Between 1993 and 1999, Cohn & Wolfe grew at an average of slightly more than 25 percent per annum, a little above the industry average but not enough that it was able to make up any ground on its larger competitors, some of whom are now four or five times its size. In 2000, revenues were up by better than 40 percent, and Cohn & Wolfe will do about $63 million. In other words, the growth has been impressive but it still hasn’t added the kind of critical mass that Cohn & Wolfe will need if it’s to remain a top-tier agency. New business successes include SFX (won in competition with Edelman and Porter Novelli) BankOne, DigitalDoctor.com, DoubleTree Hotels, Lycos, Microsoft CarPoint, Ross Laboratories, Samsung, and SmithKline’s Avandia.
A major priority in recent years has been improving the quality of Cohn & Wolfe’s national network, which once consisted on New York and Atlanta and a handful of ineffectual satellite offices. Results have been mixed. The acquisition of Douglas Cohn & Wolfe in Los Angeles adds to the firm’s creative resources and provides a solid foundation for its west coast operations, and the San Francisco office, opened in January, has two headline clients—Chevron and Deloitte—and is expanding its technology portfolio. Washington, under Terry Wade, has also been performing better. But Chicago continues to struggle—agency president Steve Aiello is hopeful that a new general manager, Anne Charlton, will turn things around—and worst of all, the Atlanta office, once the flagship headquarters, has slipped to third or fourth in the market and is in the midst of a leadership crisis following the departure of several senior executives. The firm acquired Douglas Cohn & Wolfe in Los Angeles two years ago
With an acquisition in Paris and the opening of an office in Madrid, Cohn & Wolfe has completed what president Steve Aiello describes as “phase one” of its European network, with offices the all the major markets—London is the largest—as well as a strong presence in Copenhagen. In Europe, as in the U.S., C&W picks up major assignments on the basis of its creativity: major clients include Orange and Reebok. The firm also opened an office in Sydney, leveraging its sports marketing experience into several major assignments related to the 2000 Olympics, for clients including Coca-Cola, Reebok, and Samsung.
A decade ago, Cohn & Wolfe was best known for its consumer marketing work, and in particular its sports marketing practice, the best in the industry. It was thought of by clients and competitors alike as a top creative shop, better at execution than brand strategy. Today, consumer products companies make up just 20 percent of the firm’s business. The technology practice is about the same size, and split evenly between business-to-business and business-to-consumer clients, with a substantial roster of dot-coms, and there is a corporate and public affairs practice with revenues of about $12 million. But the most impressive part of Cohn & Wolfe’s business today—and the fastest growing, is healthcare, which accounts for 25 percent of revenues (about half in New York) and has been the engine driving the firm’s recent growth.
The promotion of Donna Imperato, architect of the firm’s success in the healthcare arena, to CEO of the New York office is designed to bring the same level of energy to other practice areas, and it also opened up a spot for Katherine Metcalfe to become head of healthcare, which shouldn’t skip a beat in the transition. C&W has also brought in a handful of key executives to add depth to its senior counseling team, adding 60 new people in 2000—20 of them at VP or above. Rob Copeland, who previously managed his own firm, joined as senior VP in the corporate practice and Kim Commerato, formerly of Deloitte & Touche, as vp; Robin Kim as head of the San Francisco office; and Diane Garza from Coca-Cola to a leadership position in Atlanta. The agency also brought in Adam Glaser from Middleberg to work alongside C&W veteran Rob Key, who is spearheading the agency’s interactive initiatives.
Cohn & Wolfe has always sought to differentiate itself on the basis of a culture that was more creative, more entrepreneurial than many of its larger competitors. The firm has a relaxed style that eschews stifling bureaucracy and encourages risk taking—something not always found at larger agencies. Turnover is low, and energy levels are high, though it also needs to be said that Cohn & Wolfe New York has possible the least attractive physical workspace of any major agency.
Perhaps more than any other agency in the Y&R family, Cohn & Wolfe has taken advantage of the ad agency’s Brand Asset Valuator, a tool designed to provide insight into what makes client (and competitor) brands tick. The firm continues to be a leader in the sports arena, offering its unique Sponsorsoft sponsorship software program to help companies evaluate their sponsorship investment. And C&W is also seeking to extend its reputation for creativity into the interactive arena, with a suite of products to help mainstream companies make an impact online.
Cohn & Wolfe’s most striking successes have come in the healthcare arena, particularly the firm’s work for SmithKline Beecham, including award-winning programs to introduce the anxiety disorder treatment Paxil and diabetes blockbuster Avandia. But the firm also continues to produce top-notch creative work for clients such as Hilton Hotels (based in the L.A. office) and Seagram, and worked with the U.S. Department of the Census on a massive integrated marketing program to encourage people to fill out their census forms. The agency has also helped position a host of top-notch dot-coms, including Gifts.com, Outpost.com, and Microsoft CarPoint.
Cohn & Wolfe looks at itself as a midsize company that has all the attributes of a new economy business: it’s nimble, responsive, results-oriented and bureaucracy-free, but it also has access to the considerable resources of WPP. Others see an agency that lacks the critical mass of its larger competitors, and that has lost the distinctive personality that distinguished it from those competitors. One thing is certain: Cohn & Wolfe needs to either get bigger or better defined.
As of today, Cohn & Wolfe is not so much a mega-agency along the lines of a Weber Shandwick or Fleishman-Hillard as it is the largest creative boutique in the country. But with the sale of Young & Rubicam to WPP, C&W now has greater access to capital and a parent that is willing to put that capital to use, so don’t be surprised to see more strategic acquisitions. Aiello says he expects 50 percent of the firm’s growth to come from acquisitions (compared to single digits in recent years) but whether that will be enough to catapult C&W into the top tier remains to be seen.