2021 Public Affairs Consultancies of the Year | PRovoke

2021 Public Affairs 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: Interel Group (Independent)

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Interel nearly doubled in size during the 12-year tenure of Frederik Lofthagen, both growing its base in Brussels—where it was founded—and expanding internationally, most notably through the 2017 acquisition of US advocacy firm Association Management Group in Washington, DC, a move that led to co-headquarters in the US capital and, it appears, a slight loss of focus. So when Lofthagen left the firm in June 2019, the new leadership team — helmed by Gregoire Poisson, former managing director of the EU public affairs practice — was quick to put the focus back on the core business, and Poisson is clear about the firm’s mission: “We want to be the leading European public affairs consultancy,” he says. With 169 new clients in 2020, and fee income up to €13.5 million, the firm has the chance of that coming to fruition.

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Interel is based in Brussels with offices in Paris, London, Berlin, Washington, Delhi, and Beijing.

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Interel had its best financial performance ever in 2020, during which fee income grew to €13.5 million, headcount was up to 114 and the firm won 169 new clients. It’s the kind of progress CEO Grégoire Poisson and COO Geoffrey Ghyoot set into motion when they took over the helm of the company in 2019, launching a growth plan predicated on building a dynamic team, working with clients in high-growth industries and having a strong pan-European presence. Bolstered by its network of indie public affairs firms, IGP, Interel landed new business from Addison Lee, Alpro, Cainiao, Diageo, Lockheed Martin, Reddit, Reckitt Benckiser, ServiceNow, Sherwin-Williams and Xiaomi — which join companies that were already on the roster such as Bristol Myers Squibb, Coca-Cola, Danone, Ecolab, Expedia, GW Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, Netflix, and Pinterest. New hires include Heiko Weiss, who joined as managing director of Interel Germany, and Mario Creatura, who head of digital in the UK.

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Interel has spent the last 12 months investing in its best defense against Covid-19: its people. When the world went virtual, the firm better equipped employees to succeed by providing each one of them training in digital public affairs. Layoffs were averted. And, with calls for diversification getting louder, Interel threw its support behind the Women in Interel Network, or WIN, whose goal is making Interel more diverse. 

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In 2020, Interel doubled down on helping clients survive Covid — and succeed post-pandemic, the latter of which led to the creation of a stimulus package tracker, which identifies special funding for businesses. Interel played a big role in ensuring the Belgian film industry’s survival by crafting a multi-faceted campaign that resulted in government officials reopening the country’s movie houses last July. The agency’s co-crafted Bristol Meyers Squibb’s Blood and Beyond initiative, the aim of which was to raise awareness of the impact of blood transfusion on patients and support networks and healthcare systems, all with the goal of improving patient outcomes through blood management and innovation. 

Diana Marszalek



Finalists

APCO Worldwide (Independent)

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APCO won our 2019 Corporate Consultancy of the Year nod, an indication of the progress its has made expanding beyond its heritage as a pure play public affairs firm, but the truth is that the firm remains one of Europe’s best when it comes to public policy, issues management, and social impact work. Its ability to help clients solve their thorniest public policy challenges is one of the things that sets the firm apart from anyone else of its size and scale. But it has also been on the cutting edge of using digital and social media to achieve those goals.

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APCO’s traditional strength in EMEA is in the region’s twin public affairs capitals of London and Brussels, but the firm has additional operations in several European capitals, including Rome (the Italian operation was the fastest growing in the region last year), Berlin, Paris and Moscow, and is a powerhouse in the Middle East (offices in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Dubai and Riyadh are supplemented by an Istanbul operation and a presence in Tel Aviv).

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To a certain extent, 2020—which threw up a host of challenging issues, from credibly and authentically responding to the Covid pandemic to handling the social issues arising from the murder of George Floyd—really played to APCO’s strengths. As a result, the firm enjoyed healthy 6.4% revenue growth in EMEA, with new assignments from European fresh produce association Freshfel, Roche, Bombardier, the  Global Cement & Concrete Association and more.

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Former EMEA chief executive Brad Staples was elevated to the global role in 2014, and Claire Boussagol has now been leading the European operations for more than five years, alongside Mamoon Sbeih, president of the Middle East and North Africa. But there has been turnover in several key offices in recent years, the latest of which saw  Imad Lahad, one of the leaders of its global digital practice, replace Camilla d’Abo after her short stint at head of the Dubai operation. Other interesting additions in 2020 included Jean Bizet, a former French senator and chairman of the European Affairs Committee, as a special advisor in Paris, and former UK business minister Richard Harrington as non-executive chairman in the UK.

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Not surprisingly, APCO was involved in some high-profile issues in 2020, spearheading content creation for Freshfel as it encourages young Europeans aged 18 to 30 to eat at least 400g of fruit and vegetables per day; providing support to cruise line Costa in Italy and Brussels as it dealt with the fallout from the Covid pandemic; supporting Roche’s global “FutureProofing Healthcare” initiative by assembling panels of health system experts and identifying key indicators of health system performance; and working with Upfield to promote “#ABetterPlantBasedFuture.”

Paul Holmes

BECG (UK/Independent)

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Created in 2017 via the merger of Remarkable Group and HardHat Communications, the Built Environment Communications Group has found and filled its niche as a specialty agency focusing on the many facets and challenges facing clients working to further “the built environment” — the manmade places and spaces such as buildings, parks and transit systems in which people live, play and work. After getting off to a remarkably robust start, the agency four years later is flourishing, drawing clients with expertise in an array of specialties — property, energy and utilities, infrastructure, waste and recycling, environment, and the public sector among them. The draw: BECG knows its stuff. The agency has a firm understanding of the built environment, and important role a better built environment can play in society by creating opportunity, prosperity, and well-being. As a result, BECG is well-positioned to support clients with communications strategies that resonate in that context.

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BECG is based in London and has offices across the UK including Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Norwich, and Southampton.

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Under the watch of founder and CEO Stephen Pomeroy, BECG in 2020 brought in more than £7.8 million in fees, a 20% lift over 2019. The team also grew, rising in number to 77 from 63, an expansion precipitated by new business from Gridlink, Skanska, Anchor Hanover, Pocket Living, Viridor, NHS Property Services, Uniper, Water Resources West, United Utilities and Barchester Healthcare. And that’s on top of clients they already had going into the year including AGS, Flood Re, NeuConnect, Redrow HomesNational Grid, Thrive Homes, Whitbread, British Land, Lifestory and Crest Nicholson.


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BECG puts a premium staff well-being,resulting in the agency’s robust slate of offerings from personalized support to professional development. BECG is also is active in bettering the larger community, supporting three corporate charity partners — The Brain Tumour Charity, the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, and The Murray Parish Trust — as well as the Association of Women in Property, BAME in Property and Planning Out. Staffers are given paid time off to support their charities of choice. 19% of employees are from minority groups across LGBT and BAME. Pomeroy’s fellow co-founder, Andrew Howard, is one of the UK’s leading specialists in the politics of planning and development. James Leavesley joined BECG as social media director after selling his social media management platform, CrowdControlHQ, to the agency.

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As 2020 progressed, BECG heightened its focus on producing thought leadership that would help clients navigate the year’s business challenges. Doing that included commissioning Savanta ComRes to survey UK officials on the impact of Covid-19, which drew both media and government interest. The agency also launched a podcast, hosted, and partnered on 24 webinars and published 62 articles with advice for clients on how to adapt and plan amidst Covid-19. Roughly £500,000 went toward launching placemaking and social value services; adding Borealis to the agency’s our digital offering; ISO 27001 accreditation; and a robust cloud-based IT system. BECG’s impactful FCC Environment (a leading UK recycling and waste management company) resulted in an outpouring of appreciation for collection crews working throughout the pandemic. The agency’s campaign promoting fire safety and trust following one of the biggest recent residential fires won BRCG the ICCO’s 2020 crisis and issues management award. 

Diana Marszalek

Grayling (Huntsworth)

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Grayling has had something of a turnaround over the past couple of years, testament to the leadership of Sarah Scholefield and public affairs supremo Richard Jukes, who were elevated in 2019 from UK CEO and chair respectively to the same roles across Europe, and then in late 2020 became global CEO and chairman, marking a return to global leadership roles at the Huntsworth agency. Grayling strengthened its corporate and public affairs bench in November 2020 with the hire of former Cicero and Weber Shandwick public affairs lead and Sky News political editor Joey Jones as senior counsel, as well as Pete Murray, Arup’s former head of government affairs, and appointing former secretary of state Baroness Nicky Morgan to its advisory board in September. The agency is also upping its focus on creativity across all its areas of work, extending its creative function, Ignite, into a global creative studio.

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In the UK, Grayling has a regional network of nine offices. Across Continental Europe, it has 17 wholly-owned offices in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Ukraine, plus affiliates in 15 other countries. It also has affiliates across the Middle East and Africa. 

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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 on the previous year. Public affairs was a particular strength in Central and Eastern Europe, where it made up 40% of the business. New clients across the region included Badoo, TikTok, Netflix, Tetrapak, AstraZeneca, Cathedral City, Uber, Five Guys and Lego, who joined Visa, Marks & Spencer, Huawei, easyJet Holidays, eBay, National Grid, Diageo and Lloyds Banking Group on the agency’s roster.

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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, extensive global D&I training programme, a client charter, and partnerships with the Taylor Bennett Foundation and PinkNews.

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New offers over the past 12 months include Metis, Grayling’s media and political risk service, which uses advanced digital forensics and senior consultants to help businesses increase resilience. Specialist stakeholder engagement team, Engage launched its new virtual engagement offering, EngageOnline to facilitate online consultation programmes. The public affairs team sent daily Covid and Brexit briefings, and events included a Brexit event with trade and competition expert Shanker Singham. Notable public affairs client work included working with Badoo on the Online Harms Bill.

Maja Pawinska Sims

Incisive Health (Brussels/UDG Healthcare)

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Seeing opportunity in the EU, London’s Incisive Health in 2017 opened a Brussels branch, which it staffed up with multilingual healthcare and public affairs specialists well-skilled in breaking through regulatory red tape, growing companies’ reputations, and improving patients’ lives. Less than four years later, Incisive Belgium (which is part of UDG Healthcare’s Ashfield Health, as is its UK mothership) is a full-blown, 14-person team whose revenue doubled in 2020. The firm’s success in advocating, mobilizing, and delivering results for clients — all through custom-made programs and methodologies — has established Incisive as a major EU player in healthcare communications and public affairs. 

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Incisive Heath Belgium operates out of its Brussels headquarters.

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2020 was a banner year for Incisive Belgium, during which revenue rose 100% to €2 million. The agency’s staff grew from eight to 14. The surge in business came from new clients including European Brain Council (EBC), Galapagos, Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT), MedTech Europe, Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association (PPTA), Roche Diagnostics and Vifor. Equally impressive is the range of companies Incisive already had going into 2020 — Astellas, Edwards Lifesciences, European Federation of Neurological Associations (EFNA), European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), MSD, Norgine, Roche and Stryker among them.

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Between business surging, and the Covid eradicating any sense of normalcy, Incisive Belgium doubled down on helping staff, including newcomers, get through it all successfully. Through discussions, employee surveys and trial-and-error, the agency devised and implemented a new work model that promotes both flexibility and collaboration. Increased support for new hires eased onboarding. Incisive has a big-picture view of diversity that covers the full range of individual differences beyond gender, race, and sexual orientation — adding age, education, geographic origin, family status, profession, culture, religion, personal style, and ability to the mix. Leaders are charged with attracting, retaining and growing individuals from diverse backgrounds. Managing director Francesca Scassellati Sforzolini launched and heads the office; Agnes Brandt and Aurélie Marchand (who joined last year) are associate directors.

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Incisive’s most impactful 2020 work includes the Let’s Talk Prostate Cancer campaign backed by Astellas, which included articles, position papers, a digital atlas that provides an overview of prostate cancer outcomes across the EU and UK, and meetings with policymakers — all to make addressing prostate cancer a bigger priority. For the European Cancer Patient Coalition, Incisive created the European Parliament Challenge Cancer Intergroup, a high-profile virtual conference that drew more than 370 attendees from across Europe. A multi-faceted awareness campaign for the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association spurred plasma donation across the continent. 

Diana Marszalek