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In 2009, Publicis Groupe acquired Bulgaria’s MARC Group, an integrated agency that includes a small public relations department, nevertheless big enough to give the French holding company a beachhead in the fast-growing Eastern European PR market. In 2011, Publicis added leading Polish independent Ciszewski Public Relations in 2011, giving it a strong corporate and financial communications presence in the region’s largest PR market. In 2013, meanwhile, it took over a majority stake in Romanian creative boutique The Practice—a firm that punched way above its weight in awards competition—strengthening its consumer credentials. The operation has gone from strength to strength since, and a new leadership team is not only sustaining but building on past success.
Today, MSL’s Eastern European operations include a presence in Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Bulgaria, and has expanded its footprint to include Latvia, Slovenia, and North Macedonia as well as a Ukrainian operation that is temporarily inoperative (but still supported) and partner agencies in Greece and Turkey. The firm has more than 200 people in the region as a whole.
The first year of the pandemic was a difficult one for MSL in Eastern Europe, with revenues down by 8%. In 2021, the firm recovered all of that revenue, and looked poised for growth—which it achieved in style in 2022, with fee income up by 17%, a number made even more impressive when you take into account the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on neighboring Poland. Fees are now €8.8 million. Key clients include Netflix, Procter & Gamble, Diageo, Emirates, Samsung, Mars, Stada, and new projects from Visa.
Sebastian Stępak leads the operation from Warsaw, having taken over as regional CEO in 2020. He is supported by market leaders including Oana Bulexa (Romania), Iva Grigorova (Bulgaria), Radek Vitek (Czech Republic), Olana Sukhanova (Ukraine), Baiba Kaulina (Latvia), Sandra Baron (Slovenia), and Saso Duljanov (North Macedonia) and public affairs lead Łukasz Kowalski and head of technology Grzegorz Kuźnik. In line with MSL generally, there is a culture of equality, openness and respect, regardless of gender, age, race, national and orientation identity, or religion. For example, the Groupe’s Égalité unit, which operates within the framework of Publicis Groupe Diversity, was active in Pride celebrations throughout the region. In addition, the firm has embraced remote working, with about a dozen of its Polish staff now located outside Warsaw, for example.
MSL’s Eastern European operations have bought into Publicis Groupe’s “Power of One” approach, and benefited significantly from partnering with other Groupe agencies (Starcom and Zenith in media; Saatchi and Leo Burnett in creative; Publicis LePont in commerce) with a special relationship with #LiquidThread, the experiential and branded entertainment group. After the successful launch of Mission Situation Lead, a new internal strategic framework, the firm has prepared an extended version of the tool. Examples of the client work include the “One Size Doesn't Fit Them All” for Durex DLG and “A Summer in the Upside Down” for Netflix, both produced b MSL The Practice; “Let's talk honestly about obesity” for Novo Nordisk, the Launch of Oral-B for P&G and the Huawei Start-Up Challenge from the Polish operation; and “Cards For Open Hearts” for Mars in the Czech Republic —all of which are nominated for SABRE Awards this year.
— Paul Holmes
Grayling has had an impressive turnaround over the past couple of years, testament to the leadership of Sarah Scholefield, who became global CEO in 2020. In CEE, where it has long been one of the strongest communications agency networks, the agency had an additional human and business challenge as it supported its teams in and close to Ukraine, and divested its Russia operation. Grayling has particular sector strength in financial services and fintech; energy, sustainability and the circular economy; transport and infrastructure; retail, leisure and hospitality; food and agriculture; and health. Last year, Grayling expanded its service offering in three key areas: public affairs marketing, which fuses political affairs with advertising to create campaigns that enable business to reach stakeholders, opinion formers and consumers across multiple channels; a new research function, with investment in insight and measurement tools and capabilities including polling, focus groups and creative testing; and a reworked digital offering with new expertise including SEO and paid.
In the Central & Eastern Europe region, Grayling has offices in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. The network also has offices in the UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Spain, plus affiliates in 15 other European countries and across the Middle East and Africa.
Across Central and Eastern Europe, Grayling’s revenue grew by 19.5% – compared to 13% across the network as a whole – and in Poland there was standout growth of 27.8%, making Grayling now one of the top four Polish agencies by income. The CEE offices – with a combined headcount of 142 – have an enviable client list, including Amazon, Diageo, eBay, Google, Bolt, Tetra Pak, TikTok and Visa, which is the agency’s most valuable client across CEE; in some markets this relationship has lasted for 20 years. New business came from banking platform Backbase, online retailer Zalando, fintech Joompay, VPN Surfshark and automotive parts manufacturer Mahle.
Despite working across multiple offices, Graylings teams in Central & Eastern Europe have a real sense of combined culture and collaboration. With so many teams working on the borders of Ukraine, the agency’s people in the region have spent much of the past year overcoming the societal, community and commercial challenges stemming from Russia’s invasion. The first priority was to ensure that its people were safe; Grayling helped its Ukrainian team to exit the country and supported them throughout the year. Across CEE, team members were given time off to support refugees arriving and colleagues, especially in neighbouring Poland, provided donations and support for Ukrainian refugees. The CEE offices follow Grayling’s global D&I strategy which incorporates plans to attract and retain underrepresented candidates and employees. This includes working with external organisations to ensure roles are accessible to those from minority backgrounds and those with disabilities, plus creating succession plans and processes to ensure unconscious bias is minimised when looking at promotions. Grayling CEE has numerous initiatives to support employee wellbeing, including webinars, seminars and external speakers around topics such as stress, mental health, and menopause. Remote working is supported if preferred, and in Poland the leadership team has introduced a hybrid working model, with most people working from home, with the option to work four weeks a year from any location, supported by an Employee Assistance Programme. In CEE, Scholefield is supported by a leadership team including regional CEO Peter Fecko, MD Natasa Trslic Stambak, and new hire Anna Balickova, MD of Czech Republic & Slovakia, who was formerly L’Oreal’s PR manager in Prague.
The Polish market was included in Grayling’s Dis/Connected Consumer Index In partnership with Opinium, which sought to understand how people are connecting with brands, government, culture and society. The agency was shortlisted for three SABRE awards, including launching Primark’s first store in Prague. In Hungary, the team developed the ‘Wrong Side of the Road’ campaign for Diageo, to underline the consequences of drink driving through real-life stories. The Polish and Czech teams supported Korean state-owned company KHNP in its pursuit for participation in national nuclear energy programmes, and in Croatia, the team ran an education programme on recycling for Tetra Pak.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
M3 Communications’ roots are humble ones, dating back to 1994, when Maxim Behar launched the firm in a small flat in downtown Sofia. In the years since, M3 has grown into one of Bulgaria’s top three PR firms, offering an uncommonly diverse range of communications services — including PR and public affairs, graphic design, media monitoring, event planning, branding, web development and education. Still solely owned by Behar (who serves as CEO and chairman), M3 is has been a Hill+Knowlton Strategies partner since 2000 and maintains its focus on serving the Bulgarian and Central European markets.
M3 Communications is headquartered in Sofia, Bulgaria and does work in Poland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Romania, and Armenia.
Even in a sluggish economy, M3 had a fruitful 2022, working on 60 projects over the course of the year. The agency’s fee income rose nearly 22% to €2.1 million thanks to new business from DS Smith, Bodimed Laboratories, Regina Life Clinic and Pharmalex. With the full range of offerings — PR, public affairs, social media, video production, reputation management, CSR management and others — and keen attention to client service, M3 builds long-lasting client relationships. Danone, L’Oreal, TNT/FedEx have been agency partners for nearly two decades; Facebook, Wizz Air, Accor, Allterco, BTL Industries, Cash Credit, Discordia, FOREO, Huawei, MARS, and shell have worked with M3 in the five-to-10-year range. M3 puts a premium on expanding services for client, which most recently resulted in a new video production and animation department staffed by content creation pros.
M3 focuses on the development of its staff from the start with an extensive onboarding process that includes instruction and supervision. Once settled, staff have ample opportunity for professional growth — courses, promotions, and mentorship among them. M3 is very much a team operation. Staff are involved in developing processes, implementing technology and the range of decisions affecting the agency’s future. All of which is in keeping with M3’s pandemic restructuring that crowned all employees as leaders, increasing ownership and autonomy. In 2021, M3 became the first communications agency in Bulgaria to earn a government Employer Without Discrimination certificate. The year before, M3 helped launch the Bulgarian Diversity Charter, which enables supporters to share experiences and best practices with their counterparts in 24 EU countries that have also adopted diversity charters.
2022 was a very busy, and diverse, year for M3, which worked on more than 60 major products in the areas of PR, CSR, event management, social media, graphic and web design. Among the year’s biggest efforts: orchestrating the spectacle around the UEFA Champions League Trophy tour coming to an end in Sofia, a TNT/FedEx-backed event that drew thousands. The Bulgarian Association of PR Agencies honored four M3 initiatives with awards: for L’Oreal and UNESCO’s Women in Science campaign; The Bulgarian Red Cross’s Do It for Those You Love campaign encouraging health safety; Breakfast Stories for Danone’s brand Activia; and The Inspirational Side of Science initiative for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
— Diana Marszalek
Our 2022 Central & Eastern European Consultancy of the Year, Seesame in 2022 continued to thrive, even grow, last year as the agency mobilized to help its colleagues and refugees from neighboring Ukraine. It’s that tenacity that has fueled Seesame’s emergence during its 26 years in business to one of the finest PR firms in the business. Now a full-service PR and digital agency with strengths across public affairs, employer branding, lifestyle and ESG, Seesame has strengthened its research/data and social impact capabilities, while also deepening its expertise in digital experience — all while unwaveringly committed to social impact.
There are 49 employees in Slovakia.
Named our 2022 Central & Eastern European Consultancy of the Year, Seesame saw revenue rise to €4.5 million from €4.3 million in 2022, a year that saw the agency mobilize to help Ukrainian colleagues and refugees through initiatives and organizing communications. Having spent 26 years raising the bar for PR in Slovakia, however, Seesame continued to draw and service clients with its full ray of services and focus on research & insights. Toyota, Martinus, iDodo, CBRE, RESCO, Whistleblower Protection Office, Free press Eastern Europe and Donio, which join a client roster populated by Henkel, Janssen, IKEA, Samsung, Shell, ESET, Heineken, Association of Innovative Pharmaceutical Companies, Envi-pak and Tesco among others. Also in 2022, the agency partnered with BIT in the UK and Comenius University in Bratislava to created and roll out new services rooted in behavioural sciences. Seesame is also driving partner of societal research program in partnership with Academy of Science.
Under founder Michaela Benedigova, Seesame is committed to the well-being of its employees as well as clients and social justice. In 2022, the agency adjusted its pay and bonus structure to reflect inflation and rising costs and launched its own workplace app built as a forum for employee appreciation and positive feedback. Mental health benefits include regulation sessions with psychiatrists, therapists and coaches — services tapped by more than 80% of staff. In addition to Benedigova, key leadership includes public affairs head Anna Michalkova.
Seesame’s work in 2022 is inextricably linked to Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, and its efforts to help the thousands of refugees who poured into Slovakia. The agency, backed by its social impact time, co-founded #KtoPomôžeUkrajine (Who Will Help Ukraine), a volunteer-platform dedicated to aiding those refugees, ultimately raising €2 million. Seesame also coordinated communications, digital presence, PR and media relations for the initiative. Seesame’s public affairs team has been managing communications around the Our Life is at Stake initiative, a call for equality and safety for LGBTI+ people that emerged after the murder of two men outside a gay bar. Seesame’s top client work included campaigns addressing prostate cancer prevention and depression for Janssen.
— Diana Marszalek
PRovoke Media’s 2020 Central & Eastern European Consultancy of the Year, United Partners started out in 1997 as a pioneer of PR in the Bulgarian market and remains one of the most innovative firms in the region. Marking its 26h anniversary this year, United Partners’ remains focused on being the ‘Tesla of the communications industry,’ focusing in particular on cultural strategy for brands across consumer, technology, healthcare, public sector and defence/security.
United Partners is based in Sofia, Bulgaria, but works across the wider region through its network of partner agencies.
United Partners last year leveraged its skills in brand strategy, corporate communications, social impact, public affairs, digital and employer branding to outwit a sluggish economy. Fee income rise 12% to €2.8 million. Twenty-nine employees supported new business from Kyndryl, Janssen, WWF, Unicef, Mustel, joining a client roster that includes P&G, Carlsberg, Nespresso, Fijelraven, Diageo, Paysafe, VMware, and Melexis. About 15% of UP’s fee income now comes from research and insights projects and brand and corporate strategies development, signifying the firm’s emergency as a strategic advisor.
United Partners has made a major priority of building the kind of corporate culture that attracts and retains top-tier talent. Efforts like appointing a psychologist available to help employees, helping deliver consistently high net promoter scores from UP’s employees. UP also continues to invest in growing its partner agency network, and has stepped up training for students and staff alike. In May, ICCO approved United Partners’ membership in the organization, a certification process that shows the agency’s workplace operations in areas including DEI are up to its standards. The culture that CEO/founder Maria Gergova-Bengtsson has instilled at UP is supported by head of finance/strategy Victor Savkin and digital leader Georgi Ivanov.
UP’s work retains the innovative flair that its Tesla positioning demands. That showed in the firm’s campaign for Diageo’s Johnnie Walker starring Mila Jovovich, which was built around the concept of Eastern European tenacity won our 2022 SABRE Award for superior achievement in brand-building. Other hallmark work includes the Hackathon UP organized for the Clean Air Fund focused on improving air quality in Bulgaria. The agency’s work for Nespresso included partnering with a local artist on an installation promoting brand values and awareness.
— Diana Marszalek
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