PROFILE: Cohn sports the legendary resume of a PR champion

As Bob Cohn nears his 68th birthday, Kimberly Krautter tells how this mirthful man with an infectious smile changed the face of sports marketing, and accidentally built a PR empire in the process

As Bob Cohn nears his 68th birthday, Kimberly Krautter tells how this mirthful man with an infectious smile changed the face of sports marketing, and accidentally built a PR empire in the process

In the Southeast, Bob Cohn is synonymous with PR. Along with MS&L's George Goodwin, he exists as the dean of the profession here, and is responsible for molding the careers of some of the most notable Fortune 500 PR execs. He also reshaped corporate sports sponsorships from mere wallpaper to grassroots relationship marketing. Sitting in his new office at Grey Global, Cohn recalls his career highlights with the humility of a grandfather sharing Kodak moments of his progeny. An accomplished photographer, he is framed by dynamic pictures he shot on African safari 20 years ago. On another wall are large black and white photos capturing the newly extinct architecture of the World Trade Center. The lyrical compositions include the Statue of Liberty, and were taken from Ellis Island on his visit there just two days before the towers fell. Each picture tells a story. Together they are a fitting analogy to Cohn's approach to PR which seems simple, but has lasting resonance. Cohn's legacy includes an eponymous agency that became a global powerhouse. That part of his tale, however, is bittersweet. Cohn disassociated himself with the firm he founded over 30 years ago in 1998 in a compensation dispute. Two years later, the doors of Cohn & Wolfe would permanently close in Atlanta, signaling the end of an era. He is critical of what he calls a "corporate tax" levied by the large networked firms on local offices, and the routine assignment of "unrealistic numbers," profitability goals that he feels exceed market reality. Cohn says such management pressures make it impossible for regional offices to meet assigned goals and for partners to share in profits. At its zenith, C&W operated 16 global offices. "You can't imagine the feeling of being in a big city, with that talent, and have them work under your name," recalls Cohn. Under his direction, the firm established many marketing firsts. On behalf of Coca-Cola, he recast pin-trading from a nostalgic practice among athletes to a favorite Olympic pastime. Similarly, he redeveloped the Olympic Torch Relay into a public participation event that stimulates mass goodwill and coverage. Although Coke and C&W were not formally involved with these activities in the most recent Games, it is a tribute to Cohn that these activities are practiced by other sponsors today. In an age of narrowly defined specialists, Cohn is still a generalist. Harold Burson, PR's Dean Emeritus (although hardly retired), says he does not consider the term "generalist" at all pejorative. "There is a real need for generalists like Bob," says Burson, who bought C&W in 1984. "Creativity is a valuable commodity. I think too many creative ideas get no place. He not only came up with ideas, he had the energy, strength, and direction to make it work." It is this energy and tenacity, borne of the post-Depression-era streets of Flatbush in Brooklyn, that continues to propel Cohn. Orphaned with his brother Paul by the age of 15, he grew up in the care of his uncle and legendary sports writer Barney Kremenko of the former New York Journal-American. Cohn shadowed his uncle into the locker rooms for post-game interviews with baseball greats like Joe Dimaggio, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson. Immediately after graduating Midwood High School in 1952, he joined the US Air Force. Out of 70 recruits in his basic training class, Cohn was singled out for the communications corps instead of aircraft mechanics school, and a career was born. Cohn says he applied for duty in Europe, "but the Air Force had other plans." Stationed in Anchorage, AK, he became editor of the Elmendorf Air Force Base newspaper. He was then transferred to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, AL, again acting as base editor. Discharged in 1957, and simultaneously inheriting his $12,000 estate, Cohn bought a lavender Lincoln Continental convertible and enrolled at the University of Alabama, "because it was close." It bears mentioning that Cohn was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn in the heart of the South during the height of the civil rights battles. Yet, the student body elected him to edit the campus newspaper, and he dated the niece of Alabama Governor "Big Jim" Folsom. "You'd be surprised how far a Lincoln Continental convertible will take you," muses Cohn. The seriousness of the times didn't evade Cohn. After graduation, he began as a sports writer for the Montgomery Advertiser, advancing to state editor covering the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. He was on the front lines of history at Selma on Bloody Sunday, recording the region's violent struggle to come to terms with its past and present. Today, Cohn admits he is winding down his career, and plans to move to part-time work in the fall in order to travel and delve back into photography. "Bob had a cadre of alumni that built their own firms, so when people graduated from 'C&W University,' they built the Atlanta PR community," says Jane Shivers, partner/MD of Ketchum-Atlanta. "I was so pleased that he stayed fascinated with the business, and got back into it with Grey. He's like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps reinventing himself." -------- BOB COHN 1953-1957 Shepherd AFB newspaper reporter (1953); editor, Elmendorf AFB newspaper (1955); editor, Maxwell AFB newspaper (1956-57) 1960 Graduated Univ. of Alabama, journalism 1961-1970 Montgomery Advertiser, sports reporter (1961), state editor (1962); Morris Newspapers, Atlanta bureau chief (1964-1970) 1970 Founded Ball/Cohn, later Ball/Cohn/ Weyman, then Cohn & Co., finally settling as Cohn & Wolfe with Norman Wolfe 1984 Sold C&W to Burson-Marsteller, which was later sold to Young & Rubicam and then WPP Group; Cohn remained as Chairman 1998 Retired from C&W; named 360 Thinc chair 2001 360 sold to Grey Advertising, remained as chairman of GCI Group

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in