Global PR Agencies of the Year 2018 | Holmes Report
Charting the future of public relations

2018 Global PR Agencies of the Year

The 2018 Global PR Agencies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 450 submissions and face-to-face meetings with the best PR firms across North AmericaEMEA 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 are announced at the 2018 Global SABRE Awards, which take place at the PRovoke18 Global PR Summit in Washington, DC, on the evening of 24 October. 


Winner: Cohn & Wolfe (WPP)

While most of the top tier agencies were happy if they could brag about any kind of growth in 2017, Cohn & Wolfe was recording its fourth consecutive year of double-digit increase in fee income. The traditional caveat—that Cohn & Wolfe is half the size of most of those competitors—was looking less and less convincing by the end of 2017. And given recent events (the merger with WPP sister agency Burson-Marsteller, with Donna Imperato taking control of what is now a $700 million-plus mega-firm) it’s no longer even relevant.

The growth record is impressive, obviously, but the path Cohn & Wolfe followed to get there is the real story. A decade ago, the firm was a strong player in consumer and healthcare, offering a blend of traditional media expertise and growing digital capabilities. In recent years, it has added an array of in-depth social know-how and the ability to integrate paid, earned, shared and owned channels. Last year saw a strengthening of the influencer marketing approach (“Trufluence”) and expanded AI and VR capabilities. As a result, Cohn & Wolfe can now legitimately claim to be an integrated firm, offering its clients the ability to deliver the complete brand experience, using social and experiential and more—supported by robust data—to deliver channel-neutral ideas and immersive content.

In addition to winning our North American Agency of the Year award, the agency featured strongly in EMEA, earning nominations for its DACH, Mediterranean and healthcare capabilities and winning our UK Consultancyand Healthcare awards, recognition of fee income that grew by 17%, the seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth, and particularly impressive expansion in the consumer division. And the firm was recognized as our Midsize Network of the Year in Asia, where former Burson-Marsteller executive Matt Stafford has overseen a dramatic revival in the firm’s regional fortunes, including 11% growth in 2016 and 21% growth in 2017.

The firm’s insight-driven work really stands out: the consumer practice tapped into an understanding of how cult brands form to create “The Order of Cholula” for the hot sauce brand; it created a content-to-commerce campaign that helped Maserati sell $100,000 cars on Facebook; it worked with celebrity Anthony Anderson on a series of films that urged Americans to “Get Real About Diabetes” for Novo Nordisk; and it helped Newell brand turn a crisis—after a beloved This Is Us TV show character was killed in a Crock Pot fire—into a brand-building opportunity, culminating with a Super Bowl ad. And on its own behalf, Cohn & Wolfe is turning its “Authentic Brands” research into one of the industry’s most interesting thought leadership initiatives. — PH/AS


Finalists

Edelman (Independent)

For almost any other global agency, the 2.3% growth Edelman recorded in 2017 would have been satisfactory if not cause for celebration. For Edelman—the world’s largest independent, with fee income now within a whisker of $900 million—it was disappointing, with Richard Edelman insisting that he would not accept low single digit growth as the “new normal” and doubling down on a series of investments designed to establish the firm as not only the best big PR agency, but a serious competitor to the ad agencies and digital firms—and even content producers like CNN—competing for clients’ marketing dollars.

 In recent years, that has meant expanding the firm’s digital and social capabilities and its creative department—now more than 600-strong around the world, with 350 in the US—to include growing numbers of advertising and paid media specialists. But it has also involved moving into more consultative areas, from data and analytics to  change management and employee experience. 

There was fairly robust 3.3% growth in North America, and while in isolation, Edelman’s financial performance in EMEA was disappointing, 2017 can be seen as a year of consolidation for a firm that had been regularly outperforming its peer group for a decade or so. The firm put in place a new leadership team, with ad industry veteran Carol Potter moving to London from the Middle East to take over as CEO for the region. Both Italy and Spain are performing well, despite difficult market conditions; there’s a new leadership team in Brussels; and of course the London operation is still the UK’s market leader. And in Asia, the firm took home our Digital Consultancy of the Year honors, recognition that pureplay digital capabilities account for more than 15% of the firm’s revenues in the region.

And Edelman’s best work continues to be among the best in the business, as evidenced by a dozen SABRE nominations for campaigns ranging from executive leadership work with PayPal CEO Dan Schulman to pro bono work for the One Orlando Alliance in the wake of the tragic shooting there; from brand marketing and content creation for Unilever brands such as Dove and Axe to a follow-up to REI’s massive award-winning Opt Outside campaign focusing on gender issues; from empowering young adults to get tested for STDs on behalf of the American Sexual Health Association to marketing regional jets for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. — PH/AS


FleishmanHillard (Omnicom Group)

Omnicom’s public relations agencies haven’t enjoyed the best of times recently—0.3% growth in 2017, after a 2.8% increase the year before—and FleshmanHillard, in its second year with John Saunders at the helm, was always going to have to push itself if it was going to improve on a record 2016. In the end, it fell a little short, but by the fourth quarter North America was returned to growth, and profits were strong (which may matter more to the parent company). An even better sign: a survey of 450 clients conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers found satisfaction and loyalty scores on the rise.

In the US, the western region and the Washington, DC, operations turned in particularly impressive performances, and the technology, healthcare, and financial and professional services sectors were all helping to drive growth. Additional assignments in 2017 came from abbvie, Baxter, Bayer, Darden, Merck, Nike, Philips, Western Union, and WWE, while 2018 is off to a roaring start with the addition of AB InBev, General Motors, Monsanto, the PGA, Philips, S&P and Seagate as the firm approaches new business with new swagger.

In EMEA, it’s a tribute to the job John Saunders did in strengthening FH’s presence in the region that since he ascended to the global CEO role at the end of 2015, the leadership team he left behind has continued to build: growth in each of the past two years, including a 10% increase in fee income in 2017 and double-digit growth in major markets such as the UK, Germany and Brussels, as well as in the France, Italy, the Czech Republic, South Africa and the Middle East. And in Asia, under the continued leadership of Lynne-Anne Davis, FH is a top performer: 17 of its top 20 clients are served by more than one owned office, with a couple of them drawing on the resources of 10 offices; more than 50 clients expanded to additional offices in the region; and there is solid growth in some significant markets, with Thailand up 30%, India and the Vox Japan operation up by better than 20%, and the Philippines, Singapore and Korea all recording double-digit growth. Greater China, united two years ago under the leadership of Rachel Catanach, continues to be the largest market.

All of that is the result on ongoing investment in those areas that Saunders and his leadership team (and his rotating 15-person “cabinet”) have identified as growth drivers: a research and analytics practice now rebranded as Global Intelligence, with its focus on predictive analytics, and an Innovation Planning unit that is looking at new tools and techniques, including an influencer prediction tool. The firm is re-emphasizing cultural initiatives too, with a commitment to improved diversity and inclusion, including unconscious bias training, and expanded community outreach to celebrate the firm’s 70th anniversary in 2016. — PH


H+K Strategies 
(WPP)

Hill+Knowlton’s high single-digit growth in the EMEA region is strong enough on its own to qualify the firm for this list (it was strong enough to earn it Consultancy of the Year honors in the region for the second time in three years), but in context it looks even better, achieved as it was at a time when the firm’s European operations receive less help from their American parent company than most of their competitors. Throw in improving margins—tripled over the past three years—and an increasingly 21st century business mix (from high-end consulting work to strong digital and creative) and it’s clear that H+K, which also won our EMEA Consultancy of the Year trophy two years ago, remains an impressive contender.

Under the leadership of Lars-Erik Grønntun, chairman and CEO for EMEA, and Richard Millar, who chairs the UK operation and also leads H+K’s global Center of Creative Strategy, H+K has managed to blend operational discipline, a more entrepreneurial attitude, and strong creative to become a well-rounded business, equally strong in corporate reputation management and brand-building work. The past 12-months have seen the addition of several new offers, including Better Impact, which helps organizations understand where they stand on each of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals; Shanghai Addition (which has worked with Chinese companies like Huawei, Honor and Envision striving the establish themselves in Europe), and Flight School+ (an expansion of the firm’s social media crisis simulation tool).

H+K Strategies marked its 60th anniversary in Asia-Pacific by underlining its return to growth mode, with overall revenue expansion (up around 3% to $50m) led by particularly strong performances from its operations in Southeast Asia and Korea. Greater China accounts for around half of the firm’s regional headcount, and grew around 5% last year, thanks to a renewed focus on creativity that has brought new business from Alibaba, Avon, China Fortune Land Development, Crocs, MSC Cruises, Prevail, Rio Tinto, Red Bull and Zespri, along with the global AOR remit for Dalian Wanda. In Korea, Synergy H+K Korea’s 60-plus team continues to outperform despite a difficult political and economic environment, and, in Southeast Asia, 100 staffers work across offices in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, accounting for 15% of the WPP network’s Asia-Pacific revenue. 

The US operation these days accounts for about one-third of Hill+Knowlton’s global revenues—somewhat less than most of its peers—with about a third of those US revenues coming from the content creation unit SJR, acquired five years ago. The firm’s traditional strengths are in corporate and public affairs. — PH/AS


Weber Shandwick 
(Interpublic Group)

2017 was a disappointing year for Weber Shandwick in terms of growth. Last year’s Large Agency of the Year winner, which has been consistently outperforming its publicly-traded peers for most of the decade, saw revenues decline slightly. Softness in the consumer category was a factor, as was a decline in project-based business—and much of the uncertainty was a consequence of continued political chaos. But there is no reason to believe that there’s any reason for long-term concern. The IPG agency continues to focus on building an industry-leading employee experience and a stellar customer experience, and the creative work—as evidenced by 23 North American SABRE nominations—is even better than it was. (And if the first half is any indication, Weber Shandwick is already bouncing back nicely in 2018.)

A refusal to rest on the laurels of recent success is evident in several initiatives: the creation of new value-based communities (client experience, insights, integrated media, content), a formal approach to dynamic teaming across offices and practices; the creation of new multi-office “geos” to manage five regions within the US for talent development and greater collaboration. And of course the digital, content-creation and technological advances continue, with developments in AI and device interaction, and the creation of a new Tech + Innovation Center, offering everything from e-commerce solutions to advanced analytics.

In EMEA, Colin Byrne’s last year at the helm of Weber Shandwick’s EMEA operation was every bit as impressive as the previous eight: 13% growth, all organic, at a time when the Interpublic agency’s global revenues increased in the low single digits. He leaves behind a firm that has regional fee income in excess of $125 million, having grown by 72% since 2013 to establish itself as one of the strongest networks in the region.

And the firm continued its impressive progress in Asia-Pacific after several years of turbo-charged expansion, recently landing the coveted Greater China Consultancy of the Year award. A cohesive regional strategy means that Weber Shandwick has added considerable geographic breadth and specialist depth across the region, with the agency tripling in size over the past eight years, to around $110m in fee income. Much of that is the by-product of a stable leadership team that is overseen by chairman Tim Sutton and CEO Baxter Jolly, supported by operations chair Tyler Kim in Korea; creativity and innovation chair Darren Burns in China; client experience chair Vanessa Ho in Singapore; global technology co-head Lydia Lee; and strategy/marketing chair Ian Rumsby in Australia. — PH/AS