Problem-solving and culture-shaping creative power Weber Shandwick
“We love all our children,” laughs Gail Heimann when asked about her favorite campaigns her agency did last year. Heimann, president-CEO of Weber Shandwick, has a lot to choose from. Last year, the agency churned out notable creative for the likes of Ancestry.com, for which it created a stirring documentary about the Underground Railroad that showed during Sundance; it rented out an Airbnb modeled after Barbie’s Dreamhouse; sold Bud Light “Cleveland Browns Victory Fridges” in Ohio; and masterminded an album of “Pure Michigan” sounds that actually tracked on the Billboard New Age album charts.
None of these are traditional “PR” campaigns, but Weber Shandwick has been busting tradition for years. “We have always been about breaking out, getting ahead and staying ahead,” says Heimann.
To that end, the shop has been investing in data (it now employs more than 100 data scientists) and consulting capabilities with a 50-plus person unit Called United Minds and has beefed up its creative hires. Weber Shandwick now considers itself a “marketing solutions firm,” and says that 40 percent of its global revenue last year was derived from “digitally fueled engagements.”
As for staying ahead, the agency says it has grown 25 percent in the past four years, which, according to its own benchmarking, is four times faster than the top five global PR agencies. Weber Shandwick’s U.S. net revenue came in at $439 million in 2019, up 2.2 percent, with worldwide net revenue of $674 million, according to Ad Age Datacenter estimates.
Last year, Weber Shandwick posted low- to mid-single digit organic growth and reeled in some major new clients, including Kellogg, Michelin, Buick, GMC and USAA. And the shop says that more than 75 percent of its growth last year came from existing clients, which include IBM, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Glaxo SmithKline and Mars. The agency did lose State Farm and the U.S. Army last year, but retained 92 percent of its business.
“We are an organization born in PR that was built to solve problems,” says Heimann, who says an “earned first” mindset remains the hub of what it does. For a global consumer product pitch for a client it won’t identify, Weber Shandwick put its data scientists to work combing through social and other media to analyze 70 million data points to find the next big flavor trend. It built a chatbot for Novartis so that psoriasis patients can manage symptoms, and—as befitting a shop that prides itself on being in touch with popular culture—the shop dreamed up an UNO game for Mattel with a new veto card used when a player breaks the “no-politics” rule. The game sold out at Walmart within two weeks. We’ll let Weber Shandwick’s entry speak for itself here: “Next time Aunt Shirley starts talking Trump, pull out the trump card … pun intended … to skip her turn.”
The agency “is very good in turning insight to action,” says Amardeep Kahlon, chief marketing officer for GSK consumer healthcare in the U.S. “I find them very valuable at finding multicultural trends, consumer insights and the general zeitgeist. They understand brands and the creative opportunity to help with consumer friction points, to intercept with an opportunity to help the brand become more culturally relevant.”
Weber Shandwick might be best known for its work for Mattel as part of an agency team that transformed 60-year-old Barbie from a symbol of old-school sexism into a model of gender equality and inclusivity. That evolution landed the doll the No. 5 slot on Ad Age’s Hottest Brands list in December 2019.
This year, the marketer worked with Weber to get social and media traction for a real-life Barbie dreamhouse for rent on Airbnb, as part of its broader “Only On Airbnb” campaign. The campaign in total generated 18,000 press hits and 25 million incremental views to Airbnb.com.
Weber Shandwick’s documentary “Railroad Ties” for Ancestry.com resulted in a 146 percent uptick in searches for the genealogy site, a 10 percent increase in traffic and an 83 percent rise in consumer consideration.
The agency has also proven it has the ability to top itself. On the heels of its Victory Fridges for AB InBev last year—in which the brand locked Bud Light in fridges that were opened only when the Cleveland Browns won a game—last year it expanded on the concept by selling the fridges to fans. Some 2,000 sold in two days.
It’s Weber’s ability to insert brands into popular culture that Marcel Marcondes, chief marketing officer of Anheuser-Busch, says makes the shop stand out. Weber Shandwick “stepped out of the role of a traditional PR firm to become a true creative partner to Anheuser-Busch, across the biggest brands in our portfolio,” he says. “They’ve conceived and executed powerful, people-first campaigns that earn huge attention and drive our brands’ cultural relevance.”