The top 10 public relations firms ranked by O’Dwyer’s for financial PR and investor relations earned a combined total of $267 million in net fees in 2020, a $37 million climb from the $230 million those same firms brought in during pre-COVID 2019. Eight of those firms revealed gains this year, one of them by double digits.

Granted, the financial services sector wasn’t impacted to the same degree as verticals such as travel, entertainment and hospitality, but still, PR firms working in the financial sector weren’t exactly spared the challenges wrought by the COVID-19 crisis. O’Dwyer’s asked leaders at some of the top financial PR and investor relations firms how they see the industry going forward as the economy begins to rebound from a year that was anything but normal.

ICR posts double-digit gains

New York-based corporate communications and investor relations firm ICR posted $60 million in finance-related net fees in 2020 to retain the number-two spot in O’Dwyer’s financial PR rankings, revealing an impressive $11.6 million gain from the $49 million the agency accounted for in 2019.

Tom RyanTom Ryan

How does an agency achieve double-digit growth during a once-in-a-century pandemic? ICR co-Founder and CEO Tom Ryan told O’Dwyer’s that when the world shut down last March and as clients either terminated their economic relationship with the agency or put it on hold, ICR made a conscious effort to keep working for those management teams regardless.

“Not only was this the right thing to do as a long-term partner (especially in consumer-facing industries like retail and restaurants), but we felt it would build goodwill. As the year wore on, those clients re-established our economic relationship and many needed additional services like ESG advisory and crisis management which ICR benefitted from,” Ryan said.

The tail-end of the 2020 saw a resurgence in the stock market and green shoots in the economy, and with that came an explosion of SPAC transactions, where ICR has maintained a dominant market share.

“The diversity of our business model and the portfolio approach to our service offerings were key to our performance in 2020,” Ryan said. "So was our deep knowledge across 20-plus industries and our unique pairing of capital markets professionals with PR agency veterans on each client team. This is a unique advantage in understanding how a communications strategy aligns behind a business goal and how achieving that goal drives equity value for our clients."

Looking forward, Ryan said he believes the increased scrutiny of public companies is here to stay and the lines between communicating with investors, the media, employees, customers and other stakeholders will continue to blur.

“In our opinion, this will require that agencies bring a broad suite of services to the table. Telling the corporate ESG story will also remain at the forefront for public and soon-to-be public clients and options for liquidity will remain much broader than a decade ago,” Ryan said. “We expect SPACs to remain a popular option as well as traditional IPOs and Direct listings. Helping companies through these milestone events, and in the after-market post-transaction will require significant support and an understanding of not only communications but the capital markets in general.”

APCO unveils new offerings

APCO Worldwide retains the number-four spot in O’Dwyer’s financial rankings this year after posting $17.7 million in 2020 finance-related fees, revealing a hearty gain of more than $6.5 million from the $11.2 million the D.C.-based independent PR giant posted in 2019.

Evan KrausEvan Kraus

APCO President Evan Kraus told O’Dwyer’s that the COVID-19 pandemic spurred the agency to take innovative and bold decisions in the way of new offerings, acquisitions and strategic partnerships in an effort to meet clients’ needs and collaborate across regions and practices in an effort to help clients maintain business continuity with confidence.

Responding to client demand, APCO also launched regional hubs for innovation and growth across North America to better focus on pressing client needs, namely: C-suite advisory; shifting demographic, social, culture and behavioral changes; geopolitical dynamics and fallout from elections; virtual meetings and events; advancing innovative and disruptive business models; and serving as a critical partner for a number of medical diagnostics, vaccine and other COVID-19-related healthcare companies.

“These new offers and expansions enabled APCO to achieve strong financial results with growth in key markets,” Kraus said.

Vested sees banner year

One of the strongest gains in O’Dwyer’s financial/IR rankings this year came from number-five ranked Vested, which totaled $12.4 million in finance earnings in 2020, a $3.1 million uptick from 2019’s $9.2 million.

Binna KimBinna Kim

Vested co-Founder and President Binna Kim told O’Dwyer’s that 2020 was the best year on record for the New York-based agency, which is focused exclusively on the financial services industry. Kim attributed this success to a variety of factors, chief among them being co-Founder Dan Simon’s decision to create in January 2020 an action plan for staff and clients in the event that the coronavirus would end up becoming a true pandemic. That proved to be a pretty good idea.

“Thanks to his foresight, by March 2020, we were fully equipped to immediately go remote and kick our plans into action,” Kim said. “We launched a COVID-19 resource center for our clients with resources on employee and client communications. We launched a networking community for financial CMOs and CCOs called Financial Narrative to provide leaders in our space the opportunity to talk to one another, swap notes, and share best practices in a crisis for which many companies did not have a playbook. Vested’s ability to move quickly, to think creatively and to add value to our clients allowed us to both retain and grow our client base in 2020.”

Kim said she believes the financial services industry is becoming increasingly human-focused. “Financial services firms both large and small are focused on issues that impact their employees, their communities and the clients they serve. This includes continued focus on ESG and DE&I to even how firms are creating a culture in which their employees can thrive, post-COVID. This will influence, in very big ways, how brands market to and communicate with their stakeholders, from their board members to their clients to their employees and beyond.”

Lambert expands with acquisitions, new hires

In spite of the pandemic, Lambert’s finance practice managed to gain more than a million in fees last year to total $6.2 million. The Detroit-based agency, which is the Great Lake State’s largest PR firm, now ranks number-10 in O’Dwyer’s rankings of financial PR and investor relations firms.

“Like many companies, Lambert faced a number of challenges over the past year,” said Managing Partner Mike Houston, who heads the agency’s capital markets practice.

Mike HoustonMike Houston

Houston cited the agency’s ability to thrive during the COVID outbreak on its adoption of the latest technology in an effort keep working safely and seamlessly. Lambert also completed an agency acquisition as well as a strategic co-investment in two other firms during this time, launched a fintech start up, TiiCKER, and made two strategic hires to lead strategic growth initiatives that attract and cultivate major clients.

“Going into the pandemic, we did not know what to expect but decided to give it our all no matter the outcome. Together, under the direction of our leadership team, we decided to make bold moves to only survive but thrive amid the pandemic,’ Houston said.

Moving forward, Houston said the macro landscape remains uncertain for many industries, creating an opportunity for financial communications firms to provide counsel that cuts through the volatility and uncertainty.

“As a leader in capital markets, Lambert has seen a number of interesting trends including individual investors playing an increasing role of importance for public companies, VC and PE funds increasing deal flow by amounts we haven’t seen in years after closing the spigot in Q2 and Q3 2020, and SPACs becoming a popular way to raise capital and access the public markets, even though they’ve been around for decades.”

BackBay goes the extra mile

Fintech PR specialists BackBay Communications accounted for more than $4 million in net fees last year to take the number-12 spot in O’Dwyer’s finance rankings.

Bill HaynesBill Haynes

Founder and CEO Bill Haynes said that while the COVID crisis caused a couple of the agency’s clients to drop off and a few others to temporarily cut their retainers, BackBay's integrated approach, combined with a lot of hard work, eventually put the agency back in the black.

“There was so much uncertainty,” Haynes said. “I talked with the BackBay team and said, ‘We’re going to have to work very hard and be very creative to help our clients get through this time. We need them to view BackBay as being absolutely essential to their business success.’ And that’s precisely what we did. We worked long hours, went the extra mile and basically helped clients rewrite their marketing plans to better suit the new environment, emphasizing content and digital communications.”

BackBay also spent more time on its own marketing efforts, which drove a lot of inbound new business inquiries across its financial services focus areas.

“It was amazing but not surprising, to see our team step up and deliver exceptional results. It was a true team effort across all client accounts. No single BackBay client comprises more than eight percent of our total revenue, and our largest clients stayed with us, so all of our retainer clients and projects contributed to our success.”

“I continue to believe that an integrated—and flexible—approach will continue to be essential for success including earned and owned media,” Haynes continued. “I also believe that strong content, sometimes bolstered by research and delivered in different lengths over different mediums, will continue to be essential. I expect that creative proprietary events will continue to become more important, as well as fresh and strong design on brand materials.”