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Our EMEA Network of the Year in four of the past five years, it came as little surprise when Hill+Knowlton Strategies was crowned EMEA Consultancy of the Decade last year, recognising a remarkably consistent level of performance from the WPP firm across its extensive regional footprint. Poland CEO Grzegorz Szczepanski leads the firm’s Central and Eastern European hub from Warsaw, where there are 54 H+K executives, with strength across all sectors and a specific focus on using behavioural science and creativity to drive outcomes.
Poland forms the fulcrum of H+K’s EMEA presence, overseeing more than 30 affiliates in the sub-region from Warsaw.
Revenues were flat in 2020 for H+K Poland, an impressive performance (the market declined 10%) that saw it move up one spot to rank as the country’s second biggest PR firm. The blue-chip client list — Facebook, Spotify, Shell, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Heineken, Huawei — helps, as did new business from Comirnaty (becoming its biggest client), Janssen, Westinghouse and Bridgestone.
Szczepanski’s leadership team is 60% female, and includes new hire Zofia-Smelka Leszczynska, who joined as chief creative strategist to oversee its behavioural science offering. There has also been an elevated focus on employee culture and safety, including a hybrid working model, mental health support, greater investment in professional development and zero salary cuts. The firm benefits from H+K’s extensive regional training and development initiatives.
H+K’s focus on behavioural science is particularly evident in Poland, where it launched a new Habits+ offering in response to the pandemic, operating in conjunction with its creative studio. Templates were tested on focus groups, with the most effective made available for free and taken up by 50+ companies. Szczepanski himself introduced a new ethics code for Poland’s PR industry, which has been adopted by many of his peers in the market. In terms of the work, there were key Covid-19 campaigns for Biedronka-Jeronimo Martins.
— Arun Sudhaman
Grayling owns more offices in Central and Eastern Europe than any other agency group, and its Warsaw office is one of the jewels in its regional crown. Its triple focus across the region is on public affairs, corporate and consumer work for clients. Grayling’s efforts to strengthen connections between all its offices included elevating Ben Petter, previously head of central and Eastern Europe, to European COO, based out of the Prague office, which has already had a stark impact on the way the entire business is run.
Grayling has 26 wholly-owned offices across Europe, including in Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine, plus affiliates in Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and North Macedonia.
Overall, Grayling achieved 4.8% growth in EMEA-wide income in 2020 and maintained a staff network of more than 400 people throughout the pandemic, ending the year with a 4% growth in employee numbers. Grayling’s Central and Eastern Europe operation has consistently delivered strong results and grew by 11% last year, with 30% growth in Poland. It’s a competitive region, but Grayling’s broad focus, from consumer PR to public affairs, was its strength last year. Public affairs made up 40% of the business in the region, but the agency also won plenty of integrated consumer work, including Primark and TikTok in Poland, where the Warsaw office has become a strong hub for the region.
In 2020, Grayling made its biggest-ever commitment to agency-wide cultural initiatives to ensure that Grayling staff worldwide feel more connected to each other and the business, and that best practice and local understanding is shared seamlessly across markets. Grayling’s priority over the past 12 months has been employee wellbeing and doing all it could to keep staff motivated and happy, including extra support for working parents, ensuring home working set-ups were comfortable, taking its Eat. Move. Mind. &Sleep. programme virtual to give employees resources to cope with stress, as well as hosting virtual socials. The agency is also committed to recruiting more diverse talent, supporting underrepresented communities and nurturing an inclusive culture, including the rollout of a D&I taskforce, and extensive global D&I training programme and a client charter.
Grayling’s work with AstraZeneca is a great example of how it works as a network across Central and Eastern Europe. The relationship with the pharma giant started as public affairs work in Russia when the vaccine programme started, then moved into frontline media relations and crisis management, spreading fast into the Czech Republic and Croatia. And when one of Lego’s only five factories in the world was closed in Mexico overnight by the government, Grayling worked with its factories in the Czech Republic and Hungary to ensure they were kept open.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
M3 Communications’ roots are humble ones, dating back to 1994, when Maxim Behar launched the firm in a small flat in downtown Sofia. In the years since, M3 has grown into one of Bulgaria’s top three PR firms, offering an uncommonly diverse range of communications services — including PR and public affairs, graphic design, media monitoring, event planning, branding, web development and education. Still solely owned by Behar (who serves as CEO and chairman), M3 is has been a Hill+Knowlton Strategies partner since 2000 and maintains its focus on serving the Bulgarian and Central European markets.
M3 Communications is headquartered in Sofia, Bulgaria and does work in Poland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Romania, and Armenia.
M3 capped 2020 with seven new clients, adding Huawei, Pernod Ricard, International Red Cross, Foreo, Gilat Satellite Networks, PharmaLex and Euronet to an impressive list of existing clients including Shell, L’Oréal, Mars, Danone, Wizz Air, FedEx, Accor Hotels, Turkish Airlines, European Commission and Facebook. In turn, the firm last year saw a lift in fee income, which rose more than 10% to €1.7 million from €1.5 million in 2019. Head count was up by three to 48.
When Covid forced M3 to go remote last year, the firm thwarted the threat of employees becoming disengaged by giving them even more reason to care about, and be invested in, their work. In a swift restructuring, M3 crowned all of its employees leaders, making them responsible for managing their clients as well as, for the most part, their on-the-job selves. In January of this year, M3 became the first communications agency in Bulgaria to earn a government Employer Without Discrimination certificate. In September, M3 helped launch the Bulgarian Diversity Charter, which enables supporters to share experiences and best practices with their counterparts in 24 EU countries that have also adopted diversity charters.
When Covid-19 shutdowns sent business reeling in March 2020 — making for some very uncertain futures — M3 stepped out to help Bulgarian companies beyond clients by launching a free media monitoring service, designed to tap, and share, information about the coronavirus with organizations. Experts from HeadLine, an M3 company that monitors and analyses media, provided companies with daily reports including up-to-date information on the pandemic, measures being taken and business-related news. M3 continued to be a prolific creator of impactful campaigns in 2020, with the most notable including a year-long campaign aimed at raising awareness of consumer rights among millennials, part of a larger European Commission initiative, and gleaning widespread attention for the trans-Atlantic journey a Bulgarian father and son made in a boat they built themselves.
— Diana Marszalek
PRovoke’s 2020 Central & Eastern European Consultancy of the Year, United Partners started out in 1997 as a pioneer of PR in the Bulgarian market and remains one of the most innovative firms in the region. With the goal of being the ‘Tesla of the communications industry,’ UP is committed to taking PR to the next level, exemplified by the firm’s robust program of continually creating and testing new tools. Rather than cave to Covid, UP in 2020 pursued new means of growth, including launching a new regional agency network, while never losing sight of its steadfast goal: helping people make better choices that lead to better lives. The firm’s 23-year partnership with P&G is a testament to the firm getting it right.
United Partners is based in Sofia, Bulgaria, and does work across Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, Malta, Israel, and Gulf countries through its network of partner agencies.
In 2020, United Partners registered €1.3 million in fee income, with a 26-person team supporting consumer, tech, healthcare, corporate and public affairs clients. New business came from SAAB Technologies CEE, Biogen (GULF), Janssen, Unicef, WWF, the ministry of environment, Calvin Klein, BS, Old Spice and Nespresso. Key existing clients include P&G (a 23-year partner), P&G, VMware, ABBVIE, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, and Paysafe.
In midst of the pandemic, UP made a priority of building the kind of corporate culture that would attract — and keep — top-tier talent. That translated into efforts like weekly staff calls to discuss life versus work and making a psychologist available as needed. A new cloud based OKR platform allows every team member to see his or her path to growth within the agency. Promoting ICT practice leader to head of operations and culture cemented the effort. CEO and founder Maria Gergova-Bengtsson continues driving the agency forward, with the help of strategist George Ivanov and finance head Victor Savkin.
In a year during which business, for many, contracted, UP used 2020 to double down on providing the services and quality of work that not only meets client expectations, but pushes the boundaries of traditional PR. The firm started producing video content and podcasts and took a major step toward international expansion by launching its very own agency network. United Partners has always taken its own thought leadership seriously, thanks to a mindset that also sees it working with third party platforms such as Hubspot, Indahash, and Prowly. The year’s highlights including a Unicef campaign targeting corporate donors and helping Paysafe recruit developers through an online game.
— Diana Marszalek
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