CHICAGO, April 30—Cohn & Wolfe has struggled to establish itself in the Chicago market for more than a decade. This week it finally gave up the struggle, closing its 12-person Chicago office just a week after announcing system-wide layoffs.
Cohn & Wolfe president Steve Aiello says the decision was made based on a combination of current economic circumstances and the historic difficulties the firm has faced in Chicago—as well as the fact that sister agencies Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton, and Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide (all part of WPP Group) have strong offices in the city.
“After our initial foray in the early 1990s, when we did fairly well, we have never been able to grow the business in Chicago,” says Aiello. “For some reason we had never performed as well in that market as we did everywhere else. And with other WPP companies there, it just made sense to make this move now.”
Headed for the first eight years of its existence by Ron Kelly, who moved on to join with The Dilenschneider Group, the office was led for two years by Rose Ann Anschuetz, who last year joined Publicis Dialog to head its Chicago operations, the former Selz Seabolt. More recently, the agency named co-general managers: consumer group leader Ann Adams and Stuart Wilson, a veteran of the firm’s public affairs practice in London and Toronto.
Cohn & Wolfe management is reportedly holding discussions with both Adams and Wilson about other opportunities within the firm, and Aiello says there may be roles for other employees with other WPP agencies in town, particularly if C&W can find a way to service its Chicago clients—including Lipton, Wishbone, and Lifeway Foods—through sister companies in the region.
But the news is likely to fuel speculation—already widespread—about Cohn & Wolfe’s role at WPP, particularly given the commend of an unidentified WPP executive to the Chicago Tribune that “it wasn’t like there was a need for both [Cohn & Wolfe and Burson-Marsteller offices in Chicago], especially in this economic environment.”
If that’s true in Chicago, might it also be true in other markets? After all, at a time when other holding companies—most notably Interpublic—are consolidating some of their PR brands, WPP maintains four international full-service brands, of which Cohn & Wolfe (acquired, like B-M, when WPP bought Young & Rubicam) is the smallest.
Still, Aiello believes the company can and will continue as an stand-alone enterprise. “Sir Martin Sorrell’s position is that he wants to maintain the equity that is built into the brands,” Aiello says. “And the economic downturn is not just impacting Cohn & Wolfe. It’s had an effect on everyone. I think we have an offering that is strongly differentiated: we’re more nimble, more responsive and we’re very results oriented.”
Indeed, Aiello believes the target he set for the firm in the late 90s, of making it into the top 10 by 2003, is still achievable, although Cohn & Wolfe currently ranks 17th in the world as is less than half the size of the current number 10 agency.
“It’s going to take a combination of good organic growth, once the market turns around, and of the right strategic acquisitions to add both geographic reach and additional resources,” he says. “But our organic growth rate has been very strong in recent years, and we think the past couple of months have been an aberration.”
Aiello adds that the firm is in acquisition talks with three possible partners, in the U.S. and overseas, and could have an announcement in a month to six weeks.