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There was a time when Hil & Knowlton (before the Strategies) was one of the two largest public relations brands in the world and a powerhouse in the United States and Canada. But two decades of chaos and confusion—leadership transitions and costly missteps—saw a steep decline in the firm’s US operations, and while Canada largely managed to avoid any serious contagion, the firm’s reputation took a hit. But in 2019, AnnaMaria DeSalva, previously head of corporate affairs for Pfizer and Dupont, was named global chairman and CEO and a few months later co-president Richard Millar moved from the UK to take responsibility for revitalizing the US operations. The three years since then have seen the firm first stabilize and then begin to rebuild.
With around 200 people in its Canadian operation, which includes offices in Calgary, Edmonton. Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Regina, Toronto, and Vancouver, Hill+Knowlton Strategies has the largest national footprint of any international public relations brand.
The 200-person Canadian operation, one of the largest north of the border, has enjoyed impressive 31% growth over the past two years of double-digit growth, with key clients growing at an even more impressive rate. Much of the growth was driven by the firm’s formidable corporate and public affairs capaibilities, often working together at the intersection of public policy and corporate reputation. Organic growth came from the likes of Scotiabank, Interac, IKEA, Whirlpool, AstraZeneca, adidas, 3M and Nespresso, while there was new business from VIA Rail Canada, Volkswagen, Johnson &Johnson, YVR, Health Canada, Blackstone, Toronto Hydro, Billy Bishop airpot, TSX, RioTinto, and Volvo.
Hill+Knowlton is working hard to modernize its work environment, with an emphasis on five pillars of the employee experience: being flex, being connected, being well, being empowered, and being valued. There is also an emphasis on building an inclusive culture, with the launch of a DE&I training program, and a host of engaged employee resource groups, and a partnership with Canadian diversity organization BlackNorth. Under the leadership of Sheila Wisniewski, a 20-year H+K veteran who took over as president and CEO in 2018, the firm has strong leadership across four key sectors—health (Laura Greer), energy (Matthew Gibson), financial and professional services (Meagan Murdoch), and tech (Janice Foreman)—as well as in corporate affairs (the firm’s traditional area of strength, led by Jason McDonald), public affairs (Will Stewart), and consumer (Angie Lamanna).
On the corporate side, where H+K’s traditional strength resides, the firm has been working on a “sustainable value creation” model that combines reputation, risk, and growth strategies, underpinned by data and creativity, to deliver long-term success in sectors such as tech, health, and energy. And corporate advisory in general, under the leadership of Jennifer Dunn, has been growing, notably in internal and executive communications, as has the Better Impact practice for purpose-driven work. At the same time, a focus on creativity, intelligence, and craft is powering new thinking in brand-building and beyond. Highlights of the client work range from helping financial transactions company Interac use music to encourage more mindful shopping to working with Cancer Action Now and AstraZeneca to form a grassroots partnership urging more early detection funds.
— Paul Holmes
Argyle has something of a unique status among Canadian PR firms. It is both one of its oldest, having started life in 1979, and one of its more entrepreneurial, following a management buyout that has unlocked considerable acceleration over the past two decades. In 2022, the firm landed Agency of the Year honours from both PRovoke Media and the Canadian PR Society, while also acquiring majority investment in Canada’s leading indigenous advisory firm and becoming part of new private-equity backed marketing and communications business Believeco:Partners. Argyle continues to bring considerable strength across corporate & public affairs, consumer, health, public engagement, social marketing, and digital, with an integrated service model that is supported by research and insights capabilities.
Alongside its Toronto HQ, there are further offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Halifax, along with a full-service US presence that includes Washington DC, Chicago and Houston.
Argyle grew by 20% in 2022 to CAD$26m, while headcount expanded to 150. Argyle's ongoing clients include leaders in technology (Facebook, Instagram, Doordash), transportation and logistics (UPS, Enterprise Rent-a-Car), financial institutions (Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Desjardins, MD Financial/Scotiabank, University Pension Plan), food and beverages (Bean Suntory, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, American Peanut Council), and health and pharma companies (AbbVie, Bausch & Lomb, Novo Nordisk, Takeda), and local, provincial, state and federal goverments in the US and Canada. Unique among Canadian firms, Argyle also does extensive business with and for Indigenous communities, including managing communications with survivors of historic trauma and injustice following class-action settlements with the federal government. New or expanded clients in 2022 included the Assembly of First Nations, Boppy, Bouwinvest, Canadian Real Estate Association, Deloitte, Dyson, Mastercard Foundation, Ontario Creates and Spotify and Stantec Corporation.
After 20 years of leading Argyle, CEO Daniel Tisch will retire this spring, with Stefan Moores set to take over, after serving as COO since 2018. Tisch will remain as honorary chairman and will continue to serve on the Believeco board. The firm’s executive team remains stable, including social change marketing EVP Correy Myco and crisis EVP Harlan Loeb. Argyle has always prided itself on being an inclusive form, but its focus on DEI has become considerably more systematic in recent years, across leadership (including an Indigenous reconciliation action plan), recruitment, training and development, client work/partnerships, social investment and philanthropy and accountability. 38% of the firm’s team now identifies as BIPOC, with Argyle’s work in the area no doubt boosted by the acquisition of Castlemain Group, Canada's leading Indigenous advisory firm. Highlights of this commitment include a year-round DEI training curriculum, the development of models for inclusive engagement, a $100,000 bursary for Indigenous students pursuing a business education, and pro-bono support of the Halifax Declaration. Argyle’s CEO also hairs the Canadian Council of PR Firms' Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, which developed an Anti-Racism, Diversity & Inclusion pledge and program that has now attracted signatures from CEOs of 19 major agencies, including major independents and multinationals.
Argyle’s thought leadership around the connection between 'public relationships' and clients' reputations stands out, exemplified by its annual Argyle Public Relationships Index research study — the sixth edition examined relationships between North American employees and employers. The firm’s ‘State of Social’ study focused on company priorities and worker perspectives on the S in ESG, while another study — the Argyle/Leger Confidence Report — explored the motivations of American workers beyond just salary. Campaign highlights included thought leadership work for Desjardins; positioning the Ocean Frontier Institute as pivotal to global climate crisis solutions; and delivering the Government of Canada’s Federal Indian Day School Community Support Program.
— Arun Sudhaman
North Strategic was founded in 2011 and now has a team of more than 100 working across strategy, influencer/brand management, media relations, design/creative, crisis management and corporate comms, including full service production house and creative studio Notch Video. In 2022, the agency continued to expand its capabilities across creative, editorial, multicultural marketing and digital. Last year, Notch Video expanded its mandate across the Publicis Groupe, and the agency also grew its editorial strategy team and added multilingual and diverse talent with a new multicultural marketing team, to help clients better understand and connect to current and emerging Canadian communities. North also expanded its digital capabilities, including social listening data to help spot geopolitical brand risks, full-service paid media offerings and strategic community management. In response to requests for executive and corporate branding support, North launched professional branding arm NGAGE in 2022, and has also enhanced its media training bootcamp.
North Strategic is headquartered in Toronto and also has offices in Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.
In 2022, North grow headcount from 93 to 111 and increased revenue by 8%. The agency works with global and Canadian brands including American Express, Samsung, Canada Goose, Cadillac Fairview and Empire Company Limited, and new work over the year came from clients including Kruger, Cherry Lane, Farm Boy, Heineken, Turo Inc. and World Vision Canada.
North Strategic is led by CEO Jessica Savage and president Sarah Stewart-Browne. The agency’s culture is based on a core value model it calls The Compass: “Focus on Impact; Support Each Other; Be Bold; Grow and Evolve; and Learn New Stuff”. Anonymous employee surveys and quarterly roundtable discussions have led to initiatives like the Parents Group. North is committed to wellness, with enhanced employee benefits covering gender affirmation treatments, fertility treatments ($5,000 per lifetime), mental health practitioner services ($5,000 annually, up from $400), and a $200 annual wellness allowance. The agency has implemented DE&I commitments and accountability measures including a DE&I Task Force, workshops on topics such as anti-racism, diverse hiring and microaggressions and inclusive hiring training for all employees. Of the senior leadership team, 92% are women.
Stand-out work over the year included the launch of a limited-edition ketchup-flavoured ice pop for McCormick and French’s; creating a six-week holiday music program, complete with indoor snowfall, at the Cadillac Fairview Toronto Eaton Centre mall; the Get Cracking video shorts campaign to help Egg Farmers of Canada reconnect with younger audiences and increase organic reach on TikTok and YouTube; and a social video series for American Express Canada, shot solely on mobile – a brand first.
— Maja Pawinska Sims
Today’s Weber Shandwick Collective was founded 20 years ago by the merger of Weber Shandwick (itself a merger of tech specialist Weber Group and acquisitive UK agency Shandwick) and BSMG Worldwide. Like the US and global operations of Weber Shandwick, the Canadian office is a genuine full-service player, with consumer, healthcare, and technology clients. But it has a leadership position in the corporate reputation and risk management spaces, impressive digital capabilities and a strong creative reputation, all factors in the firm being named our 2021 Canadian PR Agency of the Year.
Weber Shandwick Canada has offices in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, operating seamlessly as a single P&L, and connects to the global agency’s offices in the US and throughout the world.
WSC grew by a record 30% in 2022 and grew its headcount by 28% to 79 to keep pace with the surge in business. In 2022, the agency led some of Canada’s highest profile work in sectors such as transportation/aviation (Air Canada, VIA Rail), food & beverage (McDonald’s, Mondelez), finance (Royal Bank of Canada, Sun Life) among other sectors. The firm’s newly expanded expertise in sustainability & social impact and reputational risk led to larger remits from long-standing clients such as Royal Bank of Canada, McDonald’s Canada, Sun Life and VIA Rail; Weber Canada anticipates further expanding existing relationships through a new partnership with public affairs agency Crestview. The firm’s client roster is populated with an impressive array of top companies —impressive array of existing clients — McDonald’s Canada, Royal Bank of Canada, General Motors, Bayer, Mondelez, Air Canada, Sun Life, IBM, McAfee, and Coca-Cola among them — some of which have been partners for decades. 2022’s new business came from Tinder, Pinterest, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, Nestle, Ancestry, PetSmart, Ericsson, Jameson Irish Whiskey, Kids Help Phone, and Rainbow Railroad.
Greg Power has been leading Weber Shandwick’s Canadian operations for more than a decade and has built up a strong senior leadership team that includes Toronto office lead Cameron Summers; Montreal office lead Marie-Eve Noel; and Rebecca Young, who leads strategy and creative. Diversity and inclusion has been an explicit priority since 2018, and in 2022 37% of staff identify as BIPOC. Last year, WSC invested $175,000 in pro bono work for the Indigenous Children Eye Examination Project, Rainbow Railroad’s Safe Way Out petition on behalf of at-risk LGBTQI+ people worldwide, and narrative strategy for the Black Health Alliance. The agency also helped designer Chantal Carter of Love & Nudes launch the Stage Zero undergarment collection to raise awareness of breast cancer risks for women of color.
In 2021, Weber Shandwick Canada picked up the Best in Show SABRE Award for the anti-sex trafficking campaign Shoppable Girls campaign it crafted for Covenant House, Canada’s largest agency serving kids who are trafficked or at risk. That recognition reflected WSC’s commitment to producing outstanding creative work with impact. This year, the firm is a SABRE Award finalist for “Cyberbullying in Plain Sight,” a McAfee global report that unearthed several disturbing trends related to children’s lives online and their beliefs and behaviors around cyberbullying.
— Diana Marszalek
Edelman sister agency 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 global CEO and reshaped the firm as an independent agency with its own identity and culture. Similarly, the firm’s Canadian operation was founded in 2010, but has really come into its own over the past five years, establishing itself as a serious competitor for the market’s largest consumer assignments and health and wellness briefs.
Having opened its Toronto office more than a decade ago, Zeno expanded its geographic footprint in 2021 with new offices in British Colombia and Quebec (an important foothold for national business that includes the country’s French-speaking population). And of course Zeno has a formidable presence in the US and an increasingly global reach.
Zeno’s Canadian operations have been on an impressive five-year streak of double-digit growth, over which time income has increased by more than 350%. Last year saw a 43% increase, which means the firm now has revenues of more than $5 milion (US). The firm picked up its first travel client in six years (that sector had all but shut down during the pandemic) with the addition of Visit California; its first car client with the addition of electric vehicle manufacturer VinFast; and added brand and corporate work for Nestle. There was organic growth too, from clients such as SiriusXM (social and experiential work, in addition to being PR agency of record); P&G (Crest business); and Johnson&Johnson (a range of brands including BandAid, Pepcid, Nicorette and Tylenol); SC Johnson (Glade, Family Guard, Off, Windex, Ziploc and more); and Newell (Bernardin, Graco, FoodSaver, Rubbermaid)—all demonstrating the firm’s ability to expand its portfolio once it gets its foot in the client door.
Zeno’s impressive five-year growth spurt coincided with the 2017 appointment of Julie Georgas as managing director (mirroring the trajectory of the Zeno global business under CEO Barby Siegel), and Georgas has built an impressive leadership team including senior VP, client experience Heather Meehan; health practice leader Daniela McCorie; senior VP, strategy Terri McBay; and technology leader Toru Levinson. New in recent months is Jessica Fralick as senior VP, corporate brand and reputation, who returned to the DJE family after a stint at Hill+Knowlton. The firm’s People First initiative has four pillars: empowering (a “human-centric” approach to working in the office, combined with an overall philosophy of flexibility); engaging (a purpose-driven approach to performance measurement and expanded professional development); advancing (from an early career immersion program to ongoing coaching)l; and understanding (empathy and accountability training and sessions aimed at mitigating biases). In Canada, the “Act Together” commitment means DE&I goals are a part of annual performance reviews for 100% of Zeno employees.
Zeno’s enhanced strategy and planning process, which underpins all work, starts with understanding “the human journey,” how the audience experiences the brand, and often culminates with the Human Project Lab, which includes the firm’s “culture studio” and helps deliver immersive experiences across multiple channels. That fuels some significant consulting projects, such as defining the values that unite four generations of employees for Hyatt Hotels, or identifying ways to reach the “science-curious” for Regeneron. The firm has also been developing the Zeno Digital Experience, including the new Z3 studio and an expansion into the metaverse last year for clients such as Lenovo and Immutable Games Studio. Zeno Canada’s work for the Turkey Farmers of Canada—the creation of the country’s first Thanksgiving song, which became a major hit—is nominated for a North American SABRE Award.
— Paul Holmes
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