Holmes Report Names 2008 Specialist Agencies of the Year
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Holmes Report Names 2008 Specialist Agencies of the Year

Despite tough times, recognition for high-performing specialist firms including Coyne, M Booth & Associates, Joele Frank, Kekst and Company, WeissComm, Makovsky, Zocalo, Qorvis, Taylor, and Lewis PR.

Paul Holmes

Consumer Agency of the Year: Coyne Public Relations

 

“Our mission is not to be the best agency in America but the best one for work for,” says the mission statement at Coyne, which as a result of accomplishing the latter—it has topped our Best Agency to Work For survey more than once—can now make a plausible case for consideration for the former. The link between the firm’s culture and its performance is clear to founder Tom Coyne, and his approach is borne out by the successes of the past few years, and the past 12 months in particular: fee income was up a staggering 35 percent last year, and with fees of around $11.5 million Coyne now ranks among the top 25 independents in the U.S.; new clients included Humana, Experian, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, and Playboy, while the firm added significant business from longtime client General Mills and maintained strong relationships with The Walt Disney Company, Goodyear, BMW, Mary Kay, Campbell Soup and Kraft. If a strong employee culture is the basis of the firm’s success, its creative work is the special sauce: the past year saw the rapid development of the Coyne Digital Studio, providing a wide range of creative product from website design to original video, and last year saw it pick up a Silver SABRE for its work with Goodyear, a CSR Award for its Hard Rock International work, and a Best in Show at the Mercury Awards for its campaign on behalf of Humana.

 

Creative Agency of the Year: M Booth & Associates

 

M Booth & Associates, which has ranked among New York’s top independent PR firms consistently over the past two decades, has built its success on the ability to do many things well—it has practices devoted to the consumer, travel and leisure, healthcare, corporate and not-for-profit sectors—but the key to its success across the board is the firm’s creativity. Because of its ability to deliver create brand insights and the strategic programming to take advantage of those insights, it has demonstrated its ability to compete successfully with the best of the niche firms and the biggest of the full-service multinationals, as demonstrated by the continued expansion of client relationships with Unilever, American Express and others, and the addition over the past 12 months of new clients including Tropicana, eBay’s kijiji service, the Danish tourism board, and three liquor brands from Proximo. The firm also created a “Better For You” practice to focus on the consumer health sector and launched First Word Digital, a new group that includes a suite of digital and social media tools and continuing to do smart work for clients such as Ronzoni (giving cows the day off for the Smart Taste line) and Vaseline (the ‘Skin is Amazing” campaign) to the U.S. Virgin Islands (capitalizing on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot on the islands).

 

Crisis Agency of the Year: Joele Frank Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher

 

A few years ago, a steep decline in merger and acquisition activity—such as the one seen in 2008—would have created a crisis for a firm such as Joele Frank Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher, best known for its work as an advisor on financial transactions. But Frank’s firm—like most of its peers—has diversified beyond the narrow M&A arena in recent years, and so the financial crisis presented an opportunity and helped to fuel significant growth, as clients faced new challenges, from proxy contest to contested bids to shareholder activism to restructuring, bankruptcy and regulatory work. The firm ranked number two (according to mergermarket) in value of deals worked in 2008, reflecting its involvement in some of the most high-profile transactions of the year, including Microsoft’s unsolicited bid for Yahoo!, Eli Lilly’s tender offer for ImClone; Electronic Arts’ bid for Take-Two, the merger of satellite radio giants Sirius and XM, and EDF’s acquisition of Constellation Energy. The firm also helped longtime client Charter Communications with a complex announcement regarding its financial restructuring; supported Pilgrim's Pride through its Chapter 11 filing; worked on litigation issues for CNET, CSX, Ceridian and more); and assisted more than two dozen companies with management changes. There’s no decline in crisis business in the first few months of 2009 either, and the firm has played a part in banking industry consolidation, debates over executive compensation, increased activism and TARP-related issues.

 

Financial Agency of the Year: Kekst and Company

 

In good times or bad, Kekst and Company continues to dominate the rankings of U. S. merger and acquisition advisors, working on 122 transactions in 2008—despite the decline in deal activity—and finishing yet again as number one by volume in mergermarket’s annual survey. Highlights during the year included providing advice to Anheuser-Busch on its $58.9 billion sale to InBev; Time Warner during the $25.5 billion spin-off of Time Warner Cable; Electronic Data Systems on its $13 billion sale to HP; and Exelon on its $6 billion unsolicited bid for rival NRG Energy. And the financial crisis meant there was plenty of other work for high-end strategic communications firms like Kekst, including the unwinding of some of the largest private equity transactions ever announced (notably assisting Citi, Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Toronto Dominion, who had agreed to finance the $41 billion private equity buyout of BCE); a flood of redemption requests for hedge funds, resulting in liquidity challenges, closures of funds, and layoffs of personnel; working for and dealing with activist shareholders (clients included Biogen Idec, Breeden & Co., and Davidson Kempner) and supporting clients with complex financial disclosures, earnings revisions and lawsuits ranging from product liability to shareholder class actions and intellectual property issues. In the midst of so many high-profile challenges, the firm also found time to address its own future, selling the business to longtime client Publicis Groupe—a deal that helps Kekst provide service to clients in key global markets as well as its New York headquarters market.

 

Healthcare Agency of the Year: WeissComm Partners

 

Following another year of stellar growth—fee income was up by 46 percent in 2008—WeissComm is now firmly established as the leading independent healthcare specialist in North America. And the firm sees that independence is a significant source of competitive advantage in tough economic times, giving it the freedom to set its own financial goals and invest in the future (hiring new talent, opening new offices and making strategic acquisitions) without worrying about the demands of a pushy parent company. The firm expanded its offer in 2008, adding new brands—the core WeissComm Partners brand is now supplemented by Invigorate, which focuses on health-based consumer brands, and ODA, a creative services agency acquired late in the year—and forming a strategic alliance with Health Advocacy Strategies, which builds and mobilizes patient communities. The firm also added new offices in Washington, D.C., and London; added senior talent (on the operations side, CFO Tony Esposito and HR director Sue Rockoff; in the client-facing realm U.K. managing director Nigel Breakwell, biotech expert Paul Laland, and D.C.-based director Laurie Mobley); and picked up new business from pharma clients such as Bristol Myers-Squibb, GSK, Merkc and Pfizer, as well as from leading biotech, devices, and consumer health brands.

 

Multispecialist Agency of the Year: Makovsky & Company

 

Following strong 19 percent growth in 2008—the firm’s best performance in many a year—Makovsky & Company surpassed $10 million in fees for the first time (fee income was actually around $11 million) and ranked among the top 25 independents in the U.S., with new business from Bausch & Lomb, Coldwell Banker Commercial, Johnson Controls, Russell Reynolds, sanofi-aventis, and United Kingdom Trade & Investment. The firm’s greatest strength—one that spans its core practice areas in healthcare, technology, financial services and investor relations—has always been its ability to help clients communicate complex and often highly technical information to a broad audience in a way that makes it easy to understand and capable of driving business results, and it built on that ability over the past 12 months, producing intellectual capital highlighting the “green gap” between what company executives believe they should be doing to help the environment and their companies’ actual actions and introducing a new “sustainability consortium” with other professional service firms. Founder Ken Makovsky also expanded its social media offering—including a social media audit and a virtual newsroom product—while continuing his own blog. .

 

New Media Agency of the Year: Zocalo Group

 

Launched in 2007 as a spin-off from the Chicago office of Ketchum, Omnicom-owned Zocalo Group has rapidly established itself as a leader in the word-of-mouth marketing space, helping companies and their brands secure advocacy from the right people in the right place, going beyond buzz building to drive sustainable, strategic word-of-mouth at a time when research shows that kind of endorsement to be the most credible marketing a company can receive. The firm does that by focusing on what it calls an “influencer ecosystem” that includes brand evangelists, industry eminent, recognized recommenders, bees (buzz creators), and also determined detractors. It identifies them through its proprietary ZocaloNet online research tool, reaches them through online and offline channels, and follows up with an emphasis on measurement (its work for ConAgra was highlighted in The Wall Street Journal as an example of the return-on-investment from word-of-mouth programming). Other clients include blue-chip brands such as State Farm, Subway, Capital One, Dove, AXE, Frito Lay, Kodak, Orbitz and Jim Beam Brands. The firm has a team of 28, led by president and chief executive Paul Rand, and saw its income jump by 70 percent last year.

 

Public Affairs Agency of the Year: Qorvis

 

Despite its Washington, D.C., headquarters, its origins—the firm is partially owned by lobbying powerhouse Patton Boggs—and the policy background of managing partner Michael Petruzzello, Qorvis is much more than a public affairs firm, with strong corporate and financial communications and even strategic brand marketing capabilities. But it continues to do much of its best work in the broad public affairs arena, such as its efforts on behalf of the American Cable Association (helping small regional operators tell their story to the FCC), the Wireless Innovation Alliance (a broad-based coalition educing legislators and regulators on the potential of white space technology), and the Hope Now Alliance (a coalition of mortgage lenders explaining the industry’s efforts to address the housing crisis). Overall growth in 2008 was about 15 percent—with fees of around $35 million, the firm is the sixth largest independent in the U.S.—and there was new business from the Society for Human Resource Management, the Concord Coalition, the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget, washingtonpost.com, and Sun Microsystems. Qorvis also expanded its strategic capabilities with the addition of its own in-house polling and research company, Clarus Research Group.

 

Strategic Agency of the Year: Taylor

 

Normally, when we name a Strategic Agency of the Year, we are focused on the strategic counsel that firm provides to its clients. In the case of Taylor—named one of our Agencies of the Year for the third consecutive year—we are recognizing both the quality of its counsel and the quality of the strategy the firm has put in place for its own future. We have outlined that strategy in the past—it transformed Taylor from an old-fashioned publicity shop with a focus on sports and sponsorship and a roster of 70 clients to a template for the PR agency of tomorrow, more than doubling in size in two years while transforming into a firm that provided strategic brand counsel to a select list of 25 companies—and it was further recognized in 2008 when Harvard Business School assigned a researcher to study the firm for inclusion in its Fall semester. While growth was slower last year than it had been during the first two years of the firm’s transformation, progress toward realizing its strategy was impressive: Taylor now derives about a third of its revenues from strategic counsel rather than execution, expanded its state-of-the-art research and planning capabilities and is now increasingly the lead agency for clients looking beyond publicity for cross-channel brand-building ideas.

 

Technology Agency of the Year: Lewis PR

 

Founded in the U.K. in 1995 by former journalist Chris Lewis, Lewis PR quickly established itself as a leader in its domestic market—it was our first European Technology Consultancy of the Year five years ago—and just as quickly made it clear that it harbored global ambitions. The firm opened its first U.S. office, in San Diego, a decade ago, added a Boston office in 2000, a San Francisco operation in 2003 and has added an office each year since then (in order, Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles and in 2007 Seattle and San Jose). The U.S, operations, led by senior vice president Morgan McLintic, saw their revenues increase by 37 percent during financial year 08, with new business from clients such as Lexmark, Proofpoint, Prosper, and Recommend, joining a client roster that includes EVE Online, Micro Focus, Progress Software, Second Life, and View Sonic. The firm also expanded its strategic capabilities with the launch of the Lewis Social Media Wire (part of an impressive broader social and digital media offer) and the introduction of the ACTIVATE evaluation methodology.

 

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