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

2018 North America Large 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: 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 growth. 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.

There was a deluge of new business last year: Amazon Web Services, Campari, Electrolux, Fruit of the Loom, Huawei, IKEA, Novo Nordisk, Qualcomm, Samsung, Zoetis. And there was organic growth from the likes of Bayer, Gilead, Newell Brands, Pfizer, and 20th Century Fox. There was new talent too, including Hill+Knowlton veteran Gary Goldhammer as executive VP in the US digital practice; Stephanie O’Donnell from Edelman to lead the corporate healthcare offer; and Kristin Hooper, formerly of KRC and Weber Shandwick, as senior VP, branding and insights. 

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

 

Finalists

Edelman (DJE Holdings)

For almost any other global agency, the 2.3% growth Edelman recorded in 2017 (3.3% in North America) 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. New appointments in 2017 reflect both of those priorities, from Mark Renshaw (a Leo Burnett veteran) taking over as global creative chair to Ernst & Young’s Cydney Roach joining to lead the employee engagement function to Natalie Seidman, formerly of The NPD Group, as managing director of Edelma Intelligence.

Those investments are reflected in new business success. There was organic growth from clients like Adobe, Citadel, Hologic, HP, Mars, and the State of Florida’s Department of Citrus, and new business from Ajinomoto, Genentech, Puget Sound Energy, ServiceNow, and Sonos. But there were also digital assignment from the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau and Sears Holding Company, and advisory services business from Bridgestone and Microsoft.

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

 

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 impove 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.

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.

That’s 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.

The work is strong, from supporting AB InBev’s SuperBowl advertising, which focused on providing water for disaster relief rather than selling more beer, to working with General Motors on the “zero” goals (zero crashes, zero emissions, zero congestion) outlined by CEO Mary Barra; from helping AT&T provide blind people with a way to “see” the eclipse using AIRA glasses to creating a high-profile stunt for Krispy Kreme’s 80th birthday; from delivering a reputation management program for Aflac to opening the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium with a blockbuster media blitz. — PH

W2O Group (Independent)

It’s been clear for awhile now that W2O Group would inevitably be competing as a large agency in a matter of time. With revenues now hitting $144m — up nearly 18% from 2016 — the firm has undeniably earned its place as one of the industry’s most formidable large players.

It’s also worth reflecting on how extraordinary W2O's trajectory has been. Just five years ago, the firm was at $62 million with 72% of revenues coming from traditional communications work. While earned is still at the firm’s core, communications work is now at 47% followed by digital at 37% and analytics at 16%. Among the most significant turning points for W2O was in 2016 when it sold a stake to Mountaingate Capital, followed by a series of acquisitions to make its long-standing market differentiator — digital analytics — even sharper and more disciplined.

A few notable things haven’t changed for W2O over the last 17 years. Founder/CEO Jim Weiss maintains a single P&L across its 13 offices that, together, employee more than 650 people. Management is comprised of long-standing leaders — Jenn Gottlieb, Bob Pearson, Seth Duncan — along with a growing number of business unit and regional leaders as the firm now maintains five sub-brands and a centralized analytics offering with more than 110 analysts. And despite some investments in other areas, healthcare continues to be W2O’s most robust sector with longstanding clients  Merck, CVS Health, Incyte, Takeda, Genentech/Roche, KOWA, Sarepta, along with new additions  Symbiomix Therapeutics LLC (now Lupin), Horizon Pharma, National Pharmaceutical Council, Athenahealth, Helix, Dermira, Alcresta, Circassia. Other notable clients include Comcast, IBM and Intel.

The caliber of work has also evolved with the firm taking home three Innovation SABRE Awards this year — including an impactful drug integration with General Hospital for pharma client Incyte. Socialgraphics — among W2O’s signature analytics offering — won the marketing technology category. W2O Group is also a contender for four Gold and one Silver SABRE Awards. The firm also maintains partnerships with Syracuse University and the Newhouse School through the W2O Center for Social Commerce and the LaGrant Foundation, in addition to investing several professional development  and recruiting programs. — AaS

Weber Shandwick (Interpublic Group)

Let’s be clear about this: 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 SABRE nominations—is even better than it was. (And if the first quarter is any indication, Weber Shandwick is going to bounce 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.

The result of all that is industry-leading creative input that spans multiple categories: in consumer, campaigns like “The Color of Inclusion” for Mattel’s Uno—providing accessibility for the color-blind—and the “Eclipse the Eclips” cruise for Royal Caribbean—featuring Bonnie Tyler; in the cause-related marketing space, the firm introduced the “shero” lineup of role model dolls for Barbie; in the realm of public education, the agency handled the “Childhood Enders” campaign for Save the Children, and encouraged people to “F*ck without Fear” for the Los Angeles LGBT Center; the healthcare group helped people “Understand AD” with Sanoti Regeneron; and there was an exemplary crisis response effort for Sutter Health in the wake of the Texas hurricane.

Among the new business highlights, Interpublic was a big winner in the Novartis consolidation and Weber Shandwick will be among the beneficiaries. The Chevrolet business, added in 2016, has expanded to include social. Names like Ancestry.com, Sanofi Regeneron, and the Bahamas are new to the roster, and clients like GSK (Flonase), Mondelez (Ritz), Mattel (Uno) added new brands to the agency’s portfolio. Other expanded briefs came from Aldi, FMC, Honeywell, Mars and Verizon. — PH