2018 Consumer PR Agencies of the Year, North America | Holmes Report
Charting the future of public relations

2018 Consumer PR Agencies of the Year

Our 2018 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 were unveiled at the 2018 North American SABRE Awards, at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 1.

Winner: Olson Engage (ICF)

Olson Engage is probably the most prolific producer of breakthrough creative work in the industry. And while Olson Engage has earned its place as a formidable creative powerhouse, it’s become clear that, in most cases, the creativity drives compelling business performance for its clients. For instance, its stunning “One Chip Challenge” work for Paqui resulted in the CEO calling out the campaign on an earnings call because of remarkable sales lift. (The work also took home five Innovation SABRE trophies earlier this year, including Best in Show.)

It’s work like this that’s fueling its second straight year of double-digit growth — revenues are up 10% to $26.4m — capping 13 years of revenue growth. As a testament to its success, now three years since its sale to ICF, Olson Engage president Bryan Specht has been handed leadership of Olson’s advertising agency business (this also points to the significance of earned in ICF’s marketing mix.)

Much of Olson Engage’s most remarkable work comes from its two longest-standing and largest clients: MillersCoors and Mars Wrigley Confectionery, meanwhile it continues to expand the number of brands it represents for Kraft Heinz. Other clients include PepsiCo, Belize Tourism Board, BEHR Paint, Beam Suntory, Reynolds Consumer Products, along with new wins like Target, Papa Johns, Days Inn, Uncle Ben’s and Oprah Winfrey’s O. And as we’re recognizing the agency as a fierce consumer PR engine, the firm is also growing into new areas with large-scale employee engagement assignments for UHG and Centene and an award-winning public affairs work for Elevate Minnesota.

Considering Olson Engage’s remarkable creative track record, it’s worth noting that 2017 was the firm’s best-ever creative year in its 14-year history: six Gold SABRE nominations, eight Innovation SABRE wins from 23 nominations, three Cannes Lion wins, three One Show wins, two Shorty award wins, among others.

As the agency grows — and becomes the anchor for the entire Olson brand—maintaining an engaged culture has become a priority. In the last year, Olson Engage cut its voluntary turnover in half to 10.5% and increased training and development hours by 39%, to 1,102. The firm’s 140 employees are located across offices in Chicago (HQ), Minneapolis and New York, and satellite presences in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. — AaS

Finalists

Current Marketing (Interpublic Group)

Current Marketing started 2017 with a pretty tough task. The consumer marketing firm set out for Las Vegas with the goal of launching the first wearable breast pump at the CES show — a male-dominated event where high-tech gizmos like drones, next-gen TVs and smart home systems, not contraptions to help nursing moms, tend to get the bulk of attention. Yet between leveraging the popularity of wearables, and standing out as a purpose-driven women’s product, Current’s launch campaign did the trick. The Willow Breast Pump earned eight CES show awards, was featured in 454 stories across media and piqued the interest of 38,290 consumers who asked about buying the product.

But that’s just the way Current rolls, as a company driven by connecting brands with people in new ways — and seeing results from doing so. Founded by Virginia Devlin in 2006, Current started with a single client, the Clorox Company — with which Current still works, supporting seven of its brands. In the time since, however, the agency has grown its client list to include big-name companies like Samsung Home Appliances, Allstate, Mars and Radio Flyer. In the last 12 months, the firm added Applebee's, JOANN Fabric & Crafts and Omni Hotels & Resorts, as well as the Willow Breast Pump, to its roster.

All of which have contributed to 2017 being Current’s 11th consecutive year of growth, fueled by an 8% increase in revenue. That sort of success stems from Current acting on its mantra — marketing for real lives.  To deliver on that idea promise, Current has developed new tools and practices to best serve clients as the industry continues to transform. In 2017, the firm fine-tuned its research and insights process to fuse hard data with a nuanced real-life picture of how people really live and interact with a brand or category, translating those insights into creative campaigns that compel people to shop, support and share. Also in 2017, Current reorganized its talent and made strategic hires around four collaborative communities designed to marry exceptional client service with breakthrough work that is grounded in data and strategic planning, executed via compelling creative and communicated across earned, owned and paid. — DM

 

DeVries Global (Interpublic Group)

It’s now been a little more than three years since FleishmanHillard veteran Heidi Hovland took the reins at Interpublic-owned lifestyle marketing specialist DeVries Global, and in that time she has helped the firm articulate a distinctive point of view about the relationship between popular culture and brand marketing, the proliferation of (often ineffective) brand content, and the role that public relations thinking and public relations agencies should play in taking influencer marketing to the next level. As the agency’s mission statement explains: “Our mission is to decode culture to help propel brands to win.”

One of Hovlund’s most important moves was the appointment of another FH veteran, Colby Vogt, who joined in 2016 to lead a new business intelligence unit. Vogt has brought a data and analytics discipline to the influence marketing function, a left-brain counterpart to the right-brain creativity that the firm has always had in abundance. New additions in 2017 included Niki Chakravarthy as executive VP in the beauty practice, joining from Wunderman to lead P&G’s global Olay and North American Beauty Scale business; creative director Tracy Brosnan, who brings experience from Grey, Publicis, Saatchi and The Martin Agency; and SVP strategy Tiffany Griffin, formerly with Facebook.

In addition to P&G Beauty (Aussie, Olay, Pantene and Secret), the firm’s roster includes brands like Celebrity Cruises, Coty Professional Beauty, IHOP, JIBO, Staples, and Zippo, while new business in 2017 came from bottled water brand Essentia, Livionex, method, Mucinex (an integrated project with McCann to support the Superbowl 2018 campaign), MyOne Condoms, and Sephora. Interesting work ranged from the introduction of Pantene’s new Gold Series line with a campaign to empower African-American women to rock their strong, beautiful hair to the #SuperSickMonday campaign for Mucinex, built on the insight that the day after the Super Bowl is the number one “fake sick day” of the year.—PH

Exponent PR (MDC Partners)

Exponent PR is a lesson in the power of agility. The Minneapolis-based, consumer-oriented agency has learned to anticipate and adapt to the myriad challenges rocking the industry, from shifts in media consumption and the rise of inaccurate information to the dearth in diversity in communications.  And that ability made 2017 Exponent’s 13th consecutive year of growth, with the firm up 6% to almost $13m, underpinned by the addition of clients including Edwards Lifesciences, Sunflare Solar and Jackson Hole Tourism to a client roster that already featured Land O'Lakes, Florida's Natural, Cenex Convenience Stores, Farm Credit and DuPont. 

Exponent has built its reputation on harnessing empathy and data intelligence to create strategies, content, service and experiences that inspire people to think, feel and take action, driven by the belief that brands that set the bar for industry, communities and culture, ultimately win. The firm transforms the reputations of brands (75% of its revenue comes from food and agricultural businesses) by navigating the contemporary landscape; Exponent also leverages the range of 21st century channels and tactics in support of its clients’ purpose initiatives. In 2017, that reaped results like Land O’Lakes Uncharted Waters, a digitally driven, visual initiative that used video, an online quiz and data visualization to drive awareness of the looming water crisis facing farmers, who will have to feed 9bn more people by 2050 with the same amount of water they have today. The agency supported 3M’s efforts to make its Command brand part of its 2017 Pride efforts with its #ParentsComingOut campaign. When parents and families shared their personal stories to #ParentsComingOut, they not only showed up for their kids, but also inspired others to do the same — powerful steps in promoting empowerment and confidence building.

During the last year, Exponent also increased investment in technology to further emphasize innovative thinking and expand its toolset. It opened a new tech lab and workshop called Hatch, giving teams the opportunity to embrace new technology with even more speed, anticipating changing consumer preferences and challenging the tried and true approaches. Exponent has also unveiled a multi-pronged program to help boost diversity among its workforce. — DM

 

Golin (Interpublic Group)

Golin’s heritage was underscored this year with the passing of both Al Golin — who made his name providing PR counsel to McDonald’s and pioneering many of the techniques now commonplace in consumer PR — and his longtime partner Tom Harris, a tireless advocate of PR’s role in the integrated marketing mix. It was a reminder that despite its expansion into corporate reputation building, public affairs, technology and (particularly in recent years) healthcare, Golin remains one of the best brand-building public relations firms in the country.

While the legacy was front and center in 2017, Golin continued to look toward the future—as it has since its radical restructuring five years ago and its appointment of three joint CEOs (Gary Rudnick, Jon Hughes and Matt Neale) in July of 2016. There was an expanded focus on data and analytics with the appointment of Edelman’s Jonny Bentwood as head and the unveiling of the data-driven “Relevance Fingerprint” methodology for measuring a brand’s relevance relative to its competition. The emphasis on “relevance” will be a key differentiator for the firm’s brand work going forward, with new research — in partnership with USC’s Annenberg School — revealing what drives relevance for brands in 13 markets across the globe. 

New business came from the Boy Scouts of America, Pepsico’s bubly and LifeWTR bottled water brands, L’Oreal Paris, and in the healthcare realm Amgen, Novartis and Sandoz, and organic growth from clients such as Hyatt, Icelandair, JetBlue, McDonald’s, Mead Johnson Nutrition, Mountain Dew, and Walmart. Great work included the “Farewell Dandelion” campaign for Crayola’s latest retired color; the introduction of the “frork” for McDonald’s, as well as a playful crisis campaign to bring back the cult-favorite Szechuan sauce; and “Check In for Good” and the “No Blackout Non-Eclipse Non-Event” for JetBlue.—PH