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Zeno was founded (as PR21) in 1999 as a classic conflict brand. The firm changed its name to Zeno in 2004, but the modern Zeno was not really born until 2009 when Barby Siegel took over as CEO and reshaped the firm as an independent agency with its own identity and culture.
With its headquarters in New York, Zeno has additional offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC, as well as a small but impressive Canadian operation. There’s a strong London office (the former 3Monkeys), and an expanding Asian operation.
Perhaps best known for its consumer work—at least historically—Zeno has a balanced portfolio that includes a surprisingly strong corporate expertise (including a lot of work at the convergence of brand and reputation), as well as impressive healthcare and technology sector expertise, and strong digital capabilities, including a best-in-breed data and analytics division.
The US still accounts for about $71 million of Zeno’s $86 million in global revenues, and accounted for almost all of its growth in 2020—with North American revenues up by a hugely impressive 13% in the year of Covid, when most of its peers were struggling. There was new business from the likes of Alaska Airlines, Ancestry, Cinnabon, Crate & Barrel, Hyatt, Michaels, Neato, Sealed Air and Univision. Perhaps most remarkably, the firm’s travel sector work was up by better than 200% and there was 50% growth in the retail sector—two of the niches hardest hit by the pandemic turning to Zeno to help them through the crisis.
Siegel’s senior leadership team is full of familiar faces, veterans of the agency who have been with her through her 11-year tenure at the helm. But there was plenty of new talent added last year, including Cone and Porter Novelli veteran Alison DaSilva, heading the firm’s new approach to purpose and impact, and Sandra Saias, from Ogilvy, as head of global integrated communications. The firm also made a renewed commitment to diversity in 2020, with the appointment of a special advisor on diversity issues, diverse candidates accounting for more than third of its new hires from the second quarter on; and a pledge to be transparent about diversity numbers going forward (an area where many larger agencies still fall short).
Looking for the reason Zeno outperformed its peers in 2020, it’s difficult to ignore the ways it has strengthened its strategic capabilities: investing in industry-leading data and analytics, blending paid and earned solutions and corporate and consumer work to deliver strategic counsel at the high-end of the value chain. Examples included the firm’s work for Lenovo, a new positioning emphasizing the power of empathy (not a traditional value of the tech sector); crisis communications for Hyatt, helping the company reach out to internal and external stakeholders; working with Ancestry to bring families closer together at a time when many were further apart than ever; and launching a Halloween safety campaign for Hershey that drove a sales increase in a year when a big decline was a very real fear. A lot of the work is underpinned by insights derived from Zeno’s “human project” thought leadership.
— Paul Holmes
Initially founded as the public affairs arm of the Arnold & Porter law firm, later part of Grey Advertising before buying itself back, APCO has been enjoying life as the world’s largest independent public affairs firm for the past 16 years.
APCO’s headquarters are in Washington, DC, which is still the firm’s flagship office, but it has been building out a national footprint that includes a significant New York operation (delivering broader corporate and financial work) and offices in Raleigh, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.
While still known primarily as a public affairs firm, influencing policy on behalf of a host of corporate clients and helping a range of national governments navigate shifting geopolitical tides, recent years have seen APCO broaden its corporate capabilities—including crisis and issues management and reputation work—and even expand into branding.
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 8% growth in the US (even as global revenues were flat), on top of a couple of small acquisitions that strengthened the firm’s credentials in the purpose arena. New business came from Homodeus, G42 Healthcare, Dell Technologies, CarMax, the United Nations Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign, the American Medical Association, and Everbridge, while the firm continues to work with leaders including the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Roche, Comcast, IKEA and Microsoft.
Founder and executive chairman Margery Kraus and global CEO Brad Staples continue to lead a strong senior management team that includes North American president Kelly Williamson, who in 2020 announced that APCO would split into four regional hubs (North, South, Mid-Atlantic and West) to better manage its US operations. That meant new and expanded roles for senior execs Evan Kraus (who leads the Mid-Atlantic), Matt Gallagher (West) and Courtney Crowder (South). New hires, meanwhile, included Oracle communications chief Bob Winslow, Pete Buttigieg aide Brandon Neal, and former Auburn University public affairs chief Brian Keeter, all as senior directors, and Charlene Wheeless, formerly of Bechtel, as senior advisor, equity and justice.
As ever, APCO was active in many of the most critical issues of the past 12 months, with the firm’s work on behalf of the North Carolina Community College System, which amid racial turmoil and some criticism of its own historical and current policies, undertook an extensive review of its relationship with the community—and people of color in particular—in an attempt to address enrollment concerns. APCO helped to conduct the research and to formulate a host of resulting recommendations. Elsewhere, the firm worked with Upfield to promote the benefits of a plant-based diet, drawing on diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds to broaden the appeal of plant-based products, and helped the International Copper Association with its involvement in New York’s Climate Week.
— Paul Holmes
Baltimore's Imre started life nearly three decades ago and remains guided by its focus on turning consumers into brand believers. Guided by twin values of empathy and optimism, Imre's progress reflects its fiercely independent focus on producing top-tier work for a range of clients across consumer, corporate and healthcare.
Baltimore (HQ), Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia.
Imre works across consumer, corporate and healthcare, and has expanded capabilities to include digital/social, user experience and data, analytics & reporting.
Imre grew by a notable 10% in 2020, with fee income rising to $36.7m from $33.3m the previous year. The firm staffed up to keep pace with the lift in work, adding 28 members (the majority of whom joined Imre’s creative and innovators groups) to a team that, by year’s end, topped out at 185. All of which was fueled by the addition of a wide array of new clients including Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Armstrong Flooring, Hyperion Motors, McCormick & Company, Palatin Technologies and Kitu Life to an impressive client roster populated by the likes of 3M, AstraZeneca, John Deere Worldwide, GlaxoSmithKline, NFL Properties and Nissan.
Founder and CEO Dave Imre set the tone for the firm at the outset, establishing empathy and optimism as values that continue to drive the agency’s culture of cohesion and inclusion. A mentor to staff and clients, Imre, along with fellow partners Mark Eber, Crystalyn Stuart and Jeff Smokler, doubled down in 2020 on offering team members the kind of personal and professional support warranted by the year’s challenges. Taking cues gleaned from employee group sessions, as well as individualized one-to-ones, Imre leaders led through the Covid pandemic with transparency — transparency on personal and emotional levels, as well as how the business was performing.
The firm also expanded on its existing D&I efforts (including a six-plus year relationship with the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and Out & Equal) in response to last year’s racial strife. Committing to having Black and POC candidates in the interview pool for every open position, establishing six paid internships a year for individuals from underrepresented diverse backgrounds; and broadening partnerships with HBCUs are among new initiatives.
Imre operates with the overarching goal of transforming consumers into brand believers. In 2020, though, the firm took a harder, more academic, exploration of what brand belief really is. The study into brand narratives, and the power they wield in connecting different spheres of influence generated an abundance of thought leadership on topics including Earth Day marketing, storytelling during Covid, the NFL’s content marketing and how empathy-driven brands market themselves.
The year’s key work included Dickies’ first-ever global marketing campaign, United by Inspiration, United by Dickies, that highlighted the creativity of “makers” from across six countries with unique professions, from roasting coffee to dancing. Imre helped John Deere recognize employees who kept business operating during the Covid pandemic with its “Keep Us Running” campaign that included creative video and animation that highlighted John Deere’s support of the global community.
— Diana Marszalek
For many years one of America’s largest independent firms, Ruder Finn went through some significant changes in the first few years of the 21st century, spinning off first RF Binder and then Finn Partners (both led by Finn family siblings) leaving a core business that has been building back steadily over the past 10 years.
Ruder Finn’s headquarters and largest office is in New York, with additional US offices in Washington, DC, and San Francisco and a global network that includes a formidable presence in China and an expanding European operation.
The firm divides its work into four categories: health and wellness is probably the best-known part of the business, with a rich heritage in the pharma sector in particular; technology and innovation has been a growth area, with the addition of impressive digital and content creation capabilities; consumer brand-building is a significant part of the mix; and corporate reputation and transformation is probably the unsung hero—and a major contributor to the firm’s robust 2020.
Globally, revenue was up by 13%—about 9% of that organic, supplemented by the acquisitions of video production house Osmosis and boutique spinoff agency Jacobstahl—with the US operations contributing most of that growth. New business came across the firm’s portfolio, with new business from Amazon, EY, Raytheon, Huawei, Elastic, and a host of healthcare giants, as well as growth from existing clients such as AstraZeneca, Merck and Pfizer (reflecting the strength of the healthcare sector), Mercedes-Benz, MetLife, Tencent, and Vivo.
Like many agency leaders, CEO Kathy Bloomgarden and chief innovation officer Michael Schubert invested heavily in communicating with employees throughout the pandemic, with weekly “town hall” meetings, open listening sessions, and an increased commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion trainings. The firm also brought in a wide range of new talent, including Sandra Stahl and Jeremy Jacob, who joined as senior managing directors in healthcare as a result of the Jacobstahl acquisition, Alan Shapard (formerly of Broadreach Partners) as Executive Vice President of SPI Group, a Ruder Finn company; and several senior people in digital content production.
Without much fanfare, Ruder Finn’s work in the past few years has moved increasingly upstream, so that in 2020 the firm was handling high-profile issues related to gene therapy and mRNA in the healthcare space; the introduction of 5G capabilities and cyber-security issues in the tech arena; as well as purpose-driven corporate initiatives for the likes of Sanofi, MetLife, FNIH, Teach for America, and the New York Police Department—an outreach effort designed to address the department’s relationship with the community. The firm also handled internal and change management assignments for AZ, Citi, Merck and Pfizer. RF Studios continued to create cutting-edge content across the client portfolio, while the RF TechLab is creating new data and analytics tools that inform and measure the firm’s programming.
— Paul Holmes
Founded in 1983, WE Communications parlayed its still-critical Microsoft relationship to become one of the world’s biggest, and most successful, specialist technology PR firms. Global reach now stands at offices in 21 cities, including seven in North America, where the firm remains a benchmark in terms of helping brands harness the transformative appeal of technological change. Just as important, perhaps, WE continues as one of the world’s biggest independent PR firms, underpinning an entrepreneurial spirit and ‘purpose and people’ mindset that is not often associated with firms of its size.
Seattle (HQ), along with North American offices in Austin, Boston, New York, Portland OR, San Francisco and Salt Lake City. There is a very substantial Asia-Pacific footprint and a smaller presence in EMEA.
Like technology itself, WE’s focus has evolved considerably to incorporate significant strength in consumer, healthcare and digital — all areas that have proved pivotal to its growth in recent years. In 2020, the firm formally unveiled its corporate reputation and brand purpose offering, encompassing purpose, executive comms, employee engagement, crisis/issues management, financial comms and public affairs. There was also a new practice focused on scientific engagement and medical education, a highly relevant area that features digital engagement, scientific narrative, strategy development and partnerships with the clinical community.
WE’s North American fee income grew by almost 5% to $112m, led by technology but intertwined, unsurprisingly, with healthcare, corporate, consumer and digital. The resilience of the technology and healthcare sectors no doubt played to WE’s strengths, but so did the changing nature of the work, particularly in terms of the greater focus required on social impact, purpose and employee activism. The firm hired an additional 80-100 staffers in North America, while there were no job losses. New business included the significant global Intel win, along with assignments from Grass Valley, Nokia, Paysafe, PayScale, Providence Health Plan and Zoho, joining an existing roster that features Adobe, Brother, F5 Networks, Horizon Pharma, Intel, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Trend Micro and Volvo.
WE’s ability to put people ahead of profits was never more welcome than in 2020, when the firm moved swiftly to prioritize employee health and safety, investing in mental health, employee assistance and repurposing operating expense budgets for employee development. By year-end, 96% of the firm’s staff approved of WE’s Covid handling, while 80% felt like they belong, up from 72% previously. The firm’s leadership remains in stable shape, with CEO/founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin overseeing a senior team that includes global COO and international president Kass Sells, North American president and chief client officer Dawn Beauparlant, EVP/DEI head Elizabeth Herrera Smith and chief talent officer Kate Richmond.
And WE also expanded its DE&I focus in robust fashion, committing to a series of BIPOC representation and inclusion goals by the end of 2022 (30% of employees, 20% of executive leadership) and expanding its partnerships with the Lagrant Foundation and ColorComm. There was considerable growth of the WE PRISM employee resource group for employees of colour, along with mandated unconscious bias training and inclusive hiring training.
Campaign highlights included developing a user retention program for Abbott’s FreeStyle Libre device, using behavioural change principles to ensure more patients engage at the right point in their diabetes journey. There were also SABRE-nominated efforts for Volvo Cars (the continued ‘Safety Sunday’ campaign), helping PCI Pharma Services identify its transformative purpose, and the ‘Be the One’ consumer push for Microsoft. And there were notable campaigns to launch thyroid eye disease treatment Tepezza for Horizon Therapeutics — one of the most successful drug product launches ever — and position Adobe CQ as a thought leader for the future of work.
— Arun Sudhaman
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