Principals: Andy Polansky, CEO; Gail Heimann, president and chief strategy officer; and Jack Leslie, chairman, Colin Byrne, UK & EMEA CEO; Tim Sutton, chairman, EMEA & APAC
Ownership: Interpublic Group (part of Constituency Management Group)
Subsidiaries: Prime and ReviveHealth
Offices: 75; US 22; UK 6; APAC 18
Revenue: More than $700 million; US more than $400 million; UK £43 million (estimate); APAC $103 million (estimate)
Headcount: Global about 4,300; US about 2,600; UK 280; APAC 900
The Weber Shandwick success story continued in 2015 as Interpublic Group’s largest PR firm posted its third successive year of double-digit global organic growth, up nearly 12%.
"We achieved strong growth on top of 12% the year before, and double-digit growth the year before that," says CEO Andy Polansky. "To have a high-performing company over a sustained period of time is a statement we’re taking market share from our traditional peer group, and from other marketing services companies."
Weber and sister firm Golin outperformed the rest of IPG’s Constituency Management Group, which also houses PR agency DeVries Global, events specialist Jack Morton, Octagon sports marketing, lobbying firm Cassidy, and branding shop FutureBrand. CMG grew just 3.6% organically in 2015.
Weber’s growth was driven by integrated work and strong organic growth from existing clients, partly fueled by handling more clients on a global basis, partly by expanding representation of clients across extra practices.
"The biggest engine for growth continues to be our strength in content marketing, digital, and social," says Polansky. "We’ve built what we call the ‘engagement engine’ and it’s a powerful, differentiated proposition."
Reflecting that, Weber’s content creation and distribution unit Mediaco grew 30% in 2015, and now contains about 900 people. In April 2016, Weber unveiled Mediaco 2.0, with new hires and an external innovation board.
Notable new business wins included a significant three-year global agreement in December for UNICEF’s global HQs in Geneva and New York to provide communications support for brand, digital, and fundraising campaigns; a big integrated pitch for New York Life, where Weber previously worked with the life-insurance company’s incoming CCO Kelli Parsons when she was at Fannie Mae; the American Cancer Society; and Sonos, where former Edelman and Grayling executive Pete Pedersen is now VP of global communications.
In terms of practice growth, strongest performance came from healthcare, consumer, and corporate.
"Some of what’s fueling our growth in consumer is across digital health for clients like Roche and Novartis," says Polansky. "We’ve always had strength in supporting big pharma, but now we’ve grown across our consumer health practice."
He also noted expansion in public and digital health, and his pride in "important work" in social impact, such as 150 assignments across all 17 areas of the UN’s Global Goals initiative.
Notable work continued to include the firm’s integrated activations for children’s toy manufacturer Fisher-Price across paid, earned, and owned channels, such as the Wishes for Baby campaign, which included, among other elements, a video viewed more than 1.8 million times that depicts the excitement surrounding some of the first babies born around New Year’s 2015 all over the world. Weber also handled activity around Mattel’s high-profile relaunch of Barbie in January 2016, with three new body types more reflective of the real world.
Also in January, Weber bought healthcare specialist agency ReviveHealth, which posted revenue of $8.7 million in 2014. The Nashville, Tennessee-based firm will retain its brand and operate as a Weber subsidiary.
"It’s about great people, a great leadership team, and being highly complementary to our healthcare group, given Revive’s expertise in B2B," he adds. "We look for great companies. We’re not looking to buy revenue at this point; we have a robust global network."
In terms of disappointments, Polansky highlights losing the Covered California advertising business to another IPG agency — Ogilvy PR handles comms for the health insurance exchange.
Importance of media relations
Despite growth in content, digital, and social, he still sees media relations as core to what Weber does.
"When you think about what drives influence and engagement, earned media has never been more important to just about every campaign we do," he says. "Our PR people have never been held in higher regard, and it’s a crucial and sought-after capability we continue to develop."
For its media practice Weber brought on Vivian Schiller, former NPR president and CEO and former head of news and journalism partnerships at Twitter, as executive editor in residence, as well as award-winning former New York Times and Bloomberg journalist Brett Pulley as EVP and MD of the agency’s corporate content and media strategy.
"People are looking for that deep, 24/7 focus, but at the same time we still have media relations embedded in a lot of the account teams," adds Polansky.
Staff turnover during the year was about 20%, with leavers including Garland Harwood, SVP of tech, Heather Taylor, SVP of global integration at Mediaco, and Kevin O’Keefe, president of Weber’s Baltimore office. Notable promotions included Chris Perry’s rise to chief digital officer, Ian Cohen’s appointment as global executive producer and president, content creation and innovation, and Brad Williams’ elevation to chair the firm’s global tech practice.
More than 60% of Weber’s global presidents are women; there are 14 women in the agency’s C-suite.
"Our collaborative connected culture makes us different," says Polansky. "That’s what attracts people and clients to us and it’s why people stick around."
UK & EMEA
Colin Byrne, Weber Shandwick’s CEO for UK & EMEA, claims his region’s performance in 2015 was "the best for a decade". Byrne reports 14 per cent annualised fee growth, which was largely a result of the firm’s top 40 clients increasing their overall spend with WS by 30 per cent.
PRWeek estimates such growth lifts WS’ EMEA revenue to $130m (£90m). WS UK grew less dramatically, by 7.5 per cent last year. But this is on top of a strong 2014 and would lift UK annualised fee income to around £34m. Profits are also understood to have seen a lift of 15 per cent.
"Our growth in EMEA was mainly driven by geographical expansion and by a rapid increase in digital and content marketing work. This had led us to grow our UK digital studio from two people in 2015 to 25 people today," says Byrne.
WS is known to have taken global leadership on certain brands such as Nespresso, where the firm has communicated brand ambassador George Clooney’s work on sustainability in coffee production as a key marketing element.
According to Byrne, 11 of the 18 individual businesses under his EMEA remit saw double-digital revenue growth in 2015. It is some turnaround from nine years ago – when Byrne took over running EMEA – when WS was making an overall loss in continental Europe. In terms of sectors the biggest expansion was in healthcare (15 per cent growth across the region) and consumer (15-20 per cent).
But Byrne is most encouraged by the increasing demand for the agency’s digital offer, where output increased by 25 per cent year-on-year. Digital – defined by content, social media and website/asset build – now makes up a third of WS’ total revenues across the region. The agency has run innovative campaigns for Belstaff and Vauxhall and is now believed to be Deutsche Bank’s agency of record for digital content marketing.
WS won some significant business last year such as EMEA-wide assignments for Roche and Avis. And Byrne claims the agency only lost one large client, which was its work for Dubai Expo (alongside sister IPG agency McCann Erickson). "We enjoyed 95 per cent top client retention," he says.
WS has seen strong growth ("in high double-digits") in its new EMEA markets such as South Africa and Turkey, but also seen healthy increases in revenue in Spain, Brussels and Germany.
Although the UK remains the biggest EMEA office – now employing 280 people – its more steady growth is down to tech and corporate PR sectors that "have been a bit flat recently." That said, the UK office picked up the huge British Gas account in December 2015, which is understood to be worth around £1m in fees annually. Last year also saw the UK operation winning the Project Literacy Campaign for publisher Pearson and the stakeholder engagement programme for the proposed HS2 rail link.
And the London-based Studio is proving a global leader in digital and content marketing. The firm has staffed the Studio concept largely by poaching digital staff from UK advertising agencies and rival PR shops.
Byrne says Rachel Friend, who took over as managing director of WS London at the beginning of 2015, is ‘transforming the office’ in terms of culture and collaboration. The London office has scrapped its previous divisional profit and loss centres in order to improve collaboration between different teams. The UK picked up 26 separate industry awards last year, the most of any country. The EMEA as a whole won 80 different awards.
Across the expanded EMEA region, WS now employs 1,070 PR professionals, an increase of seven per cent on 2014. "But we are also more efficient from a staffing point of view," says Byrne. "We are gearing up for more topline growth."
Significant hires last year included James Nesta, who joined as executive creative director, digital, UK & EMEA, last summer, with a brief to raise creativity throughout the region and to bolster the agency’s digital and social credentials. Nesta previously led We Are Social’s creative department and before that ran award-winning campaigns at Ogilvy. Enno Houwerzijl became director for digital and innovation for the Benelux region last May and is responsible for the development of creative digital strategy. Andrew Phillips joined as digital new business director, EMEA from digital strategy house The Digital Consultancy. Phillips was previously at FCB Global and Sapient Nitro. And Magda Wynne joined as paid media manager from media agency Mediacom. Wynne is responsible for leading digital paid media projects for the UK practices and across EMEA, working on client strategy, project management and media execution.
"Our push into paid media is significant," explains Byrne. "We used to team up with advertising agencies but now we can do it ourselves. We have learned a lot from our purchase of Prime [Swedish integrated shop, acquired in May 2014] in this respect. We are deepening our skill set all the time and 2016 will see a continuation of this transformational work."
"Satisfying" is the word that features a lot when asking Tim Sutton about Weber Shandwick’s performance in Asia-Pacific in 2015.
Named PRWeek’s 2015 PR Agency Head of the Year in APAC, Sutton has overseen another year of "stunning growth" for the agency, beyond even his initial ambitions.
"I went into 2015 perennially cautious. We’ve had such a great run in Asia now, and I thought it might slow down because of China. But I have to say I was completely wrong, it’s been another amazing year."
While not giving exact figures, Sutton says the Weber Shandwick APAC business grew "very well north of 20 percent" for the third year in a row. More impressive is that all this growth was organic; Weber made no acquisitions in 2015.
"When you’re still growing a business of our size at this rate, it’s pretty satisfying," he adds.
Of all the markets that saw growth, Sutton says China was the largest, while India, Australia, Singapore and Korea also came in for special mention. For Weber, all its Asian markets grew except Malaysia, which Sutton says remained flat. "I think that relates to the some of the political and economic dynamics there," he suggests.
A lot of it, says Sutton, is attributable to the leadership teams in place across the Asia practices and the new additions to them. Weber promoted Baxter Jolly to APAC CEO last July, added Rafi Khan as executive vice president India, and hired Megan Rosier to lead the Australia technology practice.
Particularly satisfying for Sutton is Weber achieving steep growth in Asia-Pacific while at the same time overhauling its entire business model and becoming a broader comms services firm with a strong focus on digital.
"Three or four years ago we were a conventional PR firm, doing what PR firms have always done," he explains. "But now it’s all about digital engagement, and our business model is transforming all the time, just as our clients are."
To that end, Weber has invested heavily in bulking up its digital offering. Sutton says there are now five studios across APAC alone that have around 80 digital design staff, and that on the front-end the firm is developing its client-facing executives into "experts in digital engagement strategy".
The firm’s broader digital work has seen it take on more work in Asia for clients including Samsung, Mattel, Amazon, Novartis and Ocean Spray, among several others. The growth in multi-market assignments has also been extremely good, Sutton says.
He highlights that Weber’s APAC teams won more than US$50 million in new business in 2015, which he believes is largely down to the new budgets the firm can target because of its broader, digital comms services.
"A lot of the digital engagement work we’re doing is obviously related to PR, but its much broader now too," he says. "We now have the ability to take engaging ideas to CMOs in a way that would have been very difficult for us a few years ago."
The agency is developing more tools like Firebell, the social media crisis simulator that is now in its second iteration, to help brands understand the new digital environment they operate in. In addition, Sutton says it has bolstered its big data and analytics capabilities through its content unit Mediaco, which is "helping clients to understand they are huge publishers of content in their own right, making sense of that, and aggregating it".
Weber Shandwick APAC’s commitment to becoming a full-service digital marketing and comms agency was further exemplified in its establishment of I/O – integrated operations – that corralled Mediaco, digital team Innovation Lab and other practices into one integrated content marketing arm.
However, the leaders of this unit, Jon Wade and Jye Smith, both left Weber, while Wendy Loh, former vice president at Weber Singapore, also left for pastures new.
Sutton says for the most part, the APAC senior leadership has been very stable, but admits that lower-level talent retention remains a significant challenge, particularly at a time when the firm is transforming its whole business model.
"At the lower and middle levels, we have to work very hard, like everyone else, to keep those people," he says. "Because of the change in the model, we’re trying to fundamentally change a lot of the kind of people we’re getting in. Previously we were fishing primarily in the PR pond, but now its people with the right experience from anywhere."
With everything continuing to point in the right direction for Weber’s Asia-Pacific operations, Sutton is optimistic for 2016, but as always, with some caution.
"This year could be more difficult, and we are always vigilant as to what’s happening out there. But the early signs are pretty strong," he says. "Whether we can do another year north of 20 percent, I don’t know. But with the new kinds of work we’re doing and the new budgets we’re getting access to, we have every reason to cautiously believe that it’s going to be another solid year."