Consumer Agency of the Year: Kaplow

New York consumer specialist Kaplow started its 19th year in 2010 with some disappointing news: the departure of flagship client eBay, which accounted for an alarming proportion of its revenues during the previous year. The fact that the firm ended the year with revenues essentially flat is pretty impressive. The fact that it did so by diversifying its client portfolio—with new business from blue-chip brands like AOL, baby phat, the Avon Foundation for Women, luxury travel baggage brand Tumi and children’s apparel specialist OshKosh B’gosh—provides a solid foundation for the firm going forward.

The firm also produced impressive work for several longstanding clients, including Alberto Culver, CVS pharmacy, Skype and Target. It expanded its operations to the west coast with the addition of a new office in San Francisco. And it established itself as a leader in the content creation space with the establishment of Kstudio, a video production facility, and Kdrive, the firm’s digital and social media practice.

Creative Agency of the Year: Zeno Group

Zeno Group, founded in 1998 as a “conflict” brand for parent company Edelman, would be a strong contender for Comeback Agency of the Year, if we presented such an award. Having soared to the heights of around $20 million in revenues in the middle of the decade, it had collapsed to around half that before the appointment 18 months ago of new chief executive Barby Siegel, former head of Ogilvy’s global consumer practice.

Siegel oversaw better than 30 percent growth in 2010, as the firm reestablished itself as a serious competitor, with new business from Cepia (maker of Zhu Zhu pets), Sleepy’s, Sobieski Vodka and the Women’s Sports Foundation; hires including healthcare veteran Ame Wadler and media relations pro Mark O’Connor; and a slew of awards, from a crisis management SABRE for its work on a potential Zhu Zhu recall to an impressive haul of four nominations this year for its work on behalf of diverse clients such as Cepia, Seattle’s Best Coffee, the American Urological Association Foundation, and T-Mobile.

Digital Agency of the Year: WCG

While a full-blooded commitment to digital and social media was a no-brainer for firms in the technology and consumer space, it was not necessarily an obvious priority for an agency was its roots in the healthcare space, since pharmaceutical companies have been hesitant to embrace new channels for fear of running afoul of regulators.

Nevertheless, WCG has established itself as a leader in the digital space, with a philosophical approach focused on engagement; the creation of a WCG Interactive Services division that offers a wide range of capabilities from search engine optimization to social media to web development to digital analytics; and most notable with some high-profile hires, including Bob Pearson (who helped Dell become one of the most social media-savvy companies in the world) and prominent UK blogger Neville Hobson.

The commitment to digital has helped WCG continue its astounding growth of recent years, with fee income up by close to 40 percent to around $37 million.

Financial Agency of the Year: Abernathy MacGregor Group

While the market for mergers and acquisitions remains depressed compared to historic highs, 2010 was a strong year for Abernathy MacGregor Group, which is clearly benefiting from the increased global reach provided by its AMO partnership with firms such as Maitland in the UK, Euro RSCG C&O in France and Hering Schuppener in Germany. The firm ranked second in the mergermarket league table for M&A in the US, working on 93 deals valued at around $68 billion, representing sanofi-aventis in its bid for Genzyme, among others.

The strong performance has continued in 2011, ranking number one in the first quarter of the year by volume, handling 16 deals with total value of around $73 billion, including four of the 10 largest deals, working for both the bidder and the target company in Duke Energy’s acquisition of Progress Energy; representing ProLogis on its potential sale to AMB Property; supporting Deutsche Boerse on its bid for NYSE Euronext; and working with ENSCO International on its bid for Pride International.

Healthcare Agency of the Year: GCI Health

GCI Health, formed in July of 2008 almost as a footnote to the merger of WPP’s Cohn & Wolfe and GCI Group operations, shot to prominence in 2010, establishing itself as a major competitor in the healthcare communications niche thanks to a series of key hires (most notably former MSL health practice leader Wendy Lund, who joined in February as chief executive) and significant new business wins: Allergan’s Botox for chronic migraine, Boehringer Ingelheim’s oncology franchise, Biocell Center, Northshore LIJ, PTC Therapeutics and American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.

The firm also launched new practice areas focused on consumer health (led by new hire Elisia Canna) and patient and physician education (through its Synchronicity) unit, while enhancing its digital and social media capabilities (with the addition of former Novartis social media director Mark Davis) and maintaining a client list that includes Merck, Boehringer Ingelheim, Johnson & Johnson, Genentech, Eli Lilly, Medtronic, the TB Alliance, and more. Fees were up close to 30 percent for the year.

Multispecialist Agency of the Year: Kwittken & Co.

When Aaron Kwittken launched his new firm in 2006, he made it clear that he was bucking the trend of increased specialization, quoting American architect, author, designer, inventor, and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller: “If…nature required man to be a specialist she would have made him so by having him born with one eye and a microscope attached to it. What nature needed man to be was adaptive in many if not any direction.” That’s a philosophy that has helped Kwittken build a diverse portfolio of clients that spans the media, healthcare, financial services, technology, consulting, B2B, travel, luxury, fashion/retail, and design sectors, and was instrumental in the firm’s strong performance during the economic downturn.

Last year was an eventful one for the four-year-old firm. In September it was acquired by Kirshenbaum bond senecal + partners (a unit of serial PR acquirer MDC); it opened its first overseas office in London in December; and it grew by 15 percent, ending the year with fees of around $3.4 million and a client list that includes Stryker Corporation, Towers Watson, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, McGraw-Hill, Coursesmart, DSM Biomedical, The Beanstalk Group,, and ThomsonReuters.

Public Affairs Agency of the Year: APCO Worldwide

While APCO has successfully diversified its business in recent years, establishing itself as a player in the broad corporate and financial communications arena, it remains a powerhouse in the public policy realm, in Washington, DC, and key global markets, and nothing underscores its continued leadership in the public affairs arena than the launch in January 2010 of its Global Political Strategies unit, a unique strategic consultancy division that offers counsel on geopolitics, global economics and new market opportunities. (Early in 2011, APCO attracted former New Mexico governor and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson as the unit’s chairman.)

The firm continues to provide more traditional public affairs advice to a wide range of clients including AstraZeneca, Coca-Cola, Dow Corning, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, MasterCard, Microsoft and Western Union, and saw income increase by about 13 percent in 2010, ending the year as the second largest independent public relations firm in the US with fees of more than $110 million.

Strategic Agency of the Year: Kekst and Company

Kekst’s acquisition in July 2008 by French communications holding and a management restructuring in the summer of 2010 (Larry Rand assumed presidency of the firm while Gershon Kekst moved into a new executive chairman role) do not appear to have done anything to change the firm’s status as the go-to communications consultancy for high-profile, high-stakes issues, from mergers and acquisitions (Kekst was number one in the US by volume of deals worked) to bankruptcies and restructurings to other high-profile crises.

Indeed, the new management team, with eight senior executives assigned to two new management committees, only served to underscore the depth of leadership that has long distinguished Kekst from its peers, while the firm continued to work on high-profile assignments: it worked with AIG on communications related to its financial restructuring and pay down of its financial obligations to the US government; advised Sallie Mae on its efforts to effectuate education reform legislation; supported Tom Hicks and his ownership interest during the legal and PR firestorm regarding the sale of Liverpool Football Club; and continued its work as trusted advisor to Accenture, Coca-Cola, ConocoPhillips, Dell, Deutsche Telekom, J.C. Penney, LVMH, Starbucks, Estee Lauder, KKR, and Wells Fargo, among others.

Technology Agency of the Year: Horn Group

Horn Group has reinvented itself over the past couple of years, transforming itself from a technology-focused public relations firm into an agency capable of offering social media, interactive and even advertising capabilities under a broad “digital communications” banner. It’s a transformation that has been well-received by the marketplace, apparently, since Horn recorded better than 20 percent growth last year, ending 2010 with fee income of around $7.5 million.

There was new business from, Biamp Systems, Buy With Me, IAB, Pervasive Software, TIBCO and The New York Times, which Horn advised on its controversial but largely well-received switch to a paid model for its online edition. The firm also continued its work for loyal longtime clients including Gannett Digital Network, Service Source, Splunk and Westcon Group. And the momentum appears to be carrying over into 2011, with the firm predicting 25 percent growth again in its 20th anniversary year.