2021 Digital Consultancies of the Year | PRovoke

2021 Digital PR Consultancies of the Year

The 2021 EMEA PR Consultancies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 200 submissions and meetings with the best PR firms across the UK, Europe the Middle East and Africa. Analysis of each of the finalists across 20 geographic and specialist categories can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or below. Winners were unveiled at the 2021 EMEA SABRE Awards on 9 June.

You can find the 2021 SABRE Awards EMEA winners here.

Winner: Coolr (UK/Independent)

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Adam Clyne, former EMEA digital chief at Weber Shandwick and LADbible COO, founded Coolr in 2017 as a new breed of digital agency, bringing together big agency thinking with the speed and agility of a social publishing platform. Clyne’s mission is to transform brands through social, inside and out, by helping brands find new ways to engage audiences. Completely plugged into popular culture, the agency is often behind the most talked-about campaigns and creating work that trends regularly on social and generates worldwide editorial cut through. The agency recently launched content agency Coolr Studios in beta mode to serve existing clients with social-first content. 

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Coolr is based in London.

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Despite many of its food and drink and automotive clients freezing overnight as lockdown hit, Coolr got back up after a few weeks of trauma, wiped its face and cracked on: fee income for its financial year to March ended up 20% up and Q3 was the strongest quarter in the agency’s four-year history. The team of digital strategists, developers and creators, from backgrounds spanning publishing, communications, content and tech, grew by 40% over the year to 30. The team continued its stand-out work as Burger King UK’s social media agency of record, and is also the social agency for Twinings and The Follicular Lymphoma Foundation. It handles digital internal communications for Bridgestone, the Telegraph Media Group and Savills Property Management, and is the global partner of Soho House for Workplace from Facebook (for which it was the first EMEA official partner). New clients included a global brief for Rockstar Energy Drinks, UK social ads for Heineken and Strongbow and social, digital and influencer briefs for other household-name food, drink and technology brands in the UK, across Europe, and globally.

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Coolr’s biggest challenge over the year was how to keep the team happy, healthy and motivated in the midst of a pandemic which left everyone facing personal challenges. It helped that the agency was able to seamlessly transition to home working: it had already been trialling working at home on Fridays and its longstanding partnership with Workplace from Facebook helped everyone feel connected. It introduced a number of activities, from daily whole-agency calls, Zoom quizzes, Instagram takeovers, Spotify playlists and TikTok fun, to lockdown cooking sessions, Tarot readings, virtual Friday get-togethers, sending out regular care packages of treats, and a wellbeing fund for everyone to take out a health or mental health app subscription. The Coolr team is a diverse group from a religious, sexuality and ethnicity perspective: 16% are Black, Asian or mixed ethnicity, and 25% identify as being from a non-Christian faith. The agency works with recruiters and the Taylor Bennett Foundation to fill vacancies, and requires 30% of candidates to be from a diverse background.

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Coolr led the UK roll out of two of the year’s most talked-about brand campaigns on social. ‘Order From McDonald’s’, a tweet which encouraged Burger King customers to buy from any food outlet to keep the hospitality industry going through lockdown became its second most engaged tweet to date, attracting 11.2 million impressions. And the #WhopperAndFriends campaign supported small independent businesses across the UK by lending them Burger King UK’s Instagram account, complete with a ready-made community of 30,000. Coolr featured more than 120 independent restaurants from across the country, driving total impressions of 27.8 million. As the social agency of record for new charity Nurse Heroes, Coolr built and executed a 360-degree social and digital plan, reaching millions via a Facebook Livestream and helping raise more than $500,000.

Maja Pawinska Sims



Finalists

Brands2Life (UK/Independent)

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Fiercely independent Brands2Life was named as one of PRovoke’s EMEA Agencies of the Decade in 2020 as it celebrated its 20th birthday. The agency is still led by the formidable duo of founders Giles Fraser and Sarah Scales, who both left H+K to start their own firm, but has moved well beyond its B2B technology roots. Brands2Life has kept up with rapid change in the tech sector and now positions itself as “the agency for the brands transforming our world”, with one of the biggest portfolios of technology companies and brands using technology to transform their industries in Europe, and most of its work now digital. It has expertise in AI, fintech, healthtech, cleantech and security, and has evolved into a full-service agency with clients in business services, energy, financial services, health and wellbeing and retail and leisure. 

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The agency is based in London, with offices in San Francisco and New York. It also runs a network of like-minded independent agencies in 17 countries around the world to support global clients.

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After an unbroken two-decade streak of growth, 2020 was, unsurprisingly, a tougher year for Brands2Life, which shrank for the first time by 5%, with income just under $21 million. Over the past six months, however, the agency is roaring back, with 30 hires either completed or in the pipeline since October to join its 140-strong global team. It saw growth in social strategy, health and wellbeing, fintech, influencer engagement, film and podcast, and public affairs: its new paid social offer has already added $250,000 in income, and a new lockdown-compliant film production capability doubled revenue. Brands2Life has an enviable client roster including digital leaders, industry disruptors, purpose-led brands and B2B and consumer players. Wins in 2020 included HRA Pharma, joining Tetrapak, Ricoh, Vodafone, Qlik, LinkedIn, Lundbeck, VMware and Hologic on the client roster.

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Brands2Life has zero gender pay gap and its board is 56% female. In 2020, the agency set up a SE&I taskforce and is striving to be an anti-racist, anti-discrimination organisation: DE&I is now on every board agenda and the agency is made up of 12.5% Black and ethnic minority employees, rising to 22% on the board. As the pandemic hit the agency stepped up its “You at Brands2Life” benefits package, covering health and wellbeing – everything from sugar addiction to breathwork – volunteering, sustainability initiatives, training, parental support, working environment, socials and treats (including a gospel choir at Christmas, a guest appearance from David Hasselhoff at the company awards, and sending everyone hot water bottles and hot chocolate), and extending its ‘life loans’ scheme to cover home comforts. Senior hires included head of social strategy Sophie Crossley, and Will Campbell was promoted to lead the new fintech division, which brought in $1 million. Last summer, Brands2Life changed its ownership structure, with an Employee Owned Trust (EOT) acquiring a majority of the shares for the agency’s staff across the UK and the US.

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Thought leadership included Walk the Talk, a global consumer survey looking at how the behaviour of companies affects whether people buy from brands, 24 thought-leadership papers, webinars and the agency’s biggest ever Tech Trends event with over 400 delegates. Standout work included bringing emotion to LinkedIn by creating the Changemakers campaign with B2B influencers to champion D&I, mental health, sustainability, disability & flexible working. The campaign saw a 13-20 point uplift in LinkedIn brand metrics around community and trust. The team also ran a Planet Positive public affairs, media relations, creative content and social influencer campaign for Tetrapak; encouraging women to go for their breast screening despite Covid; and quickly pivoting Ricoh to a digital services brand with a campaign that led to $250 million in new business leads.

Maja Pawinska Sims

Ready10 (UK/Independent) 

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Five years ago, Ready10 opened for business with a mission: to deliver best-in-class PR that answers digital objectives as well as brand ones. Clearly, that service is just what the market needed, with Ready10 going from an empty client roster to working with the likes of McDonald’s, Flora. Paddy Power and MoneySuperMarket. 

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Ready10 is based in London. 

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Ready10 has been on an extraordinary growth trajectory since its launch, a rapid rise interrupted only by the Covid pandemic — and temporarily at that. At the time the pandemic hit, Ready10 year-on-year growth was 68%, its margin was 21% and, while 2020 was tough, the firm weathered it well — no job cuts, furloughs, or pay cuts. The firm turned a profit, resulting in all employees getting their annual bonuses. Recovery was swift, too; February 2021 was the best month in the company’s history. New business wins came from Flora, Itch Petcare, Innis & Gunn, Saxo Bank, BigDug and Mindful Chef, which join Ready10’s existing clients such as McDonald’s, Paddy Power, MoneySuperMarket and AXA. Kate Addy, a roughly 20-year industry vet, joined Ready10 last year as a director, and bolstered its digital team with two new hires.

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Ready10 invests tens of thousands of pounds every year in culture, development, and training. The firm’s management board is 75% female, and 20% of staff members are minorities. The agency recently was awarded the Blueprint mark, an honor for UK agencies promoting racial diversity in the communications industry. The firm, however, still actively pursues boosting diversity with a multi-step plan that includes a requirement that to recruiters helping to fill any job put forward at least one candidate from a diverse background for interview. Under founder and managing director David Fraser, Ready10 leaders also committed to keeping its 24-person team together despite Covid — and they did, even paying bonuses on schedule. The firm promoted the idea of employees helping each during the pandemic, as well as brands and organizations that were providing community assistance. Ready10 worked pro bono for the Red Cross, Just Park, Trouva and others. 

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Ready10’s pro bono work for organizations providing community assistance during the pandemic that it gave rise to a new business arm, called Ready to Help. Ready10 helped JustPark connect NHS workers with free parking spaces near hospitals. Work for the Red Cross supported its effort to help high-risk individuals get access to contact-free supermarket shopping. Assistance for the hospitality industry included the Invisible Xmas Party initiative, which called on agencies to donate their holiday party fund to the charity Hospitality Action. Client campaigns included launching McDonald's Free Fries Friday promotion on their App, complete with England Rugby star Joe Marler showing that he’s crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside - just like a McDonald’s fry. When plastics manufacturer Plastock wanted to spark conversation about the ‘new normal’ at the end of lockdown, Ready10 created the Tube Tube, a 360-degree upper body shield for nervous commuters. 

Diana Marszalek

Weber Shandwick (IPG Dxtra) 

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The world’s largest publicly-held PR agency, Weber Shandwick has been a force in EMEA since its formation 20 years ago. And while the firm has strength in all the traditional areas (corporate reputation and brand-building, healthcare and technology), its investment in digital and social has made it a front-runner among the large full-service firms when it comes to new technologies and channels. Most notably its acquisitions of mobile specialist Flipside (2016) and social specialist That Lot (2018) have given it resources few of its competitors can match.

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Weber Shandwick is a top three PR agency in the UK market, its largest operation in EMEA, but is among the market leaders in the Nordics (where it continues to operate as Prime Weber Shandwick, having acquired the leading local independent seven years ago); Germany (where it recently broke into the top 10); the Middle East and Africa. It has strong digital and creative capabilities in all of those markets.

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Weber Shandwick’s EMEA operations followed a similar trajectory to the industry as a whole last year, with fees down in the mid-single digits—a sharp decline in Q2 followed by a steady recovery in 2020’s final few months. But some of the secondary metrics were impressive—the firm’s top 10 clients grew by 30%, and it retained all but one of the top 20—and there was growth in some key sectors (healthcare) and practice areas (corporate and public affairs, sustainability) as well as in digital and content creation and employee communications and change management. Much of the new work came from clients taking advantage of the full Weber Shandwick “ecosystem”: Novasrtis drawing on Flipside, That Lot and United Minds; HSBC and the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board taking advantage of That Lot and Flipside; ebay working with That Lot; Tinder connecting with Flipside.

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Internally and externally, Weber Shandwick has been communicating a “we solve” positioning that was nicely in tune with what clients wanted to hear in 2020. That approach has been accompanied by cultural changes facilitating cooperation and collaboration between offices and practices and the firm’s “ecosystem,” which includes subsidiaries such as Flipside, That Lot, KRC Research, and consulting unit United Minds—providing integrated solutions to complex challenges. The firm also redoubled its efforts on diversity and inclusion, pledging both improved hiring and a commitment to broader social change, and it responded to the long-term implications of the various lockdowns with a new, flexible approach to work-from-home.

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With 160 designers and content creators and nine studios across the region, Weber Shandwick (and That Lot and Flipside) offers strong creative capabilities. In Germany, the digital team switched Deutsche Telekom’s sports programming to remote production overnight, without missing an episode and created a virtual event to launch oppo in after travel restrictions were imposed. Elsewhere the firm helped Lifebuoy capture all ge things children touch in a day to promote the hand-washing message; drew on it digital expertise to help Airwick demonstrate the first smart home fragrance device; developed content for GSK’s campaign to take the “sore” out of coldsore; and supported the UN’s efforts to combat Covid-19 misinformation. There were new products too, from Conference+, which helped healthcare clients move to virtual events, to a new tool designed to measure the impact of sustainability activities on reputation.

Paul Holmes