2017 Digital PR Agencies of the Year, North America | Holmes Report
Charting the future of public relations

2017 North America Digital Agencies of the Year

Our 2017 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 2017 North American SABRE Awards, taking place at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 2.

Winner: Allison + Partners (MDC Partners)

The calibre of work from Allison + Partners is, frankly speaking, the best that it’s ever been. We’ve long recognized Allison as one of the best rounded firms in its size category, yet Allison didn’t quite have the game-changing signature campaign to cap its digital and creative investments.

That’s no longer the case — and to explain, let’s start with the Pope. In 2016, the firm produced a global event at on behalf of its Stem For Life Foundation client that was attended by Pope Francis and Joe Biden, among a host of other VIPs from around the world. The Innovation SABRE judges called this campaign “perfect” for its flawless execution across media, social and digital. Moving on, Allison teamed up with MDC sister firms 72andSunny & the Media Kitchen for Seventh Generation client in a campaign that features Maya Rudolph riffing a jingle about feminine care. And for its Kampgrounds of America client, Allison delivered a stunning integrated campaign to update and diversify perceptions around camping. Allison was shortlisted was 11 Innovation SABRE Awards in 2017.

This creative outburst coincides with Allison launching its All Told digital storytelling department last year that encompasses a four-part methodology of research-driven insights to inspire strategy that unfolds through innovative storytelling that’s measured by results. 

While Allison certainly had a standout year for its work, business performance softened as the firm saw single-digit growth in the US with revenues hitting $47.2m ($55m globally). Even so, the agency grew 90% of its existing clients, including expanding relationships with its two of its largest clients Samsung Electronics America and Toyota North America (Allison became the automaker’s national AOY in 2016).  Other clients include: Dannon, Hulu, PepsiCo, Quaker, Fox Home Entertainment, Progressive Insurance, Auntie Anne’s and Dignity Health.

CEO Scott Allison continues to lead the firm with co-founders Andy Hardie-Brown, Jonathan Heit and Scott Pansky. But there were some notable departures last year, notably longstanding Western region president Phil Carpenter and Social Impact lead Henk Campher. — AaS     
 

Finalists

Day One (Independent)

It’s hard to believe it was only last year that Day One was named the Holmes Report’s New Agency of the Year. With a client roster that includes American Express, Comcast, Facebook, Marriott International, YouTube — along with several other world-class brands that we can’t list here — it feels like Day One is more established than four years, which is when founders Josh Rosenberg, Brad Laney and Rob Longert went rogue from M Booth.

Already, Day One is $6m in revenues, up 36% from the previous year with 33 employees across offices in New York and Los Angeles delivering on its mission: “to stop the world in its scroll.” The agency recently restructured under the inspiration of Walt Disney circa 1943 when the corporation was organized around stories. Each team is built around a narrative at its core, rather than any marketing discipline.

Also in 2016, Day One launched its influencer marketing offering Project Neon designed to help brands become ‘in’ platform vs. just ‘on’ platform to create authentic connections. “We don’t rely on existing influencer databases or robots to generate lists or match brands to influencers,” says Rosenberg. “Instead, we use platform data, paired with human intuition to surface relevant and impactful influencers. Anyone can find a 500K follower influencer but when their feed is filled with branded posts, the value of what they’re saying diminishes.”

Work with American Express and the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation included a grassroots campaign to decide the future of $2m in funding for National Parks. Day One created 25 original assets for the campaign and activated a National Geographic media partnership — and resulted in one million audience votes. The In2 SABRE judges also took notice nominating the work in both the Identity Branding and Social Good categories. — AaS

rbb Communications (Independent)

Rbb's presence on this list might have raised a few eyebrows had it taken place a couple of years ago, but the firm's acquisition of Spiderboost Communications has brought website development, paid search and digital media buying capabilities to an offering that already counted as one of the smartest in terms of consumer and creative PR. That deal, along with the purchase Out of the Blue Advertising, gives rbb a considerably integrated offering, helping the Miami-based firm grow 22% to $9m in 2016, with its 20% margin continuing to rank among the industry's best.

The numbers are not the only proof of rbb's digital expansion. Last year, the firm also scored a uniquely integrated assignment from Jackson Health System, worth upwards of $4m in billings. It was also named digital AOR for DHL Express, and added digital work from Goodwill Industries and The Education Fund, along with further consumer business from HiltonWorldwide, AMResorts and Virgin Cruises.

Unsurprisingly, the internal reorientation of rbb's offering has not been without its challenges. The firm focused on its tech infrastructure on workplace culture to ensure a seamless integration of the new capabilities, helping it add digital business from more than 40% of the firm’s existing clients, under the leadership of Abdul Muhammad II of rbb’s Digital Park and Armando Martinez of Spiderboost. Rbb also created a new service called 'Idea Cloud', brainstorming and analyzing data to determine ways to add value to clients — ultimately resulting in major investments in video; data mining and analysis tools that help automate marketing and enhance the customer experience; advanced influencer tracking, and programmatic media buying.

All of those efforts paid off with such work as a customized online reservation system for a restaurant chain that was unhappy with off-the-shelf products. The firm also reimagined the client’s user experience with a newly designed website built for conversion, helping reservation booking hold fees increase from $13,000 to $127,000 a month in less than five months. — AS


MSLGroup
(Publicis Groupe)

Overall, MSLGroup’s North American operations are still under-strength compared to its major peers, but its digital capabilities are among the strongest in the region. Over the past few years, it has invested in data and analytics, social listening, content creation, influencer marketing and more. The acquisition of Canada’s North Strategic, a finalist for our Global Digital Agency of the Year in 2016, only added to those credentials.

But the highlight of MSL’s “influence-to-impact” strategy is its Conversation2Commerce solution, which debuted last year and seeks to reinforce the credibility of earned influence with the amplification power of paid. The process begins by identifying the best, most relevant influencers and crafting the most relevant story and supporting messages. It continues by using paid components to amplify the resulting coverage, and culminates with measurement focused on consideration, purchase intent, and conversion metrics. (A new Conversation2Credibility service focuses more on reputational benefits.)

Beyond the innovation of C2C, however, there’s plenty of exciting work: MSL helped P&G’s Pampers brand with an influencer-led CSR campaign, designing a new product specifically for premature babies; influencer marketing and content creation for American Express in Canada; creating a film for Allstate Foundation’s PurplePurse campaign combating domestic violence through financial independence;

Finally, Publicis Groupe’s “Power of One” philosophy means MSL can supplement its own capabilities by drawing on the expertise of sister agencies like SapientNitro, Digitas and Razorfish.


W2O Group
 (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