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

2019 North America Large 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 here. Winners are unveiled at the 2019 North American SABRE Awards on May 7 at Cipriani 42nd St in New York. 

Winner: FleishmanHillard (Omnicom Group)

Omnicom’s public relations firms continued to struggle in 2018, with growth just barely above inflation, but FleishmanHillard—still the largest of the group’s PR holdings—turned in the strongest performance, with revenues up by 6% globally and with North America slightly stronger than that (New York, the St Louis headquarters, and the California operations were the top performers). Globally, FH picked up $177 million in new business, including 26 accounts worth more than $1 million—there was new business from BNY Mellon, Elanco, GM, GoPro, Hanes, Johnson & Johnson, Philips, Roche, and of course the US Army, one of the biggest pitches of the year—while retaining all of its top 50 clients (a list that includes AARP, AT&T, Bayer, Emerson, Fitbit, GM, Pepsico, SAP and Samsung).

The latter can be attributed at least in part to CEO John Saunders’ continued investment in the global client leadership program, which has evolved into a community that shares knowledge and best practices around the globe, and which ensures consistent quality across the network—and beyond, as FH increasingly partners with sister agencies to deliver integrated campaigns. At the same time, the appointment of Janise Murphy as chief practice officer has strengthened both the firm’s expertise in areas such as reputation management, social and innovation, FH Sports, and data (now branded as TRUE Global Intelligence) as well as industry sectors such as financial and professional services, healthcare, technology and government work—all of which showed strong growth in 2018.

The firm has also been investing in training and development. Business development training under the “Upping Your Game” and “Pitch Academy” banners are designed to address the criticism (if that’s what it is) that FH is better at servicing than selling; while the firm’s Management Academy is preparing the next generation of leaders for people management and business consulting, and the StrengthsFinder and Strengthscope tools help align career development with personal skills. The FH Perspectives diversity initiative is paying off—15% more diverse hires at the senior level last year—and the FH4Inclusion effort, launched in 2016, now serves 70 communities around the world.

Finally, FH followed up its role in 2018’s biggest US award-winning campaign—the Aflac CSR and reputation management initiative—with more impressive work last year: helping Levi Strauss & Co tell its innovation story; working with Gatorade to ensure athletes understand the importance of hydration; leveraging Emerson’s presence at industry events to discuss digital transformation; supporting AARP’s efforts to educate about dementia; and continuing its support for the United Nations’ “He for She” initiative.—PH

 

Finalists

BCW (WPP)

When WPP brought together its Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe brands (initially as Burson Cohn & Wolfe, and more recently under the abbreviated BCW banner) a little over a year ago, CEO Donna Imperato was clear about the strategy. The corporate and public affairs, crisis and issues management expertise of Burson would provide a perfect complement to the digital and creative, consumer and healthcare strengths of Cohn & Wolfe. And the dynamism of the latter (which was our North American Agency of the Year in 2018) would help to re-energize the former, which had begun to look slow and stodgy compared to many of its peers.

Disruption was to be expected, Imperato made clear, and disruption there has been, particularly among senior leaders of the former Burson, with high-profile departures including Kevin Bell (initially named worldwide president at the new entity), US chief executive Mike Fernandez, global media chief Gary Koops, global tech chair Rowan Benteke, and a host of others. But for every high-level departure there has been a critical addition: Thomas Bunn joined from Zeno to lead the US brand solutions practice; Vincent Dente, formerly of MSL, was named chief creative officer; Brian Ellner joined from Edelman to lead US corporate; AJ Jones came on board from The Podesta Group to lead US public affairs; Larry Koffler, another Edelman veteran, will lead purpose-driven brand work; and APCO’s Michael Ann Thomas will lead global tech. That’s a lot of turnover, but Imperato sees most of it as necessary, and has also brought in chief culture officer Kristen Lisanti from Blue Focus agencies to focus on this area. 

Meanwhile, the creation of internal teams to focus on aspects of the post-merger integration (from real estate to client service) means that the firm has kept its eye on the new business ball: there have been major wins such as VW, Office Depot, Converse, the Republic of the Philippines, HP, Vivo, the US Army, and the US Census 2020, as well as new Unilever brands such as Comfort and Vaseline. There has also been organic growth from the likes of FedEx, Oracle, Crown Castle, Qualcomm, Bank of America, Chipotle, Microsoft, Dow, Nestle, and Novo Nordisk, much of it’s the result of account teams offering their clients services that the previous incumbent agency could not credibly offer on its own. The result is—far from consolidating in the 12 months since the merger—BCW grew by 2% globally.

And there’s more to come. The firm’s new positioning, 'moving people', emphasizes not only the focus on the human aspect of public relations, but also on behavior change, and it reflects the way the firm is integrating its capabilities around insights, combining Burson’s PSB (formerly Penn Schoen Berland, now People, Science, Business) with C&W’s brand insights group to create BCW Insights; imagination, strengthened by the acquisition last year of digital creative shop HZ; innovation, drawing on the evolving Victor “operating system”; and influence, with a new Trufluence methodology connecting brands, influencers and audience. The idea is to overlay the new approach on top of BCW’s strategic solutions (financial communications, reputation risk, public affairs, brand purpose) and its industry expertise (energy, entertainment, financial services, healthcare, technology) to create something truly new and different. — PH

Golin (Interpublic Group)

Golin reintroduced itself in November as a “progressive public relations firm,” a positioning that was interesting both for its embrace of the words “public relations” at a time when many firms think communications sounds more serious or includes a wider range of channels (it doesn’t), and also for a promise—while “progressive” has political connotations in the US, it clearly has a broader meaning in this context—to take a leadership position on business, societal, and workplace issues, as well as on developing the tools necessary to drive the business forward.

One critical element of the new positioning is demonstrating to clients that the most powerful marketing ideas are earned-first, so Golin is going to be judged on the quality of its creative work, like the MacCoin campaign for McDonald’s, which introduced a new virtual currency tied to the Big Mac price index and drove a global increase in sales for the company’s signature product. But it’s also important to show that earned thinking can drive truly integrated campaigns, which is why Golin’s acquisition three years ago of Brooklyn Brothers—now expanding internationally—has been so critical. So for Essilor, seeking to raise awareness of myopia in children, the firm created a film that appeared in movie theaters looking like a trailer, while for Amgen it produced a video—co-created by Jay Leno—discussing the problems associated with high cholesterol, and for Boy Scouts of America it shot a film showing boys welcoming the addition of girls to the movement.

Clearly, culture will be a factor in realizing the vision too, and so Golin is seeking to go beyond the lip service most firms are paying to the issue. Its “Have Her Back” initiative is impressive, demonstrating that the firm understands the spectrum of behaviors—from clueless to creepy to criminal, in vice chair Ellen Ryan Mardiks’ formulation—that can make life difficult for female employees, but it has made real, risky commitments to pay equity, and listening actively to employee concerns. The addition of Margenett Moore-Roberts as chief inclusion and diversity officer, meanwhile, shows that the culture of empowerment will go even further, creating an Office of Business Relevance, Inclusion & Equity to transform the culture. It’s an important issue on its own merits, but has the potential to pay off in terms of new business (clients are focused on diversity as never before) and work (because a more diverse culture will create more culturally-relevant creative).

The new positioning came late in the year, so it can’t be credited with the firm’s strong numbers, but Golin certainly has a solid foundation on which to build out its progressive PR ambitions. Growth was about 5% globally (4% in North America) with the Chicago office breaking through the $50 million barrier, and the New York office up by 25%. The firm’s consumer practice continues to account for slightly more than half of its revenues, but there was growth in corporate (about 20% of the total) and in particular healthcare—which now includes both Golin and Virgo Health brands. New business came from Actelion, Boy Scouts of America, County of Los Angeles Public Health, ExxonMobil, Novartis, Sandoz, and WaterWipes, while there was organic growth from the likes of Ferrero Rocher, Lexus, Pepsi’s Lifewtr brand, Purina, Staples and Walmart—which has become a major client over recent years.—PH

W2O Group (Independent)

To put W2O’s astounding success into perspective, just three years ago the firm was named the Holmes Report’s midsize agency of the year. W2O is now the first agency to break into the large agency category in more than decade, capping 2018 with $177m in revenue and 22% organic growth.

What’s particularly interesting is how W2O doesn’t operate like the others in the category. For one, the firm operates under one P&L across its 15 global offices. And because founder/CEO Jim Weiss made the strategic decision, more than a decade ago, to place data and analytics at the center of its offering, the firm’s expertise in this area remains unparalleled across the industry.

Weiss says the key to growing consecutively is adding services that clients want. W2O has seen 15+ years of double-digit growth, while maintaining long-standing clients like Roche (since 2002), Genomic Health (since 2003), Pfizer (since 2006), Merck (since 2009), UnitedHealthcare (since 2014), AstraZeneca (since 2014), abbvie (since 2014). In addition, W2O is now working with 24 of the top 25 pharma companies, has 35+ clients spending between $1m to $10m annually, 89 of its clients grew organically in 2018 — and the success milestones go on like this. 2018 was also a notable year when it came to the agency’s work, as it garnered 10 Innovation SABRE nominations and six at the SABRE Awards North America.

That’s not say there haven’t been necessary evolutions. Last year, Weiss named former COO and client services head Jenn Gottlieb as the agency’s president, giving her oversight of the firm’s three largest operating companies. Meanwhile, chief innovation officer Bob Pearson left in September and now works as a senior advisor. W2O also opened new offices in three cities — Washington, Atlanta and Zurich.

The firm is also at an impressive inflection point. W2O has met the financial goals set by Mountaingate Capital (the private equity firm that made an investment in the firm in 2016) two years ahead of schedule. What happens next will, certainly, shape the agency landscape for decades to come. — AaS

Weber Shandwick (Interpublic Group)

After a year in 2017 during which Weber Shandwick’s performance made the market leader look a lot like every other giant publicly-owned agency, 2018 provided evidence of a return to form, with mid-single digit growth for the year overall and even stronger numbers (healthy double digits) in the fourth quarter. The firm retained 49 of its top 50 clients (with growth from the likes of AB InBev, FMC, GM, Mars and TIAA) and recorded its strongest new business year in a decade with wins such as The Coca-Cola Company, Honeywell, IBM, Kellogg’s and Novartis, with additional wins including green power company Enel, healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, consumer electronics leader Sony, and biotech pioneer Vertex.

One thing that didn’t flag, even in a disappointing 2017, was the firm’s commitment to innovation, and in 2018 Weber Shandwick continued to disrupt both itself and the entire industry with new thinking and new products. With a new focus on solving clients’ most challenging problems, global CEO Andy Polansky and president Gail Heimann (surely the strongest senior partnership in the business) have prompted everyone at the firm to think more deeply about the range of critical issues clients are facing—and come up with new products, new services, and new offerings that look dramatically different from the PR industry’s traditional toolkit.

Data and analytics are at the core—last year’s acquisition of data science firm Bomoda is paying off big time—and no agency is doing more to create an analytical framework for consistent insight generation, making major strides on social listening, competitive intelligence, predictive analytics and consumer journey mapping, all of which pays off in issues management and corporate positioning—and even product innovation for consumer clients. But the combination of consulting firm United Minds (acquired as part of Sweden’s Prime and expanded globally) with Weber’s own employee engagement practice has created a group capable of competing with management consultancies on organizational change, and anticipate crises by focusing on cultural vulnerability. And the firm’s diversity, equity and consulting offer combines internal and external communications in a 360 offer.

The quality of the work is equally impressive, with 23 finalists in the North American SABRE Awards, more than any other agency. The firm helped AB InBev boost sales in Philadelphia after getting on board the Eagles’ Super Bowl run, and followed up by opening Victory Fridges in Cleveland when the Browns finally won a game (it also created the Drink Wiser campaign for responsible consumption); it produced a wealth of digital content to introduce the new Chevrolet Silverado; it launched the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a significant investment by plastic producers and users to address the problem at its roots; it helped Kaiser Permanente drive change in the healthcare industry; it helped Mattel celebrate Barbie as a global role model; and it worked on major CSR initiatives for Mars and TIAA. And of course, it continued its own thought leadership, most notably its series on civility, which found that workplaces are becoming a rare escape from the polarization that characterizes so much of American discourse. — PH