Global Digital Agencies of the Year 2017 | Holmes Report
Charting the future of public relations

2017 Global Digital Agencies of the Year

The 2017 Global PR Agencies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 400 submissions and face-to-face meetings with the best PR firms across North America, EMEA and Asia-Pacific.

Analysis of all of the Winners and Finalists across specialist categories can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or below. Winners were announced at the 2017 Global SABRE Awards, which took place at the PRovoke17 Global PR Summit in Miami on the evening of 25 October.

Winner — BlueFocus Digital (China/BlueFocus Communication Group)

Since its launch in 1996 (then known as Blue Focus PR), Oscar Zhao’s company has grown into the largest public relations consultancy in China and one of the top 10 public relations business in the world, with 2016 fee income (per our 2017 Top 250 ranking) of close to $270 million—up by 17% last year.

Today, BlueFocus Digital Marketing Agency is the main subsidiary of the BlueFocus Communication Group in China, employing 1,300 people and offering a unique blend of digital marketing and public relations services in China  across offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Xi’an. The firm is led by CEO Richard Jiao, supported by COO Stanley Xiao, chief strategy officer Yorf Guo, VP Bruce Zhu and SVP Donna Li. Key new hires last year included chief technology officer Su Zuan and Otype VP River Wu.

As such, it represents many of the country’s largest companies (Lenovo, Baidu, JD.com, Tencent, FAW-Volkswagen, Volvo, Canon, GAC Toyota and NETS) . New business over the past 12 months came from Bybo Dental Group, Ferrero, Nestle, WMF, China UnionPay, Chevron, L'Oréal, vivo, Lianjia and 5i5j. That helped BlueFocus Digital grow its revenues by 8.9% in 2016, despite a challenging market that included many clients looking to optimise their marketing budget. In response, BlueFocus has a built a more modern purchasing and operation department, supported by upgraded client servicing capabilities. The firm has also stepped up its creative capabilities, because of the demands placed on its digital work. A central creative team is supported by investments across big data, artificial intelligence and cloud technology, reflecting BlueFocus shift towards digital CRM and social media marketing. 

High-profile work includes developing Infinit’s customer loyalty platform, a mobile effort that leveraged big data to optimise the carmaker’s marketing experience and led to a substantial increase in owners’ usage. For Baidu, meanwhile, BlueFocus supported the transformation of visual art into music via artificial intelligence, and also developed an AR-fuelled restoration campaign of nine city gates in old Beijing. — AS 
 

Finalists

Allison+Partners (Global/MDC Partners)

We’ve long recognized Allison as one of the most well-rounded firms in its size category, even while it didn’t quite have the game-changing signature campaign to cap its digital and creative investments. That’s no longer the case. In North America over the last year, the firm worked on a stunning portfolio of campaigns. Among them, Allison teamed up with MDC sister firms 72andSunny & the Media Kitchen for a Seventh Generation campaign that features Maya Rudolph riffing a jingle about feminine care (“Vajingle” was also included in our top 40 global campaigns, meanwhile Allison was shortlisted was 11 Innovation SABREs and 6 Gold SABREs in North America this year.) This creative surge coincides with Allison launching its All Told digital storytelling department last year. 

Meanwhile, four years since entering Asia via a deal with China’s Wolf Group Asia, Allison+Partners has built a credible regional presence, bolstered by further acquisitions in China (Century PR) and, last year, Japan (Focus PR), along with expansion into Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Sydney, including the hire of former Upstream Asia co-founder Paul Mottram to lead its All Told content practice. 

Yet in the US business performance did soften with single-digit growth bringing revenues to $47.2m, but the Asia operation saw topline growth of almost 100% in 2016 to $6.5m in revenue. The firm also now has around 15 employees across EMEA and the UK, and is growing its influence in the region. Global revenues were $55million. 

North America clients include Samsung Electronics America and Toyota North America (Allison became the automaker’s national AOY in 2016) Hulu, PepsiCo, Quaker, Fox Home Entertainment, Progressive Insurance, Auntie Anne’s and Dignity Health. In Asia (particularly in China), it’s the firm’s B2B capabilities that lead the way for clients like Schneider Electric, Canola Council of Canada, Textron Aviation, Tencent, Baidu and iRobot. — AaS

Edelman (Global/Independent)

Edelman's digital capabilities have always been a notch above most of their rivals, the consequence of a pioneering approach that saw it invest heavily in social media and community building well ahead of the curve. In the decade since, much of that works has migrated in-house, so Edelman's digital capabilities — which account for around 20% of global revenue — are reorienting themselves towards such areas as influencer engagement, search, video content and paid media. 'Pure' digital revenues are growing by upwards of 10%; the firm has hired more than 600 creatives and planners for its multi-channel content creation operation; and it now manages more than 900 social media communities for clients from Olive Garden to Disney.

That growth rate, of course, only accounts for the firm’s pure-play digital activity—the content creation, digital design, and community management work delivered by a specialist team. The real story, instead, lies in the network’s fundamental restructuring of its operating structure to ensure that all aspects of digital — including those more readily associated with advertising agencies — are delivered across its agency model. Edelman has invested significant sums in this initiative, across such areas as search engine marketing, social media optimisation and measurement/analytics, building centralised hubs that features skills and talent that each of its markets can tap into on a local basis

Much of the firm's best digital work, meanwhile, reflects both the integrated mindset and the blend of capabilities. Notable campaigns included the 'Give a Beep' cycling safety effort; Tele2's 'Settle For More' in Sweden; 'Jacks150 Barrel Hunt' for Jack Daniel's in Spain; the Grohe 'Senses' content series in Germany; and a string of UK campaigns including Xbox's Halo Wars 2, Janssen's 'Make Blood Cancer Visible' and global engagement for what3words. In Asia, meanwhile, the firm's sophisticated use of digital marketing includes developing Pond’s global influencer program; creating compelling online video for iRobot and Mirinda; Weibo work for Joie; and using AR to support Samsung’s swimming safety program. — AS

RFI (Global/Independent)

Ruder Finn’s digital capabilities in Asia were transformed by the 2016 acquisition of Daylight Partnership, the firm founded by former WE Communications regional chief David Ko. Combined with Ruder Finn Innovation Studios (RFI), that gives the firm a 50-person digital presence across China, Hong Kong, Singapore and India — with specific strengths in product development and analytics. Unsurprisingly, that helped fuel 25% digital growth in 2016, with around half of Ruder Finn’s regional revenues now being drawn from digital work. 

RFI Asia Limited’s work, meanwhile, demonstrates a clear focus on innovation, via such efforts as immersive storytelling, marketing chatbots and interactive content. That is supported by an array of products, including new influencer analytics tool Beacon, a risk management app called Riskstat and the Sonar crisis simulation platform. All of this adds up to an impressive array of clients, including new business from Nike, HSBC, Pacific Place and Macy’s while also helping it expand existing relationships with such clients as Prudential and L’Oreal. And the work is suitably compelling too — including an immersive 360-degree video  and VR mini-movie for Sino Group; Hong Kong’s first marketing chatbot for Pacific Place; UGC campaigns for Swire Properties; and live streaming Prudential’s Relationship Index Forum.

In North America, meanwhile, RFI's consistent progress gives it one of the most well-rounded digital offerings in the market, under the leadership of chief digital officer Scott Schneider. — AS

 
W2O Group (US/Independent)

W2O Group has now outgrown the category it won last year (Midsize Agency of the Year) with several acquisitions that powered its 33% surge to $123m. And the firm hit another big milestone last year when it sold a stake to Mountaingate Capital. Impressively, these changes have resulted in its long-standing market differentiator — digital analytics — becoming sharper and more disciplined.

Two of its three acquisitions last year deepened its digital expertise that is already great heights above many of its closest competitors. These were Marketing Tech, a a social media research and insights that unearths insights for patient and healthcare professionals. In buying in Sentient W2O added digital, paid and owned media analytics to its arsenal. The private equity investment also forced the firm to make operational efficiencies including cutting away the digital services that weren’t working — mainly VinTank and NextWorks.

Meanwhile, the firm’s longstanding marquee digital offering, M Digital Life, continued to grow in 2016 with more than 700K digital footprints mapped across healthcare influencers around the world. For pharma clients, the W2O  Group Value Report mines 2,000 conversation driving tools and maps this against an analytics framework that pulls in data on 30 different variables that impact pricing risk. It’s worth noting, 80% of W2O’s revenue comes from the healthcare sector with key clients like Merck, Pfizer, Medtronic, Verizon, PepsiCo, Intel, IBM Watson Health. New wins include Sony, Philips, Comcast, Ingersoll-Rand, United Technologies, Tesco and Prostate Cancer.

W2O’s analytics business — which includes social and web analytics, data analysis, PESO media attribution, conversation aggregation and blueprinting and campaign optimization, among other areas — grew 77% in 2016 and now accounts for 23% of its revenues. Of course, there’s still considerable work to do, the acquisitions are often the easy part — the real test comes with integration. But even amid relative chaos, W2O reputation as the firm that challenges boundaries more aggressively, boldly and successfully than its peers remains untarnished. — AaS