Putting Barbie on Sports Illustrated's 55th anniversary cover could have been a disaster considering the critics who decried the doll for fostering unrealistic expectations about women's bodies. But with the right design, copy highlighting Barbie's role in breaking boundaries and a savvy #Unapologetic PR effort, Parent Mattel saw a sales lift (13%) in Barbies for the first time in 33 weeks and sales tripled for Barbie Dream House. Its swimsuit-clad Barbies sold out within a week.
Public relations agencies don't typically take the lead on digital or creative services or come up with risky ideas, for that matter. But Weber Shandwick, which led the Barbie initiative, isn't just any PR agency.
In 2014, Weber attributed much of its 30% increase in digital to its year-old digital-publishing group Mediaco; invested heavily in data and analytics; and morphed a traditional advocacy group into a creative agency called Sawmill.
Besting 2013's 10% increase in revenue, the shop delivered a 15% boost in total revenue and a 12% increase in organic revenue. Weber not only held onto its top 30 clients, it added new assignments from 17 of them. The shop said it won two-thirds of its new-business pitches, including Qualcomm, UN Women HeForShe and additional Anheuser-Busch InBev brands. And it became advertising agency of record for Covered California and the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaboration, as well as digital and social AOR for Excedrin and Ragu.
"Certainly the content play put us in the consideration set for lots of business with new and existing clients," said Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky.
One of those clients, Novartis, tapped Weber a few years ago for traditional PR tasks like media tours and relations to support Excedrin's relaunch. Over time, the shop added digital and content duties.
"We were struggling with our digital agency. We didn't have someone doing social or doing anything we liked," said Ernesto Levy, VP-marketing for Novartis, Americas. "In 2013, they became our digital, social and PR agency of record, helping us reposition our entire digital marketing plan from a banner-ad-centric program to a content-centric effort. There was a seamless blending of PR, social and content activity."
The shop helped generate content (articles about holiday headaches during Christmas or social video from an ad shoot with spokeswoman Jordin Sparks, for example) to drive traffic to the Excedrin website, a combination of earned and paid distribution along with separate social advertising.
"The thing I was impressed most with was their analytics," said Mr. Levy. "The promise of digital is I'm able to execute something and within a week I read what's working and what's not and optimize on the fly." The effort has led to a "drastic" increase in traffic to the site and improved Excedrin's search results. "All of the key metrics as they relate to digital" have improved, he said.
This year, he is expanding Weber's portfolio to include additional Novartis brands.
The shop owes much of its success with clients like Novartis to its recent investment in data and analytics, often through data partnerships within its parent company, Interpublic. "We've seen the data sets our sister shops have access to," Weber Shandwick President Gail Heimann told Ad Age earlier last year. "Being successful requires deep knowledge of content-consumption behaviors."
Data is also informing creative. On the heels of the Barbie-Sports Illustrated success, the shop tapped a documentarian to go around the world and string together videos celebrating New Year babies based on an insight that there's universal excitement around New Year births. Fisher Price's "Best Possible Start" campaign launched online Jan. 1 and within days garnered 5 million views.
"We've engendered the kind of trust to get clients to move with us in new areas, be it digital builds, advertising or content creation," said Ms. Heimann. "More clients are asking us to be strategic and creative stewards. That's where we've seen a lot of organic growth."
Perhaps one of the most-ambitious projects Weber took on in 2014 was one of its own. The agency launched Sawmill, a full-blown creative shop born from the revamp of Weber's D.C.-based advocacy group Sawyer Miller. The launch of Sawmill followed the creation of Mediaco, a custom-publishing service formed in 2013 to help clients generate content and build publishing platforms.
In 2014, Mediaco got a facelift with new backend technology that helps clients create content-management systems, as well as greater investment in in-house talent. This year, the agency expanded its content hubs through its Mediaco group to a number of offices in the U.S.
Content ambitions were also buoyed by the shop's new strategic partnership with Niche, a company that connects social influencers with brands.