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Founded in 2009 by veterans of the previous year’s successful Obama presidential campaign, Bully Pulpit combines Washington policy smarts, Madison Avenue creative, and Silicon Valley tech savvy. Still perhaps best known for its political work—it continues to handle electoral campaigns—the firm has expanded well beyond that realm and now provides public affairs, issues management, and corporate reputation counsel to a broad range of companies, associations, and senior executives. Its capabilities include the full range of paid, earned, shared and owned media, delivered in a seamless, integrated, channel-neutral approach.
Bully Pulpit has offices in Washington, DC (HQ), New York, Chicago and San Francisco, although an increasingly remote workforce means it has people across the US.
Growth of about 10% took Bully Pulpit to a little over $47 million in fee income, which doesn’t sound like a spectacular success until you remember that the firm still does a lot of political campaign work, which means that fee income usually declines in a non-election year; in fact, this was the first time since its creation that BPI grew in an odd number year. There was new business from clients such as America’s Frontier Fund, Boeing, Climate Power, Thomson Reuters, New Belgium Brewing, Levi’s and NBC Universal.
Like most agencies, Bully Pulpit says its biggest challenge over the past 12 months has been attracting and retaining talent, and the firm built on its existing cultural strength by updating its benefits to better support mental health and future parents. The firm also has a commitment to DE&I befitting its progressive roots: 30% of staff are now BIPOC and the number is growing and BIPOC representation in the senior ranks increased by 8% in 2021. New hires during the year included Bradley Akubuiro, who joined as partner from Boeing; BCW veteran Kim Axelrod as COO; managing directors Xochitl Hinojosa (from the DNC) and Yolanda Murphy (from Northrop Grumman), Carahna Magwood as creative director from the White House, and additions to the data and analytics team.
Bully Pulpit’s sweet spot remains the increasingly-important intersection of policy, societal change and corporate affairs, which meant a busy 2021 as companies dealt with the fallout from the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as with a new administration’s interest in increased government spending and regulation. So there was corporate purpose work for clients like Boeing, Goldman Sachs (partnering with One Million Black Women), McDonald’s and Walmart. There were policy initiatives for AB InBev, the Biden administration’s Building Back Together coalition, the Human Rights Campaign (which is fighting hate laws in Florida, Texas and other red states) and the ACLU. But there was also work in emerging industries, with clients such as Instacart, cannabis website Leafly, and Andreessen Horowitz’s venture fund a16z crypto. The firm also developed its own Decibel product, a first-of-its-kind competitive intelligence tool.
— Paul Holmes
Initially founded as the public affairs arm of the Arnold & Porter law firm, and later part of Grey Advertising network, APCO has enjoyed its best years since buying back its independence, solidifying its position as the world’s largest independent public affairs firm while expanding its broader corporate reputation and digital capabilities and generally helping C-suite clients see around corners.
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 additional North American offices in Raleigh, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle—supplemented by an extensive global footprint that includes all the major policy-making centers.
The firm enjoyed its best year in recent memory in 2021, reflecting the need for corporate clients to engage with a host of complex geopolitical challenges that a firm like APCO was custom-built to address. North American revenue was up 19% to just over $85 million, and globally the firm did $172 million—a 21% increase. There was growth from clients including North Carolina Community Colleges, the Environmental Defense Fund, Takeda, Hyerfine, Ellucian, Roche, the International Copper Association, Levi’s, Grubhub, Estée Lauder, and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
Former Raytheon and Bechtel corporate affairs exec Charlene Wheeless joined at the tail end of 2020 to spearhead APCO’s efforts on social equity and justice, and the firm has been active over the past 12 months, with initiatives including partnering with the family of murder victim George Floyd to mark the one year anniversary of his death to the creation of new employee resource groups to crafting a new “inclusivity accord” formalizing its commitment to the issue. New additions to the agency’s senior team included BCW veterans Licy Do Canto as managing director of the flagship Washington, DC, office; Mathew Shearman as North America healthcare lead; and Walmart alum Teresa Lu as head of a new global China practice.
As always APCO has been out front in terms of geopolitical issues, launching a new global China practice to help companies navigate the reputation issues that make doing business with the world’s second largest economy so challenging, and creating a Geo-Commerce Solutions group that confronts the fact that many governments are weaponizing multinational corporations in their trade and other disputes. But the firm also expanded its corporate capabilities with the launch of APCO Impact, building on its acquisitions of Tembo Group and Global Philanthropy Group to create a robust practice. Highlights of the work, meanwhile, include working with crash-testing technology company Humanetics to address the fact that crash-test standards still assume male drivers; Earth Day programming for IKEA; and the “Patients in Focus” campaign for Pfizer.
— Paul Holmes
Precision’s roots as pioneering public affairs 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. The firm 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 runs alongside sophisticated capabilities in advertising, crisis management, branding, creative, website management, events and experiential marketing. The firm has also formalized a misinformation practice, while its mobilization and campaign management offering is led by the former national states director for President Biden’s 2020 campaign.
Precision is headquartered in Washington DC and also operates a New York office, totalling 121 employees.
Precision’s political roots helped it thrive in 2021, when it grew by 50% to $36m. The firm’s public affairs expertise proved critical amid Democratic control of the White House and Congress, while its misinformation and disinformation expertise also helped drive considerable private sector demand for tailored crisis training and custom monitoring. There was new business from Lambda Legal, the Office of the California Surgeon General, Success Academy Charter Schools, Welcome.US and the Live Events Entertainment Association, along with a host of blue-chip clients who must remain confidential. They joined an existing roster that features the Gates Foundation, General Electric, Gilead Sciences, Humana, IBM, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Planned Parenthood.
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. The duo are joined on the senior leadership team by partner Mike Spahn and COO Tom Reno, while new of counsel arrivals included legendary Obama advisor David Plouffe and former Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock. In 2021, the firm stepped up investment in senior talent, DEI training, proprietary data & analytic tools, IT upgrades, and project management and worksharing applications. On the DEI front, that meant several initiatives focused on hiring, programming, and client work — underpinned by a partnership with NOVA collective to evaluate progress on a regular basis.
Precision’s thought leadership activity has accelerated in recent years, including proprietary research from the firm’s data team into President Biden’s address to the joint session of Congress. Campaign highlights included the Biden’s Emmy-nominated inauguration night special; the launch of Welcome.US to support Afghan refugees in America; and, a new data-driven brand and website for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
— Arun Sudhaman
Seven-year-old bipartisan public affairs shop ROKK Solutions is led by founding partners Rodell Mollineau and Ron Bonjean, both of whom bring considerable political, public affairs and crisis communications experience. ROKK’s public affairs expertise spans financial services, technology, public health, trade, and transportation, influencing policy on a local, state, and national level. The firm now numbers 30+ associates and is 50% minority owned.
ROKK is headquartered in Washington DC.
2021 saw ROKK Solutions registering $10.1 million in fee income — up 119% from 2020’s $4.6 million. Though a public affairs first, ROKK brings the entirety of the communications toolkit to solving its clients’ challenges, drawing business with in-house digital, paid and creative functions. The firm has also prioritized social impact communications as a key component of public affairs strategies. ROKK welcomed new business from FairVote, Digital Divide Coalition, Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association, US Travel, Snap and GAP among others.
Mollineau and Bonjean oversee a team that includes partner Kristen Hawn and senior VP John LaBombard, who joined last year after leading communications for US Sen. Krysten Sinema. ROKK also hired new creative, digital and marketing leaders. The firm’s founders have made it a strategic imperative to recruit for not just diversity of political view, but diversity of thought, experience, ethnicity, gender, and more. Today, ROKK is 31% POC and 62.5% women, compared with the average of 17% in public affairs overall (according to a Public Affairs Council report). ROKK’s executive leadership team is 50% women, and 25% POC. One of the three partners of the firm is a person of color, and another is a woman.
Managing director Lindsay Singleton’s thought leadership work included partnering with Penn State on research looking at how 1,240 registered voters’ views of ESG correlate to political beliefs. The study found 66% of Republicans under 45 years old agree that climate change is a real threat (compared to 71% of Democrats under 45 years old), showing younger voters are more aligned than the media may lead us to believe. Heavy on earned media, ROKK has rolled out a new product, called Radius, which uses digital insights to help users better understand the journalists they’re pitching, and craft stories accordingly. ROKK’s work for Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association was awarded a PRovoke Media Innovation SABRE earlier this year.
— Diana Marszalek
Founded in 2004 by political strategists Anita Dunn, Bill Knapp and Josh Isay, SKDK was one of a handful of firms that shaped the modern public affairs business by bringing the political campaign mentality—heavy dependence on research and audience insights, integrated solutions, surprising creativity—to corporate campaigns. Since then, the firm has been at the forefront of complex issues—particularly progressive issues—from gay marriage to abortion rights, providing public affairs and crisis management support. At the onset of the pandemic, it acquired corporate and financial communications firm Sloane & Company, a sister agency in the Stagwell family. It has also continued its political campaign work, serving as paid media firm for the winning Biden presidential campaign in 2020.
SKDK has twin headquarters in Washington, DC, and New York as well as smaller offices in Albany and Los Angeles.
SKDK treats financial performance as confidential, although the firm is believed to have just under 200 employees spread across its four offices. While 2021 was an off-year as far as political campaigns are concerned, there was particularly rapid growth in multicultural communications, healthcare, and litigation, regulation and investigation. New business came from Climate Power, the Robin Hood Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Anti-Defamation League, PhRMA, Aspen Institute, Johns Hopkins University, while the firm continues its work with big blue-chip brands such as AT&T, Mount Sinai Health System, Disney, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Pfizer, as well as not-for-profit groups such as the National Partnership for Women & Families and the Community Justice Action Fund.
The big people news of 2021 was the announcement at the end of the year that vice chair and managing director Hilary Rosen would be leaving the firm, but there has been plenty of new talent such as Sakura Komiyama Amend from En+ Group as managing director; former WeWork CCO Marissa Shorenstein as principal; and Mariel Sáez, who joined in DC from President Biden’s White House communications team. With pandemic-related restrictions coming to an end, SKDK formed a Return-to-Work Committee including employees at all levels to track CDC guidelines and city health data and provide an open forum to discuss the process of returning to the office and ensuring that leadership was guided by employees in its decision-making. Another committee, tasked with addressing “remote work fatigue,” sought ways to better support employees struggling through lockdown. The firm also appointed Rae Robinson as its first chief equity and inclusion officer and added a director of equity and inclusion.
As usual, the firm has been involved in a host of high-profile issues, from protecting women’s reproductive health at the Supreme Court, to partnering with attorneys representing more than 1,000 people who were abused as Boy Scouts to tell survivors’ stories in the media and hold the Boy Scouts of America civilly accountable. SKDK also worked with Pfizer around the introduction of the Covid vaccine, streamlining communications around efforts to ramp up production and producing ads highlighting the importance of research, science, and innovation. And working with Climate Power it has created ads designed to ensure that the governing majority delivers on climate promises made during the 2020 election campaign.
— Paul Holmes
Our 23rd annual SABRE Awards North America took place in NYC on 4 May.
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