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

2016 North America Large PR 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.

Large PR Agency of the Year: Cohn & Wolfe (WPP)

It’s doubtful whether Cohn & Wolfe has ever, in its illustrious 45-year history, enjoyed a run of success comparable to its performance over the past couple of years. Under the leadership of global CEO Donna Imperato and president of the Americas Jim Joseph, the firm has grown by 45% over the past couple of years, 25% organically—and was up 16.3% in North America last year.

That’s even more impressive when you consider the extent to which it has outperformed most other big agencies—and its WPP sister companies in particular. And when you consider that less than a decade ago, C&W was viewed by many observers as living on borrowed time after years of decline. Or when you consider that it has grown in part by beating its mostly larger peers (including the other firms on this shortlist) for new clients like Hyatt's lifestyle and luxury brands, 20th Century Fox, Newell Rubbermaid, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Galderma’s Excipial.

There have been additions to the talent pool as well, including a new executive creative director for the US business. Emanate veteran Scott Cocchiere; corporate practice leader Laura Ryan; and new MDs in Atlanta and Austin. And having established itself over the past couple of years as an employer of choice—it was our Best Large Agency to Work For—its internal initiatives continue to impress, including its new knowledge sharing and collaboration platform. — PH

Finalists


Edelman
(DJE Holdings)
It’s a testament to the high bar Edelman has set—for itself and for other global agencies—that its 2015 growth of 7.2% disappointed some observers, despite bettering all but one of its 10 largest rivals. Its North American business—still the largest and most mature part of its business—was up by 8.5% to $523 million, with strong contributions from the Chicago office and the corporate and financial categories (the firm figured in the top 10 on the mergermarket listing of M&A advisors and has been doing CEO positioning work for the likes of United Airlines and Viacom).

But while other large agencies struggle to adapt to the new digital and social environment, it’s the “non-traditional” part of Edelman’s business that continues to drive much of its success: the United Entertainment Group business it acquired in October 2014 doubled in size last year, and pure digital revenues were up by about 10%; the firm has hired more than 400 creatives and planners for its multi-channel content creation operation; and the firm now manages more than 900 social media communities for clients from Olive Garden to Disney.

New business came from global clients like Samsung and in the US from Cracker Barrel, Florida Citrus, KFC, and Ticketmaster, and new hires included Kathryn Beiser from Hilton to head the global corporate practice, Bob Knott from FTI to lead social purpose; and Tom Potts from Lowe Porfero to lead paid media. — PH

Golin (Interpublic Group)Ever since the restructuring of its business around the “g4” model (communities of explorers, creators, connectors, and catalysts replacing the traditional practice structure) five years ago, Golin has been on a tear. It has committed to its “Go All In” positioning, and introduced a new proposition focusing on brand relevance, and it has doubled down on digital and content creation.

So have many others, of course, but relatively few of them are seeing the kind of growth that Golin has enjoyed over the past few years (up 8% in 2015). The firm had arguably the best new business performance of any top tier agency last year, with new work from Abbott (diabetes care), Adobe, Astellas, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Carnival Cruises, Clif bars (corporate and consumer, with a nutrition focus), ConAgra, GSK (Flonase), Hyatt (corporate work, expanded to included the main hotel brands), L’Oreal (social purpose as well as beauty brands), and Sprint.

The firm is enjoying success in its traditional consumer space (introducing the all-day breakfast menu at McDonald’s), in healthcare (where the VirgoHealth brand has expanded its medical education credentials), in corporate (crisis and issues and corporate purpose), and perhaps most notably in content, where the acquisition of highly-regarded creative shop Brooklyn Brothers has the potential to be a real game changer. — PH


Ketchum
(Omnicom Group)
With growth in the mid-single digits, Ketchum’s financial performance has not kept pace with its most impressive competitors, but the firm continues to innovate—a new approach to influencer marketing that draws on sophisticated analytics and the trademarked StoryWorks storytelling methodology, for example—and to produce award-worthy work at a rate few of its peers (only Edelman received more SABRE nominations this year) can emulate.

The quality work ranges from CSR (like Michelin’s efforts to promote tire safety or ConAgra’s efforts to combat hunger) to content creation (Gillette’s partnership with “Stark Industries,” Wendy’s “baconator” campaign) to a surprising depth of crisis counseling (drawing on recent expertise in data security and college scandals). It was a strong new business year too, with wins like Dun & Bradstreet, Etihad, General Mills, Janssen, Lenovo, Samsung Mobile, and USDA, and additional work from seven-figure clients such as Chase, Johnson & Johnson, H&R Block, Pfizer and IBM. And of course Ketchum continues to emphasize employee recruitment and engagement, gamifying its approach to finding new employees (particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds) and expanding its “Race to Make It Real” initiative. — PH

Weber Shandwick (Interpublic Group)
It’s not just the growth—though with fee income up by 11% last year, Weber Shandwick continues to outperform its peers and is now close to a tie for the world number one—but the well thought-out “employee experience” that drives it. It’s not just the new business success—assignments from the American Cancer Society, Mapquest, Merck, NASDAQ, New York Life, Nielsen—it’s the 96% retention of top 50 clients.
It’s not just the new and diverse talent—SVP of digital and strategic planning Scott Davis from Phenomenon; creative in residence Matt Horton from Morsekode; MD of corporate content Brett Pulley, former dean of Scripps Howard School of Journalism & Communications; executive editor-in-residence Vivian Schiller, formerly of Twitter and NBC News—it’s the strong and stable leadership team, including global CEO Andy Polansky and president Gail Heimann, and North American president Sara Gavin.

It’s not just the award-winning creative work—from CSR for Pedigree to B2B marketing for Ricoh to consumer brand-building Budweiser and Mattel to issues management for Florida Hospital Association—it’s the engagement approach (analytics, creative, strategy, production, integrated media execution) that underpins it.

And it’s not just the core Weber Shandwick business, it’s the “ecosystem” that includes public affairs brand Powell Tate, multicultural marketing specialist Axis, KRC Research, multichannel content agency Creation. All of that makes Weber Shandwick arguably the world’s most complete public relations firm. — PH