Independent PR firms enjoyed robust growth in 2021 as fee income surged 29.7 percent to a combined $3.9B as they rebounded from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic year, according to the 2022 O'Dwyer's rankings.
Employment jumped 28.1 percent to 20,372 people.
Fifty-nine of the 141 firms on the list registered growth of at least 20 percent in 2021, while only 17 shops posted declines.
The Top Ten firms reported a 35.0 percent gain in total fees to $2.5B.
ICR Inc. set the pace as it posted an 83.4 percent rise in revenues to $194.9M.
No. 1 firm Edelman grew 17.2 percent to $984.9M as it closed in on becoming the first billion-dollar PR firm. Headcount jumped 16.8 percent to 6,004 people.
"We had our best growth since 2011," said CEO Richard Edelman.
Among the Top 50 firms, Bospar (No. 47) chalked up the biggest increase in fees as it advanced 83.2 percent to $12.4M.
ICR Moves from No. 5 to No. 3 Slot
ICR Inc. chief Tom Ryan called 2021 an "incredible year" as his firm posted an 83.4 percent spurt in fee income to $194.9M.
That performance moved the financial PR-oriented shop up two notches in the rankings to the No. 3 slot.
While O'Dwyer's rankings focus on revenue, Ryan said he is more proud of ICR's growth, both professionally and in absolute numbers, and what that represents to clients.
ICR's "Category of One" platform enables professionals to start, grow and/or finish their careers," according to Ryan.
The firm added more than 180 staffers during the past year, which drove new opportunities across key service offerings including investor relations, PR, crises, transactions, ESG and digital.
ICR's IR and PR teams booked more than 250 assignments in the technology, healthcare, real estate, energy/sustainability, mobility, consumer, healthy living, digital entertainment and fintech sectors.
Ryan said ICR's transaction team "demonstrated market leadership by acting as an advisor on more transactions than any other firm, including over 30 percent of all go-public transactions (IPOs, SPACs and Direct Listings) in North America."
Major client wins in 2021 included On Running, Dutch Bros, QuantumScape, Agilent, Solid Power, Orion Office REIT and Affirm.
Zeno Shoots for Higher Purpose
Zeno Group scored a 39.9 percent surge in 2021 revenues to $118.9M as it captured 85 major new business wins and its Top Ten clients hiked spending about 40 percent.
'Never more so than over the last year, when global forces required businesses to think and act differently, Zeno fully demonstrated what's known to be true — companies that embody a higher purpose are stronger and more impactful, inside and out," said CEO Barby Siegel.
Beyond growing its revenues base, Zeno wants to be measured for making a positive impact on people's lives.
"The firm used pandemic 2021 to realize more deeply who Zeno is, why it exists and the firm's desired impact," said Siegel.
The goal is to "champion the courageous to achieve something better for humankind."
Zeno entered into an exclusive partnership with and made a strategic investment in EGAMI Group, the New York-based, pioneering multicultural communications agency.
The collaboration gives EGAMI access to new capital resources and mentorship to scale its business while continuing to be an independent, minority-owned enterprise.
Siegel noted the collaboration would also work to attract, elevate and advance diverse talent, opening up career-building and leadership opportunities.
She said Zeno continues to double down on data and analytics to help clients unlock new areas of opportunity, achieve more effective decision-making, and drive action, internally and externally.
The firm in, 2021 introduced a proprietary global analytics certification program to increase data literacy among staffers by learning the fundamentals of data-driven content and digital storytelling.
Finn Partners' Diversification Pays Off
Finn Partners chalked up a 48.9 percent jump in revenues to $162.2M as its business soared beyond its pre-pandemic levels.
Peter Finn attributes a variety of factors to his firm's robust performance.
'When I founded Finn Partners, I intentionally built a diversified agency of practice areas representing a wide cross-section of business sectors," he said. "This set us up well to deal with the economic downturn of 2020 and fueled our explosive growth in 2021."
A surge of client wins and organic momentum powered the firm.
"Our independent, purpose-built model proved to be the go-to solution for clients seeking a trusted partner with strategic consulting services, specialized sector expertise, and a full suite of integrated marketing capabilities, at a fraction of the cost of the large consulting firms," said Finn.
He said existing clients expanded relationships with the firm, while new ones embraced its full-service offering, spanning research, strategy, creative and media services, plus data and analytics to augment traditional PR and communications support.
The number of clients spending more than $1M annually has grown from five in 2015 to 29 in 2021. Integrated work comprises 25 percent of revenues and is growing, with seven of Finn Partners' top 10 clients using its integrated services.
Finn said his firm acquired 10 new companies to strengthen existing practices, build market share, expand into new markets, and launch a new practice focused on internal communications & employee engagement.
Stanton Overcomes Challenges
Stanton, a New York-based firm primarily focused on B2B organizations, recorded a 12.2 percent jump in fee income to $8.5M as the firm supported clients in what Alex Stanton labeled a challenging but productive year.
"We were active in media relations across both private and public markets, in mergers and acquisitions, in funding and investment announcements, in executive change communications, digital/social media, content development and crisis management," he said.
The firm added to its client list among technology businesses supporting the financial services sector, including companies in the insurtech, fintech, security and payments processing spaces.
Real Chemistry Puts New Team in Place
Real Chemistry posted a 36 percent in revenues to $475M under the final year of a management team led by founder/CEO Jim Weiss.
Shankar Narayanan, a veteran of Cognizant and McKinsey & Co., took over for Weiss on Jan. 3, 2022.
The San Francisco-based firm added Brian Gibbons as chief people officer, Michael Otner as chief legal counsel and Andy Johnson as chief information officer early this year.
Those additions follow the 2021 appointments of Craig Abolt as chief financial officer and Mary Stutts as chief global inclusion and health equity officer.
Real Chemistry launched a new mentoring program early this year to underscore its focus on continued growth and development for its people.
"We are privileged to have some of the smartest minds in health technology, data analytics, commercial and clinical strategy, advertising, communications, medical education and activation–all of whom are helping to solve the greatest health challenges facing society," said Narayanan in releasing Real Chemistry's 2021 financial results.
Ruder Finn Gauges "What's Next"
Ruder Finn CEO Kathy Bloomgarden said 2021 was a "breakout year" for her firm as revenues rose 27.8 percent to $112.2M.
She credits that robust growth to RF's "What's Next" digital approach, including new predictive analytics tools, expanded employee engagement and change management teams, heightened focus on video streaming and customer experience.
RF also has compiled a future-focused client portfolio of companies across health & wellness, technology & innovation, connected commerce and purpose-driven leadership categories, according to Bloomgarden.
In 2021, RF launched its "FutureThink Index," a quarterly tracking study on the impact of three game-changing forces on future lives: career, healthcare, and technology.
Bloomgarden said the results draw key insights into the current state of the American dream, urban collapse, and the great resignation, and demonstrates how a new style of leadership can be a significant driver of both positive outlook and behaviors.
RF acquired UK-based technology firm Mantis in the fall of 2021 as part of its drive to fuel strong organic growth with transformative future-focused acquisitions.
Bospar Moves Up the Rankings
Powered by an 83.2 percent surge in fee income, high-tech shop Bospar moved up 15 notches in the 2022 rankings to the No. 47 slot.
"The growth has allowed us to expand our teams into two sectors: one devoted to enterprise and developer technology; the other focused on consumer-facing tech," said Curtis Sparrer, principal at the firm.
Rather than operate as a typical virtual agency, Bospar's teams are freed from geographics and are organized by skills and experience, giving clients the focus of a small PR firm with the footprint of a large agency.
It serves clients in Canada, China, Finland, India, Israel, Latvia, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and Vietnam.
Sparrer said his firm's strong performance in 2021 makes him confident for the future. "That sounds like hyperbole but consider this: Bospar was the first agency to take a stand for women's reproductive freedom. We offered our Texas staff a relocation package. While Salesforce and Citi followed, we had the most to lose.
"What's remarkable is that the tech and health tech industry continued to reward us with their business – and we returned the favor with fantastic results. I'm hoping our example encourages other agencies to speak out for women, minorities, and LGBTQIA rights."
The firm bolstered its media capabilities by hiring CNBC's Eric Chemi as senior VP in its new broadcast strategies department. "Chemi will share his experience as an on-air reporter for both CNBC and Bloomberg to provide critical behind-the-scenes counsel to clients wanting to elevate their message and on-air appearance for the nation's top-tier broadcast outlets," said Sparrer.
FWV Rises Above Social Unrest
French|West|Vaughan achieved 10.8 percent growth in 2021 to $36.7M as the firm successfully navigated through the aftermath of social unrest, as well as the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic.
CEO Rick French said FWV was deeply impacted by social unrest in Raleigh over the past 18 months. Its historic downtown Raleigh headquarters building was damaged during violent protests and vandalized a second time as November 2020 election results unfolded.
The firm made the decision to lean into the diversity and inclusion conversation, encouraging colleagues to post messages of hope, love and unity on its boarded-up windows, he added.
The shop spent 2021 enhancing its DE&I efforts to identify unconscious biases and promote an inclusive agency environment. It also worked diligently to help its roster of more than 175 clients pivot to new ways in which to conduct business.
In pivoting to what became a new normal in 2021, FWV conducted deskside media briefings via Zoom with longtime client Wrangler's merchandise managers and designers.
For global energy giant ABB, it helped introduce the world's fastest electric car charger via online press events.
The agency helped Volvo Trucks North America introduce its VNR Electric heavy-duty truck virtually and for music finance company Sound Royalties, it delivered opportunities at virtual events such as the Association of Independent Music Publishers webinar series, the Cutting-Edge Entertainment Law Seminar and the virtual version of SXSW 2021.
SourceCode Retainers Rise 25%
SourceCode registered a 66.2 percent surge in revenues to $8.6M, a performance that was due to 22 new clients at an average retainer that was 25 percent higher on a year-to-year basis.
Greg Mondshein, managing partner, said his firm launched WeRaise PR, a startup agency focused on bringing women back into the workforce through low overhead, flexible working arrangements and benefits that matter.
During the fourth quarter, SourceCode acquired Strike 2, a digital marketing agency based in Chicago, to round out its service offering and provide more impactful creative strategy and digital programming to clients.
The firm bolstered its senior management with key HR, operations and account leadership hires and launched SourceCode Strong—an employee wellness initiative designed to support mental wellness.
In October, SourceCode unveiled its second TrendSights Report to explore the industry shift from a traditional focus on financial performance for key performance indicators to environmental, societal and governance issues.
Coyne Comes Off 'Record-Setting' Year
Coyne PR chalked up 28.6 percent growth to $36M in what Tom Coyne termed a "record-setting year."
Since the pandemic, Coyne PR has not furloughed or laid off a single employee.
Instead, the shop's staff expanded by 23 percent to 176 people and led the industry with an average retention rate that exceeds 87 percent.
Coyne PR has made diversity a strategic imperative that is core to its business and culture.
"Through a multi-pronged effort, we've made industry-leading advancements such as improving the diversity of our workforce to over 25 percent—well above the industry benchmark," said Coyne. "Our new hires over that same period were better than 45 percent diverse and we are using a recruiting method to target diverse passive candidates to make sure that our pipeline continues to be diverse."
Additionally, the firm's intern program, which feeds entry-level positions, continues to be at least 50 percent diverse.
Coyne said to ensure an inclusive and welcoming culture, "we completely reimagined our DE&I Committee to help set policy, establish training programs and create agency-wide events that celebrate individual differences and cultures."
Healthcare was a key driver of Coyne PR's business in 2021, as the segment saw a 36 percent increase in revenue.
The shop added clients such as Orangetheory Fitness, Firestone Building Products, Kobrand Wine & Spirits, Highlights for Children, Redken, FELD Entertainment and Benefiber.
It also saw significant growth from existing clients, including Hilton Hotels and Shell Oil.
Imre Seeks to be 'Champion of Change'
Imre enjoyed 22.5 percent growth to $45.1M as it positioned itself as a "champion of change."
"We're creating new partnerships and revolutionizing our ways of working with each other and our clients to bring new ideas to the table, faster. 2021 was all about new ways to keep people and new thinking at the center of the action," said CEO Dave Imre.
Fifty-four new employees joined the agency in 2021, and Imre credits this increase to great client work along with increased flexibility in where that work gets done.
With its "Work From Anywhere" model in 30 FTEs in the US, the firm plans to pilot the "imre Summer Jet Set" program whereby all employees can work from anywhere around the world.
Imre believes his firm's "unrelenting willingness to change" has bolstered talent in growing service areas, particularly omnichannel marketing, earned media, brand strategy, media planning, technology, data and analytics.
MWW Enjoys Stream of Client Wins
MWW posted a 16.8 percent jump in fee income to $45.4M in 2021, which was a strong year for client wins.
It added Heineken, Spotify, Pinterest and Edelman Financial Engines to Marco's Pizza and Opendorse.
CEO Michael Kempner's shop refreshed operations and expanded its people-first culture with modern policies to support employees and attract new talent.
"MWW continues to demonstrate a positive and caring culture through its commitment to inclusivity and excellence by offering progressive benefits inspired and designed by listening to the needs of its employees," said Kempner.
The shop unveiled expanded mental health days and paid leave and rolled out an industry-first Pre-PTO for new employees and a "work where you work best" philosophy.
MWW also completed the integration of its strategic acquisition of London-based agency Chameleon, adding top tech talent, including Tom Buttle, who now serves as president of MWW London.
In the US, it added executive VP and technology practice leader Maria Brown from Matter Communications; veteran business, media, and political advisor Shari Yost Gold; chief creative officer Carl Sorvino from Golin; and senior VPs Brittany Hershkowitz in sports and entertainment from BCW and Megan Hueter to the digital practice from Endeavor.
Kivvit Attracts New Talent
Kivvit, which ranks 15 on O'Dwyer's list, showed a 12.9 percent gain in revenues to $39.8M.
Zach Silber, chief strategy officer, said growth was fueled by "a culture that provides our team a platform to do their best work and constantly grow professionally."
Kivvit is "singularly focused on attracting and retaining great professionals and added a dedicated talent team to build internal infrastructure, processes, and programming."
Heading into 2022, the shop made a series of transformative hires, including a cohort of four managing directors that represent the largest expansion of our senior leadership team in the firm's 20-year history."
In 2021, Kivvit shaped public opinion and created policy and legislative outcomes, including helping pass a law in New Jersey that expanded access to critically needed harm reduction services and achieving historic support for New York's Intellectual and Developmental Disability (I/DD) sector in the state budget.
The firm also promoted a landmark study of QAnon by the Public Religion Research Institute that drove national coverage and sparked a feverish conversation that became the most engaging story on Reddit's/r/Politics front page, according to Silber.
The report was also cited by Members of Congress and DC influencers as part of a national conversation on QAnon's rise.
McCabe Message Partners Pivots
McCabe Message Partners registered an 11.5 percent jump in growth to $11.5M.
Since the DC-based shop is focused exclusively on health, it has for the past two years been helping clients communicate about the effects of COVID and measures to protect public health.
Patrick McCabe said the firm is currently pivoting to counsel clients about what must be done now, as the virus is largely controlled for vaccinated individuals.
He said: "Account leaders are therefore helping clients persuade people to resume life-saving preventive care. They're developing campaigns to recruit much-needed healthcare workers. They're explaining the need for clinical trial volunteers to a public that learned a lot about drug and vaccine development over the past two years. And they're helping to rethink the nation's emergency response systems in ways that prioritize public health.
McCabe said the focus is on increasing health equity. "It involves a lot more than reducing racial disparities in access to medical treatments, although that remains a vexing challenge," he said.
McCabe Message Partners is helping clients communicate about the myriad other issues that undermine equality in health—from access to fresh food, to safe housing, to reliable transportation.
The firm is working to identify new roles that the healthcare ecosystem can play to support healthy communities beyond providing medical interventions.
It is also consulting on what aging in America looks like after two years of hard-learned lessons from COVID-19. This work underscores the importance of providing safe care where people live, continuing models like telehealth that support care at home, and rethinking what nursing homes might look like in the future, according to McCabe.
The McCabe Message Partners staff is back in the office a few days each week, which fuels learning across account teams. "While this kind of sharing was accomplished remotely during the pandemic, there is nothing like face-to-face ideation, or just overhearing colleagues brainstorm, to spark one's own creativity," said McCabe.
Bird Flies Coop at M Booth Health
M Booth Health charted a 12.9 percent advance in fee income to $16.3M in 2021, which marked the final year of Tim Bird's leadership at the New York firm.
Stacey Bernstein, who was Weber Shandwick's Boston general manager and executive VP/global director of digital health, succeeded Bird in January 2022.
Bird took on the chairman slot.
Next 15 Communications, owner of M Booth Health, acquired Health Unlimited's US business, which was headed by Bird, in 2019,
Following Bernstein's arrival, M Booth Health recruited Peter Matheson Gay as chief impact officer and Tayla Mahmud for the executive VP-health equity and multicultural strategy post.
Matheson Gay was chief creative officer at IPG DXTRA's Health Integrated Solutions. Mahmud joined M Booth Health from Havas Health & You, where she was associate managing director.