, meanwhile, has seen it focus on helping clients rebuild after the pandemic, resulting in some eye-catching campaigns. For World Sleep Day, for example, APCO helped ResMed tackle the an increase in sleep apnea associated with Covid-19. For Lego, the firm developed a multi-country campaign to responsible digital engagement for children. And, for Microsoft, APCO provided strategic counsel around economic recovery policies and stimulus packages in 13 Asian markets.
— Arun Sudhaman
In 2020, India’s First Partners dominated PRovoke Media’s South Asia SABRE Awards, picking up a total of nine trophies including three Diamond SABREs. It was a remarkable feat for the then four-year-old firm, which was launched in 2016 with the very clear purpose of helping leaders solve business problems through communications. The brainchild of industry veterans Atul Ahluwalia (former Weber Shandwick vice chairman) and Dilip Yadav (former Weber Shandwick and Creation managing director), First Partners has that mission built into its operation through its ‘business outcome communications offering’. Given public policy’s impact on business, First Partners’ extension into public affairs was a natural move.
First Partners has offices in India in the key cities of the Delhi National Capital Region, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata. In addition, the firm’s affiliate network enables First Partners to provide services to clients in deeper parts of India, covering 31 cities in total.
In 2020, First Partners grew its advocacy and public affairs revenue by an impressive 115%, and its overall revenue by 20%. The firm is 52-people strong across its offices. That growth was fueled by new business from large organizations including Vedanta Aluminium & Power Business, Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism & Hospitality, Honda Power Products, Hamilton Medical and Ok Credit, which join a client roster already populated by the likes of ITC Limited, Rolls-Royce, Hyundai Motors India, Yamaha India and Takeda Pharmaceuticals.
Since the firm’s inception, founders Atul Ahluwalia, who spearheads creativity and stakeholder relations, and Dilip Yadav, who leads Business Outcome Communication, have built out First Partners’ leadership team by employing top-tier talent with the proven ability to deliver results for clients. They include Santanu Gogoi, also a former Weber Shandwick exec, who joined the firm as a co-founder soon after its launch following the acquisition of his firm Go2Media. Partner Nitin Yadav leads the firm’s advocacy and public policy programmes, and Richa Gopal Shrotriya, also a partner, leads its corporate and healthcare advocacy practices. First Partners’ team is nearly equally split between men and women and all new hires in the last year are women in key senior roles.
First Partners has also built its stature through thought leadership which includes partnering with Reputation Today in producing an annual conclave on innovation. The firm doubled down on its advocacy work during the Covid pandemic, supporting businesses as they navigated government rules and relief. The new clients drawn by those kinds of services — Vedanta’s Aluminium and Power Business and Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism & Hospitality among others — are a testament to First Partners’ expertise in public affairs, which grew by 115% last year. First Partners is a leader in industry discourse on innovation through the Innovation First Communication Conclave it co-founded with Reputation Today; During the pandemic, the annual event was broken into three online Innovation First Salons. First Partners showcase 2020 work includes “WOW — Saving India from 6 Chandigarh Equivalent Landfills,” which mobilized support for ITC Limited’s comprehensive waste management programme to reduce and recycle waste in 10 states. On behalf of the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation, First Partners executed a campaign that questioned barriers around discrimination, particularly 108 laws that stop lepers from being absorbed into the mainstream society. A combination of policy makers outreach, specific engagement with India’s Health Minister, events, digital outreach culminated in Maharashtra repealing 102 anti-leprosy laws and six more states initiating the process.
— Diana Marszalek
SenateSHJ, founded in 2002, bills itself as working on “projects that matter for organisations we respect” and its expertise in complex, high-end strategic communication services such as reputation management, crisis and issues, change communications, ethical healthcare, digital services and social, public affairs and social marketing helps it stand apart from others in the New Zealand and Australian markets.
With a network of offices in major cities throughout Australia and New Zealand, SenateSHJ has become one of Australasia's largest consultancies and, through its membership of the PROI network, also services clients worldwide, including an increasing amount of healthcare work across the Asia-Pacific region.
In a challenging year, SenateSHJ saw revenues dip by about 12% to around $8 million, but the firm continues to work for major corporate and government clients on some of the most high-profile—and challenging—assignments around. Most notably, the firm worked on the New Zealand government’s widley-praised response to the Covid pandemic, and also in the healthcare arena for BUPA and pharma giants Gilead Sciences, Sanofi, Biogen Australia. Other government clients include New South Wales and Victoria state. In addition, the client roster boasts names such as Fuji Xerox, Watercare, Bluescope, CentrePort, Bunnings, New Zealand Steel, and the New Zealand Stock Exchange.
Talent has long been a key differentiator for SenateSHJ—its founders were veterans of the well-respected Porter Novelli partner Turnbull—with founding partner Neil Green supported newly-appointed group managing director Brendon O'Conner, previously a director at PwC Consulting in New Zealand; managing partners in Melbourne and Wellington; and five additional partners, including newcomer Maree Wilson and the newly-promoted Nicki Sambuco. The firm also been a regular on our Best Consultancies to Work For list, an indication of its ability to attract, retain, and develop a new generation of talent.
SenateSHJ is particularly well-regarded for its corporate reputation work, with its licensed Four Rooms of Change methodology gaining traction, and for its crisis management expertise, which has led to its work with several insurance companies providing coverage for cyber-crises in particular. High-profile work includes support for the Office of the Māori King during the occupation of Ihumaatao, near Auckland airport; the #YouCanTalk suicide prevention campaign for a coalition of mental health organizations; and integrated marketing efforts reconnecting the MINI brand with its fans.
— Paul Holmes
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