Cohn & Wolfe - third straight year of double-digit global revenue growth

'Phenomenal' year for WPP firm as it records third consecutive year of double-digit global revenue growth

Principal: Donna Imperato, CEO
Ownership: WPP (part of Young & Rubicam Group)
Subsidiaries: AxiCom and GCI Health
Offices: Global: 58; U.S.: 13
Revenue: Global: $200 million to $250 million; U.S.: $100 million to $150 million
Headcount: Global: 1,405: U.S.: 670
U.K. revenue: £21 million; Headcount: 200
Asia revenue: $22 million

Cohn & Wolfe had another impressive year, growing organic revenue by 12% in 2016, the agency’s third successive year of global double-digit growth. Profits grew by 17.7%, and the firm is now 50% larger than it was three years ago, having expanded by 11.7% in 2015 and 12% in 2014.

In comparison, C&W parent WPP’s overall PR and public affairs division posted organic growth of just 2.5% across the calendar year. In his full-year financial results statement, WPP group CEO Martin Sorrell gave C&W top marks in the PR category and said it "performed particularly well."

Growth was consistent across the globe, with North America up 14.4%, EMEA rising 11%, and Asia-Pacific by 10.8%. The U.K. posted a 14.8% increase, a double-digit rise for the sixth straight year. "Growth is phenomenal," says CEO Donna Imperato, "and [London is] one of our fully integrated offices."

C&W promoted Rebecca Grant from U.K. MD of consumer marketing to U.K. MD in February last year, still reporting to U.K. CEO and EMEA MD Scott Wilson. Tom Malcolm came on from Diffusion in March 2016 to fill Grant’s former role.

C&W won the Campari U.K. consumer account after a competitive pitch. It also added HMD Global.

The Swedish Number, by Cohn & Wolfe, Grey New York, and Ingo, for the Swedish Tourist Association, won Best in Nonprofit at the 2017 PRWeek Awards. The integrated effort was designed to make millions of people curious about Sweden.

Other notable markets included the office with the largest revenue rise, New York City, which was up 17.4%; China rose 21.2%; and Germany grew 64.5%. C&W’s progress stems from successfully making the transition to integrated work, and Imperato says seven out of 10 clients work with the firm on integrated briefs, up from just 8% three years ago.

C&W won 13 Cannes Lions in 2016 and a PRWeek Award this year for its work on The Swedish Number integrated "call a Swede" campaign for the Swedish Tourist Association.

Solidifying its integration offering
"Everyone talks about integrated marcomms, but I don’t believe all the agencies do it," says Imperato. "I have to realign the organization and roll it out globally. I have to change the engine while I’m flying the plane, and I’ve been doing that for a few years.

"We’re the only agency in the [WPP PR] family that has this integrated into the business. Almost all of our business is integrated."

Imperato predicts 7% growth this year, but notes she only budgeted 6% last year and the firm ultimately doubled that. "I’m not seeing any uncertainty or slowdown yet in Q1 with clients," she explains. "We have a huge amount of new business going on and our existing clients are moving into other markets."

She adds all U.S. programs have an integrated element. "The client is still the CMO and the CCO," says Imperato. "PR will fall under the marketing umbrella eventually, except crisis and a bit of corporate reputation. But even in crisis, it’s got to be integrated."

Newell Brands was one of C&W’s biggest wins last year. It started as a $1 million assignment and is now a several million dollar integrated account for 25 brands in 13 markets. The agency also won the North America PR brief for Electrolux from Weber Shandwick as part of a WPP multi-discipline consortium led by VML. C&W recently replaced Ketchum as Fruit of the Loom’s PR AOR.

Everyone talks about integrated marcomms, but I don't believe all the agencies do it

Donna Imperato

Other marquee wins included AOR assignments for Chinese telecoms company ZTE across Asia and Europe, Barclaycard, and Hyatt Regency.

Racepoint Global replaced C&W as PR AOR for Panasonic System Communications Company of North America’s mobility business in April 2017. C&W continues to partner with Panasonic on its consumer business.

C&W acquired Grupo Máquina in Brazil and opened offices in São Paulo, Brasilia, and Rio de Janeiro. "They are integrated and have extraordinary digital and mobile teams," notes Imperato. "They’re an amazing cultural fit for C&W — they’re really creative."

Senior hires included Laura Pesin Eder, who joined in January 2017 as president, North America. She moved over from Edelman, where she was EVP and director of operations at the firm’s New York consumer practice. Jim Joseph, who formerly helmed North America as part of his remit, was elevated to worldwide president at the same time. The agency brought on Tara Lilien, former SVP for U.S. human resources at MSLGroup, as SVP of U.S. human resources.

C&W promoted EVP of global strategy and development Brooke Hovey to chief client officer, working with Joseph to oversee business, and upped Chad Latz from global president of the digital innovation group to chief innovation officer. The roles reflect a move away from a structure built on global practice areas.

"There are no more global practices for us," explains Imperato. "I have strong regional leaders and they’re responsible for making sure all offices are trained, and have the right branding and insights groups, and technology. It has to be seamless because we have so many global clients."

C&W grew 10.8% across Asia, and the highlight of the year for Imperato came in August with the hire of former Australian cabinet secretary Matt Stafford as president, Asia-Pacific, following his two-year government job. Stafford previously ran China for Burson-Marsteller.

"He’s such a ‘Cohn & Wolfer,’" says Imperato. "My weakest Asia office was Hong Kong [where he is now based], and it’s now my strongest. He brought in ZTE, which was a big win. People want to work for him."

The region had been without a leader since Angelina Ong left C&W in October 2015 after just seven months. COO Lyle Closs led the region in the interim, but has now retired and moved back to the U.K.

Momentum in Asia
C&W conducted the first WeChat press conference in China for its client Merck and now offers this as a core capability across the agency’s APAC team.

"I’m bullish about Asia because of the momentum created by Matt," explains Imperato, while also noting, "it’s getting tougher to win business, and clients are not quite as advanced in terms of integration."

U.S. executive creative director Scott Cocchiere went to Citizen Relations after less than a year. EVP and New York healthcare MD Lisa Talbot also left.

Imperato has been searching for a suitable acquisition target for a couple of years to supercharge the firm’s drive toward integration, and one of her priorities in 2017 is to seal that deal, most likely in the U.S. or U.K. "I need an integrated mindset and an agency that can deliver what we’re already delivering, but on the tech side," she explains. "I don’t want a standalone — I want it to really be part of the business. Less than $5 million is too small. I need a lot of people."

The acquisition would bulk up the agency’s potential future growth in technology and engineering, allied to C&W’s earned media heritage.

"CMOs are starting to understand you need earned media at the core," says Imperato. "There’s only going to be one kind of agency in the future. By 2020, only agencies that can deliver complete brand experiences will capture the marketing spend of the C-suite."

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