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Founded in Pittsburgh exactly 100 years ago, Ketchum is one of the most storied names in the communications for business, and in recent years the public relations firmhas been more famous and more successful than its ad agency parent, establishing itself as a top 10 global PR shop before its 1996 acquisition by Omnicom. While Ketchum is a full-service agency—there’s a thriving healthcare practice, and capabilities in corporate and technology—it remains best known for its work in the consumer space and for its outstanding creative track record.
Headquartered in New York, Ketchum has a presence in nine US cities, as well as in Toronto and Montreal, and an extensive global network.
After a few years during which the firm’s creative work was celebrated but its business performance lagged its peer group, Ketchum enjoyed its best growth in two decades last year, with North American revenues up about 14%. Growth among the biggest clients (over $2 million) was twice that rate, and the firm retained 97% of its top 50 clients. There was organic growth from longstanding clients like 3M and Frito-Lay, Mastercard and Wendy’s, and new business from the likes of the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, Aflac, Califia Farms, New Balance, Freddie Mac, and Hyundai (retained after a procurement-driven re-bid process).
Ketchum has long been regarded as an employer of choice among the largest agencies, and the firm’s longstanding commitment to putting empathy as the heart of its culture (reflected in the launch of a new “trauma” communications practice and a focus on health equity this year) continues to set it apart. A new brand promise was developed in 2022, focused on “progress at work,” with an emphasis on values such as teamwork, optimism, connection and purpose. DEI has been a priority, from Juneteenth celebrations to expanded employee resource groups to a diversified Ketchum Fellowship experience to an array of new and inclusive family friendly benefits (as well as counseling more clients on their own DEI journeys). The firm has added 200 new people over the past 12 months, the biggest names among them including industry vet Jim Joseph as US chief executive; and Samantha Schwarz as president of healthcare consultancy from Golin; and Jo Madnani as Marketing & Communications lead, from MMC. And staff turnover decreased by 5%, despite the backdrop of “quiet quitting” and the “great resignation.”
Ketchum talks about its work in terms of “empathy+intelligence,” reflecting a belief that the best PR reflects both a desire to make a positive contribution and a real difference to its clients. The firm’s embrace of its parent company’s omninearnedID technology and attribution analytics, emphasizes the importance of the latter. An internal restructuring has established three distinct consulting units (Vita, focused on food and nutrition; Amor, focused on building lobe for big brands; and Bene (healthcare), supported by units specializing in analytics and strategy, creative, reputation, and engagement—all within a single P&L to deliver the best resources to clients. The quality of the work remains top tier: Ketchum won 13 Innovation SABRE Awards (more than twice as many as any other firm) for clients such as Frito-Lay, Michelin, Wendy’s and J&J, and the firm is also shortlisted for several North American SABREs, for campaigns such as “Sunshine to Spare” for Discover Puerto Rico; “Cracker Jill” for Frito-Lay; the Gillette “Stadium Takeover”; and tackling health inequities for Johnson & Johnson.
— Paul Holmes
Last year marked the start of a new era for Cirkle, which in its 21st year became the first employee owned trust agency to agree sale terms with a network. Majority owned by its team since 2018, the sale to Huntsworth (whose PR agency group is now known as Accordience) meant all employees were rewarded for their part in building the business. The purchase reflected a real evolution in the agency’s growth, client base and offer, from being known as a trade food and drink PR shop to becoming an integrated consumer brand, lifestyle and corporate communications agency with specialist content production, digital, social, SEO and influencer teams. Under the leadership of CEO Ruth Kieran, the agency also now has purpose squarely at the heart of its brand work.
Cirkle is based in London.
Last year, Cirkle brought in more than £2.5million of new business fee income and had a 77% pitch win rate, winning hotly-contested accounts including Ocado, Aldi, Yoplait, AkzoNobel (which owns Dulux and Cuprinol), Heineken, Dyson, and a move into the beauty sector with Max Factor. The agency also had organic growth of 19%, and client retention of more than 80%, culminating in a record 51% fee income growth, 38% EBITDA margin and growing the team by 57% to 70 people. Its client roster also includes Mars Petcare, Ferrero, Britvic, Nomad Foods (Birds Eye, Goodfellas, Aunt Bessie’s), Pepsico, Premier Foods, and Haleon, part of GSK, whose brands include Sensodyne, Panadol and Centrum vitamins.
Kieran is supported by a management team that includes consumer brands managing partner Kate Gibson, corporate reputation and B2B managing partner Annemarie Penderis, head of trade Amy Searle and creative director Chris Grabowski. The agency’s leadership works hard to provide an inclusive, flexible and supportive environment for all employees; last year it was awarded full Blueprint status, having been an Ally of the diversity mark for two years, and the agency’s D&I committee contributes towards a range of initiatives including training and engagement. In 2022, Cirkle doubled its investment in training and development, and was again named as one of Great Places To Work’s best places for women to work in the UK. The agency is committed to become more sustainable, with ambitious five-year targets to reduce its carbon footprint – it became carbon neutral last year – and has implemented energy- and emissions-saving actions including an electric car scheme. In 2022 Cirkle expanded its partnership with social mobility charity Career Ready, and started supporting Brixton Finishing School, delivering mentoring schemes, work placements and masterclasses, supporting more than 100 young people. Its team also supports a local foodbank as its charity partner.
Cirkle was shortlisted for an impressive 11 SABRE awards, including work for Heineken, AkzoNobel and Aunt Bessie’s. Among its stand-out campaigns was ‘CAN'riculum Vitae’ for Tango and The Prince's Trust, reaching young people through cans of the soft drink featuring the resumés of people who had been helped by the charity. The agency gave legacy brand Captain Birdseye a refresh by replacing its traditional old sea dog image with an Italian actor and model and launching an ethical summer swimwear range made from sea-bound-plastic, increasing brand recognition by 19%. And for Aldi, which has been criticised by Marks & Spencer over the two retailers’ similar products including caterpillar-shaped cakes and Christmas gin, Cirkle offered an olive branch to M&S in the form of a 10ft mistletoe structure with an invitation to ‘kiss and make up’, with coverage contributing to increased footfall and sales. In terms of thought leadership, Cirkle conducted a national survey for its ‘Power of Earned Media’ report, on how brands can build credibility, trust and affinity from families during the cost-of-living crisis.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
Run by three founding partners (and former Weber Shandwick colleagues), First Partners in 2016, with the goal of being India’s go-to corporate communications and public affairs firm. Using its proprietary Business Outcome Communication model — which blends PR and public affairs to build clients’ long-term reputation and drive short-term business results — First Partners has in the time since built roster of coveted clients including the likes of Rolls-Royce, Hyundai, Yamaha, McDonald’s, ITC and Vedanta. First Partners has also created a name for itself as an PR industry advocate, co-creating the an annual Innovation First Conclave to foster innovation in communications.
First Partners is headquartered in Delhi and has offices in Mumbai, Bengaluru.
Six years in, First Partners capped 2022 with a 62-person staff to service a growing list of top-tier clients. Key additions during the last year include multinationals like McDonald’s, Nikon and SunLife, as well as Indian conglomerates Vedanta-Foxconn Semiconductors and ITC Hotels. They joined a roster already populated by big names such as Rolls-Royce, Hyundai, Yamaha India, Baxter International and the German National Tourist Board.
First Partners is helmed by its three founding partners (and former Weber Shandwick leaders) Atul Ahluwalia, who leads creativity and stakeholder relations; Dilip Yadav, who drives the Business Outcome Communication focus at the firm and is also a business coach for C-suite leaders; and Santanu Gogoi, an issue management and strategic media management expert. About half of First Partners’ staff is women, including senior ranks. New this year is the firm’s pledge to hire 25% of its workforce from India’s tier two and tier three cities, which is in line with the government’s call to provide opportunity to young people from smaller cities — including two of the firm’s founding partners’ hometowns.
2022 was a big year for awards for First Partners, which placed 12th on our Global Creative Index (and second in Asia Pacific) and won a diamond and six gold SABRE Awards. All of which was a credit to the ingenuity of its work. Asia-Pacific Gold SABRE winners included the firm’s #NursesMidwife4Change campaign for healthcare nonprofit JHPIEGO, which rallied support, and helped launch a training program, for healthcare workers; and Vedanta Aluminum’s Breaking the Bias campaign showcasing women in conventional roles in the manufacturing sector. Other winning work included supporting ITC in its effort to find alternatives to single-use plastics and Hyundai celebrating its 25th year in India by inviting 25 journalists to travel 25 cities across the country.
— Diana Marszalek
The former Manning Selvage & Lee—a firm born 50 years ago, when Selvage & Lee merged with Farley Manning Associates—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.
MSL’s global revenues were up by 10% in 2022, with the US operation outperforming by a point or so, with the consumer brand business leading the way (13% growth) and the top 20 clients up by an impressive 17%. Areas of particular interest include some of MSL’s traditional strengths, such as influencer marketing and creative more broadly, as well as some emerging practices such as sustainability and impact and executive visibility. There were expanded relationships with clients such as P&G, JM Smucker, Cadillac, Lilly, Home Depot Emirates and Campbell’s (the Prego and Chunky brands) and new business from Chips Ahoy, Peerless, FMC, Peacock, DeVry University, Crocs, Hey Dude, Nearmap, TikTok and Inspire Brands, the parent of Arby’s, Baskin Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic and more.
It’s now a little more than four years since Diana Littman took over as CEO of MSL’s US operations, long enough for her to build a leadership team that reflects her vision for the agency: chief client officer Lisa Talbot, chief strategy officer Shreya Mukherjee, chief digital innovation officer Rob Davis (who joined from Ogilvy last year), and chief creative officer Roya Partovi (also new last year, from Merge) were all brought in by Littman in the past three years. Last year saw other additions, including head of B2B/enterprise communications Ashley Chauvin from PSEG. Littman is remaking the culture too: the emphasis on DE&I continued with the appointment of Dierdra Donahue as SVP, equity and inclusion, and overall 35% of new hires were BIPOC bringing the total to 27% at the end of the year (against a 2025 target of 40%).
MSL has been taken the lead on tackling inequities in the influencer marketing realm, with its “Influencer Pay Gap” study identifying the scale of the problem and a closed-door industry summit bringing together agencies and influencers to talk solutions. That’s a natural fit for MSL, which has developed one of the best influencer marketing practices in the PR business: its Fluency business is built on solid data (from its own and external sources), a proprietary planning process, a certified TikTok partnership, and metrics that include a heavy emphasis on commercial impact—all built around the firm’s “Circle of Influence” strategic approach. The payoff is that MSL is punching well above its weight in the awards arena: its seven Innovation SABRE trophies ranked second only to Ketchum, and its 19 North American SABRE finalists were more than any other agency, with highlights including “One Sequential Step at a Time from Tip to Grip” for P&G’s Tampax brand to “#ClosingAmericasSmileGap” for Crest and Oral-B, from beefing with the burger industry for Arby’s to reviving a moribund CSR initiative for Sonic.
— Paul Holmes
There was a time when almost everyone in PR got into the business accidentally, after experimenting with some other career. For Retroviral founder Mike Sharman, the dream was acting: in LA, he wrote a one-person showcase for himself, returned to South Africa to direct, star in, and market it. Five years later, he had abandoned acting for a different kind of storytelling, and founded Retroviral will a focus on data-driven campaigns and the digital landscape. That was in 2010; today, Retroviral specializes in branded storytelling that converts to sales and is one of the most dynamic and creative independent PR firms in South Africa.
Retroviral is headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, but the firm has executed campaigns across the continent, in markets such as Ghana, Namibia, Zambia, and Kenya—as well as the occasional creative campaign in the UK.
Retroviral is on track for its first ZAR50 million year (close to $2.8 million) when its its financial year ends in June, which will represent a very healthy 60% increase over its 2022 revenues. The firm is largely focused on challenger brands, but it still counts some pretty big names among its long-term clients, working with Gumtree, Liberty, Beko, Grundig, Ryobi, Profmed, Kreepy Krauly, First for Women Insurance, and Dove Cotton New clients in 2022 included Lil-Lets UK, Blue Ribbon Bread, BB Bakeries Bread, HTH, YumYum Peanut Butter, Ultra Pet, Checkers Sixty60, Discovery Bank, Beyers, and Sweetie Pie.
Five years ago, Retroviral involved the entire agency to write a manifesto that is emblazoned on a wall in its office: “This year, we vow to throw rocks at the stagnant pool of digital comms,punch brands in the gut of their crippling conservatism…” Which perfectly encapstulates the culture. In addition to CEO and chief creative officer Sharman, who has been featured in our Innovator 25 for EMEA, the Retroviral leadership team includes Shaka Sisulu, chairman, regulatory and corporate affairs, an investor and entrepreneur with experience in crowdfunding, influencer marketing, and IT, and co-creator of 20,000 strong volunteer movement Cheesekids; managing director Pippa Misplon, former business director for the PR and influencer division of Ogilvy South Africa; and creative director Ndumiso Nyoni, an illustrator and animator. With a team of 18, Retroviral has a formal mentorship program and a graduate program that ensures a flow of new talent and new thinking.
Retroviral follows a straightforward but highly effective approach: data-driven insights and strategy, followed by content creation, a focus on earned media and viral spread, culminating in quality reporting of results. The firm won two EMEA Innovation SABRE Awards in our 2023 competition, for its Sixty60 Swindlers campaign for grocery app Checkers Sixty60, using TikTok to newsjack attention around the Netflix phenomenon “The Tinder Swindler” and launch its own “don’t get swindled” message, earning plaudits for bravery and efficacy; and for its BeYou Period initiative for Lil-Lets, a bold, inclusive content campaign that celebrated the empowerment women can feel from better understanding their bodies. Both campaigns demonstrated the creative approach that has earned Retroviral awards recognition in South Africa and beyond.
— Paul Holmes
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