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In July 2019, Jennifer Risi stepped down from an eight-year career at Ogilvy to launch the Sway Effect, operating under a business model built to foster alliances, as well as diversity and inclusion. The idea: create a network of agencies with a range of expertise beyond PR and comms, to address broader client needs and expand geographic reach across the US, Caribbean, and Latin America.
Headquartered in New York, the Sway Effect's footprint spans the US, Caribbean, and Latin America, with the hiring of Paula Cordova as the head of The Sway Effect based in Buenos Aires, and with network partners DLC and Founders who serve clients across the hemisphere. Additionally, a new network partnership with By The Network, has further expanded The Sway Effect’s geographic footprint into key markets in Canada, across Europe and select markets in Asia-Pacific.
The Sway Effect, unsurprisingly, focuses on 'swaying' opinion and influencing outcomes on behalf of clients, tapping into its various partnerships to deliver a full-service network that can provide answers to whatever a brand’s challenge may be. Core offerings include PR and influence; brand marketing; creative; social impact; research and measurement; and diversity, inclusion and equity programming.
The Sway Effect has also created two proprietary tools in recent months. First, along with network partner CRANT, is a data and analytics dashboard that uses machine learning to map and track real-time conversations for brands and their core competitive set. This tool was developed for BD’s social media RFP, which the Sway Effect secured in a pitch that included some of the industry’s largest firms. Second, Sway has created a measurement dashboard that assesses the qualitative and quantitative media relations results and social media sentiment for brands today — and is being used for AnitaB.org and BD.
Since launching, the Sway Effect has secured seven clients with more than $2 million in billings. The firm reported $2.25 million in fee income during 2020, up a remarkable 83% from its first year in business. In 2020, Sway had five full-time staff, four part-time staff, plus 50 network partners/independent senior leaders, versus the two full-time staff, three part-time staff, and 10 network partners/independent senior leaders it had in 2019.
Last year’s big wins include new business from medical tech company BD, which the Sway Effect secured in a pitch that included some of the industry’s largest firms. What started as a corporate comms assignment has expanded to include digital communications and several lines of business, accounting for 300% organic growth within the past year. Other new clients include AnitaB.org, BERG, and Signet. Appian brought The Sway Effect in to handle CEO communications, serving as a complement to existing agencies Highwire and Edelman. The American Association of Advertising Agencies, or The 4As, is also a key client.
In addition to Risi, Sway Effect leadership includes Marielena Santana, a veteran PR professional who joined the firm in August as a senior VP. In addition, Sway Effect established a physical presence in Latin America by bringing on Buenos Aires-based Paula Cordova as regional leader. From the outset, Sway Effect has made diversity, equity, and inclusion a core component of its work. Risi serves as strategic communications advisory to UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as part of the agency’s pro-bono efforts; Sway Effect is also donating time to supporting GirlGaze, a network founded by Amanda De Cadenet to drive diversity, equity and inclusion across the creative industry.
Sway Effect’s positioning of medical tech company BD as a leader in the battle against Covid-19 through innovations was among the year’s hallmark works, which started with having to garner attention for a company that up until then had not invested in PR. The Sway Effect’s global media campaign focused on the company ramping up manufacturing of its rapid diagnostic tests, raising awareness of BD’s effort to fight the pandemic. In the first nine months, BD secured more media placements than the company had in the previous nine years.
— Diana Marsalek
Katherine Verducci and Santiago Villegas launched 1903 PR in 2019 with the goal of using PR to get the media to portray the face of the tech industry more accurately, spotlighting tech leaders who come from underrepresented communities or are non-traditional — in order to paint a more diverse, inclusive, and true picture of the industry.
Clovis, CA (HQ)
Verducci and Villegas built diversity, equity, and inclusion into the foundation of the company, which is driven by a deliberate effort to bring diverse voices to the table and uplift those same voices, internally and in the media. Dedicated to enterprise and B2B PR, 1903 has expertise in software, smart lighting, digital marketing, fintech, appliances, AR/VR/XR, machine learning, computer vision and cyber security.
In its two years of operation, 1903 has doubled in size in terms of employee headcount, billing revenue and retained clients. In 2020, the firm won new business from FMG Suite, Vinotemp, Ordrslip, and TatStat, which joined existing clients Bitwise Industries, Bitwise Tech Consulting, Bitwise Workforce and Acuity Brands. 1903 credits that growth in part, ironically, to the Covid pandemic, which forced the firm to get creative to be profitable. While, as a remote agency, 1903 didn’t have to change much operationally when Covid forced telework on industries, it did ramp up its creative and other offerings to support clients, particularly those in tech retail, that needed it most. 1903 learned to pivot quickly to secure clients media coverage, telling compelling stories that tied to the media’s larger Covid focus.
Founders and co-CEOs Verducci and Villegas bring a mix of expertise to 1903. Verducci is a veteran PR strategist, crafting campaigns for the likes of healthcare giant Abbott. Villegas, meantime, brings a wide range of experience working in a variety of industries — machine learning, cybersecurity, augmented reality, renewable energy, automation, ag tech, and environmental conservation among them. His work in-house and within agencies has delivered substantive coverage in local, vertical, and national media. Internally, the firm promotes an open environment, where all employees can thrive regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and economic backgrounds. The agency’s mission also includes securing coverage for diverse and non-traditional clients that PR firms or media might ignore.
As a Leadership Network writer for Entrepreneur magazine, Villegas recently penned an article detailing media’s double standards for white and minority company founders — the very issue 1903 is fighting to change. The firm’s work in 2020 included crafting a client’s Series A campaign that included making the CEO — a LatinX woman who is part of the LGBTQ community — the face of the company, garnering national media coverage. Other hallmark successes include rallying support for client Bitwise’s OnwardUS app, which included partnering with the state of California to drive awareness of the platform, which serves as a one-stop resource for individuals who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
— Diana Marszalek
When Chicago PR vet Catherine Merritt launched Spool in 2018, she didn’t think the world needed another agency. But Merritt did believe the world needed a new type of agency, one staffed by industry leaders (many of whom come with big agency backgrounds), no tolerance policies (Spool resigned one of its biggest clients due to clashing values) and support like three months paid family leave for freelancers as well as staff.
Evanston, IL (HQ)
Spool focuses on disruptive consumer brands ready to go big. The firm has launched its own venture arm, realizing Merritt's goal of establishing and growing an investment portfolio, which includes past clients Coco5 and Glam Squad. Spool is also one of the 38 investors in Silicon Road Ventures, an Atlanta-based VC investing in the future of retail and CPG technology.
Spool has grown rapidly in its short history, with fee income rising 144% in 2020 to nearly $2.2m. What was a three-person team in 2019 is now an operation backed by 12 full-timers and 16 regular consultants that work as needed. 2020 wins resulted in an impressive client roster that includes JBS subsidiary Planterra Foods; Egglife Foods, led by former MillerCoors CMO David Kroll; Fresh Thyme Market; and cannabis brand Fluresh. Three Farm Daughters, a fast-growing, newly launched CPG brand and Vote.org are also on the list.
Founder and CEO Merritt spent much of her career working for the likes of MSL, Olson and Ketchum, and stayed long enough — and ranked high enough — to realize the traditional agency model might be broken. In launching Spool, Merritt set out to work with clients and deliver better results through partnership and entrepreneurial innovation. In the last 12 months, the leadership team has grown to include senior VP Katie Kierna; senior media strategist Austin McClelland; and influencer strategist Natalie Blackmond.
Spool makes its people a priority. The firm offers fully paid family leave to all its freelancers and consultants in addition to staffers. Spool has conducted anti-racism educational sessions for employees and clients and is so committed to its principles that Merritt has evoked the firm’s zero ego policy and resigned a large client whose values clashed with its own.
Spool specializes in partnering with clients that are impacting industries — and ready to grow bigger. In 2020, Spool drove interest and business for cannabis company Fluresh, despite the company operating in Michigan’s oversaturated recreational use cannabis market. Spool’s campaign differentiating Fluresh’s product garnered 65 media placements and 95.5 million impressions. Tapped to drive awareness of EggLife, an egg-based wrap, Spool worked with the company’s in-house team to create fans though regional business and trade earned media placements, a hyper-local influencer campaign and the power of UGC content to further establish the brand's online community.
— Diana Marszalek
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