2021 Creative PR Agencies of the Year, North America | PRovoke Media

2021 Creative 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: C+C (Independent)

The firm that began on a cluttered kitchen table in 2005 with the mission “do good work” has flourished into a fast-growing agency built on integrated social issues communications for both public and private sector clients. 

aoy-location-iconLocations

Seattle (HQ), Portland, Boston 

aoy-focus-iconFocus

The heart of C+C’s work is around doing good work for a client mix that is 55% private sector and 45% public sector. In 2019, the agency crafted a purpose statement: take care of people and the planet. The work is anchored in behavior change strategy to tackle issues including energy efficiency, sexual health, traffic safety, sexual violence prevention and more.

Its client roster includes an impressive cross-section of clients, such as REI, Alaska Airlines, Slalom Consulting, US Department of Energy, Waste Management, Google and Washington State Department of Health. The firm recently deepened its expertise in education, adding University of Washington, Seattle Colleges and Massachusetts Community Colleges.

aoy-performance-iconPerformance

C+C has grown an average of 15% per year since its inception, including 14% growth in 2020 to finish the year at $12.7m. The agency, which consists of 75 people, delivered integrated work for clients, which included growing its creative, content and digital teams. More than 80% of clients have been with the firm for more than five years and no one client is more than 20% of its overall revenue. 

After the pandemic hit, C+C clients including REI, Alaska Airlines and King County Metro dramatically cut budgets. At that point, co-founder Julie Colehour asked her contact at Washington State Department of Health if they needed help with Covid. DOH hired C+C to help with all Covid communications. The account started around $100K and by the end of the summer was a multimillion dollar assignment. This work, single-handedly, filled gaps left by others amid the crisis.

aoy-people-iconPeople & Culture

With its people-first culture, the firm committed to staff that its goal for 2020 was to keep everyone employed, but expect a bumpy ride. C+C also supported staff that wanted to move permanently away from office locations and have found that switching to a 100% virtual model broke down many of the geographic silos that once existed. To address uncertainty from the pandemic, protests, election and failed insurrection, C+C doubled down on living values of openness, transparency and empathy.  And at the end of 2020, the firm offered a 50% increase in all performance bonuses.

In 2016, C+C created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team with the mission to dismantle the effects of unconscious bias and actively work against systemic racism. The desired end goal is to create an environment at C+C that attracts diverse talent, provides equitable advancement opportunities, and values and respects employees’ unique perspectives, cultures and beliefs with a variety of initiatives, training, and incentives. C+C also publicly posts its diversity data on its website.


Julie Colehour and Bryan Cohen founded C+C in 2005.

aoy-leadership-iconThought Leadership & Work

The agency’s success is built on a cross-functional structure, integrating creative, content and multicultural strategy across its portfolio. One area the firm identifies as its differentiation is transcreation – the process of developing concepts in partnership with the multicultural team, rather than the traditional model of concept first, translation later. For instance, for its work for DOH, C+C ensured the campaign was accessible to every Washingtonian by transcreating materials into 36 languages and creating customized approaches for the Black/African American and LGBTQ+ communities. This thinking resulted in four Innovation SABRE Award nominations and five SABRE Award North America shortlists.

Aarti Shah

 

 Finalists


Allison+Partners (MDC Partners)

Twenty years ago, amid the wreckage of the dot-bust, Allison+Partners emerged and went on to define the midsize category over the next two decades. Despite a down year, the agency has navigated by staying true to its formula: keep senior people deeply involved in client work, prioritize a strong culture to minimize team turnover and stay focused on the long-game.

aoy-location-iconLocations

San Francisco (HQ), Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, São Paulo, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

aoy-focus-iconFocus

Allison+Partners stands as one of the most well-balanced agencies in North America when it comes to both capabilities and client portfolio. The agency has diversified its capabilities with its rapidly growing All Told digital division, as well as expanding its practice areas, notably corporate, consumer and technology. 

aoy-performance-iconPerformance

On the back of double-digit growth in 2019, the past year was certainly a letdown for Allison+Partners with US revenue seeing a modest drop to $61m. Even so, the agency had several notable wins across several practice areas. Big consumer wins included becoming AOR for Budweiser, PGA TOUR Superstore, Little Tikes, and Kate Farms. The corporate and public affairs practice recognized more than 250% growth in issues/crisis work, DE+I initiatives, data + analytics, thought leadership, content marketing and digital strategies. Organic growth and new clients include: Amazon, Airbnb, Qualcomm, VISA, Denny’s, Lymphoma Research Foundation, ResMed, and Stand Up to Cancer.

aoy-people-iconPeople & Culture

Amid the heartbreaking hum of layoffs and furloughs that stretched throughout spring of 2020, Allison+Partners also faced the hard-hitting reality of having clients in travel and hospitality. Yet Allison+Partners avoided pay cuts or layoffs and emerged as a tighter, more cohesive agency with a greater sense of connectedness and community. 

The agency has committed to increasing diversity among its ranks and ensuring that everyone in the company feels comfortable bringing their whole self to work. Year-over-year progress is measured against several metrics. The agency also refocused its DE&I training around micro-aggressions, empathy, and diversifying talent, led by its DE&I council. The agency boosts a vibrant ecosystem of global Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that connect and empower less-represented communities. 

Key leadership includes chair/CEO Scott Allison, vice chair Andy Hardie-Brown, global COO Jonathan Heit, global presidents Cathy Planchard and Matthew Della Croce. Notable hires and promotions include chief creative officer, Seth Silver; Michelle Webb, managing director of healthcare, North America, and Frank Sommerfield, managing director of corporate + public affairs.

aoy-leadership-iconThought Leadership & Work

In 2020, Allison+Partners pushed clients to tell more impactful stories that justified spend with tangible business results. At the start of the pandemic, the agency quickly began executing against a tightly-focused plan centered on its hardest-hit clients to protect their future with targeted services to address the crises of the moment.

Allison+Partners also reflected on its responsibility as a content creator, whose work can reach millions, to develop and distribute inclusive, accurate and respectful work. With this in mind, the agency created the Content Review Board – a team of 25 employees across the company who review materials with a close eye on inclusivity, risk and cultural sensitivity. Using research and insights, the firm developed a “Look Again Scorecard” that Content Review Board team members use to evaluate each asset on 17 key cultural checkpoints as it relates to language, imagery and accessibility. Its work with Kimpton Hotels on the Launch of the Chief Virtual Learning Officer (CVLO) Program won an Innovation SABRE Award, meanwhile its stunning work with the New Georgia Project, Denny’s Pandemic Pivot, Brewing Change with Budweiser added to its eight North American SABRE nominations.

Aarti Shah

Finn Partners (Independent)

Founded in 2011 when Peter Finn spun off a significant chunk of Ruder Finn into a standalone business, Finn Partners has expanded organically and via acquisition into one of the largest independents in the US. The firm sold a minority stake to Stagwell in 2016.

aoy-location-iconLocations

Headquartered in New York, Finn Partners has US offices in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Ft Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orange County, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC, as well as a small international network.

aoy-focus-iconFocus

There’s a strong consumer practice, including deep domain expertise in fashion and beauty and travel and lifestyle marketing; a fast-growing healthcare capability that has shown itself capable of competing with the best specialist firms; a solid tech practice; and specialist offerings in the arts and in education.

aoy-performance-iconPerformance

After 10 consecutive years of growth—it was up by 35% in 2019—2020 was the first year in which Finn Partners was forced to contract, with revenues down about 8.5%. But there were several big wins over the course of the year, including Bausch & Lomb, Corbus Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Metro Nashville COVID Response, Marvell Technology Group, The Body Shop, and BMC Software. As a result, the first quarter of 2021 was the agency’s strongest ever and it is on track for a return to impressive growth this year.

aoy-people-iconPeople & Culture

Peter Finn has been emphasizing his firm’s culture as a point of differentiation—it’s a major selling point when he hits the acquisition trail—since Finn Partners was founded, and has picked up several Best Agency to Work For Awards. He doubled-down on his values-driven approach to leadership during the pandemic, putting people first, pledging no layoffs or paycuts and counting on his team to build back the business lost. Following the murder of George Floyd, Finn was one of the first to publicly voice its support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to pledge progress on its own record on diversity and inclusion—which has been recognized in previous years and is considered among the best in the industry.

aoy-leadership-iconThought Leadership & Work

It was a benchmark year for creativity too, with eight campaigns shortlisted for SABRE Awards. There was a good amount of Covid-related work, both in the healthcare sector where Finn works with both pharma companies and health systems impacted by the crisis, and beyond, helping companies deal with the employee and consumer implications of the crisis. Beyond that, the firm worked with Meharry Medical College, the nation’s largest historically Black medical school, to showcase its senior leadership, connect with the community, influence policy and ultimately securing millions of dollars in funding. It supported Verizon’s “Citizen Verizon” CSR initiative. It helped Honeywell showcase its scientific and environmental leadership. And it produced a trilogy of hip-hop health PSAs for non-profit Hip Hop Public Health.

Paul Holmes

ICF Next (ICF)

It’s been more than two years since ICF Next’s dramatic rebrand to integrate the creative shop with its parent company. While many things since then have changed, what remains is that ICF Next continues to be one of the most prolific producers of breakthrough work in the industry.   

aoy-location-iconLocations

Fairfax, VA (HQ); Chicago, IL; Minneapolis, MN; New York; Rockville, MD; Los Angeles; Richmond, VA; Toronto; Ottawa. Additional offices in EMEA and India.

aoy-focus-iconFocus

The former Olson Engage was an unlikely bedfellow for ICF, a firm best known for its work with NGOs and government. Yet in 2019, ICF combined its offerings with ICF Next with an ambitious mission: to foster active participation — according to the firm, this is marketing’s ultimate end, whether targeting consumers, citizens or colleagues. From ICF Next’s vantage, participation begins with awareness, understanding, affinity and engagement, and culminates in loyalty, advocacy and identity. 

aoy-performance-iconPerformance

On a global level, ICF Next’s revenue declined to approximately $232m from $258m. The 10% drop may look dramatic but there’s more to the story. ICF restated its 2019 PR income to encompass loyalty and technology and channels. Unsurprisingly, the loyalty business is highly exposed to travel and tourism with clients that include Hyatt, Hilton and Wyndam. When looking at the core communications and marketing revenue, North America saw gains driven by healthcare, energy and CPG clients.

Key new business included being named PR AOY for Serta Simmons Bedding’s entire portfolio; PR AOR across Danone North America’s plant-based portfolio; marketing AOR for 3M's KCI acquisition; in addition to HSBC, Plantera Foods, Halo Top, Mayo Clinic and Encore Capital Group. On the government side, ICF Next won significant work from the General Services Administration, the CDC, National Covid-19 Minority Populations Outreach Campaign. These new wins join existing clients: Bissell, Hewlett Packard Enterprises, Kraft Heinz, Mars Wrigley Confectionary and Molson Coors. 

aoy-people-iconPeople & Culture

Throughout the year, ICF Next advised clients to “be helpful or be quiet” and adopted that mindset internally, as well. One area the agency saw an opportunity to help was around racial injustice. The firm held more than two dozen events where ICF employees were invited to ask pointed questions and provide input to leaders on how to create a more inclusive culture. ICF created a Diversity Dashboard to provide visibility into internal gender and race data and an action plan. The firm also added an officer-level D&I lead.

Longtime ICF Next leaders include vice chair Bob Feldman, managing partner Tricia Ewald and chief creative officer Josh Lohrius, all of whom have been featured on PRovoke’s Innovator 25 list. Other leads include senior managing partner Kris Tremaine and managing partner Mary Carter who oversees ICF's client work in healthcare, consumer packaged goods and manufacturing. Managing partner Grant Toups leads efforts across travel, tourism, leisure and hospitality, financial services, retail, technology, and telecom. 

aoy-leadership-iconThought Leadership & Work

This is how ICF Next approaches its work: in a world where people consciously block and skip ads and opt out of marketing, active participation is what happens when consumers not only want to hear from a brand, but consider themselves part of it. Public relations plays a key role in the participation curve. In 2020, this played out in many ways — for instance, Heinz creating a million-dollar fund for shut-down diners; Serta Simmons donating thousands of hospital beds and creating a platform for others to do the same. With ICF’s help, Coors Light came to the aid of one short-on-beer home-confined 93-year-old and Hotels.com found clever ways to provide comic relief and escapism.


In addition to its breathtaking award showing — 20+ nominations across Innovation SABRE and North American SABRE in 2021 —ICF Next’s loyalty group was named a “leader” by Forrester Research and its digital experience capability as a "strong performer."

Aarti Shah

Ketchum (Omnicom PR Group)

Founded in Pittsburgh as part of Ketchum Advertising, the public relations firm soon became more famous than its ad agency parent, establishing itself as a top 10 global PR shop before its 1996 acquisition by Omnicom. 

aoy-location-iconLocations

Headquartered in New York, Ketchum has a presence in nine US cities, as well as in Toronto and Montreal, and an extensive global network.

aoy-focus-iconFocus

While Ketchum is a full-service agency—there’s a thriving healthcare practice, and capabilities in corporate and technology—it remains best known for its work in the consumer space and for its outstanding creative track record.

aoy-performance-iconPerformance

Omnicom’s PR operations saw revenues decline by 4.2% in 2020, and Ketchum’s fees were down by mid-single digits in what would have been a transition year even without the pandemic. Still, there was new business from a number of big-name clients, including Penn Medicine, Champion Pet Foods, Quorn, Delos, Peanut Institute, Covestro, Union Bank, Motif, South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Blink Charging and Hallmark.

aoy-people-iconPeople & Culture

The big news on the people front was the departure of chief executive Barri Rafferty (for an in-house role at Wells Fargo) in June, after just three years in the role. She was replaced by Mike Doyle, a 25-year veteran of the firm and former North American president, who brought in Neera Chaudhary from Golin (a rare external hire) to fill his old role. The firm also brought in Mitch Polatin as head of strategy from DDB, and Michelle Baker from Signal to lead health integration out of the DC office. There was an emphasis on driving diversity and inclusion too, with black, indigenous, and other people of color accounting for 30% of new hires over the course of year, alongside a $100,000 commitment in pro bono to support HBCU Week. On the professional development front, meanwhile, there was a shift in emphasis to support the shift to remote work and help employees address pandemic-related stress.

aoy-leadership-iconThought Leadership & Work

However difficult the economic conditions, the one constant at Ketchum over the past three decades has been the quality of the firm’s creative work, and 2020 was no exception. No agency received more SABRE Awards nominations than Ketchum’s 14 campaigns, which ranged from offering a “Virtual Vacay” for Discover Puerto Rico to the “For Real Life” mental health campaign for Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, from a Clorox back-to-school campaign supporting the nation’s teachers to a “Share a Square” campaign for Cottonelle in response to national toilet paper shortages, from introducing the Gillette Barber Council (in partnership with sister agency Marina Maher) to “Operation Cow School” for at-home kids on behalf of the California Milk Advisory Board.

Paul Holmes