2019 Digital PR Agencies of the Year, North America | Holmes Report
Charting the future of public relations

2019 Digital PR Agencies of the Year

The 2019 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 70 finalists across 14 categories can be accessed via the navigation menu to the right or below. Winners are unveiled at the 2019 North American SABRE Awards on May 7 at Cipriani 42nd St in New York. 

Winner: ICF Next (ICF)

ICF took a considerable risk fixing what wasn’t broken when it decided to do away with its Olson Engage brand, and instead, pull all of its agencies under the ICF Next umbrella. After all, Olson Engage has been one of the most prolific producers of breakthrough creative work in the industry. The agency had much to show for this, for instance, racking up numerous awards for its show-stopping work, including being named our North America Consumer Agency of the Year last year .

The big move, which was finalized towards the end of 2018, has made Olson Engage part of an 1,700-person agency, worth more than $300m across offices in the US, Canada, Europe and India. More than half its revenue comes from PR services, which jumped to $157.8m in 2018, up from $150m. (PR revenue reflects work done by legacy Olson/Olson Engage, ICF Mostra, PulsePoint Group and We Are Vista, minus any media-buying, production and unrelated digital platform work.) Longtime Olson Engage head Bryan Specht moved into a groupwide role as the new organization’s chief growth and innovation officer and Tricia Ewald has moved into his role as head of brand engagement. Former IBM executive John Armstrong is leading the entire endeavor as president.

If the caliber of the work, however, remains consistent the combined entity should do just fine. This year alone, ICF Next garnered three SABRE Award nods and nearly 20 Innovation SABRE Award nominations (winning six of those categories).The firm's work shows a profound understanding of how to master and thrive in the incredibly crowded digital realm; this is why they are making a debut on the digital list. For instance, its Mayochup campaign for Heinz broke the record for the highest engagement ever on a Twitter poll, while also turning a condiment into a meme (the firm has previously achieved similar results for Starburst). For Jim Beam, ICF rode the personal assistant craze with an AI whiskey decanter that mimics tech rollouts. 

Other clients include: MillerCoors, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, BMW, Amtrak, Lloyd’s Banking Group, DowDupont, the European Commission and a long list of U.S. government agencies, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food & Drug Administration; new adds include Hotels.com, Driven Brands, Papa John’s and a large-scale, multidisciplinary engagement with Avanir Pharmaceuticals, among others. Interestingly, ICF Next resigned its work with Papa John’s after winning the brief last March when its controversial founder John Schnatter re-inserted himself into the business. — AaS

 

Finalists

360PR+ (Independent)

2018 was a good year for 360PR+. Building on its legacy as an integrated agency (it launched as an integrated agency in 2001, well before integrated was a thing), 360PR+’ revenues neared the $10m mark, which it is well on the road to topping this year, thanks to the agency’s expertise across creative, PR and digital. 360PR+ is committed to rolling out campaigns on behalf of its clients that stop consumers in their tracks, created by a team that powers up, and buckles down, working hands-on with clients, partners and co-workers in accordance with the firm’s 'All In' mantra.

360PR+' success over the past year is evident in its clients' roster. New clients include Amazon, Trek, Showcase Cinemas, Bright Horizons, TIAA, Cars.com and Reed’s Ginger Beer among others. And 360PR+ grew its work for many of its largest clients such as Liberty Mutual Insurance, Avis, Nintendo, Stonyfield and illy, among others. The year’s hallmark campaigns highlight 360PR+’ ingenuity in connecting brands and consumers. TIAA Divorce Stories, for instance, was a content hub that positioned the financial services company as a resource for women going through divorce; it garnered 600,000 video views within six weeks of launch. 360PR+’ #EggsAreHealthy campaign for Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs challenging the FDA to allow eggs to be labeled as healthy; Pete and Gerry’s rose to the country’s No. 1 organic egg brand and the No. 9 best-selling overall organic brand among 119 categories. 360PR+ also helped roll out Nintendo Labo activity kits for Nintendo Switch that combine physical and digital play. Dispelling perceptions of video games, 360PR+ launched a program that placed Nintendo Labo in the positive, educational content of classrooms.

That kind of work propelled 360PR+’ growth in 2018, during which fee income rose 17% to $9.4m. The agency met growing demand by adding new kinds of specialists to its staff. Matthew Lenig was hired as 360PR+’ first creative director after a 25-year career in agencies like McCann Worldwide. Alison Swift, the agency’s first research leader, joined as director of consumer insight + brand strategy. Overall, headcount rose by 40%. 360PR+ has also launched three new practice areas over the last 12 months: Purpose Plus, which builds on 360PR+’ work for B Corps and other purpose-driven brands; family tech & play offers expertise in kids’ media, streaming, apps, video games, tablets and toys; and mobility, which works with clients such as Avis and Trek. — DM

Day One (Independent)

“Stopping the world in its scroll with stories that earn” is Day One’s mindset, demonstrating the firm’s grasp on who the modern consumer is. This approach has attracted top-tier brands from its inception in 2014, including long-standing clients American Express, Facebook, Nike, Chipotle Mexican Grill, H&M, Bacardi and Comcast. For a firm that’s only been around for five years, Day One has maintained one of the most impressive rosters in the business.

Coming off a year of intense growth (84% in 2017), Day One slowed down in 2018 with an investment in talent, adding two creative directors across both of its offices in New York and Los Angeles, as well as some additional leadership. That’s not to say Day One hasn’t had impressive growth — 30% in 2018, up to $14.8m. The firm has also seen incremental growth from three new areas: influencer marketing; short and long-form video; and social creative.

The firm maintains long-lasting relationships by making two-way investments in clients and staff. The agency is built around three centers of excellence that prioritize a story-first mindset: shape, share and fuel. All three centers share the core belief that people don’t share content, they share stories. Day One’s Summer of Creativity Bootcamp puts junior creative strategists on 10 weeks of 10 creative sprints, netting 10 sell-in decks for 10 different briefs from both current and potential clients.

Day One helped reinvigorate H&M’s presence in New York with a multifaceted campaign that included drafting a love letter to the city published in the New York Magazine, plus an ad campaign in which residents describe the moment they first felt like a New Yorker. The agency helped Chipotle eschew the manicured, filtered food photography that’s ubiquitous online for a ‘real’ narrative that supports the retailers use of natural ingredients. Day One also led communications strategy for an interagency team that relaunched the American Express brand.

The firm remains under the leadership of founders Josh Rosenberg, Brad Laney and Rob Longert. — AaS

Exponent PR (Independent)

Exponent knows its strengths. As a Minneapolis-based agency, the firm has doubled-down on being an expert in an area that many marketers overlook: middle America. More recently, the firm has positioned itself as the go-to firm to “build belief in middle America.” This positioning is particularly relevant going into the 2020 presidential election which will, undoubtedly, focus on this population segment.

But, of course, politics isn’t the center of Exponent’s work. Rather, its clients span outdoor recreation/lifestyle (Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, Plano Synergy and Cub Cadet); food and nutrition (Land O’Lakes, Nestlé Purina, Florida’s Natural, with new additions Vermont Creamery and Land O’Lakes Food Service); and health and wellness (Invisalign and Edwards Lifesciences, and new additions Alcon, Children’s Health and Ergotron).

Impressively, 2018 marked 14 years of consecutive growth for the agency as it reached $13.2m — a milestone that was reached despite Exponent losing its largest client last year (12% of its revenue in 2017). The firm still managed to grow a modest 3% with more than 25% of new revenue coming via organic growth with Land O’Lakes and CHS/Cenex Convenience Stores.

Notable work in 2018 includes the Food Effect campaign for Land O’Lakes that placed the butter brand at the center of SXSW with an immersive experience to change consumer perception, which was nominated for an Innovation SABRE Award. The Tag Responsibly campaign helped the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board protect its pristine areas from instagrammers’ geotagging. The firm racked up four Innovation SABRE Awards and three SABRE award nods in 2018.

Co-founder Tom Lindell has been managing director for nearly 10 years, supported by practice leads  Lisa Tomassen, Keith Negrin and Carol Anderson. Two practice leaders – Cynthia Clanton and Bob Gagne – left the agency in 2018 and became clients at CHS/Cenex and St. Louis University. The result was increased revenue for the agency. — AaS

PAN Communications (Independent)

After more than two decades in operation, PAN continues to impress. Last year’s Technology Agency of the Year winner, the agency in 2018 continued to forge ahead, reaching new heights of achievement around its business performance, caliber of work and culture. In 2018, PAN’s fee income rose 12% to $19.8m, up from $17.7m in 2017, operating with 136 people across offices in Boston, San Francisco, Orlando and New York (which was a new office in 2017). New clients fueled the firm’s growth in 2018. New clients including 8x8, App Annie, Citrix, Everbridge, GetWell Health, Sift Science, Synopsys, Thermo/LPE, Toast and UpWell joined a portfolio that includes SAP, Phononic, CloudBees, MediaMath, Nice, Radial, Outsystems, Cogito, Rapid7, Quanterix and Mimecast.

With the industry’s growing focus on exceeding customer expectations, PAN rolled out a multi-layer plan to address the need for better customer experience and tighter integration with client teams. In response to client feedback, PAN addressed the need for more integrated expertise by expanding its digital team and bolstering existing services. The agency strategically packaged two key service areas: influencer marketing and digital marketing. The agency hired two new digital team members to provide extensive expertise in creative, SEO, videography, measurement & analytics. Earlier this year, PAN launched NXT Stage, an online strategic guide for marketers handling companies through various stages of growth.

While PAN client satisfaction was high (a survey last year found 85% of respondents would “definitely recommend” PAN to a colleague), CEO Phil Nardone took the need for better customer experience one step further, expanding his executive bench by promoting Darlene Doyle to executive VP, client relations. This addressed the firm’s strategic need for executive leadership over agency-wide client initiatives and allowed PAN to deliver better client retention and growth. Nardone has been at the helm since founding PAN in 1995. Other key executives are executive VP Mark Nardone and Lisa Astor, senior VP & managing director, North America, whose duties include managing growth and ensuring consistency across PAN’s regions to position the firm on a path for greater national success. — DM