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There can’t be many PR agencies that have led global PR for a brand as it becomes a verb in real time, but 20-year-old technology specialist Hotwire’s work with Zoom as it became the default term for jumping on a video call in the year we all lived, worked and played on video calls made it one of the most noteworthy firms of the year. Hotwire has been a pure tech PR agency since its inception, covering all aspects of communications, branding and digital marketing for some of the world’s biggest and most innovative technology brands, across consumer tech, enterprise tech, industrial tech, marketing and ad tech, fintech, retail and leisure tech and software and services.
As well as its four US offices, Hotwire operates across EMEA in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Hotwire’s revenue across the UK and Continental Europe totalled just short of £21.5 million last year, against $17.7 million in the US. The UK operation managed to remain relatively flat, while Continental Europe grew by 16% – with Spain growing by 20%. The agency’s global win rate for pitches was 52%, and growth over the year was 64% organic and 36% revenue from new clients. The much-envied Zoom account started as a relatively small brief in the UK and Germany in February last year, before the pandemic hit and Zoom asked Hotwire to turn on PR overnight in 14 countries and manage 19 worldwide, working closely with The Hoffman Agency in Asia. Other new wins over the year included Klarna, Snapchat, Twitch and eBay, joining Amazon, Atlassian, Citrix, Eaton, Facebook, McAfee and Qualcomm on the global client roster.
Hotwire has turned around its culture in recent years and under CEO Barbara Bates’ very human leadership, mental health and wellbeing had become a priority even before the pandemic. This focus on its people proved to be a shining light throughout the toughest of years. In its 2020 employee survey, 93% said they were confident in support around wellbeing. In addition, the number of employees who understand the firm’s vision and strategy jumped from 73% in 2019 to 95% globally; Germany was at 56%, and rose to 95%. Its client survey also found that 90% were satisfied and 90% would recommend the agency. For its annual (virtual) bootcamp, Hotwire had speakers such as Shola Kaye, a global expert in empathy at work. Given its global footprint, the agency has brought in DE&I consultants to ensure its approach is right for each country.
As well as its Zoom activation, standout work in EMEA over the year included Hotwire’s work for Klarna, which landed in Spain in the summer of 2020 and relied on Hotwire for its launch. The agency increased brand recognition among Spanish consumers and Klarna’s reputation in the retail sector as an innovative payment solution through an online roundtable attended by major fashion and trend media outlets including Vogue. In terms of thought leadership, Hotwire continued its series about what makes Generation Alpha tick with its third report, on racial and ethnic diversity. And the agency rolled out the Hotwire Way, its new vision and values pathway, supported with Sandler leadership and management training around better strategic consultancy.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
Until last year, AxiCom had been one of WPP’s best kept secrets. The 26-year-old specialist technology agency went into lockdown still reeling from the sudden death of much-loved European president Henry Brake in February, but has flourished in the wake of this double shock. This is undoubtedly thanks to a strong team of women at the top, including the thoughtful, rigorous and very human leadership of longtime AxiCom staffer and now European president, Kate Stevens. AxiCom works with technology firms of all flavours, from industry giants to disruptors, to help them stand out in a world where every business now has a technology story to tell, and its sector experts cover consumer tech, telecoms, enterprise tech, media tech and business services.
As well as its US office in San Francisco, AxiCom operates in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.
AxiCom’s revenue for 2020 was 6% down on 2019, partly thanks to a number of client partnerships coming to an end early in the year, separately from the pandemic. Margins remain high, however, and after 23 new clients in the whole of 2020, the team has already won 24 across the firm in Q1, putting it back on track. There were no job losses or staff put on furlough last year, and in total AxiCom has just over 100 people across Europe. It has longstanding partnerships with many clients – who include Kaspersky, Belkin, Lexmark, HMD Global, Orange and Kantar – with some having been retained for more than five years. In the past 12 months across EMEA the agency has started work with a number of high-profile telecoms, security, apps, entertainment, software and hardware companies, including Honor in Germany, and is Nokia’s global agency of record. The agency recently agency appointed its first creative director, Frank’s Graeme Anthony, as part of a new focus on B2B creativity.
AxiCom views itself as a family, and many of its staffers have been around for well over 10 years. The strong, compassionate culture and leadership that meant it survived Brake’s death is now also helping it to thrive. After Stevens’ elevation, Nick Head stepped into the role of European MD and former Huawei and TomTom comms lead Rosie Bannister joined as UK managing director. At the same time, the US team was boosted with the arrival of Katie Huang Shin from WE. Other senior EMEA hires included former H+K director Robert Roessler, who joined as director of enterprise technology. The agency has a single-digit gender pay gap and, unusually for a tech business, most of its country leaders are women. AxiCom has also been proactive in challenging bias over the past year, using a D&I consultant, adding unconscious bias training to the onboarding process, and stress-testing the language used in job ads.
Stand-out campaigns in 2020 included AxiCom’s work for HMD Global, the home of Nokia phones, when its planned launch of four mobile phone at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2020 and a partnership with James Bond’s 25th film, No Time to Die, was cancelled. With two weeks to go, the team reimagined a virtual global launch: an intimate video shot in Nokia’s Finnish homeland that brought audiences closer to the people behind the technology. The live YouTube launch received six million views and over 4,200 articles worldwide. The team also helped Kantar break through the onslaught of Covid-19 coverage with a stream of fresh, human stories that gave it the biggest share of voice of any research company in the world; a single piece of coverage on BBC News directly resulted in new business for Kantar worth over six figures. As well as investing in insight platform Gartner and Forrester, AxiCom last year launched a downloadable guide to PR measurement.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
Technology heavyweight Harvard was founded 42 years ago as a technology PR and marketing specialist working with consumer and B2B technology brands. Part of the Chime Group, its sister agency is Method in North America. Harvard remains 100% focused on working with clients who have a technology story to tell, from helping them navigate reputational challenges, to finding new, creative ways to reach an increasingly broad audience. This year, the agency plans to enhance its corporate offering, add IPO comms and introduce a new creative approach. The agency restructured its senior leadership team during the year, including a new structure for PR, bringing in a new strategic media team; the addition of Andrew Last from Earnest to lead the marketing division; and bringing creative, planning and client services teams together for the first time. In March, chief executive Louie St Claire – who has led the firm for a decade – became non-executive chairman, while Ellie Thompson, MD of the Harvard PR business, steps up into the CEO role.
Harvard is headquartered in London.
Harvard had its tenth consecutive year of growth in 2020. Revenue was up 1.6% to £7.55 million, with EBITDA increasing by 5.6% to £1.55 million, giving the firm a margin of just over 20%. Staff numbers grew from 76 to 81. Client wins included iRobot, OPPO, Bloomberg, BCG Platinion, SAP Concur, Tanium, HyperJar, Smart DCC, as well as a major broadcast firm and a telecoms giant, all of which joined Vodafone, Cisco, Square, Workplace from Facebook, Bloomreach, Yext, Veeam, Dropbox, Mendix on Harvard’s client roster. Overall, the firm won 20 new clients in 2020.
In 2020, Harvard completely overhauled its diversity and inclusion approach, people and new business strategies. It paid off: as one of the first handful of agencies to achieve Blueprint Ally status in 2020, Harvard is ahead of the pack where DE&I is concerned. The firm’s vision is to create an inclusive environment where employees from every background feels safe, inspired and free to make their mark and reach their potential. This includes using transforming the way it recruits by using the Hidden app to remove bias, ensure blind recruitment and drive a panel approach to fulfilling roles, along with consistent interview questioning. The agency also gathered its first set of D&I data to set targets, strengthened its relationship with the Taylor Bennett Foundation, formed an advisory group of Black and ethnic minority employees, reported its gender pay gap, collected D&I statements from suppliers, and wrote a new client charter to set expectations around diversity. Over the year, the agency had a 91% employee retention rate, and achieved an NPS score of 8.0/10 for employees who would recommend the agency as a great place to work.
Campaign highlights included helping iRobot announce Alexa and Google Home integration with its Roomba robot vacuum with a Just Say Clean playlist on Spotify; bringing Square’s contactless card technology to small businesses in the Falkland Islands, transforming its cash-based economy; Bloomberg’s programme to recruit more engineers who are female, Black or of Asian heritage; communications around Fujitsu’s D&I programme; underlining Cisco’s innovation, including a self-drive car project; and launching Vodafone’s 5G heroes service for small businesses with Jamal Edwards.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
Headquartered in Seattle, WE has six other US offices and a substantial Asia-Pacific footprint across Australia, India, China and Singapore. In EMEA, the agency has a big London office, two German offices, and a South African base in Johannesburg.
WE’s income across EMEA rose to £10.4 million in 2020, after an impressive year that included its UK business growing by 13%, Germany up by 18% and breaking even in the tough South African market. As the pandemic hit, the agency pledged to put people first and stuck fast to its promise of no redundancies. It now has a team of 120 across EMEA, including new hires in double figures in every part of the region. New business included Vodafone, Nokia and the significant global Intel win, for which WE looks after 11 countries in EMEA with a brief that ranges from executive communications, to social and digital, to corporate reputation, consumer products and B2B. The agency has always been synonymous with Microsoft, but it didn’t join the UK portfolio until the end of 2019 and the brief has grown substantially over the past year in both the UK and South Africa. There was also solid organic growth from existing clients including HP, Aruba and Cap Gemini.
WE moved swiftly to prioritise employees during 2020, investing in mental health and an employee assistance programme as it continued to build its culture of belonging. The agency’s WE Care programme to support staff, which covers everything from mindfulness and meditation, through sleep workshops and financial management, was accelerated after Black Lives Matter, with listening sessions to find out what really mattered to the team and initiatives such as an inclusion calendar, unconscious bias training, inclusive hiring, partnerships with universities, recruiters and mentoring schemes. And in South Africa, the team is sponsoring a young underprivileged Black woman through her education. By the end of the year, 96% of employees said they approved of WE’s Covid handling, while 80% felt like they belong, up from 72% previously. CEO and founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin is still very much at the helm, overseeing a senior EMEA team that includes global COO and international president Kass Sells and UK managing director Ruth Allchurch.
Campaign highlights included the digital-first ‘Without You’ campaign for internet exchange DE-CIX, based in Frankfurt, which showcased its pivotal role in the creation of the internet, telling the personal stories of pioneers, clients and employees through an integrated campaign that drove 75,000 people to its microsite. In South Africa, the team supported Vodacom, Vodafone and Safaricom’s launch of the Africa.Connected campaign across eight markets, with the goal of accelerating economic recovery by driving digital inclusion.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
A decade since it merged with fellow tech specialist EML, Wildfire has transformed its offering to strong effect under the leadership of CEO Debby Penton, who also led an MBO of the firm in 2019, during which the firm grew by 30%. Thankfully, fortune favours the brave — Wildfire used the pandemic to inform a corporate purpose that aims to turn ambition into action, whether on behalf of clients or staff. The firm’s expertise in B2B technology doesn’t hurt either, along with a slew of new services (including, crucially, fintech) and a focus on creativity and results.
Wildfire is, arguably at least, the biggest PR firm in Kingston-upon-Thames, employing 27 people.
Revenues were flat in 2020, while profits reached 31%, an impressive showing that owes much to Wildfire’s successful ability to grow its average client size. The firm’s client roster spans enterprise IT (Poly, ServiceNow, Exasol, Rapid7), electronics (XMOS, Samsung, 6Sigma), Martech (Episerver, ContentSquare) and consumer tech (Logitech, Blue Microphones), while there was plenty of new business too — from Epicor, Epson, Salesforce, Emarsys, Duco, Ravelin, Bango and Clearscore.
Like many smaller firms, much of Wildfire’s success is powered by a distinctive culture, one that rose to the fore during the pandemic, when it benefited from a resilient and engaged workforce. Wellbeing support was stepped up, along with a number of creative approaches to motivate staff, including a lockdown steps and photography challenge that pledged donations to the Trussell Trust foodbank charity. Wildfire remains ahead of the industry on diversity and inclusion metrics, across both gender and race, but the firm scrutinised its processes further in 2020 with bias training and a refreshed recruitment process.
Wildfire invested in its own insights research in 2020, tracking key decision makers among CIOs and CMOs, which it uses to inform its own campaigns and new business. The firm also launched a B2B influencer marketing offering in collaboration with Onalytica and supported by a thought leadership series. Campaign highlights included Logitech’s ‘MXOLOGI’ event to engage travel bloggers for a new product launch; a Covid-19 commerce insight tracker for Emarsys, which used anonymised sales data to connect with retail businesses, economists and policymakers; and, successfully driving global awareness and lead generation for XMOS’ new xcore.ai chip.
— Arun Sudhaman
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