2019 Public Affairs Agencies of the Year, North America | Holmes Report
Charting the future of public relations

2019 Public Affairs 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: SKDKnickerbocker (Independent)

For many years a leader in supporting progressive political causes in Washington, DC, and beyond, in 2018 SKDKnickerbocker found itself leading “resistance” efforts on a range of fronts, from managing the media during key Supreme Court nomination fights to protecting a woman’s right to choose to helping enact legislation aimed at fighting the opioid epidemic, while also producing award-winning television and direct mail that helped elect new Democratic Governors in Kansas, Connecticut and Wisconsin, and a new Democratic attorney general in Michigan, as well as helping re-elect Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia.

With about 120 people in its four US offices (Washington, DC, New York, Albany, and Los Angeles), SKDK supports a roster of corporate and not-for-profit clients that includes Dominion Energy, Planned Parenthood, American Airlines, Human Rights Campaign, AT&T, Open & Fair Skies, Waymo, Disney, Rockefeller Foundation, SEIU, Gillette, Delta Airlines, Under Armour, Save Our Care, the Pepsico Foundation, Google, Center for Reproductive Rights, NAACP, Immigration Law Center. New business from the likes of IBM, Land O'Lakes, and the Times Up Legal Defense Fund helped to drive revenue growth of around 35% last year.

The firm’s leadership team includes a number of political heavyweights, including Hilary Rosen, former head of the RIAA; Anita Dunn, former communications director for President Obama; Jennifer Cunningham, called the “most powerful woman in Albany” by the New York Post; Josh Isay, a former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer and veteran New York media consultant; and Bill Knapp, nationally recognized campaign strategist. Heather Wilson, who joined the firm last year as managing director, was promoted to lead the Los Angeles office, with Emily Campbell, heading the west coast political offer.

Among the highlights of SKDK’s work in 2018, it earned a SABRE nomination for helping the Americans for Securing All Packages coalition with its work to prevent Chinese Fentanyl coming into the US. Rosen, meanwhile, partnered with other powerful DC women and the National Women’s Law Center to secure a home and funding to support women bringing cases as part of the Time’s Up campaign. New practices, meanwhile, included one focused on working with philanthropic organizations and another helping clients deal with litigation and a range of investigations. — PH 

 

Finalists

APCO Worldwide (Independent)

It is now 18 months since APCO secured the financing to fund its future as an independent firm, and if the growth wasn’t exactly spectacular in 2018 — up 4% globally — there are clear signs that the firm is turning its positioning as a C-suite problem-solver into real competitive advantage. For one thing, there’s a mitigating factor in the modest growth — APCO divested itself of Strawberry Frog, the ill-fated ad agency acquisition that never quite meshed with the corporate and public affairs business at the core, which is why North American revenues were flat. For another, the firm has continued to restructure its leadership and integrate its global offerings — as well as adding new corporate and crisis offerings. The firm has also been expanding its relationships with third parties like Gagen MacDonald (organizational change) and Oxford Analytica (geopolitical risk assessment), which provide unique resources.

One of the things that continues to set APCO apart from the competition is the quality of its intellectual property and thought leadership. New this year is the firm’s Agility Indicator, a diagnostic and prescriptive tool that helps companies understand how their culture, leadership and advocacy activities contribute to performance—and what they need to do to improve on any of 14 distinct dimensions. The new empower crisis management suite, which includes a sophisticated digital crisis simulation tool as well as new analytics for preparedness.

Those new tools underpin a wide variety of work, from using innovative tools and technologies to build on the agency’s public affairs heritage to bringing together strategic and creative thinking for corporate and even consumer clients. For Bayer, for example, APCO used its “telescope” influencer tool to help the company position itself as a leader in self-care, driving conversation about access to OTC medication. For Germany, the firm helped cut through concerns about a troubled political relationship by creating events and content around German culture and history as part of the “Wunderbar Together” campaign. And for OneConcern, which wants to revolutionize how cities deal with natural disasters, the firm leveraged data and AI to tell an innovation story. And for Suntory, meanwhile, APCO has been finding new ways to tell the story of a conservative, 100-year-old Japanese brand to American millennials using branded journalism and video content.

APCO has added talent too, bringing in former FleishmanHillard president of public affairs and kglobal chief executive, as an executive director in Washington, DC and Edelman veteran Nancy Turett as chief health strategist. It also elevated Kelly Williamson, former head of the Raleigh, NC, office, to president of North America, and promoted Bill Dalbec to lead the APCO Insight research consultancy.  And it expanded its unique International Advisory Council with a former CEO of the Democratic National Committee, a former Mayor of Dallas, and a former Commanding General of I Corps. — PH

Global Strategy Group (Independent)

Two of the major investments made by New York-based Global Strategy Group over recent years continued to pay off in a big way in 2018. First, the firm’s heritage in research — decades of experience in polling — is a big advantage in these analytics-driven times as GSG understands how to derive key insights from a wealth of data, and to measure effectiveness in terms that actually matter to clients. And second, the thought leadership that GSG pioneered into corporate activism on political and social issues has become even more relevant as more and more companies are prepared to take a stand, driving coverage in Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and more and underscoring the agency’s position at the nexus of the business and political worlds.

At the same time, GSG has continued to find itself involved in some of biggest political issues of the day. It has handled regulatory and policy fights for corporate clients such as CVS Health, General Motors, MGM Casinos; supported CSR and purpose-driven communications for H&R Block, Subaru, Vulcan, and LEGO; while also advocating on social issues such as humanities funding, criminal justice, immigration reform and the environment. Among the highlights, GSG worked on the #FreeMeekMill campaign (supported by Justice League and Roc Nation); secured free school lunches for 1.1 million public school kids in New York; protected arts and humanities funding from Trump Administration budget cuts; and worked to close Rikers Island and reform criminal justice in New York. It also launched the SOAR campaign to protect air ambulance companies from harmful regulation; waged a successful policy-changing campaign for recording artists through the Music First campaign; and worked with America’s Health Insurance Plans to protect Medicare Advantage for seniors.

With a team of close to 100 working from offices in New York, Washington, Hartford, Denver, Chicago, and now Seattle, the firm has worked with clients in all 50 states as well as overseas markets such as Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Europe, Korea, and Australia. Contributing to a record year, the firm enjoyed a blockbuster 2018 political cycle working for Democratic campaigns, and picked up business from Beacon Health Options (which is partnering with Walmart on its new in-store mental health clinics), H&R Block, Legg Mason, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Port Authority of NY and NJ, Subaru, and T-Mobile. — PH


Kivvit 
(Independent)

Kivvit prides itself on working with organizations that have big ideas and robust agendas. With a broad offering across public affairs and communications, the agency in 2018 crafted initiatives that translated into action surrounding some of the year’s biggest issues including public education, the criminal justice system and infrastructure. The independent agency — staffed with 70 professionals across offices in Chicago, Miami, New Jersey, New York and Washington — was also an active player in helping organizations delve into next-generation CSR, as companies increasingly focus on changing their own cultures and business missions in ways that improve the greater good.

Kivvit’s core strategy is to embrace the change transforming our industry and define the agency of the future. To holistically address industry-wide challenges, Kivvit appointed a chief innovation officer and senior digital director last year. When it comes to technology, Kivvit strives to stay ahead of the curve, testing and investing in pertinent tools; collaborations and partnerships with startups bring added value and innovation to its work. Exemplifying true integration, Kivvit’s digital strategists educate designers about how campaign data should guide creative directions. Pushing the boundaries of traditional PR, Kivvit’s team consistently advised clients to rethink earned media as just one part of a multichannel storytelling process. New offerings include stakeholder databases and mapping, customized influencer audiences and the Kivvit New Newsroom, the agency-owned channel built around custom audience building and deep content and behavioral analytics.

All of which helps explain healthy growth of roughly 8% for Kivvit in 2018 to $24.2m, powered by a client roster that added top-tier organizations including Encylopaedia Britannica, Tesla, BAE Systems, Mars Wrigley, University of Michigan and Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. Existing clients include Exelon/ComEd, Anheuser-Busch, Allstate, Google/YouTube, Lyft, Airbnb, the US Olympic Committee and Delta Airlines. The firm remains led by managing partners Eric Sedler and Maggie Moran, who have overseen consistent expansion over the past decade as Kivvit has grown from its Chicago base into a national public affairs powerhouse. — DM


Precision Strategies
(Independent)

Founded by Obama campaign veterans Stephanie Cutter, Jen O’Malley Dillon and Teddy Goff, Precision’s roots as pioneering digital and data specialists have served the firm well since its inception in mid-2013. The business has averaged 30% growth per year, and now numbers more than 90 people across its headquarters in Washington, DC and its New York office, with an eye-catching profit margin of 40%. Growth has seen Precision step up its talent management, hiring Tom Reno as the firm’s first COO amid 32% headcount expansion.

Across all of its work, Precision demonstrates an ability to drive earned, digital and paid media via a more sophisticated understanding of grassroots campaigning than most. That includes the firm’s own data integration and analytics platform, which it launched this year to help support decision-making.

That has helped it support such assignments as March for Our Lives, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Stacey Abrams for Governor, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. They join an existing client roster that features Bank of America, Sacramento Kings, Gilead, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, League of Conservation Voters, The Fairness Project, GE, Charter Communications and Humana.

And it is Precision’s campaign work that truly marks it out as one of the nation’s top firms. Last year, this included March for Our Lives, a nationwide movement that saw Precision oversee strategy for the campaign’s 80-stop bus tour. The firm also built Bank of America’s ‘Responsible Growth’ corporate reputation campaign, and helped the Sacramento Kings to drive its civic engagement efforts, which included voter recruitment, community relations and executive leadership. There was also notable work for Planned Parenthood (a launch video for its new president); Gilead (raising awareness for HIV prevention medication across vulnerable communities); supporting the ACLU’s Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case; and reinventing the League of Conservation Voters. — AS