2016 Creative PR Agencies of the Year, North America | Holmes Report
Charting the future of public relations

2016 North America Creative Agencies of the Year

Our 2016 North America PR Agencies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 150 submissions and 50 face-to-face meetings with the best PR firms across the US and Canada.

Analysis of each of the Agencies of the Year for every category can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or here.

Winners will be unveiled at the 2016 North American SABRE Awards, taking place at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 3.​

Creative Agency of the Year:

Zeno Group (DJE Holdings)
Anyone who still views Zeno as Edelman’s smaller conflict agency will get short shrift from CEO Barby Siegel, and with good reason. Since Siegel took over the firm in 2010, the former Ogilvy PR head has overseen a remarkable expansion of the 17-year-old firm into a genuine global force, reporting North American revenue of $36.5m in 2015, up 24% over 2014.

That kind of performance marks Zeno out as one of the country’s top mid-size players, but it is not just the numbers that impress. The shadow of its bigger sibling might loom large, but Zeno has successfully carved out its own positioning — the ‘Green Machine’ — prioritising a collaborative, fearless culture that features a single P&L and the kind of integrated mindset that reflects the agency’s agility and creativity nature.

And while Zeno promotes its story as well as any ambitious agency can be expected to, its burgeoning client roster backs up its claims. New clients in 2015 included the Minnesota Vikings, Philips Diagnostic Imaging, Intel, TGI Fridays, Capital One, the Canadian Tourism Commission, GoFundMe, Scotts Miracle-Gro, Pilot Corporation, and LeTV, joining a roster that already includes  Sears Holdings, Merck & Co, Anheuser-Busch Inbev, Starbucks, AstraZeneca, Pepsico, Kia Motors, Worthington Industries and Netflix.

It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Zeno’s thought leadership credentials have also expanded considerably in recent years, led by the Human Project — a multi-generational study to uncover how brands and organizations can make a deep connection with the people they want to reach. Along with this research conducted in partnership with Iconoculture, Zeno introduced the Brand Humanizer, a tool designed to help clients articulate the core values of a specific target and the core values of a brand to determine where they converge and diverge. In 2016, meanwhile, the firm committed to research global youth and young millennials across six countries.

That kind of insight led to some eye-catching creative work for Anheuser-Busch, via an unbranded campaign that celebrated the sociability of beer. There were also some smart campaigns for Bausch & Lomb, Netflix and Intel all of which showcase Zeno’s ability to drive social conversation and creatively engage influencers, helping it score four finalist nominations at this year’s North American SABRE Awards.

Siegel oversees a leadership team that made one of its highest-profile additions in 2015, when Frank Eliason arrived from Citi to become head of US digital and customer experience. The firm also hired a number of specialists for its revamped earned media operation, which features food and lifestyle expert Mia McWilliams; Kamal Bosamia, who focuses on retail and regional media strategy; and former CNBC Silicon Valley bureau chief Jim Goldman. The senior team is rounded out by Zeno’s longest-tenured employee, Grant Deady, who runs its largest office in Chicago and is chief culture officer. — AS


Finalists


Kaplow
(Independent)
Over the past two or three years, Kaplow has expanded its brand storytelling capabilities to include a depth of expertise in influencer marketing, content creation and distribution, social media community management, graphic design, and measurement and analytics, and in 2015 it went a step beyond with the unveiling of its new “digital emotional quotient” methodology, based on original research showing that the most successful brands combine authenticity, timeliness and strategy in their high-touch engagement with consumers.

The firm is now applying that approach to clients across industry sectors: beauty and fashion, health and wellness, food and beverage, home and lifestyle, and consumer technology. It’s the kind of forward-thinking that has helped Kaplow build long-term relationships with clients like Cosmetic Executive Women (22 years), Target (16 years), Shiseido (14 years), Skype and CVS/Pharmacy (both 11 years) and pick up new assignments from Alouette, Bluefly, The Children’s Place, Franciacorta, L’Occitane, Luminess, and The Vitamin Shoppe.

Highlights last year included creating an interactive look— part toy store, part larger-than-life holiday playground—at the future of retail for Target; iinspired educators across the globe to break down the walls of the classroom for Skype’s CSR initiative; and creating the Oscars of the beauty industry for Cosmetic Executive Women.— PH


Mullen Lowe
(Interpublic Group)

A “global creative boutique” launched in May of 2015 by the merger of two Interpublic agencies, are on a mission “to work with the world’s most innovative marketers.” That’s a challenge that ought to come naturally to the agency’s social influence and public relations unit, the Boston-based business formerly known as Mullen, which has been establishing itself over the past couple of years as one of the hottest creative shops in the PR sector.

Under the leadership of managing partner Sheila Leyne and executive director of digital media and innovation Sean Corcoran (formerly with Forrester Research) the unit offers capabilities from traditional PR strategies and tactics to social conversation strategy, content development, community building, blogging, integrated analytics and search engine optimization. It picked up two SABRE Awards last year, for its work celebrating the “World’s Toughest Job” (motherhood) for American Greetings and the “Happiest Travel Day” for Zappos.com and JetBlue Airways. This year’s creative highlights included placing book kiosks in urban communities for JetBlue, to a campaign supporting LGBT families for MassMutual, to the American Greeetings’ “ThankList” initiative. — PH


Olson Engage
(ICF International)

Olson Engage has won more Innovation SABRE Awards than any other firm — including racking up 18 finalist nods this year. Beyond the SABREs, Olson Engage has been gaining recognition in the Cannes Lions, the Effies, Shortys and even winning an American Graphic Design Award. These accolades reinforce what we’ve been seeing from Olson Engage — spectacularly creative work.

The firm was founded on the challenger mentality (its first assignment for client Miller Brewing was to pick a fight with Anheuser-Busch). These days that mentality is increasingly applied to challenging industry conventions. In late 2014, it was acquired by ICF International making last year a transition. After two years of solid, double-digit growth, momentum slowed as the $20m firm made 2015 a year for setting the groundwork for its future.

The calibre of the work, however, remained unchanged. For instance, Marshawn Lynch’s Skittles Press Conference won Best in Show at the In2 SABRE Awards (the second time Olson Engage has taken home a Best In Show there), its “exterminating pop culture” work Terminix created a pitch-perfect “Sharknado” parody “Mosquitonado” just in time for peak bug season, a Blue Moon anniversary program reinforced the brand’s heritage through crowdsourced package design and social-media gamification, its client Belize joined Tinder, and Oscar Mayer created a fake fitness class that ended up in Time.

Key clients include MillerCoors since 2004 and Wrigley since 2005, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz, Reynolds Consumer Products, P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Jim Beam (new), Disney Consumer Products (new), Skinny Pop (new), among many others. — AaS


PMK*BNC (Interpublic Group)

PMK*BNC won a Cannes Lions for the “Barely Legal Pawn” video it produced for Audi (as well as Best In Show from the In2 SABRE Awards). The video embodies the creative firepower that has made PMK*BNC such a successful entity — building bridges between pop culture with brands. Also last year, the IPG-owned firm  created and distributed digital short, “Kermit Gets Set Up" driving awareness for Audi's Emmy's sponsorship, developed/programmed Samsung Studios in Los Angeles and New York, and drove the launch of the Galaxy S6 and Note 5, helping Samsung gain incredible market share.

The creative work has been very good for business. In 2015, the firm experience double-digit growth for the fourth consecutive year closing the year 16.5% up to fall between $55m to $65m. Eighty-percent of growth is from existing clients. Among PMK’s key clients: Samsung Mobile, American Express, Pepsi, Audi, Activision, T-Mobile, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Jessica Alba, Cameron Diaz and Jimmy Kimmel Live. The firm signed more than 100 new clients in 2015, including Converse, Mattel, Cole Haan, Coach, The SAG Awards, Lena Dunham and Sean “Diddy” Combs.

Other notable work includes an editorial partnership to create the first Newsweek special edition for a brand, Destiny; supporting Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, with Marshawn Lynch as the first pro athlete to become a character in a COD game and secured the first eSports cover for ESPN Magazine. Michael Nyman, Cindi Berger and Chris Robichaud remain at the helm as co-CEOs. — AaS