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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. There’s a strong consumer practice, including deep domain expertise in fashion and beauty and travel and lifestyle marketing; a fast-growing global health capability capable of competing with the best specialist firms; a tech practice that was the stellar performer of 2021; and specialist offerings in the arts and in education.
Headquartered in New York, Finn Partners has US offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Ft Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orange County, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC, as well as growing international network.
Even after a year that looks like the best in recent memory for the public relations industry as a whole, few firms are going to be able to match the performance of Finn Partners, which saw its North American fee income increase by 49% from around $90 million to more than $135 million (global revenues were $162 million)—all of which makes the 8.5% decline in 2020 feel like a distant memory. There were five acquisitions, including health IT firm Agency Ten22, travel specialist Hawkins International and Hawaii’s largest agency Anthology, but there was big organic growth in the tech and healthcare practices. And other metrics are strong: a five-fold increase in seven-figure clients over the past five years and an increase in the number of clients using integrated services. There was new business from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, BMC Software, The Body Shop, Faraday Future, Foundation Louis Vuitton, Honeywell, Michigan Economic Development Corporation/Pure Michigan, Pilot Company, Topps Digital, and Tivity Health, while the firm continues to work with 2K, Bridgestone, I Love NY, Margaritaville, Marvell, Meharry Medical College, Netscout, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Peter Finn has shown that the firm’s purpose-driven approach has been key to its success, from employee retention to a host of agency acquisitions in which shared values have been a critical success factor. The firm was also one of the first to offer full transparency on DE&I, setting a target of 30% racial diversity by 2023 and reaching 25% BIPOC employees last year. All staff have completed bias training, the firm’s partnership with the City College of New York provides a pipeline of diverse interns; and Finn has provided support to 40 Black-owned businesses in the markets it serves. New people in 2021 include Pepe Aguilar, formerly with Grey, as executive creative director; Steve Deluca from HL Group as senior partner, travel and lifestyle; Sabrina Guttman to lead the global technology practice from venture capital firm Next47; Ritesh Patel, formerly head of Ogilvy Digital to take that role at Finn and Ogilvy veteran Richard Hatzfeld to lead global public health.
Finn Partners is one of the few PR firms of any size to publish its own Purpose Report, detailing everything from the kinds of clients it will not work with to Peter Finn’s funding for Catskill Mountain Foundation, created in 1998 to revitalize struggling communities to the firm’s very public stand on Black Lives Matter. The creative work also remains strong: supporting The Body Shop’s work around the fight for transgender rights; leading the “Reinventing Live Sports for the Digital Age” campaign on behalf of Fan-Controlled Football; and empowering people living with schizophrenia for Alkermes.
— Paul Holmes
20 years ago, Allison+Partners was launched amid the wreckage of the dot-com bust and quickly established itself as a significant player, first on the West Coast and soon nationally. Now entering its third decade, the firm has been one of the fastest-growing and most award-winning midsize agencies in the US, establishing itself as a leader in the consumer, corporate and technology arenas, and building a formidable digital capability.
The firm’s US offices—its San Francisco headquarters, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami (new in 2021), New York, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, DC—are deliberately sized so that no one location is dominant and the firm has centers of excellence across the country. Over the past few years, the international reach has been growing too, and Allison now has offices in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, the Middle East, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and the UK.
After a slight decline in 2020, North American revenue grew by around 22% in 2021—and the firm’s top 10 clients even faster than that—to end the year with fees of $77.6 million, while global revenues were around $93.3 million, fueled by strong performance in Asia. New business performance was the best in the agency’s history, with 200 new assignments, from clients such as Aflac, Behr, Budweiser, Corona, Del Taco, GE Appliances, Grammarly, Groupon, Hewlett-Packard, Moderna, Qualcomm, Task Rabbit, Teradata, Tom Ford, and more. Coupled with growth from existing clients such as AB InBev, Blueair, Dexcom, Pepsico, ResMed, Samsung and Toyota, it’s easy to see why Allison enjoyed its best year ever in 2021.
Allison has its own approach to building a strong culture: no single office is larger than 100 people (most are in the 40-50 range) and the firm is organized as a single profit center, eliminating any barrier to collaboration. And the firm chose not to layoff any staff during a difficult 2020, creating a solid foundation for last year’s bounce back. Like many firms, Allison gave a lot of thought to the best way to bring people back into the office, added wellness and gratitude days for additional flexibility, and dedicated additional resources to diversity and inclusion. Key additions to the team in 2021 included Michelle Webb from BCW as managing director and North American health practice lead, supplemented later in the year by a trio of appointments in healthcare including Jamie Rismiller, leading the agency’s health tech portfolio; diagnostics, devices, and biotech expert Gabriela Duran; and Sarah Natoli, VP of health strategy. And earlier this year Allison added brand strategist Whitney Dailey as executive VP, purpose from Porter Novelli.
Allison+Partners picked up Best in Show honors at our Innovation SABRE Awards for its work with Budweiser, which saw the beer brand supporting Covid vaccine awareness and education in place of a pricey Super Bowl ad. But there was plenty of other good work in 2021, across multiple sectors: in the tech sector, it worked with Hewlett-Packard Enterprise on a comprehensive PR and AR effort that saw the storied brand revitalized and led to an expanded corporate and executive positioning brief; and an expanded corporate practice—boosted by the acquisition of boutique shop Sommerfield—worked with LegalZoom on the launch of its “Fast Break For Small Business” program with the NBA, supporting small business owners with grants and services amid the Great Resignation. And the new healthcare team worked with Moderna to expand its narrative beyond the Covid-19 vaccine discussion.
— Paul Holmes
Until relatively recently, Lippe Taylor was one of a number of New York consumer boutiques, keeping a low-profile and delivering solid earned media results for clients. But over the past decade, the firm has diversified its client portfolio—the healthcare practice is now a formidable player in its own right—and invested heavily in digital and social media capabilities and data and analytics, establishing itself as one of the market’s most forward-thinking brand builders. Last year also saw the addition of a corporate branding practice.
From its headquarters office in New York (relocated to new downtown space in 2020), Lippe Taylor offers national programming. It shares space with its Shop PR subsidiary. The firm is also developing offices in Chicago and Los Angeles.
After modest growth in 2020 (which was more than many rivals managed in a pandemic year), Lippe Taylor saw better than 50% growth in 2021, ending the year with fee income in excess of $37 million. The bulk of the growth came from existing clients, with the life sciences practice enjoying the biggest increase (it is now the agency’s largest) and a fledgling technology practice making some headway too. Existing clients such as abbvia, Galderma, Bayer, Spectrum Brands, Godiva, Pinterest, Sanofi and J&J maintained or expanded the scope of LT’s work, and there were new additions such as Pfizer, Costellation Brands, GE Appliances, Quest Diagnostics, Conagra, PIM Brands, Akili and 23andme.
Founder Maureen Lippe and chief executive Paul Dyer have given a lot of thought to the lifecycle of PR firms, the dangers of plateauing, and how to structure a business that empowers people to smash through growth barriers—there has been a new emphasis on giving everyone at LT the confidence and freedom to bring their own entrepreneurial ideas to the firm. It has also created new opportunities for staff with the creation of sister agency twelvenote (an expansion and rebrand for the former Shop PR). New additions include Ketchum and DBV Technologies veteran Joe Becker as chief integration officer; David Richeson, most recently with Allison, as chief digital officer; Weber Shandwick’s Nicole Lowe as chief engagement officer; and Geeta Patel from Golin as head of aalytics. Another interesting move saw agency veteran Stephanie Smirnov take on a new role as coach-in-residence. And of course the firm maintains its strong commitment to DE&I (it’s one of the few to share numbers openly): BIPOC employees now make up a third of all staff and representation in leadership roles increased by 20%.
Paul Dyer says that Lippe Taylor wants to be “the first earned marketing AOR,” which translates into becoming a PR firm that leads creative and is capable of delivering the earned, share, owned and paid solutions (LT’s acronym is ESOP, which puts these things in their proper order) clients are looking for. It has been making progress in that direction, developing the requisite advertising capabilities and pioneering digital and data tools, with the firm’s capabilities in influencer marketing and metrics among the standouts and scientific credentialing among the new developments. Interesting work ranged from the purpose-driven “No Apologies. Period” campaign for Midol, the “Most Meaningful Melody” campaign reaching Black audiences with heart-healthy messaging for Bayer, and the multiple award-winning “Beat the Zombie Funk” for Mucinex.
— Paul Holmes
The former Manning Selvage & Lee is the flagship full-service public relations operation of French communications holding company Publicis Groupe, on the comeback trail after a difficult decade in the 2010s. The firm has its primary strength in the consumer and healthcare spaces. 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 Fluency approach to influencer marketing). That has tended to overshadow solid healthcare capabilities and a surprisingly strong corporate practice.
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.
If MSL is not quite in the leadership position most global agencies expect of their US operations, it is now performing strongly and contributing innovative ideas and quality work. The turnaround that began with the arrival of Diana Littman in 2018 resumed in 2021 (after a flat 2020) with 9% growth so that the North American operation now represents about $66 million of MSL’s – part of Publicis Groupe -- $385 million global revenue. Both the consumer and healthcare practices enjoyed double-digit growth, building on existing relationships with the likes of Campbell’s, Constellation Brands, Deloitte, GM, JM Smucker, Lilly, and P&G and adding new business from Inspire Brands (a $4 million consolidation that includes restaurant chains Dunkin’, Sonic, and Arby’s), DeVry University, GSK, Fast Radius, and Campbell’s Goldfish and V8 brands.
Like most legacy agencies, MSL is wrestling with the challenge of increasing BIPOC representation, and is making progress, from 24.5% in 2020 to 27.6% last year and launching a host of new employee resource groups designed to ensure community-building and inclusivity. And Littman has been working hard to ensure that despite the firm’s flexibility when it comes to work from home/back to the office (unlimited time off, 20 weeks parental or family leave, health and wellness reiumbursements), everyone stays connected. New people include chief client officer Lisa Talbot, from IPG; chief strategy officer Shreya Mukherjee from Deutsch; Ogilvy veteran Rob Davis as chief digital integration officer; and Rosemary Calderone, ex-McCann, senior vice president on the agency’s P&G business.
MSL really hit the ground running for Inspire’s flagship brands, launching new products for Sonic and Baskin-Robbins and promoting what was positioned as the first “diss track” produced by a quick service restaurant as Pusha-T helped Arby’s go after McDonald’s fish sandwich. But it was a banner year for creativity generally, giving stodgy Tampax a social media makeover that drove engagement on Instagram and TikTok; created a viral challenge for the Goldfish brand on TikTok; helped Gilead craft an advocacy campaign reducing the shame and stigma of HIV in communities of faith; and developing a B2B campaign for longtime client, the United Soybean Board. But as strong as the client work was, it was matched by the firm’s own movement-building efforts around the influencer pay gap, with research highlighting the 35% lower compensation for Black influencers versus white influencers and 27% between BIPOC and white influencers—which was led via Fluency, MSL’s proprietary influencer marketing platform, and built the firm’s influencer marketing team’s leadership positioning.
— Paul Holmes
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. Perhaps best known for its consumer work—at least historically—Zeno has a balanced portfolio that includes a 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 cutting-edge digital capabilities, including a best-in-breed data and analytics division.
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.
After a successful 2020, during which Zeno far outperformed its peers and earned our Midsize Agency of the Year honors, 2021 was even better: fee income up by close to 40% to more than $118 million, of which around $99 million of which is North American. Headcount increased accordingly, with 498 people in the US and Canada. A hugely impressive new business year saw the firm add assignments from ABB, Alcoa, Chick-fil-A, Cognizant, Danone, General Mills, Kimberly-Clark Professional, MasterClass, Olympus, Robinhood, Regeneron, SCJohnson, the US Postal Service, Western Union and Zoom, while retaining 90% of its top 20 clients, a group that includes Kia (18 years), Pizza Hut (15 years), AstraZeneca (14), Scotts MiracleGro (12), and KPMG (eight).
Zeno’s promise to be the agency where "careers are built and lives are lived" pre-dates the pandemic but has taken on new resonance as employees began to return to the office. Likewise, its mission statement—”champion the courageous to achieve something better for humankind"—gives the firm a purpose that is critical in these times. After making salary reductions at the start of the pandemic, all the money that employees sacrificed in 2020 was repaid in full in February 2021. Meanwhile, the “Zeno for Everyone” initiative began to bear fruit in 2021, with six ERGs providing a community for various ethnic and gender-based employees' groups. There was a 3% increase in racial and ethnic diversity, to 27%, with 22% of the leadership diverse. Finally, new talent includes global managing director of health and wellness Kristie Kuhl, from Finn Partners; Anne DeAngelis from Boeing as head of employee engagement strategy; boomerang Thomas Bunn from BCW as global head of planning; and new head of diversity, equity & inclusion Andrea Richardson, formerly with Hilton.
The “Human Project” research that has helped to establish Zeno as a leader in corporate and brand purpose continued in 2021 with a timely new study focusing on the evolving workplace. And not surprisingly, purpose-driven work was among the firm’s best, including projects for Hyatt (“World of Care”), Danone (“One Planet, One Health”), and Lenovo (the “smarter technology for all” initiative). There was an array of work in the DE&I space too, including campaigns for Lenovo, Bristol Myers Squibb and Motel 6, while Zeno supplemented its own capabilities in the multicultural space by making a strategic investment in highly-regarded minority-owned specialist firm EGAMI Group. Other highlights included extending a helping hand (belonging to Joe Jonas) to nervous travelers for Expedia; sustainability work for Coca-Cola; and working with The Honest Company on its journey to going public.
— Paul Holmes
Our 23rd annual SABRE Awards North America took place in NYC on 4 May.
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