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

2021 Digital 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: Precision Strategies (Independent)

PRovoke’s 2020 Public Affairs Agency of the Year, Precision’s roots as pioneering digital and data specialists have served the firm well since its inception in mid-2013, when it was founded by Obama campaign veterans Stephanie Cutter, Jen O’Malley Dillon and Teddy Goff.

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Washington DC (HQ) and New York. 

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Precision demonstrates an ability to drive earned, digital and paid media via a more sophisticated understanding of grassroots campaigning than most. That includes the firm’s own data integration and analytics platform, which it launched in 2019 to help support decision-making. Precision’s team includes seasoned agency veterans, top strategists and communicators from the White House and Capitol Hill, with industry experience that spans finance and corporate, healthcare, technology, sports and entertainment, nonprofits, and more.

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With roots in political campaigns, Precision operated at full throttle in 2020, working with candidates and issue-oriented organizations during a critical election year, negating the chance of a Covid slowdown. Additionally, corporations wading into political conversations for the first time tapped Precision for guidance on how to communicate, particularly in an election year, particularly around issues related to the pandemic, election, or racial justice. All of which helped fuel Precision’s growth in 2020, during which revenue rose 30%.  Fee income last year climbed to $23.3m from $18m in 2019. Precision has grown more than 48% since 2018 — all without acquisitions — while also delivering impressive 30%+ margins.

Precision closed out 2020 with 85 team members, up from 67 at the start of the year. New clients including Brennan Center for Justice, Democratic National Convention Committee, Dollar General, Independent Restaurant Coalition and Presidential Inaugural Committee 2021 joined a roster populated by General Electric, Gilead Sciences, Humana, IBM, March For Our Lives, National Domestic Workers Alliance and Planned Parenthood.

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Precision’s success starts with its leadership; co-founders and partners Stephanie Cutter and Teddy Goff, both of whose experience include running comms strategies for Obama’s presidential campaigns and White House. Other senior leaders include COO Tom Reno, who held the same position at BCW. New hires included Jenn Ridder, who joined from the Biden campaign; former New York Times journalist Ed Wyatt; and former BCW executive VP Tim Rice. When it comes to promoting DEI, Precision has turned to experts, working with a Black-owned, women-owned company on everything from employee training to an audit of hiring practices and refining internal and external communications to be more inclusive. DEI topics are often included in staff meetings. Additionally, Precision recently engaged Jopwell—a leading career advancement platform for Black, Latinx, and Native American professionals—to ensure a diverse pool of applicants for all job postings. 

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As the demand for virtual events increased in 2020, Precision launched a new offering: Precision Events & Experiential Marketing, which helps clients reimagine events traditionally held in person and create new ones, optimizing online engagement. Precision’s work in the arena was front and center for two of the biggest virtual events of the last 12 months: The Democratic National Convention and President Biden’s inauguration. The firm also mobilized to help save small neighborhood restaurants from the ravages of Covid, which put 85% of neighborhood restaurants and bars at risk of permanent closure. Precision helped restaurant and bar owners have a voice in Washington by creating the Independent Restaurant Coalition, whose #SaveRestaurants campaign helped secure $28.6 billion in targeted relief. 

Diana Marszalek

 

Finalists

Bospar (Independent)

Bospar launched in 2015 as a fully virtual agency, meaning that, while much of the industry scrambled to adjust to remote work in 2020, Bospar doubled-down on business as usual, resulting in its sixth consecutive year of growth, after landing Boutique Agency of the Year honors in 2020. 

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Bospar was one of the early adopters of being a virtual, work-from-home agency. Without the limits of physical spaces, the agency has been able to expand to over 15 locations, including San Francisco (HQ), Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Austin, Houston, Scottsdale, Tallahassee, Minneapolis, and Raleigh.

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While Bospar’s roots are in enterprise tech, it has since expanded expertise that now spans most dimensions of B2B with some consumer. The agency often leads with its dedicated content team and this year supplemented its portfolio with a formalized messaging and positioning offering, and expanded its link building team. The social media team added more staff and services, from influencer engagement to social selling.

Long-term clients include: Ceres Imaging, Infrascale, Healthline, iProov, Model N, SingleStore, Snow Software, Unisys, Yellowbrick, and Zensar. In addition to serving American companies, Bospar now represents clients from Canada, China, Finland, India, Israel, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK.

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Bospar ended 2020 with a staff of 37, after growing over 16% to $6.8m, including just over $300K revenue from markets outside of the US. Early in the pandemic when the industry’s stresses piled up, Bospar could, at least, confidently assure clients that its workforce didn’t require a massive pivot.

That’s not to say 2020 wasn’t without hardship. In March and April the firm lost nearly a quarter of business due to the pandemic, client payments slowed. Ultimately, five staff were let go. But Bospar negotiated with struggling clients, accepting payment terms that were under its typical retainer. The firm targeted new business that would benefit from the evolving economic conditions, from telehealth providers to bidets and, later, racial justice organizations. 

Over the past 12 months Bospar has welcomed: Collibra, Mendix, nClouds, Next Pathway, NordVPN, Open Systems, Oxygen Bank, Prodoscore, Spiceworks Ziff Davis, and Rollbar. As a result of new business, Bospar made nine hires amid the pandemic.

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Like so many agencies, Bospar codified its company values in 2020. Among them: Bospar’s commitment to outrageous results for clients, being politely pushy, not being satisfied with the status quo, being creative with purpose, and an overall spirit of joie de vivre. But keeping morale high in early 2020 was challenging, so Bospar provided mental health days and special accommodations for families who suddenly had their children at home.

The firm made Juneteenth a company holiday while providing PR support to The Greenlining Institute, a racial justice organization. Bospar’s Kourtney Evans penned “Why is PR so White” based on her experience of being Black and in PR. With new hires last year, the firm was able to increase its staff diversity to 29% people of color with a goal to bring that number to 35% by the end of the year.

In 2015, Bospar started with two people: a mentor and a mentee. The former being Chris Boehlke, co-founder and principal, and the latter being Curtis Sparrer, a principal and co-founder. Other notable people include: principal Tom Carpenter and chief content officer Tricia Heinrich. Recent hires include EVP Denyse Dabrowski. 

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The firm expanded its offering to reflect the pandemic, including helping clients navigate virtual townhalls and transitioning media trainings around Zoom and other video interviews. Its notable work includes securing Dr. Anthony Fauci for a live webcast for Healthline and taking on behemoth competition for Yellowbrick. Last March, Bospar contacted remote work software maker Prodoscore to showcase its technology as a solution for the crisis. Bospar’s work resulted in 30 inbound leads within the hour of its first media hit. This year, Bospar took home four Innovation SABRE Awards and is nominated for five North American SABRE Awards.

Aarti Shah

MSL (Publicis Groupe)

The former Manning Selvage & Lee is the flagship full-service public relations operation of Publicis Groupe, on a turnaround journey following the arrival of US CEO Diana Littman in late 2018. 

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With its headquarters in New York, MSL has eight offices in the US and three more in Canada, providing impressive coverage for the North America region.

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In recent years, MSL’s consumer operations have garnered the lion’s share of attention—something that’s almost inevitable when you are one of P&G’s leading public relations agencies—with its burgeoning digital work to the fore (especially its proprietary approach to influencer marketing). That has tended to overshadow solid healthcare capabilities and a surprisingly strong corporate practice.

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MSL’s North American operation accounts for just $60 million or so of the agency’s $365 million in global revenue, considerably less than most of its publicly-owned global peers. It held steady at around that level in 2020, which is pretty impressive given market conditions, bolstered by several new client wins, including The Company Store, Crest, The JM Smucker Company, 9 Elements, and TaxAct. There was growth too from a host of existing clients, including LVMH, P&G, The Home Depot, Lilly, Constellation Brands, Campbell’s, Deloitte, Gilead, and HCA Healthcare.

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Diana Littman has been US chief executive at MSL for a little more than two years, and has revitalized the leadership team, holding on to a handful of key leaders but bringing in plenty of new talent, including chief innovation officer Bryan Pedersen, who joined in 2019, and last year’s two significant additions: healthcare leader Stephanie O’Donnell (a veteran of Edelman and BCW) and chief strategy officer Shreya Mukherjee, most recently a Deutsch global group strategy director. The firm also made progress on its diversity goals, with BIPOC representation rising to 24.5% overall and (more impressively) 33% of the executive team.

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MSL has invested heavily in its Fluency approach to influencer marketing, which includes a commitment to diversity and equity in influencer marketing, and new ways of measuring the impact of influencer campaigns. The firm has also developed a tech stack that surpasses that of many larger agencies. It’s evident in the work, which included an influencer campaign for teeth-straightening system Invisalign, which turned teens into brand advocates and drove a significant sales increase, or the SABRE-nominated #TimeToTampax campaign. On the corporate front, meanwhile, the firm showed that great content can energize employees as it helped Deloitte CEO Dan Helfrich connect with employees during the pandemic.

Paul Holmes

SourceCode Communications (Independent)

PRovoke’s 2019 New Agency winner, SourceCode continues to impress with its award-winning work and its noteworthy business performance. Former Hotwire execs Greg Mondshein and Becky Honeyman launched SourceCode in the fall of 2017, and it has been on an upward trajectory ever since.

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New York (HQ). 

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SourceCode works with brands across six major sectors: consumer lifestyle, consumer technology, financial technology, mobile, cloud & telecoms, insights & engagement, and enterprise technology. The firm is especially good at humanizing consumer technology and injecting empathy into its storytelling, which is built into its operating mantra: “We believe that if we can make our end user emotionally connect with a brand, we can more effectively change their perceptions and behavior.”

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SourceCode’s growth trajectory continued in 2020, during which fee income rose 33% to $5.1 million from $3.4 million in 2019. The firm’s headcount rose from 21 to 27 in line with a growing client roster. SourceCode signed 26 new clients last year — at an average retainer that was 23% higher than the year before. New business came from the likes of Gympass, Koa Health, Seated, MakeSpace, Heap, Workhuman, Clio, America’s Best Beverage, and Patientco. Notable existing clients include Handshake, Everlast, PCI Pal, Accedian, Pindrop, Trulioo, Jane, Speechmatics, Turo, and Rachio. 

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In 2020, SourceCode doubled down on making the year a good one with efforts that paid off for keeping business robust during the pandemic. The firm helped clients weather the business impact of Covid by offering them extra service at no cost to get through the early months. Internally, the firm increased investment in its tech stack and grew its larger industry presence through participating in the PR Council and supporting minority-owned businesses. And, perhaps most notably, SourceCode invested in people, hiring a total of 10 people including the firm’s first senior VP Kristen Stippich and Sadé Council, head of the firm’s new digital strategy practice.

SourceCode’s efforts around DEI include developing an action plan that includes evaluating recruiting practices and policies, bolstering training programs and partnering with POC-led business to fuel change internally and beyond.  SourceCode is working toward making a sizable portion of its operational spend with minority-owned business by Juneteenth 2021. 

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SourceCode emerged in 2020 as a leader among small agencies in supporting women and minority-owned businesses with the launch of the Diversity Marketing Consortium. Created in partnership with the venture fund Harlem Capital Partners and a few other small agencies — Superbolt, Social Studies and Cheer Partners — the DMC initially donated $1.5 million in marketing services to help those businesses break through systemic barriers and grow. In October, Racepoint Global, Clarity PR, Praytell, and Peppercomm joined the effort, bringing the DMC’s total two-year commitment in services to $3 million.

SourceCode’s hallmark work included supporting restaurant app Seated through the pandemic by securing press for co-founder Bo Peabody by positioning him as a restaurant industry leader. The team secured more than 20 pieces of coverage, including five broadcast interviews and a Business Insider byline. SourceCode’s outreach to business, legal and tech press secured coverage for Clio’s $1 million to help law firms make it through Covid. That effort reaped 17 pieces of coverage in one week, resulting in more than 5 million impressions and 500-plus new Clio users.

Diana Marszalek