ANALYSIS: Profile - Carol Cone helps clients find their cause. Cone CEO Carol Cone has been credited with putting cause branding on the map But her agency has its roots in consumer marketing and is branching out to the Internet. Rebecca Flass catches up w

’Has she talked to you about her horses?’

’Has she talked to you about her horses?’

’Has she talked to you about her horses?’



It’s a question you might not expect to hear about the CEO of a PR firm,

but these days, the ultra-competitive Carol Cone is spending more time

talking about her return to dressage than her agency’s recent

acquisition by Omnicom. After riding horses from the age of six to 28,

and then picking it up again at 49, Cone has proven that there’s nothing

she’s afraid to tackle. And she’s also not satisfied with second best,

as evidenced by the championship title she won at her first

competition.



This drive also allowed her to start her Boston-based agency from

scratch and grow it to a 76-strong, dollars 9.7 million operation. It

hasn’t been an easy trip, though. After years of hovering around the

dollars 5 million mark, in 1997 Cone decided to reinvent the agency,

which had its roots in consumer marketing. Cone launched a New

York-based interactive practice, led by Susan Pechman. She also beefed

up the senior management team and added Jens Bang - whom Cone had known

for more than 20 years - as president and COO.



Installing Bang as second-in-command provided the agency with a balance

it had previously lacked. ’Carol’s sense of passion and commitment has

always been there, she’s always moving at 60 miles per hour, but she

doesn’t like to run things day to day, and I do,’ says Bang. ’I kid her

that she moves too fast, and she kids me that I move too slow.’



That year revenues jumped to dollars 5.7 million, and they have been

growing ever since. Projections for this year exceed dollars 11 million,

with 30% organic growth coming from existing clients such as Dunkin’

Donuts, ZanyBrainy.com and Timberland.



Currently, the three practices (consumer, cause-related, interactive)

each generate approximately a third of Cone’s revenue, and Cone says

that most clients ask for at least two practice areas. While its

reputation in cause branding outshines other areas, the agency is

attempting to bring its other practices into the limelight as well.





Taking the plunge



From now on, the firm’s expansion will come as part of a global

communications conglomerate. After years of spurning suitors, Cone

finally took the plunge and agreed to a buyout by Omnicom in December

(PRWeek, December 6, 1999).



’You don’t want to be in that dreaded middle, it’s not a good place to

be,’ says Cone. ’We’re not going to be huge, we’re not going to be

dollars 100 million; but we want to be - in terms of our ideas and our

programs - as big as any big agency.’



She says she approved the Omnicom bid because it preserved Cone’s

independence - the usual spiel from acquired agencies, but Cone insists

that it’s not just talk. ’They don’t impose the way they do things on

you, but when you need something, you’ve got really powerful smart

people at the other end of the phone.’



A personal obligation to Cone employees led to the decision to put

dollars 200,000 in an agency-wide stock fund and supplement it based on

how well the agency meets profit and growth goals. Employees who stay

four years will benefit from this. ’I was impressed with the way that

she dealt with the merger,’ says Lynn Phares, president of the ConAgra

Foundation, which has worked with Cone for over a year. ’She was very

good about getting to clients right away and making sure that employees

were part of the process.’



As for the future, Cone doesn’t anticipate the addition of new offices,

although she’d love to have one in San Francisco. She also plans to get

in on the latest craze of PR firms paring with entertainment firms.

Through the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a client that represents

celebrities involved in causes, the agency will look at pairing

companies who want to work on a substantive basis with stars.





Making a difference



The firm’s interactive and consumer practices are notable, but the sine

qua non at Cone is cause branding. According to Cone, her commitment to

social justice stems from her years at Brandeis during the Vietnam era,

where students banded together to create the National Strike Information

Center. They sent releases to the AP and UPI notifying them of what

students were doing across the country, coordinated bus trips to

Washington and met with their congressman to push for an end to the

war.



But it wasn’t until she started Cone that she really put cause branding

on the map. After creating the walking shoe category for client Rockport

in 1983 and promoting the cause of walking for health and fitness, Cone

says she began talking with other companies about cause work, with

little success. ’They’d pat me on the head almost and say, ’Aren’t you

nice,’’ says Cone. ’I finally got so frustrated I said, we need to

codify, we need to have some evidence that this works.’



Cone took a huge risk as a small firm by approaching Roper Starch

Worldwide to conduct some very expensive research on the effect cause

marketing has on consumers. After 18 months of haggling, she finally

convinced them to do the research in 1993. ’That’s one of my traits; I

don’t take no for an answer,’ says Cone.



The research supported Cone’s notion that cause branding impacted how

consumers viewed brands, and was snatched up by The New York Times, NPR,

Business Week and Fortune. After several more reports, the agency

decided it needed a better term than ’cause marketing’ to describe its

efforts.



Thus, the term ’cause branding’ was born. ’It’s about imbuing the brand

deep, deep with a cause. And it’s not just about the brand. It’s also

that the company walks the talk and values its people,’ Cone says.



’I don’t think anybody has had more of an impact on cause-related

marketing than Carol,’ says Peter Osgood, a founding partner at Osgood,

O’Donnell & Walsh, who gave Carol her first PR job when he was president

of Newsome & Company. ’She had a lot of chutzpah, and still does.’



Despite the recognition that Cone has received in this area, she bemoans

the fact that many great PR campaigns go unnoticed. ’In advertising it’s

’David Ogilvy, he created the Hathaway man,’’ says Cone. ’Why don’t they

talk about people in PR like that? Why don’t they say, ’That’s the

person that did the Tylenol thing.’ We don’t do that in our industry,

and it denigrates what we do.’



Given the attention that Cone has been drawing to her clients, it’s not

likely to go unnoticed for much longer.





CAROL CONE Founder and CEO Cone



1977: Account executive, Newsome & Company



1980: Founds Cone



1997: Launches Cone Interactive



1999: Acquired by Omnicom.



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