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Cohn & Wolfe Closes Shop in Atlanta
Paul Holmes
Holmes Report

Cohn & Wolfe Closes Shop in Atlanta

By the end of the month, Cohn & Wolfe will no longer have an office in the city where it was founded. Agency president Steve Aiello announced this week that the firm's Atlanta office is being closed.

Paul Holmes

ATLANTA, November 8—In 1970, Bob Cohn and Norman Wolfe launched a new public relations firm, Cohn & Wolfe, in their home town of Atlanta. The firm focused on consumer marketing and sports and grew rapidly to become the largest PR firm in Atlanta, and one of the largest in the nation. It was an Atlanta institution, handling not only the largest corporate accounts in the city—Coca-Cola and Bell South—but also the city’s efforts to secure the 1996 Olympic Games.
But by the end of the month, Cohn & Wolfe will no longer have an office in the city where it was founded. Agency president Steve Aiello announced this week that the Atlanta office—which reported fees of more than $6 million last year—is being closed down, its six remaining employees let go.
Aiello attributes the startling decline of the Atlanta office to a combination of economic factors and local turbulence, including the departure late last year of Atlanta general manager Tony DeMartino, who took several senior staff with him to launch a new agency.
“Obviously we have seen a horrific downturn in business this year,” says Aiello, who says he believes the sector could be off by as much as 25 or 30 percent. Cohn & Wolfe was hit particularly hard, with the loss of three major accounts—the U.S. Army, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Census Bureau—at the beginning of the year.
Then came the departure of De Martino in Atlanta. With its senior management ranks depleted, Cohn & Wolfe was unable to participate in a review for the Bell South business, its largest Atlanta account. (Bell South eventually went with Porter Novelli and 360 Inc., the marketing firm where Bob Cohn now works.) The firm also lost the Chick-fil-A business, and United Distillers restructured, taking most of its PR and marketing activities in house.
“We were never able to recover from that blow,” says Aiello. “It became obvious that in order to bring us back to growth and profitability, it would take a sizable investment going forward. From a business point of view, looking at where we needed to go over the next couple of years, and where we needed to prioritize our investments, it was the right decision. But from an emotional point of view it was a very difficult decision.”
It was one that prompted a sad comment from founder Bob Cohn, who suggested in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that mismanagement from New York was responsible for the firm’s decline. “It’s just a tragedy and something that didn’t have to happen,” says Cohn. “How do you go from No. 1 in 1996 down to zero?”
Cohn & Wolfe was acquired by Young & Rubicam (now part of WPP Group) in 1984, and ranked as the city’s number one form for the next 12 years, reporting 1996 revenues of around $6.5 million, bolstered significantly by Olympics-related business. Revenues declined since then, however, and the agency was deposed from the number one spot by Ketchum, eventually falling to fifth in the market it once dominated. Last year appeared to mark a recovery, however, as Cohn & Wolfe reported Atlanta revenues up 34 percent to around $6.4 million.
But the firm lost accounts and staff through 2001, and by the beginning of this month was down to just six people, led by new general manager Diana Garza, a veteran of the corporate side of the business. Aiello says the firm is attempting to find work for its Atlanta staff, and three of them have already spoken with other WPP agencies. Garza, meanwhile, is reportedly considering a return to the corporate world.
The agency’s Atlanta accounts will be serviced elsewhere: Embassy Suites will be run out of Los Angeles; the Professional Golf Association will be managed from New York; and sister agency Burson-Marsteller will likely take over a project on behalf of Merrill Lynch.
Aiello concedes that Cohn & Wolfe’s global 2001 revenues will be down dramatically. “We will be in the worst position we have been in for the last 10 years,” he says. In addition to Atlanta, the firm has closed its Chicago and Sydney, Australia, offices this year.
“The strategy going forward is to get back to focusing on our core strengths in the creative marketing area,” Aiello says. “We want to get back to basics, to what got us to where we were. That means a focus on healthcare and consumer, a refocusing on our differentiation: creative solutions and business results. We also need to leverage our network in a more efficient and productive way.”
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