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Best Agency to Work For is possibly the only predictive PRovoke Media award. Over the years, we’ve noticed a direct correlation between the agencies on this list and those that take home our biggest honor (often at some point in the future) — Agency of the Year recognition. That's because building a great workplace culture—diverse and inclusive, flexible enough to accommodate a continuum of home-office preferences, respectful of employees’ mental health—has never been more critical than it is today.
In 2022, the aftershocks of the pandemic continued to rumble through the industry as firms wrestled to balance the demand for flexible work schedules with the cultural cohesion that is perhaps easier to realize in a shared office space. While the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting” were perhaps overstated, there was a “great renegotiation” around what employers can reasonably expect from employees.
At the same time, diversity, equity and inclusion remained a critical issue. For the PR industry in particular, this is an existential challenge: to create communications campaigns that reach all citizens, agencies need to look more like all citizens; the same is true whether the audience is a diverse employee population, communities of color, or specific marginalized populations too long neglected.
Mental health compounded these challenges. There is a newfound understanding that mental health issues need to be accorded the same degree of respect and understanding that has long been expected in physical health terms. And there was perhaps the beginning of a new understanding the long hours and demanding clients that have long defined consultancy life might not be compatible with caring for employees’ well being.
If all of this sounds like managing a people-centric business like PR is getting increasingly complicated and challenging (and make no mistake, the value chain of communications consulting is clear: attract, develop and retain good people and they will bring in good clients, who will in turn deliver long-term growth and profitability) it is.
But the good news was there too: a mounting body of evidence that suggests a strong link between employee happiness and job performance. (As a result of this research, we tweaked out Best Consultancies to Work For survey questions to place greater emphasis on employee happiness rather than just satisfaction).
These five Best Agencies to Work For will be presented with their trophies at the 2023 North American SABRE Awards dinner, which takes place at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 4. Tables and tickets are available now.
Founded in 2011 when Peter Finn spun off from 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.
In 2022, fee income for Finn globally hit $197 million (up by 21,5% over the previous year) with North America accounting for $167 million of that, and while there were acquisitions again last year—AHA, an integrated marketing firm with strong employee engagement credentials, sustainability consultancy the Winston Agency, food and wellness boutique Rachel Kay Agency —the vast majority of the growth was organic. Healthcare is now Finn’s largest practice, having recently overtaken technology, with the consumer an travel practice also growing impressively. There are big name clients in multiple sectors: health (Meharry Medical, LifePoint Health, Vanderbilt University Medical Center as well as numerous confidential pharma clients); technology (2K Games, AWS, Honeywell, Netscout); travel (Pure Michigan, Accor, Iceland); consumer (Little Caesers, Purina, TruEarth); and purpose (Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, Verizon, MADD).
In the 12 years since Finn’s founding, it has been guided by Peter Finn’s vision of creating “a world-class agency with a heart and a conscience,” which has been critical in helping Finn attract both talent and acquisition partners—and clients too no doubt. The vision is manifested in a culture that starts with principled leadership, and emphasizes partnership, passion, and positive impact. Last year saw the launch of the Finn 10 Club, recognizing those who have been with the agency for 10 years or more—an impressive indicator of the firm’s low turnover.
Not surprisingly, Finn has been a leader in DEI, one of the first firms to release real data (26% of the current workforce is BIPOC, and 33.4% of new hires). The firm has launched a number HIP groups (hobbies, interests and passions) which aim to bring people together; offers for DEI scholarships; and partners with the Diversity Action Alliance and the Urban League, among others.
The three words that best describe the culture at Finn are “collaborative,” “caring,” and “fair.” Asked to identify their favorite thing about the firm, the most common answer is “the people,” while several respondents city the fact that “Leadership truly believes and follows through on their mission/value of ‘people first.’" Adds another employee: “I love what it stands for, as a private business that works with products and people who are proud of who they are and what they can provide for others.” Asked about the worst aspects of working at Finn, the most common responses involve “compensation” and “the work load.”
After a couple of quiet years, which included its sale from China’s Bluefocus to private equity players CVC Capital/CDPQ, Citizen Relations has returned to prominence under the leadership of global president Nick Cowling. The firm’s strong roots across consumer, corporate and creative provided the foundation for the launch of a new mission in 2020, focusing on purpose-led communications and supported by a social impact division led by Dr Shilpa Tiwari. That positioning has transformed the agency’s offering towards helping clients determine how to behave, rather than just what they say, and is supported by a new creative and strategic hub in North America.
2022 was the best financial year in Citizen’s history, with 20% growth that pushed the agency over the $35 million mark for the first time — a testament to the transformation strategy launched several years earlier. After a seven-year stall, the US continued its growth streak, registering double-digit growth for the third consecutive year. Citizen’s reputation for delivering results paid off with new business from Champion, Carrier, Simon Property Group, Sunlife, Deltek and TSX, as well as mandate to launch Vinfast’s electric SUVs in North America. Citizens’ focus on innovation, as well as new social impact and strategy/creative, offerings secured relationships with existing clients including P&G, Duracell, PepsiCo Foods (Canada), MolsonCoors, Loblaws, Egg Farmers of Canada, United Wheels and Groupo Bimbo.
When the firm adopted the Citizen Relations name (all the way back in 2011) it was explicit about the reaons: putting people first and recognizing an obligation to fellow and future citizens. Citizen’s employee engagement score rose to 83% (3.5% higher than 2021), reflecting how the firm’s new sense of purpose is also translating to a more vibrant employee culture. The firm’s focus on mental health continues with an annual campaign conducted in partnership with local organizations where Citizen operates.
Citizen’s approach to DEI is multifaceted, evaluating the full range of measurements to identify disparities in promotions, mentorships or among suppliers. To maintain a culture of belonging and connection, global town hall meetings are held regularly, opportunities to collaborate across offices are encouraged, and connections across offices have been increased via a number of global committees, COEs and ERGs. The year capped with a 40% diverse staff; Citizen’s executive team is 50% women, 29% BIPOC and 15% LBGTQIA+.
“Welcoming,” “supportive,” and “inclusive” are the words most frequently used to describe the Citizen Relations culture. Asked what they like best about their firm, the most common answers are “the people” and “the leadership.” More specifically, as one respondent puts it: “I love the leadership team at the agency, and the people I get to work with everyday. The L -team are all such an inspiration, and they're really invested in the team's growth in the industry.” Adds another: “We have an amazing culture and family environment. I'm comfortable being myself and speaking up.” As for the worst aspects of Citizen life, the workload is the number one response. “We need more people,” says one respondent.
Tom Coyne’s agency has always had a strong sense of mission, from its formation in 1991 when the emphasis was on becoming a destination agency for talent (reflected in several Best Agency to Work For awards) to today, when the firm exists because “we believe great communication can change the world,” as Coyne says. The vision has changed little in 30 years, but the range of services offered has evolved considerably, as Coyne has transformed itself from a traditional consumer public relations firm into a modern integrated agency, offering social media management, influencer relations, digital marketing, content development and more and expanding its business in healthcare and corporate communications.
In the first year of the pandemic, exposed in the travel and retail sectors, Coyne saw almost $10 million in fee income either shut down or put on hold. Characteristically, Coyne made the decision to not lay off any of his people, and as the business rebounded over the next couple of years that proved to be a smart decision. The firm has now recovered all that lost revenue and then some, and 2022 was the best year in its history, with fee income just shy of $40 million (up 9% on 2021). With healthcare turning in a particularly impressive performance (it now accounts for 40% of the firm’s business), new clients included HelloFresh, Reproductive Medicine Associates, Champagne Taittinger, PharmaRegs, V Foundation for Cancer Research, TruRoots, MiraDry, Einstein Bros. Bagels, KISS Beauty, and OraPharma.
As people began to return to the office, Coyne introduced its "Better 2Gether" approach, which in practice means people spend about 40% of their time in the office (important for culture and team building) and 60% in more flexible circumstances. The firm continued to expand its Coyne College training program, Coyne College with a focus on the junior-level training bootcamp, which includes a customized five-week curriculum to prepare junior employees and set them up for success.
Coyne’s DEI Committee continues to develop forward-leaning policies and spearhead initiatives to enhance the workplace experience. The Committee hosted dozens of events over the past year to raise awareness of and celebrate diversity. The firm’s diversity numbers are better than the industry average (37%) but Coyne is not resting on its laurels: it reimagined its DEI Committee last year to spark innovative approaches, with employees themselves taking the lead, and the intern program is now 50% diverse.
“Collaborative,” “creative,” and “fun,” are the three words respondents use most frequently when describing the Coyne culture. Asked to identify their favorite thing about the firm, one respondent says. “The culture has been welcoming and inclusive since I started here nearly 15 years ago.” Another says: “I feel empowered here. We are all encouraged to play into our strengths to achieve agency goals and, at the end of the day, leadership cares about its employees.” The worst aspects of life at Coyne: “Working from home makes it harder to get to know everyone.” And the compensation, of course.
Despite making roughly twice as much money in Asia, The Hoffman Agency is still very much a US firm. The firm operates out of San Jose, California, where Lou Hoffman launched the company more than 30 years ago. In that time, the firm has grown beyond its B2B technology roots to encompass consumer marketing and integrated communications, with a particularly strong bent towards startups and disruptors.
Hoffman, which has offices across Asia and Europe, doubled down on its operation in the US, where most global remit decisions take place. Last year, the firm started designating and training global leads to manage the agency’s multi-market offerings from the US. The firm also created a talent marketing, acquisition, and branding practice. North American business accounted for $7.8 million of Hoffman’s $26.3 million in global revenue, up 41% from 2021. Trellix’s global business was the year’s biggest win, while new business also came from Lightship RV and Everest Labs. Longtime clients Nokia (9 years), Baidu (5 years), City of Fremont (9 years), LAM Research (5 years) and Supermicro (5 years) also populate Hoffman’s roster.
Shortly into 2021, Hoffman made the wellbeing of its employees and workplace its No. 1 priority, leading to high retention rates. But when a September survey showed 23% of staff did not look forward to coming to work each day, Hoffman resolved the issue before it became damaging by restructuring its team so younger staff worked on no more than three accounts. Fast forward to 2022, and the mood was decidedly different; Last year’s survey showed 90% of Hoffman’s staff would recommend to the agency to friends and 80% look forward to going to work.
Hoffman intensified its DEI efforts by requiring 25% of new hires to be BIPOC, offering DEI-related training and activities and creating a scholarship for diverse students attending California Community Colleges. Today, 29% of Hoffman’s staff represent the BIPOC community, up from 19% in July 2020. Diversity among the agency’s senior team in rose from zero to 21%.
The three most common words employees use to describe the Hoffman culture are “geeks at heart,” the firm’s rallying cry. Beyond that, terms like “welcoming” and “supportive” come up a lot. The best thing about Hoffman, beyond “the people” is the fact that “Everyone's voice has the same weight. The agency fosters a creative culture intended to help professionals flex and stretch across account work.” Another respondent adds: “I feel genuinely heard and seen at Hoffman. No idea is too big or small— my voice is always empowered here.” In addition to complaints about compensation, one respondent says: “Would love to see more opportunities for remote employees to have face time with team members.”
Founded in 2013 by Molly Levinson, the Levinson Group (TLG) is probably best known for its crisis and risk management work, along with its public interest efforts on such issues as pay equity, press freedom and human rights. The firm is regularly called in to handle complex issues and crisis situations, on behalf of Fortune 50 corporations, tech/entertainment companies, major sports franchises, Olympic athletes, global celebrities and business leaders. In addition, it has helped lead successful efforts to deliver equal pay for the US Women’s National soccer team; advised high-profile #MeToo survivors and groups; and served as comms strategist for global human rights advocates. The firm fuses experience in politics, policy, the private sector, and the law with deep media relationships and a commitment to pursuing meaningful work.
TLG’s 17-strong consultancy is regularly cited among the best firms working in the legal and crisis areas. Accordingly, much of its client work is confidential but new business that can be disclosed includes AxiosHQ, Girl Scouts of the USA, The Information, Live Nation/Ticketmaster and President Biden’s personal legal team. Existing clients feature Darktrace, Delaware North Companies, the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation, Imerys Talc America, the National Audobon Society and the US Women’s National soccer team. TLG has worked on some of the biggest crises in recent years.
TLG’s flat structure empowers employees to contribute equally, while there is also a significant focus on mentorship and pro bono work related to gender, press freedom and human rights. Levinson recently bolstered its staff benefits across salary, bonuses, PTO, parental leave and hybrid work. In an effort to connect with team members from across the globe, TLG implemented a new “office swap” program that allows employees to work in another location for a week with colleagues they typically interact with virtually.
TLG’s DE&I commitments include leadership opportunities for female staffers, and Levinson’s own status as a DE&I champion as recognized by Ragan’s.
Like many of the firm’s in this survey, Levinson’s employees are most likely to describe the culture as “collaborative,” but there’s also a most distinctive emphasis on “high-performing.” One survey respondent like the fact “That it a small, tight-knit group of employees. We are all super invested in each other's growth because it'll help us all out.” Another is excited by “the opportunity to work on matters of importance.” The flipside of some of those benefits is that “being a part of a small, tight-knit team means that there can work-life balance can be a bit of a challenge.”
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