The top 10 PR firms ranked by O’Dwyer’s for technology this year brought in a combined total of more than $476 million in tech-related net fees. Eight of this year’s top 10 tech agencies gained in tech-related billings, and each was also up in O’Dwyer’s overall annual rankings—half of them by double-digits. Number-one independent PR giant Edelman now sees technology as its largest practice, accounting for more than 30 percent of its total revenue (or about $274.6 million).

Like most industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the tech sector in a big way. The tech industry has faced plenty of setbacks in recent years, from privacy issues to data breaches to job-killing robots, each of which has caused society to reexamine the role technology plays in our lives.

Arguably, however, the technology sector is poised to be more resilient than most in the wake of COVID-19. Given that these companies provided the very offerings that have helped us adapt in these unusual times—such as streaming services, social media networks and remote working solutions—it isn’t a stretch to consider they’ll continue to lead throughout this crisis with untold new advancements we can’t yet imagine. Innovation, as it turns out, doesn’t disappear in times of crisis.

O’Dwyer’s asked several executives at the top PR firms representing the technology world today what the future holds as we balance out an unexpected year and turn toward 2021. According to tech PR leaders, not only will COVID-19 not curb innovation, our latest global challenge has actually presented opportunities for an industry that thrives on disruption.

Hotwire widens lead

Heather KernahanHeather Kernahan

Global tech PR specialist Hotwire accounted for more than $42.1 million in tech-related billings in 2019, retaining the number-two spot in O’Dwyer’s tech rankings this year with $5.3 million in tech-related gains from 2018’s $36.8 million.

The U.S. and U.K.-based agency’s growth revealed the biggest overall percentage climb among our top 10 tech firms this year, and bested the firm’s own $3.6 million gains in 2018 from 2017’s $33.2 million.

Heather Kernahan, Hotwire CEO, North America, characterized the agency’s year as “really outstanding” and one that’s the result of putting together the right senior client team and hiring in growth areas of strategy and insight as well as integrated planning and digital.

“The Hotwire brand wasn’t well known in the U.S. three years ago and we’ve all been on a mission to connect with the industry here and deliver work for clients that get talked about,” Kernahan said.

Looking to the future, Kernahan said COVID-19 has companies narrowing down on the most critical business outcomes and asking their PR and communications teams to deliver. As a result, agencies are now being forced to confront and refine what works for which audiences.

“For years we’ve been seeing that every industry has been figuring out how to be positioned as a tech company, and that is accelerating with this pandemic.”

Finn Partners forges ahead

Peter FinnPeter Finn

Finn Partners held onto its number-three slot with $32.1 million in 2019 tech-related billings, accounting for gains of more than $4.6 million from 2018’s $27.4 million.

Founding managing partner Peter Finn said the agency’s technology practice experienced a 15 percent year-over-year growth in new clients, which he attributes, in part, “to multi-country assignments with integrated program elements” such as PR, social, digital and advertising. To address this growth, the global independent agency’s tech staff grew by approximately 15 percent this year as well.

Finn sees several noteworthy trends currently shaping the tech world. Technologies for educational institutions (including platforms, access, hardware, programs and distance learning experiences) will advance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and tech will continue to look to innovations in VR, 5G, AI and machine learning and cybersecurity as pillars for sector growth and momentum.

More importantly, Finn believes COVID-19 has positioned agencies to help tech clients with lead-gen efforts, as events are canceled or moved to virtual settings and with traditional media relations being conducted with more sensitivity. Combined, these factors have his agency’s global tech practice stable as it remains focused on counseling clients as they pivot to survive amid the coronavirus and seek to build stronger ties with employees, partners and customers in the process.

“This new environment creates opportunities to view communications more holistically and offer new services to clients who, pre-COVID-19, might not have considered these offerings,” Finn said.

PAN picks up number-six slot

Mark NardoneMark Nardone

PAN Communications is now ranked number-six in O’Dwyer’s tech rankings, inching up from the number-seven position last year after clearing more than $19.3 million in 2019 tech-related net fees to reveal year-over-year growth of more than $2 million from 2018’s $17.3 million.

Executive vice president Mark Nardone said the Boston-based tech and healthcare specialist has witnessed a solid lift in its technology practice in the last year as brands have begun to move upstream across various stages of growth.

“The companies that came to us a couple years ago as startups and emerging growth brands are now gaining capital and seeing tremendous success as they enter that mid-stage category and lean more holistically on an integrated marketing and PR program,” Nardone told O’Dwyer’s.

Nardone said one area in the agency’s technology practice that has experienced tenfold expansion is its measurement and analytics services. PAN has also witnessed an uptick in organic growth within its tech practice as brands that came to the agency for earned media now expand into content, social, digital and other integrated areas.

“When we began to ramp up our integrated practice five-plus years ago, this was the goal, and now it has become our reality,” Nardone said. “Tech brands are approaching PAN for insights into customer conversations within a crowded market, and our social listening and monitoring has played a critical role in delivering this data.”

Nardone believes the technology sector post-coronavirus will come back stronger than ever. Venture capital continues to raise large rounds of funding and seek out new areas of tech in which to invest. And clients are continuing to turn to agencies because they’re approaching PR with a different mindset than they were 10 years ago, as they now recognize integrated marketing’s ability to produce content that connects their product or service with the right audience.

More than anything, Nardone said tech’s continued success in light of the coronavirus is predicated on the idea that the verticalization of technology isn’t just the “next shiny object.” As sectors that were once considered “traditional” now find themselves transformed by tech—everything from real estate, to legal and insurance—these industries find themselves increasingly relying on technology to bring a new levels of experience to their customers.

Hoffman hits top ten

Lou HoffmanLou Hoffman

The Hoffman Agency entered O’Dwyer’s top ten for tech for the first time, leaping from the number-12 positon with $13.6 million in tech-related billings last year to $15,005,000 this year to claim our number-10 spot.

CEO Lou Hoffman told O’Dwyer’s that the San Jose-headquartered tech agency’s “sweet spot, the area we believe there’s no agency on the planet better than us,” lies in running multi-country campaigns for tech companies.  

“Last year saw us reach the tipping point as far as critical mass. More than win multi-country opportunities, we’re also seeing clients engage with us in a single geography and then later expand to other markets. A large percent of our revenue now comes from clients we support in two or more countries.”

Hoffman also points to the quality of service delivery at his global firm, which was founded in 1987, as a key factor.

“Clients assume that every agency can execute. Not true. While not the glamorous part of our business, our ability to execute client programs month after month after month also differentiates us and explains why clients engage with us.”

Hoffman noted that the definition of a tech company has morphed in recent years, evolving from vendors to companies that depend on technology to differentiate their products or services.

As a result, Hoffman said one could make the argument that most companies today are now tech companies. And with COVID-19 cratering clients’ sales-lead process with the closure of conferences and trade shows, the crisis may actually accelerate tech agencies’ push into integrated campaigns, content marketing and lead-gen programs.

“That’s why I think demand for tech PR will continue to grow in coming years,” Hoffman said. “Big picture, the saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ has forced us to step back and take fresh eyes to how we can best support our clients. In a weird and ironic way, COVID-19 has delivered an opportunity to the tech industry to remind the world that it can be a force for good which is playing out right before our eyes.”