Spectrum, Imre and W2O Group powered O’Dwyer’s top 25 independent PR firms this year to a 12.9 percent rise in combined 2018 fee income to $2.1 billion and a 10.7 percent jump in employment to 11,702, according to O’Dwyer’s Rankings of PR Firms.
W2O (+23.1 percent to $177.6 million) paced the gains among the Top 10 firms. Prosek Partners (+15.1 percent to $47 million), Zeno Group (+13.6 percent to $73.4 million), ICR (+9.0 percent to $69.2 million) and Finn Partners (+8.0 percent to $88.1 million) ranked as the other big gainers in the top grouping. Number-one PR giant Edelman topped the list of independent firms again this year with income of $888.4 million, revealing a .6 percent decline from last year’s $893.5 million.
No categories, just solutions at W2O
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's May '19 PR Firm Rankings Magazine
W2O CEO Jim Weiss credited his firm’s robust performance to an effort to redefine the communications and marketing landscape “with no lines between and among categories, just solutions to an ever-changing market complete with an expanded ecosystem of influence.”
Launched by Weiss in 2001, the firm has invested heavily in data analytics/insights, digital/ social media, content creation/activation and strategic consulting.
He said the tech-focused independent network’s client-centric approach has attracted more than 24 of the top 25 pharmaceutical companies to its roster and a growing number of Fortune 500 clients.
“W2O prides itself on always working hard to punch above its weight because it’s on a mission to improve healthcare and the patient experience through strategic marketing and communications by achieving clarity, understanding and engagement,” said Weiss. “It’s about never resting on our laurels and continually challenging ourselves and our clients to do better, to see what’s not in front of us, to dig deeper for the best approach, and to ignore labels and descriptions.”
Uncertainty drive APCO’s bottom line
Number-three firm APCO Worldwide took in $134.1 million, revealing a four-percent gain from last year’s $128.2 million.
As President and Managing Director of Operations Evan Krause explained, the unusually high level of political uncertainly in the world today places undue pressure on boardrooms and C-suites to address enterprise risk and reputation, which bodes well for firms with skin in the public affairs game.
“The world is continuing to transform itself rapidly, and the amount of change happening only seems to be accelerating,” Krause said. “When change breeds uncertainly in the market, people tend to want to work with us more, as public affairs remains at the root of our heritage.”
Krause said the D.C.-based government relations giant has experienced healthy growth in Europe and Asia, but has noticed particular activity in the Middle East, where some countries in that region are now trying to communicate more aggressively about what they’re doing for the first time in an effort to diversify their economies, which has resulted in a great deal of market-entry work.
Finally, Krause said APCO recently partnered with other agencies to launch a new research model that addresses corporate agility in the market and the factors that drive agility, services for which the agency has seen increased demand.
“As the traditional ad marketplace starts to transform and evolve, in some cases devolve, the rise of digital and data to develop insights and micro-targeted messages has become very important to our clients and is another space where we’re making a big investment and doing a lot of work,” Krause said.
Business wins, acquisitions boost Finn
During 2018, Finn Partners acquired MFA, a New York sports marketing, travel, lifestyle and consumer firm and later, picked up CatchOn, a PR and digital marketing agency that brought new offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and added depth in travel, lifestyle and health and wellness.
That acquisition drive continued into 2019 with the purchase of Small Army, a Boston-based digital storytelling agency and the addition of Moorgate Communications in London, a financial services specialist firm. The firm also stepped up its hiring, adding 34 staffers during the past 13 months.
“Our commitment to be a world class, best-place-to-work global agency, with a heart and a conscience, was core to our growth in 2018,” said Founding Partner Peter Finn. “Our growth during the first quarter of 2019 has been unprecedented, especially in terms of new business as we have won significant accounts in health, technology, sustainability, education, travel and other sectors. When combined with our two acquisitions this year, we’re on a path that will deliver stronger growth this year than in 2018.”
Zeno keeps rolling along
Zeno CEO Barby Siegel noted that 2018 marked the ninth consecutive year of double-digit growth for the firm. It was up 17 percent in the U.S. and 13.6 percent overseas.
More than half (54 percent) of Zeno’s revenues stemmed from multinational sources, up from 46 percent in 2017.
She said Zeno increasingly works at the intersection of communications and business impact with purposeful work that generates real and measurable business outcomes.
“While innovation is at the heart of the firm, we continue to invest in our core competency of earned media relations while pushing forward into new and rapidly-evolving spaces such as paid social, owned newsrooms, data-driven story-telling and content developed specifically to optimize search,” said Siegel.
As Zeno grows and evolves, it strives to keep its soul, according to Siegel. “We continually reinforce core values that are non-negotiable—fearless, collaborative, committed, true to our word and human,” she said.
Ruder Finn returns
After not appearing in O’Dwyer’s rankings for several years, Ruder Finn was one of the firms—along with fellow Top 10 agency MWWPR—to return this year for the #7 spot, at $69.1 million.
CEO Kathy Bloomgarden said 2018 was a year of immense investment and growth for the agency. RF furthered efforts to reinvent its business while sustaining its creative underpinnings and reinforcing its technological capabilities with new digital, social and analytics offerings. In the process, the agency won more than 30 new clients across consumer, corporate, healthcare and technology and partnered with existing clients to grow assignments into campaigns that magnified impact. RF also added senior talent, including four executive vice presidents in its New York office.
Finally, RF acquired RLA Collective in the U.S. to expand its integrated marketing and analytics expertise.
“We are proud of the excellent momentum we achieved last year and in the first quarter of this year and are excited to continue our journey as a leader in leveraging new tools and capabilities to further our activities on behalf of our clients,” Bloomgarden said.
Prosek picks up pace
New York-based Prosek Partners revealed another year of solid growth, following 2017’s big 33 percent gains with 15.1 percent additional growth in 2018 to take O’Dwyer’s #8 spot with $46.9 million.
Jennifer Prosek, Managing Partner of the financial, healthcare and professional services shop, told O’Dwyer’s that she predicted years ago that the financial services sector would one day “wake up and smell the marketing.” Prosek announced that day has finally come.
Prosek also said the agency’s special situations work has been a particular source of growth, and will inevitably increase as markets get more volatile. She expects PR and marketing spends to slow naturally a bit alongside a slower growth economy, but sees promising emerging growth opportunities in the areas of culture, recruiting, D&I, employee engagement and special situations work.
“I believe the industry will continue to benefit as companies seek to grow and protect their corporate brands, prioritize their employees and corporate culture, and grapple with change.”
5W PR posts 17.7% across-the-board gain
5W Public Relations CEO Ronn Torossian said his New York-based firm’s 17.7 percent gain in fee income to $32.4 million came from across its practice areas.
As a PR innovator, 5W launched a CBD (cannabidiol) specialty team, a practice focused on providing strategy and media relations services in the gaming and sports gambling industry, and expanded its fintech specialty.
The firm added staff to its corporate, technology, consumer and digital teams.
“We won consumer, corporate and fast-growing technology companies and do great work for them,” said Torossian.
Big agency sales mark 2018
Minneapolis-based Padilla grew three percent to round out O’Dwyer’s top 10 with $41.2 million in 2018 net fees.
But the most significant change to affect the agency last year involved its acquisition by Avenir Global, a Montreal-based holding company of PR and communication firms.
Padilla President Matt Kucharski told O’Dwyer’s that move provided the agency’s clients and staff with access to global resources while allowing it to remain independently operated. Throughout the transition, Padilla remained focused on delivering strategic work for new and existing clients, which Kucharski said is reflected in the agency’s top-line growth.
“We are energized by that in 2019, with efforts underway to help clients reach their objectives through content and connection strategy, engagement and thought leadership, and much more.”
Health, life sciences and public affairs firm Spectrum (#13) gained more than any other agency in O’Dwyer’s top 25, up 37.1 percent to $32.9 million.
President Michelle Gross said Spectrum earned its top gainer spot because “we renewed our focus on clients and increased capabilities in key areas to ensure we are delivering best-in-class interwoven programs in the evolving communications landscape.”
In 2018, Spectrum saw the ahead-of-schedule completion of its sale to CEO Jonathan Wilson and established a new framework around four key pillars: strategy, engagement, innovation and creative. The firm reorganized leadership into a new strategy council consisting of Wilson, Gross, Rob Oquendo (Chief Innovation Officer), Michelle Strier (Chief Strategy Officer), Scott Chesson (COO) and Jon Higgins (Chief Engagement Officer).
Gross said Spectrum is positioned to take on the future of health and science communications—a space where it sees the overlap between marketing and communications disciplines expanding and the importance of taking a science-first perspective.
“As we move beyond simply integrated teams to interwoven client-centric teams—with our scientists, creatives, media specialists and account teams working in lockstep to deliver for clients every day and setting the agency model of the future—our uncompromising focus on client service and strategy rooted in science and innovation remain unchanged,” she said.
G&S Business Communications grew 11.8 percent in 2018 to $30.4 million, taking O’Dwyer’s #15 spot. Notably, the business communications firm more than doubled its New York fee income and broadened its roster of accounts last year when it acquired CooperKatz & Co.
G&S CEO Luke Lambert told O’Dwyer’s that the agency owes its success to the relationships it has nurtured within the agency as well as its long-standing client engagements, many of which have spanned decades and multiple generations of communication teams.
“G&S also leverages a unique business communications approach that helps clients address their evolving markets—ones in which more decisions are made within tech-disrupted workplaces and homes—by shaping strategies informed by insights and enhanced by creativity,” Lambert said.
Columbus, OH’s Fahlgren Mortine gained 8.9 percent last year to nearly $30 million in 2018 billings, taking O’Dwyer’s #17 position.
President and CEO Neil Mortine told O’Dwyer’s that FM saw record revenue in 2018 after implementing the fastest and largest volume of change in the company’s 57-year history. The agency transitioned ownership when it was acquired by Memphis, TN-based holding company Eastport Holdings, LLC and, several months later, consolidated staff and clients when it merged with fellow Eastport property and Columbus-based ad shop SBC Advertising.
The agency also strengthened its vertical industry expertise as a top-five ranked travel and tourism firm through an affiliation with tourism research consultancy Longwoods International and entrenched its position as one of the nation’s leading business-to-business firms by winning several blue-chip clients and hosting a B2B Peer Summit.
“Despite starting the year without our largest client of 40 years in McDonald’s following a consolidation of U.S. agencies, Fahlgren Mortine not only replaced that lost revenue, but achieved double-digit growth in revenue and operating profit. In addition to our financial performance, Fahlgren Mortine maintained high satisfaction and net promoter scores among clients and low voluntary attrition among our associates,” he said.
Mortine said both the near- and long-term future of PR rests on growth in the use of performance analytics and an ongoing blurring of the lines between traditional marketing and communications. Clients today demand more definitive metrics that go beyond the traditional measures of reach, frequency, target impressions and key messaging delivery, Mortine said, and want measured the relative value and ROI of engaging the right target with the right media mix.
“For an integrated communications company like Fahlgren Mortine, clients are seeking holistic solutions to their business problems. Clients understand that achieving their business goals depends on the right mix of PR, advertising, digital and social strategies. There’s an overwhelming choice in communications vehicles, and clients simply don’t know where to invest and how it all works seamlessly together. The best agencies connect the dots for their clients to optimize success.”
Imre, the number-two leading gainer in O’Dwyer’s top 25 (up 34.3 percent to #24), attributed a portion of its 34.3 percent gains to a “fiercely independent business model that clients find attractive when seeking an agency partner.”
In 2018, Imre acquired Los Angeles-based JMPR, which has more than 40 years of experience in the automotive sector. That deal “helped us bolster our integrated approach for clients and we expect to see that addition continue to support our growth in 2019 and beyond,” said agency Founder and CEO Dave Imre.
Noting that the shop has hired people with diverse backgrounds, Imre also said, “We’ve especially doubled down on strategy to bring more true human insights to the table. And we’ve also seen the industry renew its creative focus on leading with ideas, followed by technology, which we’ve always done. The best ideas resonate with people and we’ve often seen them attract a lot of earned media as a result.”
Lambert grew by a whopping 32.1 percent in 2018 to $10 million in net fees (up from 2017’s $7.6 million), taking O’Dwyer’s #45 position this year and surging from their #54 spot in last year’s rankings. The Detroit-based firm gained noticeable size in 2018 when it acquired financial PR powerhouse Owen Blicksilver PR in a move into the New York market.
CEO Jeffrey Lambert said the firm, formerly known as Lambert, Edwards & Assocs., attributed its double-digit increase to “a cocktail of organic and acquisition growth mixed with integrated marketing and multimedia expansion,” adding that Lambert’s current goal is to make another acquisition this year and launch a new practice area “to keep the momentum rolling.”
“We are moving into the age of accountability and from being professional communicators to business consultants as our work impacts not just awareness and influence, but outcomes and sales,” Lambert said. “This requires new talent on our teams, a wholistic approach to marketing with PR as the lead but not the only silver-bullet strategy, deeper analytics expertise and boardroom acumen. Unfortunately, this will only widen the gap between the smaller agencies and the mid-sized and larger firms who are willing and able to invest in the human and technology capital to compete. We believe the best way to accomplish this is through a combination of organic practice start-ups and adjacent service acquisitions and believe the scale and agility mix of mid-sized firms like ours will be a competitive advantage.”
Health Unlimited, Racepoint plan for rebound
Following a 6.6 percent dip in fee income to $24.3 million last year, Health Unlimited CEO Tim Bird said his firm entered 2019 with a solid base of growing clients and is positioned for growth with expansion or capabilities and presence.
“We are extremely proud that two of our signature campaigns, Myhealthysexual Story and Speak Your Migraine, were recognized by our peers and shortlisted by several industry awards for creativity and impact,” said Bird.
The global health consultancy and communications agency strengthened creative and digital engagement capabilities with senior leadership hires. HealthUnlimited has also embraced the philosophy of being Fluent in HUman, aligned with our core purpose to create a meaningful change in health, said Bird. “We have renewed our commitment to training and development initiatives, as well as our commitment to diversity and inclusion, which has already resulted in a significant increase in a more diverse and aware workforce,” he added.
Boston’s Racepoint Global experienced key client losses in 2018, including its long-standing relationships of seven and nine years with AT&T and IBM, respectively. Fee income for the technology, B2B and healthcare shop dropped 16.8 percent to $20.9 million.
Chairman Larry Weber stepped into the CEO role in the second half of 2018 to help reposition the agency and double down on its focus on earned media for B2B, technology and healthcare brands.
“Racepoint has started 2019 off strong, exceeding Q1 growth targets, and we are optimistic about the year ahead,” Weber told O’Dwyer’s.
Double-digit gains exceed expectations
The top 50 firms in O’Dwyer’s rankings this year registered a total 14.1 percent gain in income to $2.4 billion and a 13.3 percent rise in employment to 12,048.
Chicago-based tech and professional services firm Walker Sands Communications grew more than any agency in O’Dwyer’s top 50 this year, surging an unbelievable 62.3 percent to $14.1 million in net fees and now taking our #36 slot, a major leap from the firm’s #49 position last year.
“Walker Sands has achieved incredible growth over the last several years because of our focus in the growing niche of B2B tech and effectively integrating public relations and digital marketing,” said President Mike Santoro. “But more than anything, it’s our reputation for achieving real, measurable results for our clients that has compounded our momentum. We’ve been fortunate to work with some of the biggest players in the industry, and it’s been incredibly rewarding to grow alongside them as they continue to rely on Walker Sands for smart programs with impact that matters.”
Crisis and professional services specialist Infinite Global (#55) posted an 18.6 percent surge in fee income to $8.1 million last year.
CEO Jamie Diaferia reported that the agency “exceeded our ambitious expectations by hitting three key metrics: at least 15 percent growth (with a cap of 20 percent to make sure we don’t exceed our ability to hire responsibly); a minimum of 20 percent profit margin; and 50-55 percent staff costs,” he explained.
Diaferia focused on four primary drivers: diversifying services, investing in marketing generating more revenue from existing clients, and limiting staff and client turnover.
He said Infinite Global has hit every goal in the seven-year growth plan that it established in 2015. “It’s gratifying to watch the company hitting on all cylinders across the U.S. and U.K.,” he said.
San Francisco-based Singer Associates grew by an impressive 47.9 percent in 2018 to nearly $7.7 million in net fees, taking O’Dwyer’s #58 spot this year, a sizeable jump from their #66 position last year ($5.2 million).
President Sam Singer cited two factors as responsible for driving the agency’s growth: a senior staff with deep experience and growing markets in sectors for which the agency specializes.
“Clients are willing to pay a premium to get senior, experienced communications consultants. They are seeking out agencies that possess strategic thinking and have senior players who can implement those strategies,” Singer told O’Dwyer’s. “Clients, now more than ever, desire and demand local, regional and state knowledge and in-the-trenches experience. The future of public relations and communications is bright for agencies that possess experienced staff with strong local connections and knowledge of issues, regulatory agencies, elected and business and community groups.”
22 firms join O’Dwyer rankings
Nearly two-dozen firms joined O’Dwyer’s rankings this year. Among the new additions were Berk Communications (#78, $3.4 million, up 30.9 percent), Buchanan Public Relations (#109, $1.5 million, up 3.4 percent), Buttonwood Communications Group (#114, $1.3 million, up 48.8 percent), Caliber Corporate Advisers (#90, $2.7 million, up 72 percent), Citizen Relations (#12, $34 million, up 10.7 percent), CommCentric Solutions (#121, $995,000, up 11 percent), Crenshaw Communications (#97, $2.2 million, up 23 percent), The Dana Agency (#120, $1 million, up 7.8 percent), Havas Formula (#23, $22.3 million, up 11.6 percent), KCD PR (#119, $1 million, up 40.7 percent), Kohnstamm Communications (#96, $2.3 million, up 11 percent), Regan Communications Group (#30, $18.5 million, up 13.6 percent), Ripp Media/Public Relations (#99, $2.2 million, up 16.3 percent), Sam Brown Inc. (#63, $5.6 million, up 17.1 percent), SevenTwenty Strategies (#75, $4 million, up 21.5 percent), SPI Group (#68, $5.1 million, down 5.7 percent), Touchdown PR (#73, $4.1 million, down 2.5 percent) and Zapwater Communications (#89, $2.8 million, up 14.3 percent), among others.
James P. Judge
One such newcomer, Tampa’s Judge Public Relations (#128, $629,654), entered O’Dwyer’s rankings to reveal 2018 growth of 76.1 percent, the largest single gains counted among any of the 130 firms listed this year.
President James P. Judge posited that as an industry, the PR profession is uniquely poised to educate the public regarding the importance of communications and shifting the mindset that PR is a practice reserved solely for crises. While most businesses today understand the need for accountants and attorneys, Judge noted that many don’t consider reputation to carry the same importance, and said it’s the job of professionals working within the field to change that.
“As demand for media increases at a staggering rate and attention spans continue to grow shorter, audiences have become immune to the trite talking points and key messages, which are spit out by many PR and marketing professionals,” Judge said. “As a result, we have to be more creative than ever to break through the noise and grab attention, while ensuring we continue to fact-check and maintain our credibility. I see the demand for PR professionals continuing to increase, as technology makes communication faster.”