2020 Global PR Agencies of the Decade | PRovoke Media

Global Agencies of the Decade

The 2020 Global PR Agencies of the Decade are the result of an exhaustive annual research process involving more than 500 submissions and meetings with the best PR firms across North America, EMEA, Asia-Pacific and LatAm.

Winners are counted down at the Global SABRE Awards, which took place on October 21 at 2020 PRovokeGlobal Summit. 

#1 Weber Shandwick (Interpublic Group)

It was not the easiest of decades for the giant holding company agencies, most of which struggled to grow any faster than the rate of inflation over the 10 years. But Weber Shandwick outperformed its publicly-traded competitors, almost doubling in size from $480 million in our 2010 ranking to just under $900 million last year—a track record that helped the firm earn Agency of the Decade recognition in North America

But the numbers and awards are a reflection of Weber Shandwick’s success during the decade, not the reason for the firm’s inclusion on this list. That comes down to its industry leadership, and particularly its role in the forefront of the digital revolution, its early embrace of paid and owned channels, and its investment in data and analytics. Top talent, particularly at the highest levels, has been another key to success, with former CEOs Harris Diamond and Andy Polansky going on to broader, more senior positions within the Interpublic Group (recognition rarely afforded PR agency leaders) while leaving the firm in the good hands of current chief Gail Heimann, innovation guru Chris Perry, corporate practice leader Micho Spring, chief client officer Sara Gavin, healthcare practice leader Laura Schoen and head of public affairs Pam Jenkins—all of whom have been together through the entire decade and in most cases longer.

In EMEA, Weber Shandwick was our number two Agency of the Decade, after the Interpublic-owned agency built one of the most comprehensive networks, with 14 offices in Europe as well as operations in the Middle East and Africa, maintaining an average growth rate in the high single digits and winning Consultancy of the Year awards from this publication in the Nordics, Iberia, the Middle East, and France/Benelux, as well as Digital Consultancy of the Year and our pan-European Consultancy of the Year award twice (2012 and 2017). Its creative work took home 48 SABRE Awards in the region, including the Platinum SABRE for Best in Show for its #toocoolforplastics campaign on behalf of UK supermarket Iceland and for “Follow Felix” on behalf of Nestlé Purina Petcare.

The firm was number two in Asia also. While it took Weber Shandwick until 2014 to win its first Network of the Year accolade in the region, it then made up for lost time by winning the award on a further two occasions, testimony to the team assembled under former Asia-Pacific chairman Tim Sutton and current CEO Baxter Jolly. Revenue grew rapidly to $120m, with 900 people across 10 markets, making the firm one of the largest in the region. Beyond the numbers, the decade saw a sustained evolution of the firm’s digital and creative capabilities, including an expanded analytics practice that has underpinned growth across consumer and corporate.—PH

#2 Edelman (DJE Holdings)

It is tempting to see Edelman's decade as a tale of two halves, the turbo-charged growth of the first period, followed by less stellar returns in the second. But that would probably be doing a disservice to the PR firm that, more than most, has transcended the industry during a decade of remarkable transformation. It may be hard to believe now, but when Edelman entered the decade, it ranked third behind Weber Shandwick and FleishmanHillard. Within a year it had taken top spot, and by 2015 was the undisputed market leader, with sights set on becoming the world's first billion-dollar PR agency.

Edelman’s meteoric growth had been fuelled by its embrace of new services and products, most notably in its digital practice, which now accounts for at least 20% of revenues. By investing ahead of the curve and playing a genuinely pioneering role, Edelman turned its digital operation into a $200m business that spanned data and analytics, digital and social capabilities. From there, the firm targeted marketing budgets as its next major source of growth, betting on the convergence of earned and paid media to help it compete with advertising agencies to serve as the lead on creative briefs, and deliver the kind of ideas that can serve as platforms for everything a brand does.

600 creatives and planners were hired as Edelman set about undertaking an ambitious transformation of its capabilities. And while that has perhaps not paid off as handsomely as the firm might like, the sheer breadth and depth of Edelman's campaign work is irrepressible, from Dove's 'Real Beauty' to Chipotle's Scarecrow and more recent efforts for Adobe, Asics, HP, Taco Bell and Unilever. There have been big-name hires and acquisitions, along with plenty of awards, including multiple nods as Agency of the Year and Digital Agency of the Year, along with recognition as the most sought after place to work.

And in addition to Edelman's expertise across a range of sectors and practice areas, the firm's geographic strength remains a source of competitive advantage, enabling it to play among market leaders well beyond North America, in such markets as the UK, France, Germany, the UAE, India, China, Australia and Brazil. No one said transformation would be easy, but Richard Edelman remains resolute in his goal of of turning the tables on holding groups that would relegate public relations to tactical afterthought. — AS

#3 W2O Group (Independent) 

Let’s put W2O’s astounding success into perspective: when Jim Weiss launched the firm as WeissComm Partners in 2001, it was to fill the unmet communications needs of biotech and other innovative healthcare clients in the Bay Area. In its first few years, revenues were around $2m — then suddenly, the firm became one of the industry’s fastest-growing boutiques. The agency ended its first decade with a new name and a new brand — WCG — and with revenues pushing $40m. Its success, however, was only just the beginning. 

Weiss put into motion plans for the firm to — not only dominate the healthcare space — but to capitalize on the data revolution and become the industry’s analytics powerhouse. From there, the numbers are dizzying. By 2015, W2O Group’s revenue exceeded $92m. The agency that started as a healthcare boutique was sprinting towards the large agency category. W2O Group finished the decade at $220m.

It’s not just the sheer numbers. W2O has consistently been an innovative leader, paving new roads for the industry as it grapples with digital transformation. The agency has accumulated an impressive blend of proprietary algorithms, platforms and approaches that stands out amongst its peers — larger and smaller — for making analytics a core part of its business. In 2016, it sold a stake to a private equity firm (and then did so again in 2019), which spurred a buying spree to dramatically expand its capabilities and geographic scope.  W2O’s 1,200+ employees are now spread across 30 countries. But unlike most of its large agency peers, Weiss still maintains a single P&L across the business. 

With clients like Genentech, Pfizer, Merck, AbbVie, Takeda and AstraZeneca, W2O works with 23 of the top 25 pharma companies in the world. Moving into this next decade, it’s more clear than ever the critical role that healthcare plays across the economy. And indeed, no other agency in this space rivals W2O as the analytics-driven, digital-first leader and pioneer. — AaS 

Adfactors (Independent)

Madan Bahal’s Adfactors began the decade as one of the leaders in the Indian public relations market, with a team of more than 250 professionals in a dozen main offices across the sub-continent and fees of around $11 million. Its reputation was built primarily on its expertise in high-stakes corporate and financial communications, which made it a preferred partner for many of the US and UK agencies handling global financial transactions with an Indian component, and its burgeoning capabilities in crisis management.

The decade saw impressive growth, and it ended last year with fee income of more than $35 million, enough to hold on to its place among the world’s 70 largest PR firms, supporting a trio of the biggest names in the market (Tata Group, Mahindra Group, Godrej Group) as well as a host of multinationals. But it also saw Adfactors diversify its business considerably: most notably, moving beyond the corporate arena to add expertise in digital and social media, and in areas such as corporate social responsibility and purpose. Those capabilities have helped the firm establish itself as a leader on the awards circuit, picking up 32 SABRE nominations last year (winning four of them) and cracking the top 10 in our Global Creative Index.

But the Adfactors story is not just one of exceptional growth and surprising creativity. The firm is one of the best managed in Asia, with a particular focus on a formal professional development process that has been a key factor in helping it stay ahead of market trends. As a result, it has won Agency of the Year awards not only in India, or even in Asia, but also at the global level: it was our Global Financial Consultancy of the Year in 2015 and our Global Corporate Agency of the Year in 2016. — PH

Allison+Partners (MDC Partners)

Allison + Partners launched in September 2001 in San Francisco, just as 9/11 shocked the geopolitical landscape and the heady days of the dot.com bubble dissipated into recession. Amid this wreckage, Scott Allison — along with his partners Andy Hardie-Brown, Jonathan Heit and Scott Pansky — started an agency that would come to define the midsize category over the next two decades.

In 2010, Allison + Partners sold a majority stake to MDC Partners. While so many agencies emerge from earnouts as shells of their former selves, Allison + Partners not only persevered but is, perhaps, stronger now than it has ever been. The agency has been a mainstay on our Agency of the Year list consistently over the past decade thanks to its remarkable growth trajectory and an impressive portfolio of work. Over the past decade, the agency’s most notable campaigns have been with marquee clients, including Toyota, Samsung, Seventh Generation, PepsiCo, Kimpton, Driscoll’s, Sony, Dignity Health, among others. 

One reason for Allison + Partners’ continued success is, the firm has achieved global scale — with offices in Asia-Pacific, Europe and South America — while also deepening its foothold in North America. Going into 2020, its global revenues exceed $80m. In the United States, revenues jumped 11% to $64.5m in 2019. The firm's EMEA operations more than doubled (210%) over the past three years, in part due to its acquisition of One Chocolate in the UK and Germany. Key clients in EMEA include Atlassian, Dexcom, Resmed, Dow Jones, Vistage and Reichelt, plus the recently won Reddit. In APAC, the firm grew 6% during the same period, with big name clients including Tik Tok, Google, Home Credit, TMF, Nike, Yokogawa Electric Corp, and Texas Instruments. 

On top of this, the agency has diversified its capabilities with its rapidly growing All Told digital division, as well as expanding its practice areas, notably corporate, consumer and technology. As we embark on 2020, Allison + Partners stands as one of the most well-balanced agencies when it comes to both capabilities and client portfolio. And the firm that came to be one of the quintessential mid-size agencies of the last decade is now a few good years away from joining the league of large agencies. 

Ultimately, Allison + Partners has proven a simple formula can pay handsome dividends: keep senior people deeply involved in client work, prioritize a strong culture to minimize team turnover and stay focused on the long-game. — AaS

Hanover (Avenir Global)

After 21 years of independence and five years on the trot of over 25% growth, last year Hanover was bought by Canadian holding company Avenir Global. The consultancy founded in 1998 by former journalist and Conservative Party director of communications Charles Lewington – who remains as CEO – is now a 170-strong $20 million heavyweight with true trusted advisor status, working behind the scenes with some of the world’s biggest businesses on complex communications challenges.

From its corporate and public affairs heartland, Hanover has expanded its offer over the decade and has developed a particular strength in healthcare: it now works with half of the world’s leading pharma companies. In 2016 it also opened The Playbook, a creative comms agency looking after sports, consumer and technology clients, and Multiple, a brand and culture consultancy working with fast-growth businesses. Hanover has also grown geographically from its London base, opening its Brussels office at the start of the decade and its UAE office in 2017, which turned into a bigger Dubai presence than originally planned after Hanover won the bidding war for Bell Pottinger’s Middle East business. It also works alongside other independent agencies around the world who are part of Hanover’s global network, The Ecosystem.

First named as our EMEA Public Affairs Agency of the Year in 2011, Hanover has rarely been off our regional Agency of the Year shortlists since then, across public affairs, corporate and healthcare categories, including being named as both EMEA and Global Public Affairs Agency of the Year in 2017. But Lewington and his formidable senior bench have never rested on their laurels: the agency is constantly innovating its products and services in areas from crisis comms to sustainability and purpose, as well as strengthening its talent offer year on year with new initiatives and support for employee development, training and wellbeing. — MPS 

M Booth (Next15)

Margi Booth’s creative consumer boutique was acquired by Next Fifteen in 2009, at which time M Booth had fee income of a little less than $10 million. The track record of PR agency acquisitions being what it is, there were not unreasonable questions about what would follow. Would growth slow? Would the firm’s entrepreneurial founder stay through the earn out? Would a relatively traditional consumer specialist fit in with a group focused primarily on technology and digital? Would its culture stay strong? A little more than a decade later, those questions all sound a little foolish.

M Booth has more than quadrupled in size over the past 10 years, and now boasts fee income in excess of $44.5 million—after recording its seventh year of double-digit growth in 2019. And that doesn’t include last year’s acquisition of the US operations of Health Unlimited, which added new capabilities to the firm’s portfolio and takes its overall revenues to around $65 million. It was our Consumer Agency of the Year and our Specialist Agency of the Year in 2019, and our Small Agency of the Year in both 2015 and 2016 (winning our North American Agency of the Year award in the latter year).

Margi Booth not only stayed through the earnout, but she presided over a change in leadership that saw Ketchum alumna Dale Bornstein arrive and take over as CEO in 2013, a transition that caused barely a blip in the firm’s upward trajectory and has paid dividends over those last seven years. Booth, meanwhile, remains involved with her own agency as chairman, and also took on a broader role within the parent group, bringing her considerable management expertise to bear while leading a number of cross-agency initiatives.

Under Bornstein's leadership, meanwhile, M Booth has not only strengthened its consumer expertise with exceptional digital capabilities, it has expanded its corporate practice and with the Health Unlimited deal added a new science-heavy healthcare practice that promises a hedge against any downturn in the consumer space that might result from the current pandemic. And after winning our Best Agency to Work For trophy in 2015 it has featured regularly as an employer-of-choice in our industry surveys over the past five years.—PH