2020 North American PR Agencies of the Decade | PRovoke Media

North American Agencies of the Decade

The 2020 North American PR Agencies of the Decade are the result of an exhaustive annual research process involving more than 150 submissions and 50 face-to-face meetings with the best PR firms across the US and Canada. You can view all Agencies of the Year for previous years here

Winners are counted down at the North American SABRE Awards ceremony, which will take place on Thursday May 28 as the first virtual awards dinner since the competition launched 20 years ago. 

#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. That business performance was recognized with Large Agency of the Year honors from this publication in 2015, 2016, and 2017—more than any other agency during that time period—and Global Agency of the Year in 2019.

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. It named Chris Perry as president of digital communications in 2010, launched the pioneering content creation unit Mediaco in 2013, elevated Perry to chief digital officer in 2015, and most recently to chief innovation officer. Weber Shandwick was our Global Digital Agency of the Year in 2016.

Elsewhere, the firm has continued to expand the “ecosystem” of brands that come together to form what this publication has called “the most complete public relations agency” in the world: public affairs brand Powell Tate, multicultural marketing specialist Axis, KRC Research, multichannel content agency Current and—most recently—United Minds, which has expanded into the US from Sweden (where it was part of the successful Prime acquisition) to offer change management and a variety of other high-level consulting services.

Finally, although there has been turnover at the very top—longtime CEO stepped aside in 2012, handing the reins to Andy Polansky, who led the firm until last year when he in turn passed the baton to Gail Heimann—it is worth noting two things: first, both Diamond and Polansky went on to broader, more senior positions within the Interpublic Group (recognition rarely afforded PR agency leaders); and second, the core team—Heimann and Perry, corporate practice leader Micho Spring, chief client officer Sara Gavin, healthcare practice leader Laura Schoen and head of public affairs Pam Jenkins have been together through the entire decade and in most cases longer, creating a consistent, collaborative culture that empowers the firm’s continued success.—PH

#2. 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 

#3. 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

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. 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 in North America 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. Going into 2020, its revenues exceed $80m. 

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

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

GCI Health (WPP)

The GCI brand has a strong heritage, the name having been attached to the global, full-service PR operation of Grey Advertising for many years, but in 2010 it had vanished from the PR landscape, having been eliminated in 2008 when parent company WPP merged two then-struggling midsize firms, GCI and Cohn & Wolfe. It was revived with little fanfare in 2010, when longtime MSL healthcare PR leader Wendy Lund was brought in to develop a specialist healthcare business under the GCI banner.

With a team of 30, the firm made a strong start: it was named our Healthcare Agency of the Year in 2011. But that was just the beginning. In the decade since then it has increased its revenue by 500% and its headcount to more than 300 people globally, spread across 16 offices, including a fast-growing European operation (with a strong presence in the UK and Germany) and a fledgling Asian footprint with offices in Hong Kong and Singapore.

The firm has built a roster of exceptional healthcare brands, spanning the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical technology sectors, as well as a host of nonprofits and—in recent years—large global health organizations. And it has handed complex, high-profile assignments ranging from the approval and launch of the first CAR T therapy for adults to a number of critical launches for groundbreaking cancer drugs, from introducing innovative medical technologies such as Freestyle Libre to addressing public health challenges like chronic heart disease and diabetes.

Under Lund’s leadership, the firm has also been on the forefront of progressive thought leadership in the healthcare sector, from its launch of its “Redefining Health Communications” in 2011, challenging employees to step outside of the sector’s relatively conservative comfort zone, to its more recent initiatives stressing first a patient-centric approach—putting patients at the center of communications campaigns—and more recently, in 2019, people-centricity, which encourages staff and clients to consider their target audience as whole human beings, defined by more than just their medical conditions. — PH

Marina Maher Communications (Omnicom)

Founded in 1983, Marina Maher Communications entered the decade just tipping the $20m mark, without much to suggest that it was going to quadruple in size over the next 10 years. In 2011, MMC was acquired by Omnicom, and by this year the firm was poised to cross $80m in fee income, a remarkable return for a business housed in one office in New York City. MMC's performance remains rooted in its 'artfully persuasive' philosophy of marketing to women, whether the category is lifestyle or healthcare. But that simple notion belies an incredible depth of strategic insight and creativity that has delivered standout campaigns for Aflac (Best in Show SABRE in 2018), Galderma, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark (Best in Show SABRE in 2013), Merck and, perhaps most notably, numerous Procter & Gamble brands — for which MMC continues to lead Omnicom's PR engagement.

After winning Healthcare Agency of the Year in 2012 and Consumer Agency of the Year in 2017, MMC followed that up by taking Midsize and Overall Agency of the Year honours in 2018, prompting this publication to remark that the firm "is now playing in a rarefied group of firms that do not just reflect the zeitgeist, but define it." And while that might sound easy in practice, MMC's cultural intelligence is anything but — requiring consistent investment in talent, training and new capabilities. Indeed, the firm's ability to help brands understand how they fit into the cultural landscape not only underpins its campaign work, but underscores the ability of PR to drive sales for an impressive of consumer and healthcare accounts. 

All of which has been accelerated by the the deployment of an integrated model that houses critical mass in creative and strategy, design and content, digital innovation, and data/analytics. That approach is illustrated by such progressive work as the Tide Pods Challenge safety crisis; deploying a ‘moments’ approach for Tide to connect with micro-influencers to drive sales; and, developing an analytics-driven content lab across J&J’s 265+ business units, covering everything from CSR to crisis to employee engagement. Of note, more than 75% of MMC’s revenue now comes from a mix of disciplines and 60% of its people hail from diversified marketing backgrounds, reflected in an approach that ensures brand management only ever accounts for 50% of a specific account team, supplemented by executives from its specialist units. 

So while many holding group agencies have essentially been treading water during the past decade, MMC stands as one of the best examples of how public ownership need not hinder a firm's development and progress, but can actually drive transformative growth at eye-catching margins. — AS