The proof is in the numbers. Eight of the top ten firms in O’Dwyer’s rankings of PR firms were up this year, four of them by double digits, accounting for a combined total of more than $1.4 billion in net fees.
And that level of success runs through the entire list. Nineteen of the top 25 firms posted year-over-year gains, with 12 showing double-digit growth. Overall, 90 of the 121 firms ranked by O’Dwyer’s this year — or 74 percent — revealed a positive change.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's May '17 PR Firm Rankings Magazine
In a market where the rules seem to be changing almost daily, the firms in O’Dwyer’s rankings are showing a strong ability to keep up with those rules. They are adapting their strategies to accommodate the rapid pace of technological and economic change. New services and smartly orchestrated acquisitions are resulting in a broader, more integrated approach to delivering effective messaging for clients. In addition, a focus on quality of life and employee retention is giving a quickly transforming environment a level of stability that provides a solid basis for growth. While the specific paths to success taken by each of O’Dwyer’s ranked firms may be different, when seen as a whole they draw a picture of an industry that is successfully weathering some rather potent storms.
Top 10 sees new additions
W2O Group was the biggest gainer in O’Dwyer’s top ten this year, climbing 33 percent in 2016 to account for nearly $123 million in net fees, jumping ahead of behemoth APCO Worldwide (which was up one percent to $121 million) for the first time, and effectively doubling the prior 15 percent growth it experienced in 2015 from 2014.
Much of this impressive performance can be attributed to organic growth resulting from the voracious acquisition appetite the San Francisco-headquartered marketing and communications network showed in 2016. During that time it acquired Wilmington, NC-based life sciences PR agency Pure Communications, Morristown, NJ-based digital marketing shop Sentient Interactive and New Hope, PA-based digital marketing firm Marketeching Solutions.
W2O, which focuses on tech and global brands and owns agencies Brewlife, Twist Mktg and WCG, last year also launched Connect, a new service offering established to help executives’ communication and leadership skills.
“Our clients are asking for a wider range of services from our firm in both communications and marketing. We don’t view the market as ‘communications’ or ‘marketing,’” said W2O Chairman and CEO Jim Weiss. “As a result, we’re building an offering that can identify the precise needs of a brand via our 100+ data science experts and then develop the campaign that will lead to the best results. We are not encumbered by any legacy models or teams, which allows us to be agile in how we think, build and serve our clients.”
Weiss told O’Dwyer’s that the agency continues to receive new assignments without a formal RFP process across the board, based on its ability to diagnose a marketplace via its analytics models. It can then provide the best solutions for its clients, whether those solutions are achieved through its own efforts or via work conducted by a wider team of agencies.
“Our goal is always to make our clients smarter and ensure that our impact is wider than our agency work alone,” he said. “Whether or not we get more projects or retainers is far less relevant to us than the type of work we get and, in this regard, we are pleased with the progress of our firm.”
Finn Partners also continued to win big in 2016, gaining 7.3 percent year-over-year to $76.7 million from 2015’s $71.4 million and climbing to our #4 slot from #6 last year.
Like W2O, the global independent agency went on a relentless acquisition wave last year, picking up Portland-based shop Lane PR in August, a month after it acquired Washington, D.C.-based branding and marketing services agency Greenfield Belser. Those deals followed FP’s 2015 acquisition of San Francisco-based tech agency Horn Group, its 2014 acquisition of New York-based health and education firm gabbegroup and 2013’s purchase of Washington-based Widmeyer Communications.
The trend seems to be continuing in 2017, with the April acquisition of Singapore-based B2B PR and marketing agency Ying Communications.
“Our largest practice areas, health and technology, with clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, won the most business during 2016,” Finn Partners Founding Partner Peter Finn told O’Dwyer’s. “The momentum for new client wins in both groups has continued, with technology landing more than $1 million in new business so far this year, and health bringing in over $2 million, including assignments with several of the world’s top pharmaceutical firms.”
Finn Partners last year was also the site of a preferred stock purchase from Stagwell Group, the marketing investment company headed by polling guru and former Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn.
“In today’s digital landscape, virtually every agency is repositioning itself,” Finn said. “The holding company owned agencies may face pressure not to expand into the domain of the advertising firms and digital firms owned by their holding company parents. However, independent firms have an advantage in this area because they can move freely to offer fully integrated services to their clients. This has certainly been an important priority for our firm.”
Corporate communications and investor relations giant ICR, whose ranking climbed to #5 from #8, saw its net fees slip one percent last year, to $55.6 million from $56.2 million in 2015.
ICR CEO Thomas Ryan told O’Dwyer’s that the distribution of retainers across industries in 2016 was fairly similar to that in years past. However, Ryan noted that the agency saw gains in healthcare PR and rising market share in consumer-related industries as well as B2B technology, especially among companies providing products and services that make retailers and restaurants more efficient.
Ryan also said that, despite the controversy that surrounds the Trump administration, it has maintained a pro-business stance that has contributed to plenty of optimism across the agency’s client base.
“Companies are actively spending and believe they have a four-to eight-year window to truly create value for shareholders,” Ryan said. “PR and communications play a critical role in nurturing and maintaining an effective company narrative that supports such value creation, so we are very optimistic about the years ahead.”
Last year was one for the books for Padilla. The Minneapolis-based agency, which is now ranked #6 by O’Dwyer’s, accounted for $42.4 million in net fees in 2016. The Midwest PR giant, which rebranded this year, purchased Chicago-based food and nutrition communications shop FoodMinds last year, effectively establishing it as one of the largest independent food and beverage agencies in the country.
“The addition of FoodMinds and rebranding to Padilla are two of the most recent moves in a long line of evolutionary steps at the agency,” Padilla President Matt Kucharski told O’Dwyer’s. “We’ve diversified the capabilities we are bringing to clients across a range of industries, and are focused on building, growing and protecting brands and reputations for great companies.”
Going forward, Kucharski said his agency continues to see an interest in research and insights that align communications and business strategy, as well as a commitment to meaningful metrics. “In addition, we’ll lead our clients toward incorporating more short-form visual storytelling delivered on digital platforms,” he said.
Prosek Partners, which specializes in financial and professional services PR, was in the top ten for the first time this year, up more than 28 percent to $31.2 million. The New York-based agency, which acquired Los Angeles-based corporate communications and investor relations agency Muirfield Partners last year, revealed a similar 20 percent year-over-year uptick in 2015.
Managing Partner Jennifer Prosek told O’Dwyer’s that the agency’s growth is reflective of new proactive thinking across the financial industry.
“The entire financial world — even the alternative asset managers — realize they need to be on the front foot in their approach to strategic communications,” Prosek said. “They need a narrative and brand purpose, a focus on reputation management and a proactive marketing program. They can no longer play defense. Some of these firms are new to communications so they are part of an emerging market. Prosek was built to service these kinds of firms and their needs.”
“Truth is a luxury and building trust is more difficult than ever,” Prosek continued. “Firms will lean more heavily on PR counsel to navigate a world where former trusted sources of information are losing their dominance or influence.”
Ronn Torossian, Founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, cited the importance of diversified services in spurring growth. “We feel that the ability to blend a mix of services to create 360-degree campaigns will continue to define public relations success moving forward,” he said.
New York-based 5W, which grew 13.2 percent last year to account for more than $24.3 million in net fees, continued to expand in every practice area last year, including in corporate, tech, consumer brands and digital practices. The agency last year relocated its offices to The Helmsley Building on Park Avenue, above Grand Central Terminal.
“Integrating social media, digital marketing, SEO and creative utilizes new and different ways to reach target markets, amplifies PR programs, increases ROI and moves the needle for clients,” Torossian said.
Tech, healthcare make biggest gains
Tech, healthcare and public affairs agency Racepoint Global landed in the top ten for the first time this year, at #8. President & CEO Peter Prodromou attributed his agency’s growth to an upswing in retainers in technology and healthcare, particularly the latter, with an emphasis in mobile. He also cited “an impressive amount of organic growth” last year, “thanks to our integrated model and global footprint.”
“We are accessible in key markets, and our clients are increasingly taking advantage of this,” Prodromou told O’Dwyer’s.
When it comes to trends that will characterize the PR industry in the upcoming year and going forward, Prodromou, who was named CEO of the Boston-based agency in February, said we can expect to see more integration of content, a continued intermingling of media channels and a continued convergence of earned and paid media. Prodromou also said the need to be authentic in a era dominated by fake news era will be increasingly important for the industry.
Coming in at #9, Parsippany, NJ-based Coyne also made its first appearance in the top ten. The agency grew by nearly 27 percent to $27.3 million last year.
“Our growth last year is really a credit to our account team leaders,” said CEO Tom Coyne. “They did a great job with retaining record numbers of clients and that, together with a strong new business year, provided strong growth and opportunity for our amazing staff.”
Fahlgren Mortine also was in the top 10 for the first time. The Columbus, OH-based agency, which owns New York-based travel and lifestyle shop Turner, gained nearly 19 percent last year to account for $24.4 million in 2016 net fees.
Agency President and CEO Neil Mortine attributed the growth to the relationships the agency has built and maintained with its employees and clients.
“It is an honor that these relationships earned us a ranking along many of the best brands in our industry,” Mortine said. “Our core values of collaboration, engagement and trust guide employee and client relationships in a time when retention has never been more challenging and our clients are expecting new value.”
Mortine also told O’Dwyer’s that more than 80 percent of the agency’s growth came from current clients. Notable gains were seen in Fahlgren’s tourism/economic development and B2B industry practices.
“As the needs of our clients evolve, so do their expectations of us. We’re responding by focusing on the experience our clients provide their customers, and investing in marketing technologies that inform data-driven decisions,” Mortine said.
New York-based consumer, food and lifestyle agency Hunter Public Relations grew by 14.6 percent in 2016 to $23.5 million, taking the #13 spot this year, up from #21 last year.
Hunter Managing Partner Grace Leong told O’Dwyer’s that growth within several of the agency’s specialized services accounted for much of the agency’s performance in 2016: billings at Hunter Digital were up 65 percent in 2016 year-over-year; Hunter Hispanic grew fee billings by more than 30 percent; and Hunter Entertainment, which expanded last year to Hunter Entertainment + Sports, grew fee billings by almost 20 percent. All together, those three units last year comprised almost a quarter of the agency’s overall revenue.
Leong also said Hunter leveraged this growth by making substantial progress across three key pillars: earning client relationships, earning consumer attention on behalf of the brands the firm represents, and earning staff dedication.
“We recognize that our talented staff have options,” Leong said. “They do not have to work for us, but rather, we have to work from them to earn their dedication. Several major new quality of life initiatives put into place late in 2015 really began to show their impact in 2016, and we are pleased to share that voluntary turnover was reduced by almost 50 percent.”
French|West|Vaughan posted net fees of $23.3 million in 2016, an upswing of more than 10 percent from 2015’s $20.5 million. The Raleigh, NC-based agency, which maintains additional offices in New York, Los Angeles and Tampa, recorded a first earlier this year when it acquired Fetching Communications, the nation’s first marketing and PR firm focused exclusively on the pet and veterinary industries.
“We are fortunate that about 95 percent of our revenue is retainer based and of that total about 60 percent falls into the consumer sector, so that is where we saw the majority of our top line growth in 2016,” said Chairman and CEO Rick French.
Looking to the future, French said that it’s all about content creation and digital/social media marketing.
“We expect nearly 25 percent of our revenue in 2017 to come from the creation of visual (and shareable) stories for clients,” he said.
Tech and healthcare agency PAN Communications continued to ride an ongoing upward swing, gaining by 18.6 percent last year to $15.6 million, taking O’Dwyer’s #20 slot (compared to #31 last year, when it accounted for $13.1 million after posting similar, 24 percent gains from 2014).
The Boston-headquartered agency, which maintains additional outposts in New York and Orlando, planted its flag on the west coast last year with the addition of a San Francisco office. President and CEO Philip A. Nardone, Jr. said the agency had worked diligently to better align and grow its B2B tech and healthcare portfolios, with a strategic focus on expanding in markets that continue to innovate and transform such as data, cloud, IoT, security and digital healthcare.
Philip Nardone, Jr.
Nardone also said vertical tech segments — including digital health — continue to show great growth potential, especially industries that are transforming across their sectors such as insurance technology and FinTech.
“The firm’s approach to integrated marketing and PR has also been very successful, largely due to the increased importance of content marketing across all forms of media. Continued investment into digital capabilities has added significant organic growth opportunities for the agency. Together, these changes have contributed to the firm seeing an increase in boomerang clients who missed our turn-on-a-dime response and who are interested in our national growth and integrated services,” Nardone said.
Nardone also said the dynamic nature of the PR industry requires firms to remain agile and respond to trends at lightning speed. He believes content and personalization will become the primary factor in maintaining customer relationships, and a shift upstream into the C-suite will be imperative as brands seek to impact revenue through content and storytelling capabilities.
“Firms must understand buyers’ behaviors and be capable of improving their digital experience across all channels in order to drive significant growth and rise above their crowded markets,” Nardone said. “Customer demands will force PR agencies to evolve across marketing departments to keep up with the pace for ‘always-on’ connected content and their channel of choice for viewing. We feel we have the key ingredients to arm today’s marketers with a successful blueprint for success.”
“Companies and agencies are struggling to make sense of the overwhelming amount of data and the increasing consumer demand for personalization juxtaposed against a near complete collapse of loyalty. Consumer trust is gone, so all of this data is useless until consumers begin trusting again,” said Steve Cody, Co-Founder and CEO of Peppercomm.
That 20-year-old New York-based communications and marketing agency netted $18.3 million in fees, landing at #18 on our list this year.
“Lastly, the traditional media world is imploding,” Cody said. “Fewer journalists covering more beats makes a traditional publicist’s job that much harder. But, almost every client still prefers a feature in The Wall Street Journal ahead of anything owned or paid can produce.”
Washington, D.C.-based healthcare communications shop JPA Health Communications grew by 27.2 percent last year to $7.7 million, from $6 million the year prior.
JPA Principal and Managing Director Carrie Jones said the agency’s growth last year was a result of its ability to solve complex problems by delivering value to clients, which translated into sales and stock price.
“Clients are relying more heavily than ever before on their agency team to operate as an extension of them. It’s going beyond traditional media relations and serving as a strategic partner,” Jones said.
Jones also said the agency has noticed some health sectors adopting different billing models. Virtually all our biotech clients, for example, now prefer PR retainers.
“The most significant trend we’ve seen is that large, multinational companies are looking to work with smaller, mid-size agencies,” Jones said. “They often cite that our senior level talent and nimbleness is a game-changer for them.”
Firms gain by double, triple digits
Out of the 121 firms ranked by O’Dwyer’s this year, the largest gainer was tech PR specialist Hotwire, which grew an incredible 322.2 percent in 2016, from $3.13 million in 2015 net fees to $13.2 million last year, and moving up to #28 from its position of #81 the year prior.
Hotwire North America CEO Barbara Bates said much of this tremendous growth can be attributed to the London and New York-based agency’s September acquisition of bi-coastal U.S. tech firm Eastwick, as well as growth in the overall tech sector and within the agency’s expanded service offerings.
“Brands are increasingly placing much more emphasis on technology and innovation in their storytelling. Every company wants to be a tech company, and in order to be relevant in the marketplace you have to tell that story,” Bates said. “As an agency with great depth and breadth in this area, we’ve been able to capitalize on a number of new and exciting opportunities — specifically, we’ve been able to expand consumer and health tech practices. The role of technology in business will only become more critical in the future, and the ability to build a brand around that narrative is just as important as the product or service itself.”
The greatest gainer in O’Dwyer’s top 25 this year was health, life sciences and public affairs firm Spectrum. That Washington, D.C.-based agency continued its multi-year wave of growth in 2016, gaining 34.8 percent last year to account for $20 million in net fees, following an even more impressive 84 percent surge in 2015. The agency is now ranked #17.
“Metrics and measurement are an integral part of any communications strategy,” said Spectrum President and CEO Jonathan Wilson. “Our clients expect real-time reporting across paid, earned, social and owned channels, enabling them to get into the right conversations at the right time in the marketplace. Agencies that can provide real-time reporting and insights will be poised for growth in the coming years.”
It was a big year for Wilson himself, as well as for Spectrum. He was chosen for the Spectrum CEO slot in December, succeeding founder John J. Seng. Last year Wilson was also named President of GLOBALHealthPR, the international network of independent health and science agencies that Seng founded in 2001.
Nashville’s ReviveHealth gained by more than 40 percent, reporting more than $14 million in 2016 net fees, compared to $10 million in 2015. The healthcare PR and marketing shop, which was acquired by Weber Shandwick in January of last year, now ranks #26, compared to #40 last year.
“The demand for fully integrated paid/earned/owned marketing efforts is best met by a full-service agency, and we’ve purpose-built ReviveHealth to meet that emerging need,” said ReviveHealth Founder and CEO Brandon Edwards. “We believe that clients demand deep industry expertise and knowledge of the B2B dynamics, coupled with the integrated capabilities necessary to engage all audiences through all channels.”
Silicon Valley agency Highwire PR dialed up growth by 27.6 percent last year, earning the agency more than $14 million in net fees (#24) and consequently landing in our “top gainers” rankings list for the year, as well as our top 25 agencies ranking for the first time.
The San Francisco-based shop opened a Boston outpost in December on the heels of a New York office in 2015. The latter location saw its staff roster double last year.
Highwire Principal Carol Carrubba referred to 2016, a year highlighted by Trump, the Brexit, a cautious VC funding environment and the demise of many unicorns, as “a rollercoaster of opportunity and uncertainty,” ultimately making it difficult to know how the year would turn out for technology PR agencies.
“Highwire benefitted from having a strong focus in enterprise infrastructure, developer technologies and cybersecurity that continued to see strong growth,” Carrubba said. “These days we see very large companies starting to recognize that they need to adopt the scrappiness and creativity of the startups that are taking their market share. The nature of ‘PR’ is also changing and needs to include a more direct conversation with constituents both digitally and in person at events and meetups. Meanwhile, there is a new and growing category of influencers who are just as or more important to key business goals as traditional media and analysts. As a PR agency partner, we see our role evolving to include business strategist, creative director, conversation starter and editorial team and we love it!”
Sachs Media Group was another big gainer this year, moving up 25.6 percent to account for nearly $6.9 million in net fees. The Tallahassee-based agency joined global PR network Worldcom Public Relations Group in December.
“We’re proud of our aggressive, appropriate culture focused on the pursuit and delivery of consistently excellent results and outcomes for every client through a comprehensive range of services effectively provided by the best talented team of professionals assembled across every relevant skill,” said Founder and CEO Ron Sachs. “After our best year ever, more than ever, we are the essential strategic communications partner for organizations looking to leverage any major opportunity, overcome any significant threat, or just consistently excel and win.”
New York-based travel and lifestyle agency Quinn grew by 15.8 percent last year to $8.4 million in net fees, putting the firm at #43 this year from #52 ($7.3 million) in 2015.
“The buzz of a few years ago that PR was a dying industry due to the demise of print has turned into high fives that PR is the field to be in since we are the storytellers,” President Florence Quinn told O’Dwyer’s. “The need for online content is voracious. This is true in the media and among brands. Today consumer brands are the media. Clients need to embrace this and be selling lifestyle. This is where great PR begins. Our growth has been fueled by our ability to enhance, advance and communicate a brand to its audiences coupled with our work in driving business outside of traditional media. Now and going forward the sweet spot is the co-mingling of editorial content and sales.”
19 new firms join rankings
A score of new agencies joined the O’Dwyer rankings this year. This includes Havas Formula (#19, $17 million), Spark (#25, $14 million), Bravo Group (#33, $11.4 million), Lazar Partners (#62, $5.6 million), SevenTwenty Strategies (#65, $5 million), Greenough (#70, $4.5 million), Vested (#74, $3.5 million), Fish Consulting (#78, $3.1 million), Intrepid Agency (#80, $3 million), BackBay Communications (#81, $2.8 million), IW Group (#84, $2.6 million), Lavidge (#97, $1.9 million), ARPR (#104, $1.3 million), Hoyt Organization (#107, $1.2 million), Akrete (#109, $1.1 million), ScoutComms (#111, $1 million), The Buzz Agency (#113, $900 million), Dale Curtis Communications (#119, $380,000) and Bob Gold & Associates (#121, $100,000).
Newcomer agency Vested, which posted $3.58 million in net fees in 2016, was also one of our top gainers. That New York agency accounted for more than 319 percent growth.
“2016 was a year in which Vested provided its value proposition: to provide a new communications model for a new financial industry,” Binna Kim, Co-Founder and President of the New York-based agency, told O’Dwyer’s.
Kim said that Vested’s innovative, disruptive approach brought in an array of brands that ranged from start-up fintech companies to well-established institutions. But she also noted one main quality united those brands.
“Although the brands that we brought on board were incredibly diverse, they did share a common quality in that all had a need to communicate a unique story in a rapidly changing financial services environment,” she said. “Amidst fintech disruption, regulatory uncertainty and market volatility, all of our new clients were seeking to be better storytellers and to engage their end customer.”
Kim also stressed the deep level of change that tech is bringing to the PR industry. “Technology is going to disrupt the most low-value, able-to-be-automated activities that agencies currently still charge clients for,” she said. “As a result of this, agencies are being pressured to deliver even greater value, and this can only be done by being more integrated in their approach. PR professionals have a duty of care to their clients to think beyond traditional media relations and problem solve by leveraging the many exciting mediums at their disposal.”
New York-headquartered Havas Formula is another new firm to rank with us. The Havas subsidiary, which maintains an additional outpost in Los Angeles, grew by 18.6 percent last year to account for more than $17 million in net fees, placing the agency both within our top 25 agencies and as one of our “top gainers” for the year.
“2016 was a big year for us because we focused on chasing bigger brands with bigger budgets,” said Havas Formula President and CEO Michael Olguin. “While historically we have been invited to participate in bigger RFP pitches, the perception was often that we weren’t large enough to support a brand of that size. We believe brands are trending toward embracing mid-sized agencies more because they see them as large enough to feel comfortable in their ability to scale yet small enough to provide a senior team that is nimble, creative and responsive.”