2021 Canadian PR Agencies of the Year | PRovoke

2021 Canadian PR Agencies of the Year

The 2021 North America PR Agencies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 150 submissions and 50 virtual meetings with the best PR firms across the US and Canada. 

Winners were unveiled at the North American SABRE Awards ceremony, at which Zeno was named Overall Agency of the Year and Bully Pulpit Interactive won Specialist Agency of the Year. Analysis of all winners and finalists across 13 categories can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or here.

Separately, you can find the 2021 SABRE Awards North America winners here.


Winner: Weber Shandwick Canada (IPG Dxtra)

Today’s Weber Shandwick was founded 20 years ago by the merger of Weber Shandwick (itself a merger of tech specialist Weber Group and acquisitive UK agency Shandwick) and BSMG Worldwide. The firm has deep roots in Canada and is now believed to be among the top five firms in the market.

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Weber Shandwick Canada has offices in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, operating seamlessly as a single P&L, and connects to the global agency’s offices in the US and throughout the world.

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Like the US and global operations of Weber Shandwick, the Canadian office is a genuine full-service player, with consumer, healthcare, and technology clients. But it has a leadership position in the corporate reputation and risk management spaces—last year there was considerable emphasis on helping clients make sense of their increasingly complex operating environment—impressive digital capabilities, and a strong creative reputation as one of the most award-winning agencies in the market.

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In a challenging year for the parent agency, Weber Shandwick Canada outperformed its US counterpart, growing revenues by the low single digits. New business came from Chevrolet’s social media remit, Alectra, and Sollio Agriculture, but most of the growth came from existing clients facing new challenges. The firm represents global brands such as McDonald’s, Astra-Zeneca, Bayer CropScience, Chevrolet, Best Buy, IBM, Mondelez and Roche on a range of mandates, but also boasts some of Canada’s largest brands—Air Canada, Canadian Tire, Via Rail, Purolator, the Royal Bank of Canada—among its clients.

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Greg Power has been leading Weber Shandwick’s Canadian operations for more than a decade, and has built up a strong senior leadership team that includes executive VP, strategy and creative, Robyn Adelson; Toronto office lead Cameron Summers; and—new this year—Becca Young, senior VP, strategy and creative, formerly with National Public Relations. Diversity and inclusion has been an explicit priority since 2018, and in 2019 two-thirds of new hires were diverse. The agency has created the Richard Ellis Scholarship to promote diversity and inclusion for the next generation of public relations students at Humber College, Canada’s leading school for public relations talent, and now mandates that no hire can be made without a minimum of two diverse candidates being interviewed for the position.

aoy-leadership-iconThought Leadership & Work

Three of Weber Shandwick’s 14 North American SABRE finalists are from north of the border, where the firm’s creative work has long been winning both national and international recognition. Highlights include the McDonald’s “Fries For Good” campaign, a fundraising initiative driven by an influencer and media campaign that raised $2.9m for Canadian charities; the Purolator Holiday Art Boxes initiative; and the Covenant House “Shoppable Girls” campaign, which helped Canada’s largest agency for youth who are homeless, trafficked or at risk, start a conversation about an uncomfortable topic and secure a $307 million pledge by the Government of Ontario to combat sex trafficking.

 Paul Holmes



Finalists

Argyle (Independent)

Argyle has something of a unique status among Canadian PR firms. It is both one of its oldest, having started life in 1979, and one of its fastest-growing, following a management buyout in 2003. In 2019, the firm merged with Western Canada consultancies ChangeMakers and Context and acquired social/digital firm Matchstick, effectively doubling in size and setting the stage for it to land Canadian Agency of the Year honours in 2020.

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Toronto (HQ), with offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Washington DC.

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Argyle brings considerable strength across corporate & public affairs, consumer, health, public engagement, social marketing, and digital. The firm deploys an integrated service model across eight cities, and its ‘sweet spot’, perhaps, is large multinational or Canadian companies seeking greater client focus, creativity and value. Last year, the firm launched new practices focusing on ESG and crisis/litigation within its corporate/public affairs team, along with a social change offering that blends public health and social marketing. In addition, Argyle refined its emerging cross-practice indigenous communications and engagement specialty.

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Since its acquisition by current management, the firm has grown from just over $1m in total revenue in 2003 to $24.4m today. 2020 was another excellent year, underpinned by 11% growth in fee income, with corporate and public affairs up 38%. Argyle now exceeds 100 employees working in seven Canadian cities and, last year marked another milestone with the opening of its Washington, D.C. office — its first expansion outside Canada.

That performance reflects Argyle’s strong new business development record despite pandemic pressures, with new clients in 2020 including Scotiabank, Prodigy Education, Enwave, Canadian Medical Association, University of British Columbia, University of Calgary, Canadian Lobster and the National Association of Friendship Centres. They join an existing client roster that features Facebook, Instagram, UPS, Enterprise Holdings (Enterprise, Alamo and National Rent-a-Car), MD Financial (a division of Scotiabank), Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Desjardins, AbbVie Pharma, Novo Nordisk and Safe Work Manitoba.

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Under the leadership of owner and CEO Daniel Tisch, the senior team includes COO Stefan Moores, marketing EVP Correy Myco and SVPs Alison George, Rob McEwan, Roanne Argyle, Kim Blanchette and new arrival Robert Gemmill from Edelman Washington. 

Argyle focused heavily on staff culture during 2020, starting with full transparency around the firm’s financial position, which included a consensus decision to take temporary executive pay cuts, while team wellness and cohesion were prioritized. The approach paid off — with 95% of staff agreeing that they are ‘proud to work at Argyle’ and 96% professing confidence in senior leadership’s ability to navigate the crisis. In addition to mental health support, inclusion is a core value at Argyle, and the firm has implemented a comprehensive D&I policy that focuses on six strategic pillars: leadership, recruitment, training & development, client work, social investment & philanthropy, and accountability.

Argyle’s Diversity Ambassadors Council is using findings from the latter (a third-party employee inclusion study) to recommend goals and strategies for this year and beyond, while Tisch chairs the Canadian Council of PR Firms' Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, which developed an Anti-Racism, Diversity & Inclusion pledge in 2020 that has now attracted signatures from CEOs of 19 major agencies, including major independents and multinationals. Argyle is also leading an industry-wide survey in collaboration with the Canadian Public Relations Society and the IABC, and sponsoring the first National Summit on Anti-Racism in Public Relations in March 2021.

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Argyle’s thought leadership around the connection between 'public relationships' and clients' reputations stands out, exemplified by its annual Argyle Public Relationships Index research study — the sixth edition focused on Canadians' relationships with their employers, co-workers, health care providers and governments during the pandemic. Argyle scored four Gold SABRE finalist nominations, thanks to the Government of Canada’s Federal Indian Day School Class Action campaign, ‘Save Eye Care’ for the Ontario Association of Optometrists, and ‘#TakeCareInCOVID’ by the National Association of Friendship Centres.

Arun Sudhaman

Craft Public Relations (Independent)

Founded in 2015 by industry veteran Lisa Pasquin, Craft aims to combine the creative thinking and strategic excellence of a bigger agency but minus the trappings. That may sound familiar to observers of boutique agencies, but Craft’s success in Canada has helped it stand apart — thanks to a client roster that rivals much bigger players. 

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Toronto (HQ).

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Craft plays in the consumer space, with a specific focus on CPG and food/beverage brands. Beyond traditional PR and influencer marketing, that means that the firm is increasingly involved in brand partnership work, such as bringing key clients Nintendo and Tetley together with HelloFresh and Lazypants, respectively. 

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Craft grew by around 20% in 2020 to more than CAD$3m, bolstered by winning Tim Hortons, arguably Canada’s biggest PR RFP of 2020. The firm also added Houseplant, 19 Crimes wine, Jack Daniel’s, a2 Milk, StockX and Canadian Tire, joining a client roster that already features Nintendo, Moosehead Breweries, Tetley, GE Appliances, Keurig Dr Pepper, Travelzoo, News Media Canada, Earth’s Own and Yves Veggie Cuisine. 

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President/founder Lisa Pasquin oversees a team that has grown from 13 to 18, over the past year, each of whom averages seven years of experience. That kind of grounding has ensured a stable foundation, and overheads have been kept low via the use of coworking spaces. The firm has partnered with Canadian workplace design consultancy Bloom to overhaul its D&I practices, which includes year-long training and evaluation on bias, inclusion and accountability. 

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Craft’s ability to blend earned media with online content creators, other brands, celebrities and even consumers themselves has helped to fuel some remarkable results for major clients. Craft’s SABRE-nominated PR support for the launch of Nintendo Switch helped make it the fastest-selling gaming console in Canadian history. The firm’s campaign to relaunch GE Appliances’ Café brand led to a 42% increase in sales and a 93% increase in average monthly website sessions. Craft’s work to launch Tetley’s new line of Super Teas helped the company capture a 1.7 point increase in dollar share in the specialty tea category. And, since it started working with Travelzoo in 2018, the online travel brand has seen double-digit growth in overall brand awareness — from 28% to 50%.

 Arun Sudhaman

No Fixed Address (Independent)

Founded four years ago by veterans of Canada’s big agency scene, No Fixed Address (NFA) has grown rapidly into a 170-person operation that spans PR, advertising, digital, brand planning, media buying, health and content. That kind of progress exemplifies NFA’s ‘born hungry’ mantra, which has seen it make waves not just in Canada but globally, thanks in large part to inspiring campaigns such as SickKids Airbnb and Lolli: The Exhibit No One Wants to Talk About.

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Toronto (HQ) and Montreal.

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NFA’s public relations discipline represents a significant shift away from the ‘bolt-on’ approach that is typically favoured by advertising agencies. Since its launch, PR has formed a core element in NFA’s DNA, bringing a highly creative mindset to its ability to drive awareness and business change for a largely consumer-focused client portfolio. 

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NFA’s PR fee income grew by around 27% in 2020 to CAD$17.5m, with the firm now employing almost 100 staff in its PR operation. That expansion was underpinned by new business from Canada Learning Code, Royal Ontario Museum, Terry Fox Foundation, Heinz By Nature, Vertex, AdAstra, and Questrade, which join an existing client roster that features Dairy Farmers of Ontario, Little Caesars Canada, Candian Centre for Child Protection, SickKids Foundation, J.P. Wisers, RioCan, Sunnybrook Hospital and Aviva Insurance.

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Former Edelman and Leo Burnett creative lead Jordan Doucette joined NFA as partner in early 2020, overseeing creative work across all of the firm’s disciplines. Doucette works alongside strategy VP Zach Klein, PR director Erin Banting and PR VP Ray McIlroy. The agency’s D&I focus also serves as a key point of differentiation, including a stake in marketing solutions shop Ethnicity Matters and multiple internal task forces focused on driving tangible change. NFA has also engaged Breakfast Culture to audit its D&I approach, and partnered with The Remix Project to help advance BIPOC in the industry via talent development and retention. All of which points to an agency that has developed beyond its scrappy startup roots into a mature and stable contributor to the industry ecosystem. 

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NFA’s work remains its most impressive calling card, encompassing 2019’s SABRE-winning Lolli and SickKids Airbnb campaigns — genuinely genre-bending efforts that landed considerable national and international recognition. 2020 may not have matched those highs, but there were still SABRE-nominated initiatives for Heinz by Nature — the ‘Lockdown Lovebaby Collection’ that focused on babies conceived and born in lockdown, helping grow sales by 24% — and Milk & Cookies #FillUpWithLove for the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, an integrated campaign that supported frontline workers, families and patients at children’s hospitals across the province. 

 Arun Sudhaman