The top 130 independent PR firms posted a 3.8 percent gain to $3B in combined fee income during pandemic 2020 and a 2.9 percent dip to 15,832 in year-end overall employment, according to O’Dwyer’s 2021 annual rankings.
Seventy-two firms posted income gains, while 48 suffered declines. Nine reported flat income.
The Top 25 firms combined for a five percent gain to $2.3B in fee income. Employment dropped 2.2 percent to 12,135.
Edelman, which posted a 5.8 percent decrease in fees to $840M, retained its No. 1 position in O’Dwyer’s rankings. It had 530 fewer employees at the end of 2020 compared to 2019.
Real Chemistry, the former W2O Group, posted a robust 61 percent rise in income to $360.2M, powered in part by the acquisition of seven firms: 21GRAMS, Symplur, Discern Health, Elysia Group, starpower, Swoop and IPM.ai.
CEO Jim Weiss noted that 2020 marked the 19th consecutive year of double-digital growth at his healthcare-oriented firm.
Real Chemistry worked with clients on the pandemic frontlines, supporting about 50 COVID-19-related initiatives and clients developing vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics and devices.
“We leveraged our machine and AI data engine to provide vital information about the pandemic to media and the life sciences industry and committed significant agency time and resources to positively impact those affected,” said Weiss.
The firm established the Networks for Emergencies & Relief non-profit, which raised more than $450,000 to source and distribute 2.3 million+ PPE to organizations in critical need and partnered with the Ad Council to launch a $50M pro bono campaign that enlisted Dr. Anthony Fauci and other KOLs to improve vaccine confidence.
Real Chemistry also guided the Black Coalition Against COVID group as it launched “A Love Letter to Black America,” mobilizing advocates to build vaccine confidence within Black communities.
Weiss bolstered First Chemistry’s ranks by recruiting a global chief experience officer; group president of transformation, consumer activation and marketing; head of DE&I; and presidents of CRM/marketing solutions and corporate & capital market communications.
He said the transformation from W20 to First Chemistry in March 2021 is designed to improve outcomes across the healthcare ecosystem and closely integrate operations “to deliver data-driven tech-enabled health marketing and communications solutions.”
Zeno Group Returns Sacrificed Salaries
Zeno Group achieved its 11th consecutive year of growth in 2020 amid the global pandemic and social unrest.
The firm, which relies on technology, healthcare, food, beverage and manufacturing for 50 percent of its US business, counseled more than 85 clients on COVID-19 and racial justice matters.
“Clients within those sectors on both sides of the business spectrum—some battered, others surging—turned to Zeno’s integrated capabilities including research, creative, corporate reputation, crisis, digital, analytics and purpose,” said CEO Barby Siegel.
The firm added Hyatt Global Corp., Crate & Barrel and Ancestry to its roster in 2020.
“While the year at times was overwhelming and unnerving, Zeno’s years-in-the-making culture of kindness, compassion and people first led the way on how the agency handled a new normal amid the pandemic,” said Siegel, who sent nightly global emails to staffers that addressed fears and anxiety while offering hope and strength.
In June, Zeno implemented salary cuts for VPs and above to protect and preserve business. The pay was restored on September 16.
“We built our business back and continued our consecutive yearly growth,” said Siegel, and paid back the sacrificed salary in February.
Pandemic Spurs Innovation at APCO
The unprecedented nature of the pandemic spurred APCO Worldwide to take innovative and bold decisions with new offerings, make acquisitions and strategic partnerships to meet clients’ needs, and collaborate across regions and practices to help clients maintain business continuity and look forward with confidence, according to Evan Kraus, president of APCO Worldwide.
The Washington-based firm took the No. 3 slot in the O’Dwyer's rankings with net fees of $143M, up one percent from 2019.
As the pandemic took hold, APCO launched a “coronavirus hub” to provide key intelligence through a series of surveys and expert insights into global sentiments and critical issues around the pandemic.
The firm evolved its crisis response capabilities and launched “Come Back Stronger” to help clients navigate the challenges of the pandemic and move towards recovery.
Due to strong demand, APCO established regional hubs for growth and innovation. “The hubs will help anticipate what’s next for the company and its clients, and focus on important client needs, including C-suite advisory; shifting demographic, social, culture and behavioral change; geopolitical dynamics and fallout from elections; and advancing innovative and disruptive business models,” said Kraus.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, CEO Brad Staples has led a dedicated international APCO task force to monitor, assess, communicate and guide the company’s pandemic response.
Kraus said employee well-being and mitigating business risk were top priorities during 2020.
“We seamlessly shifted to fully remote operations, provided complete flexibility to meet employees’ challenges at home, converted global learning and development programs to be completely online, and hired experts and created social outlets to protect employees’ mental wellbeing,” said Kraus.
APCO also stepped up its efforts on the equity and social impact fronts. It tapped Charlene Wheeless as senior advisor for equity and justice and launched “Accelerate What’s Right”—an effort designed to address the “right now”—to fight systemic racism and discrimination, and to create a lasting effort to advance equality and inclusion.
Core Values Guide Finn Partners
While 2020 posed tremendous challenges—personally and professionally—to the team at Finn Partners, “our values emerged as our compass, guiding business decisions and providing clarity amid the chaos,” said CEO Peter Finn.
He said when the pandemic hit, the firm shifted swiftly from profits to the protection of its staff and client relationships.
Finn Partners reallocated underutilized staff, bolstered its data and analytics practice and retrained/upskilled workers for new jobs. “We can proudly say that we had no COVID-related layoffs or pay cuts, and in fact, gave bonuses during a time when so many others were shedding staff,” said Finn.
The No. 4 ranked O’Dwyer's firm was in the forefront in the fight for social justice. It supported the Black Lives Matter movement, created a 100-person DEI committee of volunteers and promoted the push for greater voting access.
“We lived in the trenches with our clients, guiding them daily through COVID crisis communications, digital transformation, and shaping their sector leadership voice across policy, product and public issues,” said Finn.
He said Finn Partners’ first-quarter 2021 results were the best in the firm’s history, further validating that “our purpose-driven, people-centric model is in demand."
ICR Sticks with Ex-Clients
Tom Ryan, CEO of ICR, said 2020 ranked as “one of the most gratifying years” in the financial firm’s 22-year history and “maybe its most prolific in terms of absolute dollar growth.”
Once the pandemic hit in March, many of ICR's clients in the restaurant, retail and consumer sectors either left the shop or suspended fees. “Yet as a management team, we made the conscious decision to keep supporting those former clients regardless of their ability to pay,” said Ryan.
The firm created a COVID-19 website in April to help clients navigate the impact of the pandemic, provide continual real-time insights and information about what was occurring, and monitor what industry peers were doing and how it affected them and their communication.
“Ultimately, as markets priced in a recovery, most clients came back to ICR in the second half of the year with a new-found demand for a broader level of engagement, including integrated investor communications, business & financial media strategy, crisis preparedness and management and governance advisory,” said Ryan.
That client comeback accelerated ICR's growth across every service and industry sector, particularly technology and healthcare.
ICR also witnessed an explosion in the SPAC market where it is a leader in terms of market share, transactions executed and market value.
Ryan noted that ICR established a formal Inclusion & Diversity initiative and focused on team member engagement and communication, which he believes will be key to unifying a geographically disperse workforce going forward.
Coyne Maintains Family Ties
Coyne PR, which is proud of its family atmosphere, experienced a free-fall drop in revenue during the second quarter of 2020 due to COVID-19.
That decline caused a 13 percent decline to $28M in full-year fee income for the No. 20 firm on O'Dwyer's list.
Despite the revenue shortfall, CEO Tom Coyne and his leadership team promised not to layoff or furlough a single employee.
"We made it clear that salaries and medical benefits would remain intact and that the health and safety of the extended Coyne PR family would always come first,” said Coyne.
As a firm dedicated to being the best place to work, Coyne PR developed innovative approaches to conducting business; created novel ways to stay connected and forged caring and compassionate policies for serving the family of loyal employees.
Leadership unveiled a new program dubbed “Work Your Way,” which gave every employee across all levels a completely flexible work alternative.
Employees were given the freedom to work from home full-time, relocate to a different office, or select a new office in the expanded space the company acquired to accommodate social distancing guidelines more safely.
Working remotely posed a unique challenge to tight-knit Coyne PR, which is noted for employee events like scavenger hunts, happy hours, themed lunches and corn hole tournaments.
With the shelter-in-place mandate, the firm produced “Coyne Connect,” an initiative to keep people in the loop.
Some highlights are: “Don't Get Crazy: Cooking with Computer Mark” virtual cooking demonstrations from a former chef and Coyne’s IT department head; “Storytelling with Jenn” sessions of heartbreak, career triumphs and lessons learned hosted by executive VP Jennifer Kamienski; “Mediation with Meg,” led by social media strategist Megan Schuster; “Nutrition Rules! Bootcamp" taught by Jakie Peskin of the food/nutrition team and the #CoynePelotonCrew exercise bike program.
Coyne said staffers really pulled together during the pandemic and adapted communications programs that generated more than $10M in new revenues.
Kivvit Increases Headcount
Kivvit, which registered a three percent spurt in 2020 fee income to $34.1M, used the pandemic year to accelerate its “agency of the future” model, according to Molly Scherrman, COO.
She said O’Dwyer’s No. 14 ranked firm invested to expand its leadership team, increased headcount by 20 percent, bolstered the use of data tools and technology, and developed new brand strategy teams, ranging from data-driven insights to motion graphics.
“We are immensely proud of our team, who responded nimbly to the new work environment and supported one another in addition to delivering incredible client work, which included campaigns on behalf of government agencies in six states on critical issues ranging from COVID-19 to the 2020 census to voting and to healthcare enrollment,” Scherrman said.
Ruder Finn Bolsters Digital, Tech Savvy
The rapid transformation driven by the COVID-19 landscape pushed Ruder Finn to invest in new digital and technological capabilities, according to CEO Kathy Bloomgarden.
O’Dwyer’s No. 6 independent firm, with $87.8M in fees, expanded its Techlab, which explores emerging tech in AI voice, VR/AR and robotics, and develops AI-driven apps, analytics tools and voice skills.
The New York-based firm’s pharma unit and employee engagement practice earned it assignments at the forefront of COVID vaccines, therapeutics development and the tech-enabled virtual workspace, according to Bloomgarden.
Recognizing the power of honest dialogue to bring communities together, quell anxiety and spark innovative solutions, Ruder Finn launched a pandemic-centered salon series, bringing top communicators across industries together to brainstorm solutions, share insights and hold difficult conversations about topics such as how to inspire innovation and engagement among employees, while still upholding a sense of security and well-being.
Bloomgarden said: “Due to the strength of our portfolio, the digital DNA and architecture of our organization, and the energy and agility of our people, Ruder Finn was able to pioneer a smooth transition throughout the pandemic to not only avoid all furloughs, pandemic layoffs and salary cuts but support business continuity as we onboarded 17 key new hires and achieved double-digit growth in 2020.”
Defining Year for 5W Public Relations
5W Public Relations chief Ronn Torossian called 2020 “a defining year” for the firm that ranks No. 11 on O’Dwyer’s roster with fees of $38.1M.
He said when the pandemic jeopardized the business of clients and the future of the New York shop, staffers shined. “They quickly pivoted—adjusting strategies from client pitches to new business tactics, and thanks to this creative thinking, tireless work ethic, and calmness under pressure, managed to not only retain the majority of their clients, but also sign an impressive number of new ones,” he said.
The pandemic year was one of 5W PR’s most profitable years, which Torossian considers an “unbelievable accomplishment given the state of the world, and testament to the phenomenally talented professionals at this company.”
During 2020, 5W added GNC, CarParts.com, EPICOR, Medallia, Jamf, Columbia Care, Payless, SmileDirectClub, Isopure and Coca-Cola's Fairlife unit to the client roster.
The firm used the lockdown to rebrand with a new logo, manifesto, and tagline to better communicate its services. That new identity also helps to unite employees who are working from home, according to Torossian.
IMRE Pairs Empathy, Optimism
IMRE, No. 12 on O’Dwyer’s list with 2020 fees of $36.8M, attributes its solid 10.2 percent growth rate to a healthy pairing of empathy and optimism, according to CEO David Imre.
The Baltimore-based firm’s growth resulted from a combination of organic and new business in its pharmaceuticals, CPG, biotech, automotive, financial services and retail practices.
“While the world turned upside down, we began with what we are good at—intentional, radical listening. This gave insight into the insecurities our clients and staff were feeling, and swiftly refocused our energies on new ways of working with and for our partners,” Imre said.
The firm added 27 staffers in 2020, a signal of its ability to attract talent.
They mostly joined the firm’s innovators practice, which is a mix of PR, creative, brand strategy, digital marketing, social media, and data analysts working in concert with one another.
Evoke KYNE Leans into Larger Purpose
Evoke KYNE entered 2020 after a transformational year in which it combined Evoke PR & Influence and KYNE to create a unified team to advance healthcare and wellbeing.
“We entered 2020 in a strong position to weather what would be a very difficult year for all,” said David Kyne, CEO.
He said the global pandemic, a long-overdue racial reckoning and social unrest for Black Americans and others facing systemic racism and discrimination, and a fraught political landscape causing great anxiety, stress and tension all around the globe highlighted the need for PR to combat misinformation and educate the public on health issues.
As a result, Evoke KYNE, which is No. 18 on O’Dwyer’s list with fees of $30.1M, enjoyed robust organic growth and 15 new client engagements.
“Our teams leaned into our larger purpose and delivered impactful and award-winning programs for clients and partners in COVID-19 and beyond, helping them to re-shape plans, pivot to a virtual environment and counseling them on how to support hard-hit communities,” said Kyne.
The firm hired about 50 people, including heads of reputation & social media and social media and expanded its creative, digital and earned media teams.
Kyne said that after a year like no other, his firm “is proud to have played a significant role in harnessing the power of communications to change the world for the better while continuing to be a best place to work.”