There may still be agencies, somewhere, practicing public relations the old fashioned way, where press releases, pitching and parties define the scope of work.
But the firms that populate this year’s PR Power 50 are part of a thrilling revolution that’s transforming public relations into the most powerful engine in the great media-communications complex.
Firms are creating client stories, not just telling them. They’re not just guarding reputations, but active partners in nurturing them.
Perhaps most significantly, they’re breaking down boundaries to become key partners across the marketing spectrum, muscling in on territory once dominated by ad agencies, digital firms and content producers.
At a time when content reigns, “Public relations agencies are now regarded as stewards of the whole communications strategy,” says Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick (No. 2 on this year’s PR Power 50 list). “PR practitioners have never been held in higher regard.”
Ever-expanding opportunities across the marketing spectrum make this “the most exciting time there’s ever been for the business,” says Don Baer, worldwide chair and CEO of Burson-Marsteller (No. 17). “Everyone is veering into everyone else’s lane. And if you have the creativity, and the ability to execute, it’s a time of great possibilities.”
What matters most is who owns a great idea, agrees Sean Cassidy, CEO of DKC, the No. 1 agency on this year’s PR Power 50 list.
“Clients will pay you now for a whole scope of services that you never would have done 20 years ago,” Mr. Cassidy says. “What we’re winning now is large-scale assignments. You’re developing multi-platform communications plans with wide content, owned media, social pieces. We’ve got a branding arm that’s creating collateral and advertising, and we’re doing more events than ever.”
More firms are also building their own synergies with standalone agencies within agencies. At celebrity power shop PMK*BNC, a mini-firm called Vowel is creating viral content through which the agency’s superstar celebrity clients often get paired with big brands in the PMK stable. A now-legendary piece for Audi starring Zachary Quinto and the late Leonard Nimoy was unleashed before the last Star Trek movie.
“It was wonderful, creative digital content that was storyboarded start to finish under our roof,” says Cindi Berger, chairman and CEO of PMK*BNC (No. 8). “There’s a lot of freedom out there for you and your clients. You just have to know what trail you want to go on.” PMK markets Lena Dunham’s “Lenny Letter”, which has become a huge viral hit in an area where a traditional firm wouldn’t have ventured even five years ago.
An unintended consequence of this push and pull—convergence and diffusion—has been the resurgence of legacy agencies, which many had dismissed as dinosaurs once the landscape started shifting a few years ago.
Instead, they learned to adapt, meshing cool new tools and lingo with their own gravitas as the grownups in the room.
“We bring the judgment and experience that goes along with strategic thinking,” says Mr. Baer of Burson, which launched a content arm called StudioB this year. “And we’re seasoning it with data, creativity and deep knowledge of media landscape. We’re moving forward very assertively.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Ruder Finn (No. 10), not long ago one of the stodgiest of the big players, has reinvented itself as a hip think tank, where clients get help with employee engagement, recruitment and even how their businesses are organized. “We call it ideation behind transformation,” says CEO Kathy Bloomgarden, one of the few agency heads with a Ph.D. “We work to transform companies to make them more attractive to stakeholders both inside and outside. We sometimes help them change their culture.”
All of it comes back to storytelling, says Weber Shandwick’s Mr. Polansky, which is why PR firms should continue to rule.
“Creative is still king,” he says. “Clients are looking for big ideas that are going to move the needle for their businesses, have an impact on how people think about their brands and influence decisions.”
This year’s list reflects that.
A word on methodology: Unlike other rankings, the Observer doesn’t rely solely on size or revenue. We visit offices, meet agency leaders, confer with fellow journalists and keep an eye on news. The PR Power 50 list is as much about mojo, influence, innovation and chutzpah—but not too much, as last year’s No. 1 winner learned—as it is about billables.
Isn’t that what the business is about, too?
4. BerlinRosenLast Year’s List: 16
Leadership: Valerie Berlin, Jonathan Rosen, principals and co-founders
BerlinRosen itself became the story when news leaked about work for the UAW this fall. And it's been outed as the architect of Mayor de Blasio's entire messaging strategy. But the hoopla underscores how the firm's influence keeps growing: along with behind-the-curtain strategy high-profile projects for Citi Bike and SL Green, the firm this year gained clients like Google's Sidewalk Labs, The Durst Organization and National Geographic. And while BR’s NYC DNA remains impeccable, it's becoming a major player on the national stage.
5. EdelmanLast Year’s List: 10
Leadership: Richard Edelman, president and CEO; Russell Dubner, president and CEO US
Revenue: $812.3 million
Founder Richard Edelman attracted some unwanted press over his divorce this spring. But the firm he runs is still a darling, with expansions in key markets like India, and major beefing up on owned-media channels—Edelman told one interviewer the firm's added 350 planners and creatives since 2013. The agency boasted a major presence at the 2015 Cannes Lions—a major coup for a firm with roots in PR.
12. The Marino OrganizationLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Francis C. Marino, president and CEO
Few firms can match Marino's Big Apple DNA. A consummate connector, founder Frank Marino worked in the Koch administration; his firm now offers high-level counsel that might result in repositioning—and sometimes rezoning—of entire neighborhoods. In August, Marino scored big by signing the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, providing PR to startups in the school's incubator program. And it balances its work for some of New York's real estate titans by repping nonprofits like Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation and God’s Love We Deliver. The firm opened a Boston office, its first outside NYC, this year.
15. Alison Brod PRLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Alison Brod, founder and CEO
Along with its longstanding relationships with heavyweights like Burger King, Mercedes and Old Navy, ABPR leads the industry in cultivating "ambassadors" and influencers for beauty and fashion brands. New clients in 2015: RetailMeNot, Dollar Shave Club, nail giant OPI. Ms. Brod herself remains one of the biggest personalities in NYC PR.
17. Burson-MarstellerLast Year’s List: 38
Leadership: Donald Baer, worldwide chairman and CEO
Revenue: $400 million
Burson just won’t act its age. The big old legacy agency’s behaving more like a startup, with its new Studio B content arm, a groundbreaking Cuba task force focused on foreign economic development and tourism and a cybersecurity-focused partnership with former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge’s Ridge Global. Burson’s cranking out new business, too; Oracle, FedEx, Pitney Bowes, PPG Architectural Coatings and Texas Health Resources all came on board this year. And Burson head Don Baer’s been relentless about recruiting, with a boatload of fresh C-level talent in the stable.
18. Kaplow CommunicationsLast Year’s List: 11
Leadership: Liz Kaplow, president and CEO
When you’re a Kaplow client, you’re in for life—and the continued success of CVS, Target and Skype, all with Kaplow for more than a decade, proves this approach works. Never one to rest on its laurels, however, the firm continued to grow in 2015, with new clients like Children’s Place and Vitamin Shoppe. And it's all grounded in founder Liz Kaplow's refreshingly high-touch philosophy.
21. SKDKnickerbockerLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Josh Isay and Jennifer Cunningham, managing directors
Corporate clients like Facebook and Microsoft continue to pay dividends for SKDK, but sadly its clients were in the news this year more for adversarial situations. The firm helped Starbucks save face after its “Race Together” campaign, and is currently helping Planned Parenthood out of the hole caused by its videos (see sidebar). For partners Josh Isay, Hilary Rosen and Jennifer Cunningham, though, it’s been unicorns and rainbows; in October, the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm funded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, bought their firm.
22. MakovskyLast Year’s List: 7
Leadership: Kenneth D. Makovsky, president
Revenue: $15 million
One of the top names in independent generalist PR, this firm’s most high-profile clients include A.T. Kearney, Western Union and GlaxoSmithKline. Some of its biggest strides, however, have been in health—celebs like Kim Kardashian and Kurt Warner have added their cachet to Makovsky’s advocacy campaigns, and the firm pays it forward by fundraising for programs like LGBT Spirit Day.
23. Becca PRLast Year’s List: 27
Leadership: Becca Parrish, founder and owner
Becca Parrish has been fiercely loyal to clients like Le Bernardin, Ralph Lauren's Polo Bar and April Bloomfield's Spotted Pig, and they've returned the favor with long-standing relationships. New restaurateurs like Houseman’s Ned Baldwin and Gabriel Kreuther have made her the go-to guru for launches. Now, with an L.A. office, she's branching into hotels and real estate.
25. Stu Loeser & CoLast Year’s List: 15
Leadership: Stu Loeser, founder
Mayor de Blasio lost several big fights this year, but two of the most visible were his loss of control of city schools and his failed attempt to cap Uber expansion in the city. It’s no coincidence that both Uber and the charter school lobby were represented by Stu Loeser, the former Bloomberg press secretary who continues to have an outsize influence on city politics thanks to his small but mighty firm. But Mr. Loeser recently attracted some unwanted attention for his work on behalf of a non-union supermarket in the Hamptons.
26. Shore Fire MediaLast Year’s List: 28
Leadership: Marilyn Laverty, founder
The rotating playlist on Shore Fire’s homepage speaks volumes about the firm’s reach; Bonnie Raitt, Lana Del Rey, Zac Brown, Carole King, Brandi Carlile, Elvis Costello, Tedeschi Trucks Band and St. Vincent are all clients. In its 25th year, this music PR pioneer saw its clients grab the No. 1 spots on the Billboard, iTunes, Apple Music and Amazon charts. This year, Shore Fire expanded its repertoire with non-music clients like publishing mogul Maria Rodale and Tuesdays with Morrie author Mitch Albom. Shore Fire was also one of the first communications firms to HQ itself in Brooklyn; the move seems prescient now.
27. Nadine Johnson Inc.Last Year’s List: 21
Leadership: Nadine Johnson, president
Ms. Johnson's agency famously doesn't divulge client names, but it's known for sexy/artsy brands like Ace Hotels along with galleries, architects and high-end residential projects. The agency's still got serious juice, but suffered a blow this year when arts practice leader Adam Abdalla left to start his own firm, Cultural Counsel, as the Observer reported in July (see sidebar). Stay tuned.
29. Sunshine SachsLast Year’s List: 1
Leadership: Ken Sunshine, Shawn Sachs, Heather Lylis, Keleigh Thomas Morgan, partners
How could they? That was the reaction to Sunshine Sachs' much-publicized Wikipedia screwup. It's a shame that the incident defined the agency's year, since last year's No. 1 firm is still having an incredible ride with giant nonprofit clients, A+ celebrities and massive growth in live events, like iHeartRadio's nationwide festivals. But it’ll be a while before chatter stops about the Wikipedia episode.
30. 5W PRLast Year’s List: 35
Leadership: Ronn Torossian, founder and CEO
Revenue: $21.5 million
A generalist firm with fingers in the right pies—from health care and hedge funds to tech and travel—5W's roster includes uber-New Yorky brands like Duane Reade, the Greater NY Taxi Association and Derek Jeter's Stop!t, along with global heavyweights like Unilever, L'Oreal and Krups. Founder Ronn Torossian claims the firm's revenue could double within five years; we don't doubt it. He also brokered an unlikely peace between Mayor de Blasio and client Sergeant’s Benevolent Association.
31. Fleishman HillardLast Year’s List: 3
Leadership: John Graham,chairman; John Saunders, president and CEO; Jack Modzelewski, president the Americas; J.J. Carter, president East Region
Revenue: $600 million
32. ID-PRLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Kelly Bush Novak, founder and CEO
The ubiquity of client Serena Williams this summer—how many magazine covers did she get?—was just one example of ID’s juice. Building on its roots in celeb/entertainment PR, where it still shines, the firm's making serious inroads with consumer and luxury brands, from Coca-Cola, AOL and Marriott to Westfield World Trade Center and Tiffany. Philanthropy's the next frontier: this year saw massive campaigns for deep-pocketed do-gooders like Unicef and Sean Penn's J/P HRO.
33. KCDLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Ed Filipowski, worldwide president and chief strategist; Julie Mannion, president of creative services
KCD is a fashion Goliath whose industry-defining clients include style-section habitués like Alexander Wang, Balmain, Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Vera Wang and Tory Burch. Along with publicity, the agency produces shows, which means it wields serious power; KCD decides where everyone's seated.
34. Brunswick GroupLast Year’s List: 29
Leadership: Steven Lipin, senior partner
Brunswick doesn't divulge client lists, but its reputation as an 800-pound gorilla in financial communications precedes it. This year, the multinational firm added former Bloomberg editor Laurie Hays to its NYC office, and its let-our-hair-down digital/creative subsidiaries like MerchantCantos, Brunswick Arts and Blaise Projects keep cranking.
35. Paul Wilmot CommunicationsLast Year’s List: 32
Leadership: Paul Wilmot, managing partner and chief executive
Paul Wilmot's august fashion and beauty firm always manages to stay cool by choosing clients carefully; this year, it lent its cachet to client Parlux Fragrances, creators of new scents from Rihanna and Sean Combs. Wilmot's forever relationships with Kate Spade, H&M and Lane Bryant also mean its third decade is already looking as strong as its first two.
36. Nasty Little ManLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Steve Martin, founder and owner
This firm may only have six employees, but its supernova clientele (Paul McCartney, David Bowie, U2) proves that in NYC PR, size doesn’t always matter. Mr. Martin can be ferocious in defending his acts from unflattering coverage, including from his bête noir, the Observer’s own Tim Sommer, but they love him for it. The Foo Fighters thought they were in big trouble when Dave Grohl broke his leg on the band’s 20th anniversary tour, but once NLM rebranded it as the “Broken Leg” tour, the rockers continued to sell out stadiums.
37. MWWLast Year’s List: 20
Leadership: Michael Kempner, founder, president and CEO
MWW has its feelers in just about every sector of PR—its many clients with commercial appeal include Verizon, Walgreens and JetBlue. It’s also entered some areas other agencies fear to tread—its LGBT wing, which represents It Gets Better, among others, looked particularly prescient after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling.
38. Nicholas & Lence CommunicationsLast Year’s List: 39
Leadership: Cristyne Nicholas, CEO; George Lence, president
A quintessentially New York agency founded by deeply connected insiders, this firm represents city institutions like Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in Grand Central, the forthcoming New York Wheel on Staten Island, and Key Brand, the leading theater ticket seller, which owns brands like Broadway Box and Broadway.com. Does it get more New York than literally repping the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation? Naturally, big city clients sometimes bring big city problems -- the Carnegie Deli has been closed since April when it was found to have an illegal gas hookup. But others—like 2015 NASL Champions The NY Cosmos and Brookfield, the developer who led a successful opening of Brookfield Place and dipped a toe in Brooklyn—show that an NYC-focused firm can punch way above its weight.
39. GolinLast Year’s List: 36
Leadership: Fred Cook, CEO
Golin likes to call its reps "nice guys who kick ass," and that was certainly true this year, as its campaigns focused on positivity, but still got plenty of eyeballs. Among the firm's 2015 triumphs: partnering with Toyota for the Special Olympics World Games (Golin was the brains behind that viral Google Doodle) and rolling out the McDonald’s All Day Breakfast campaign.
40. Goodman MediaLast Year’s List: 19
Leadership: Tom Goodman, founder, president and CEO
Flashier firms may get the glory, but Tom Goodman's 25-person shop continues to get clients that matter, from The Economist to Grand Central Terminal to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. A complete New York insider, founder Mr. Goodman surprised more than a few people by opening an office in Boston this year.
41. PR ConsultingLast Year’s List: 30
Leadership: Pierre Rougier, founder
PR Consulting's website simply lists its clients. Since the agency's Sphinx-like about itself, we'll let the roster do the talking for founder Pierre Rougier: Hood by Air, Dior, Raf Simons, Rick Owens, LVMH, Dries Van Noten, Narciso Rodriguez, Christopher Kane, Versace. Oh, and Forever 21 and Joe Fresh. The firm's also expanded into food and hospitality, with Andre Balazs a notable client—and it may be courting Grindr as well.
42. The Peggy Siegal CompanyLast Year’s List: 40
Leadership: Peggy Siegal, founder
If you want your movie to get into the Oscar race, it helps to have Peggy Siegal by your side. This year, the queen of film PR is handling publicity on both coasts for Spotlight and The Danish Girl, among others. Her secret? Lunchtime Q&As with top filmmakers, held at venues like the 21 Club. Ms. Siegal refers to these events as “a press conference wrapped around a piece of chicken.”
43. Dukas LindenLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Richard Dukas, chairman and CEO; Seth Linden, president
Dukas may have cost John Paulson $500 million this year. That wasn't its retainer; DLPR client Carson Block, a prominent short-seller, famously took down Chinese timber outfit Sino-Forest Corp., which subsequently tanked. Dukas itself had a better 2015, coming off the best stretch in its 13-year history—and cracking $5 million for the first time. Broadcast is where the agency shines; if you're ever tuned into Bloomberg TV, CNBC or Fox, you've probably seen one of the 60-plus segments the firm books monthly for clients like Raymond James, EisnerAmper and Eaton Vance.
44. Baltz & CompanyLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Phillip Baltz, founder and president
With a profile so low he's practically underground, Phillip Baltz prefers to let his work do the talking. You would, too, with superstar restaurant clients like Dirt Candy, Pearl & Ash, Jonathan Waxman’s JAMS, Beauty and Essex, Kat & Theo and...Chipotle.
45. APCO WorldwideLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Margery Kraus, founder and executive chairman
What started as a wonky D.C. agency has mushroomed into a brainy powerhouse with clients like IKEA, Wyndham hotels, and Microsoft, and leadership like ex-WSJ editor Kevin Goldman; from a staff of five, its NYC office now employs 50 and counting.
46. High10 MediaLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Lisa Dallos, CEO; Evan Strome, president
Lisa Dallos' media-centric firm is the only one whose team includes one employee in Maine and one in Tel Aviv. Whatever—the firm's been killing it for media brands from Adweek to the Webby and Clio Awards to The Hill and New Republic magazines. And if you're wondering why the sale of a Manhattan gay bar rag to an L.A. media group was featured in the Hollywood Reporter this year, thank Ms. Dallos.
47. Boneau/Bryan-BrownLast Year’s List: 44
Leadership: Chris Boneau, Adrian Bryan-Brown, co-founders
More than 200 BBB clients have won Tony Awards, cementing its place as the top name in theatre PR. Broadway’s biggest hits, including The Book of Mormon and Jersey Boys, rely on the firm’s smart strategy—and upcoming partnerships with Cirque du Soleil and Nickelodeon mean BBB clients will continue to be conversation starters. Still, we're watching to see how DKC's acquisition of O & M affects the category (see DKC listing).
48. The Magrino AgencyLast Year’s List: 47
Leadership: Susan Magrino, chairman and CEO; Allyn Magrino, president and COO
Susan and Allyn Magrino have built a lifestyle-PR powerhouse, with clients who now involve them in brand strategy before a product even launches. It's also a matchmaking pioneer, connecting, say, Richard Meier with Dom Perignon for a special edition. Despite brutal competition from upstarts like M18, the firm's more than held its own, with a food-hospitality-fashion stable that includes Baccarat, Lavazza, Hilton properties and Turnberry Isle.
49. Allison + PartnersLast Year’s List: 41
Leadership: Scott Allison, co-founder, chairman and CEO
Revenue: $46 million
Despite the firm's SF roots, Allison + Partners' center of gravity has shifted to the Big Apple, now home to the largest team in its global network. Talent's where the firm is ruling; hires have landed from places like Edelman and Ogilvy. And the client roster's been fattened by the likes of Samsung, Adecco and Seventh Generation.
50. Black FrameLast Year’s List: N/A
Leadership: Brian Phillips, president
With clients that read like the guest list at a party where you won't get in, Black Frame's built a mystique as a luxury PR firm with one foot firmly planted downtown. Think Visionaire, Rodarte, Opening Ceremony and uber-interior-designers Yabu Pushelberg. Bonus points for naming its website Framenoir.