2019 PR AOY Silver: Weber Shandwick finds strength in diversity

The firm is bringing more creative voices to the table by making inclusion a cornerstone of its hiring practices.

Weber Shandwick Group Photo

This article originally appeared in the 2019 November/December issue of strategy.

Weber Shandwick Canada first moved towards an integrated model in 2016 – a full year before its counterparts across the global PR network.

It wasn’t a formal pilot, says Canadian CEO Greg Power, but its success at driving organic growth with large clients caught the attention of network upper-brass, who polished and refined the Canadian model before taking it global in 2017. Those early efforts continue to pay dividends, with the agency earning a Silver in PR AOY – its first podium finish since strategy introduced the category in 2014. Last year, it generated 17 new business wins and saw 34% organic growth from its top ten clients. While that has slowed this year, the agency has seen net new business from clients including IBM and Mondelez.

Today, Weber (whose offices span Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal) operates on a specialist model bringing together teams across client experience, insights, creative and content, as well as integrated media. It’s a transformation that has required a fair bit of staffing up.

In February 2018, the agency hired Line Atallah as SVP and office lead in Montreal (one of its fastest-growing markets). With a background in AI, Atallah is focused on implementing new technologies for clients and is working with chief digital officer Chris Perry on data-driven strategies across Weber’s operations.

Transforming an agency requires bulking up at the top-end. But Power believes it’s important not to lose sight of up-and-coming talent, who represent the next gen leaders.

As part of that focus, Weber has made diversity and inclusion a cornerstone of its hiring practices over the last few years, both at home and abroad. In 2017, it launched a new offering, led out of its Center for Talent Innovation in New York, geared towards advising clients on their diversity, equity and inclusion strategies.

“A lot of [minorities] have to hack life in a way that not everybody does, and it brings more resilience and creativity,” Power says. “It’s a huge opportunity for Canadian agencies.”

In Canada, 21% of new Weber hires in 2018 were women, visible minorities, Indigenous, had a disability or were identified as LGBTQ – a percentage that grew to 66% of new employees in 2019. And in May, it established the Weber Shandwick Richard Ellis Scholarship, a $1,000 prize awarded to a PR student at Humber College who demonstrates a passion for improving diversity and inclusion in the industry.

The agency has simultaneously worked on another piece of the talent puzzle: ensuring it keeps the staff it hires, while enabling junior employees to grow and up-skill along the way.

Three years ago, in honour of a deceased former employee, it began awarding a $2,500 Nicola Moore Courageous Creativity Prize to a junior staffer for a “career-changing experience” of his or her choosing, Power says. One recipient, for example, used the money to travel to Venice for a photography course. “It gives them new insights that they bring back to their career and the agency.”

Building off that philosophy, Weber recently became the first Canadian agency to pilot a Student Debt Savings Program through insurance provider Great-West Life. Adoption of its RRSP plan was considerably low among young employees, Power says. Many are unable to contribute to their retirements, because they’re focused on paying off student debt, which in 2017 had climbed to an average of $26,000 for recent graduates. So Weber now matches employees’ student loan payments with contributions towards their RRSPs.

More than helping to attract new talent, these programs contribute to a broader agency culture that helps retain more experienced staff, Power says. Besides, in his experience, it’s not uncommon for an intern to become an invaluable part of the organization. “You look at them two years into their career and think, ‘Where would we be without them?’”

As a whole, the shop’s approach to talent is rooted in the idea that “great thinking comes from the periphery, from the places you’re not necessarily looking,” as Power puts it. There’s no periphery without a diverse workforce. And no client success without great thinking.

Key new business
IBM, Mondelez, Goodfood, Manitoba Hydro, Servier Canada, Fraser Valley Real Estate, Global Container Terminals,
Music Canada

Key hires
Line Atallah, SVP, office leader, Montreal; Ryan Bazeley, SVP integrated media; Julie Holroyde, SVP client experience; Jamie Hong, director of data and analytics; Sara Cook, VP Integrated project management


PR AOY cases

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For Woods, Weber Shandwick brought the Parka war from the fashion runway back to where it all began: the wild. The Woods Parka Lodge, a traditional yurt made and insulated by the fabric of the new Woods Alverston Expedition parka, was listed on Airbnb. It allowed people to literally live in the brand’s outdoor gear, and launched the parka into a whole new world. The agency drove buzz via a content partnership with the Daily Hive’s travel section and it also spun off off some pretty unique social video.

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Although most Canadians know what McHappy Day is, not everyone remembers to participate in the fundraiser. So Weber enlisted influencers to start the #MyPledge momentum and expand the program’s reach.

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The shop tapped into Palentine’s Day (the day before Valentine’s Day), bringing friends together via the Dairy Milk Oreo bar and creating “Pallentines Pallads” in partnership with CTV’s The Launch.