NEW YORK—Martin Sorrell’s WPP Group is rumored to be considering a merger of two of its midsize public relations brands—Cohn & Wolfe and the recently acquired GCI Group. Talks of a merger are rumored to have been prompted by the imminent departure of GCI president and chief executive Bob Feldman, who is believed to be moving to an in-house position with Dreamworks Animation, which was spun off from parent company Dreamworks SKG late last year.
Feldman declined to comment on either rumor, and sources close to GCI said no decision had been made about a possible merger, with WPP executives hoping to reconcile any potential conflicts before a decision is made.
WPP has historically resisted the temptation to merge public relations or advertising brands, but with GCI and Cohn & Wolfe it finds itself with two brands that are neither full-service global firms (like Burson-Marsteller or Hill & Knowlton) nor specialist boutiques (like Robinson Lerer Montgomery in the U.S. or Finsbury in the U.K.).
The last time the two firms provided revenue information to the Council of PR Firms (pre-Sarbanes Oxley) in 2001, GCI reported its revenue jointly with sister agency APCO, now an independent firm, making it difficult to calculate how large a combined entity might be. It could be a top 10 firm internationally, with revenues approaching those of another WPP brand, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.
GCI is a multi-specialist that is probably stronger in healthcare than in any of its other practice areas, but does business in the consumer, corporate, and technology sectors. Cohn & Wolfe has strength in two primary areas: healthcare and consumer.
The merger would create a powerhouse in healthcare public relations, with a strong consumer practice and some capabilities in almost every other major market segment with the exception of public affairs: neither firm has much of a presence in Washington, D.C. Outside the U.S., it would combine Cohn & Wolfe’s strong London office (which has a reputation for creative consumer brands campaigns and a solid healthcare practice) with GCI’s extensive European operations, which boasts 28 offices throughout the EMEA region and has particular strength in the U.K., Germany and the Nordics.
Under normal circumstances, GCI’s president of Latin America, Jeff Hunt, would be the most obvious candidate to take Feldman’s place, should the rumors of his departure prove true. Hunt, who is based in Texas and leads the firm’s Dell business, has international management experience with Burson-Marsteller. But healthcare practice leader AnnaMaria DaSalva is also extremely well-regarded within the organization, and European chairman Adrian Wheeler provides over what is probably the strongest part of the firm’s international operations.
However, a merged entity would probably involve Cohn & Wolfe chief executive Donna Imperato in a leadership role. She took over the firm at a time when Sorrell was reportedly considering abandoning the Cohn & Wolfe brand, and has been successful in consolidating the healthcare practice—which she once led—while rebuilding C&W’s reputation in the consumer category.
A merged entity would probably see Imperato and Hunt in senior roles, with DaSalva a natural candidate to head its largest practice area. But insiders emphasize that no decision has been made and some obstacles to a merger remain.