Editors' Choice 2009: Who to watch

PRWeek's staff looks into its crystal ball to select the agencies, individuals, and companies that are going to be making headlines in the upcoming year

Agencies

Porter Novelli
Porter Novelli will definitely head in a new direction now that former CEO and recent chairman Helen Ostrowski is leaving. The first female CEO of a top-10 agency had long represented PN's perspective, and now CEO Gary Stockman is alone at the top.

The additional, simultaneous departures of a number of senior staff caused concern, but PN had made it clear that 2008 would be a rebuilding year; it's now up to Stockman, Americas president Julie Winskie, and CMO Marian Salzman to tighten the reins in 2009. The firm won accounts like Pharmavite and the 2009 Medicare Open Enrollment awareness campaign, but decided not to defend its American Cancer Society and Humana accounts.

Glover Park Group
A new administration will work in favor of this Democratic-leaning firm, which has become a mainstay of DC's public affairs scene. The agency is sure to be tuned into the White House, with GPG staffer Katie McCormick Lelyveld becoming Michelle Obama's press secretary, and so many of the founding partners having worked with the Clintons. Along with politics, GPG is also working with Whole Foods, which has sued the FTC in its quest to acquire competitor Wild Oats. 
 
The Jeffrey Group
Once known as a specialist in Latin America, this Miami-based firm picked up some big projects in the US Hispanic market for 2008, including T-Mobile, JetBlue, Coca-Cola, and Volkswagen. It also worked on Western Union's Hispanic-focused initiative during the holiday season.

Led by chairman and CEO Jeffrey Sharlach, the firm still offers insight into Latin America and published research regarding blog use in the area. Its wins in the region in 2008 include Adidas, Sony, and Airbus. The firm turned 15 in 2008. Next year could prove whether it is serious about its US expansion. 
 
PCG Campbell
Built on the heritage of the auto industry and its Detroit headquarters, the firm will face serious challenges, as clients Ford and GM are making cutbacks in marketing and facing scrutiny from the press and public. Its client list – which includes some non-auto-related companies – must diversify even further to give PCG the best chance at a successful year. 
 
Peppercom
Long known for its independent streak, with cofounders Steve Cody and Ed Moed maintaining blogs with forceful opinions, in 2008 the firm invested in a significant licensing division, hiring as CEO Michael Dresner, former director of brand management at licensing firm The Beanstalk Group. The industry talks a good game about diversification, but Peppercom has put significant resources into a discipline that typically takes some time to pay dividends. If successful, its PR clients could turn to Peppercom for licensing relationships, and vice versa.

Last year's picks:

A&R Edelman
Reason: The firm was hitting its stride post-acquisition
What happened: After its HP win in January, the agency did not announce any major new client additions

Bite Communications
Reason: Primed to accelerate tech, green work
What happened: Won AMD and Sybase, and extended its contract with Sun. But it also lost PayPal as a client

Burson-Marsteller
Reason: Mark Penn's efforts on behalf of Hillary Clinton, momentum from 2007
What happened: Snafu with client Colombia and Penn's counsel criticized by press, but agency remains strong

Levick Strategic Communications
Reason: Firm's work in Dubai
What happened: Amidst global financial woes, client Borse Dubai was quiet in 2008

PBN
Reason: Continued expansion into Eastern Europe
What happened: Sold Latvian office to longtime manager. No further expansion announced

People

Robert Gibbs
Press secretary, Barack Obama Administration
President-elect Barack Obama's press secretary faced his first major test in a recent New York Times Magazine profile. Since Obama has expressed a desire to run an open presidency, Gibbs will be put under more scrutiny than perhaps any previous press secretary in history, as he contends with multiple wars and a sagging economy.
 
In addition, Gibbs has to run the show in the YouTube era; one flub, and he could become more of the story than his boss.

Donna Imperato
CEO, Cohn & Wolfe
Last year, this agency CEO made headlines when she took on the stewardship of the newly merged Cohn & Wolfe and GCI Group. The former CEO of GCI, Jeff Hunt, left the merged companies this fall, leaving Imperato to follow through on its promises to build out this WPP firm into a global powerhouse.
 
In the upcoming year, we will see how Imperato handles the challenge, and which areas of the agency – digital, consumer, healthcare, etc. – are prioritized or left behind.
 
Peter McKillop
Director of global communications, KKR
Many people think hedge funds will have a lot of explaining to do in 2009 after many lost big in 2008. McKillop, who joined KKR in November 2008 from Bank of America, is tasked with heightening its thought-leadership position.
 
KKR is one of the most vocal entities in an industry that prides itself on secrets, and McKillop will likely pick and choose good opportunities for the company to speak to stakeholders. His role will also be heightened if KKR ever goes public, as it has tried to do in the past. 
 
George Sard
CEO, Sard Verbinnen & Co.
The CEO and chairman of Sard Verbinnen & Co. was a presence on Capitol Hill in 2008, when client and former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Given the agency's experience with litigation support and governance issues, Sard will likely find no shortage of clients in 2009.

Sally Susman
Chief comms officer, Pfizer

Making the leap from Estée Lauder to the world's largest pharma company in 2008, Susman found herself at a company – and in an industry – in the middle of great change.
 
Pfizer this year has devoted significant resources to improving its media relations and overall communications function, reviewing its PR agencies in the process. At the helm of such an important industry player, Susman (pictured left) has the power to set examples in the realm of social media and transparency.

Last year's picks

Robert French
Reason: Leading PR instructor on social media
What happened: Launching PR social network PROpenMic in April, he has attracted members from 300-plus universities

Julie Hamp
Reason: PepsiCo's new top communicator would need to make some changes in 2008
What happened: Hired Bonin Bough from Weber Shandwick to boost social media prowess

Annie Howell
Reason: Work on Discovery's Planet Green launch
What happened: The New York Times called it “the highest-profile cable channel introduction of the year”

Jeff Hunt
Reason: Role, if any, with IPG's Da Vinci project (now Enfatico)
What happened: Shortly after GCI merged with Cohn & Wolfe, Hunt stepped down

Rich Levin
Reason: The Mitchell Report provided a challenge for MLB
What happened: The hubbub subsided quickly, as few new players, with no superstars among them, were disciplined

Christy Salcido
Reason: Key role in Starbucks' entertainment division
What happened: Entertainment unit dissolved in early 2008; she joined Emanate PR

Media and services

Associated Press
Once considered a must-have for papers across the US, many began to pull out of their agreements with AP in 2008, citing financial reasons. Proving its value to a struggling industry while dealing with competition from CNN will be a top priority for the organization in 2009.

CNN
The cable news landscape is competitive and ever-changing, and one that benefitted greatly from the 2008 Presidential election season. Along with ABC, CNN topped the ratings from the historical election night.
 
With MSNBC taking a decidedly more left-leaning slant in its programming this year, an obvious counter to Fox News, media critics will watch to see if CNN does, in fact, stay true to the middle. 
 
Medialink
The broadcast PR giant had quite a tough 2008 – between a falling stock price and the selling of its once-heralded Teletrax division.

Yet video and audio are important to clients, and Medialink is still the bellwether of the broadcast PR industry. It will be interesting to see what effect its “back to basics” plan to focus on video, both on TV and the Internet, has on its overall financial health.
 
Radian6
Founded in 2006, this real-time social media monitoring company hit its stride in 2008. Not only did it sign deals with PR agencies such as Ogilvy, but it also inked a partnership with Cision, by which Radian6 would power two of the company's offerings.
 
With the issue of social media monitoring and measurement becoming a prime concern for PR pros, Radian6 has the opportunity to not only offer solutions, but also become a thought leader in the space. 
 
The New York Times
The entire newspaper industry suffered greatly in 2008, and The New York Times was no exception.
 
Coming off a year filled with layoffs, a plummeting stock price, and increased competition from Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, the Times has its work cut out for it in 2009. And as the paper of record, any moves it makes will be magnified.

Last year's picks

Conde Nast
Reason: Its investment in digital would continue
What happened: The opposite, when staff was trimmed from Portfolio.com, instead of the magazine

Dow Jones
Reason: Rupert Murdoch's purchase would be scrutinized
What happened: Traffic at wsj.com and individually paid circulation is still growing

NBC Universal
Reason: Launch of hulu.com
What happened: The site exploded in popularity, with some predicting it will match YouTube's ad revenues in 2009

Nielsen Online
Reason: Poised to continue its leadership position in online measurement
What happened: Still viewed as a giant in this field

VMS
Reason: Could be poised for a major product launch in 2008
What happened: Did release product enhancements, but the ad and PR industries still await the company's game-changer

Corporations/organizations

The big three
The ‘big' question for 2009 is when we'll stop calling them “The Big Three.” There is continued speculation that GM will gobble up Chrysler to give us “The Big Two,” or bankruptcies will leave only Ford recognizable by year's end.
 
At press time, it appeared the automakers would get at least a temporary lifeline from DC. Yet, as the sky continues to fall in Detroit, everyone with a hand in the industry fears how the budget cuts – or total disappearance of accounts – will impact their own businesses.

Budweiser 
Few US brands use American imagery and posturing quite like Budweiser. In 2009, though, the brand will continue to wade through the inevitable hiccups of a merger.
 
When Belgian brewer InBev first proposed taking over Bud's parent company Anheuser-Busch, it faced a fight from not only the usual investor ire, but also politicians, labor unions, and nearly all of St. Louis. It won, but now with layoffs and the Super Bowl on the horizon, many wonder what this brand will look like by the end of this year.
 
Citigroup
With all the failures, near failures, and big saves in the financial services category last year, Citigroup stands out. Though a latecomer to the doomsday party – its government bailout came in late November – as the largest financial services company, Citi's reach is felt widely all the way to the ground of consumer banking and mortgages to investment banking and asset management. How it manages in 2009 will determine whether it becomes a recession victim or a turnaround success.

FDA
The Food and Drug Administration's reputation hit a new low this past year. On the heels of the massive 2007 pet food recall, the FDA struggled through even more in 2008, including melamine in infant formula. It also faced simultaneous complaints that it was neither transparent nor speedy enough about the drug approval process.
 
Critics on the Hill flogged it for “wasting” money in hiring a PR firm. The current commissioner is set to exit on Obama's inauguration day, and the frontrunners for his post are known FDA critics, so 2009 will offer it a chance to make amends.

Starbucks
The coffee vendor did not have an easy 2008, as it grappled to redefine its core. Founder Howard Schultz's return excited many in January, and he went about issuing a back-to-basics mantra that focused on customer service (remember Barista Day?) and a revival of its original logo. It also meant 600 stores slated to close and battered stock, as a recession tested its ability to lure consumers in for fancy caffeinated drinks and scones.
 
At times, management seemed to implement a change every day, in a haphazard manner. There were smoothies and fancy coffee grinders. Investors might like Starbucks' leaner look, but in 2009, customers will determine whether last year's changes made a difference.

Last year's picks

Chrysler
Reason: Company and owner Cerberus needed a turnaround
What happened: Slated for government aid with a three-month timetable attached

Dell
Reason: Online outreach and consumer engagement will remain a big part of PR strategy
What happened: IdeaStorm still impresses PR pros, but Dell trails HP in global market

Facebook
Reason: Poised to make 2008 its biggest year yet
What happened: Surpassed MySpace as the most visited social network globally in May 2008; Google's Elliot Schrage joined to lead communications

Oracle
Reason: Well equipped to handle recession; an acquisition could be up its sleeve
What happened: It made 11 acquisitions in '08, including the $6.7 million deal for BEA

SABMiller and Coors
Reason: Companies' merger, and its effect on the industry, would be closely watched
What happened: MillerCoors is doing well, despite recession

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