Cone innovates PR by not taking no for an answer

As chairman of her eponymous agency, Carol Cone helps companies give back by developing programs that exude their values - even when plans require a little extra persistence.

As chairman of her eponymous agency, Carol Cone helps companies give back by developing programs that exude their values - even when plans require a little extra persistence.

It is safe to say that the word "no" has never impeded Carol Cone, chairman of her eponymous firm, which is nearing the 25-year mark. In fact, it was a fortuitous denial that ignited her career.

After graduating from Brandeis University with a degree in art history, a guidance counselor advised her to apply to law schools. Fortunately for Cone, her clients, and the communications industry, she was wait-listed everywhere and subsequently realized she could build a career in communications. Thus, 30 years ago in Boston, a star - who would become a bright light in the communications industry - was born.

"Most people in the industry would agree that she was the mother of cause-related marketing," says Peter Osgood, founding partner of Osgood O'Donnell & Walsh and Cone's first employer at Newsome & Co.

"When she wanted to split off on her own, she kept talking about cause-related marketing," he continues. "The more she talked, the more it made sense. She stuck to it and drove it, drove it, drove it. I'd never heard of it. When she finds something great, she sticks to it, stays on top of it, and innovates. She built a new dimension to the business."

Innovation has been a hallmark of Cone's career. With Rockport, one of her first clients, she created the walking movement (and a $1 billion retail category). The firm has been credited with building the breast cancer movement through its work with Avon and Yoplait, and the heart disease movement with the American Heart Association. Cone also developed Reebok's involvement with human rights and created ConAgra's "Feeding Children Better," PRWeek's 2001 Campaign of the Year.

"Carol is a big thinker," says Thomas Harrison, chairman and CEO of Omnicom Group's Diversified Agency Services, which acquired her agency in 1999. "She's a very good businessperson, and she's innovative and persistent. Like any entrepreneur, when she hears the word 'no,' it means 'not now.'"

Cone has always been grounded in long-term brand building. "We don't just do programs and campaigns," she says. "We've changed the way people live their lives, and I want to say that humbly. From the start, Cone was about building brands to build links between companies and core stakeholders."

Eva Tansky Blum, SVP and director of community development at PNC, says Cone was "invaluable" in creating "PNC Grow Up Great," a 10-year, $100 million early childhood education program.

"She listens," Blum says. "She gets a sense of who you are and responds to that. Even though she has years of experience and can relate a current situation to something that happened before, the solution is totally new."

As an intern at Newsome & Co. in 1977, Cone's first account was Insilco, a holding company founded on the International Silver Co. Insilco wanted to raise awareness with high net-worth individuals. Cone took one of her passions - horses - and pitched a sponsorship of horse showing and amateur squash. Insilco loved the ideas, and the programs continued well after Cone left Newsome and set up her own shop - in her kitchen with a rented IBM typewriter - to pursue her love of consumer and brand marketing.

"I just struck out," she recalls. "I didn't have a business plan. I had drive, passion, and energy. I had friends, and I'm very courageous. I guess ignorance is bliss when you're that young."

It wasn't long before ski company Salomon, which had been her second account at Newsome, came knocking. Timberland followed, and Cone initiated (and won) an "international boat-shoe war." Next came Rockport and the walking movement.

"Rockport had very innovative comfort shoes that looked different," Cone says. "Editors gave us a polite no."

It became evident that the shoes were great for walking, and Cone felt that walking could become a large platform around which to position Rockport. To initiate a movement and position Rockport as a leader, Cone had to do something dramatic, long-term, and credible. "This was the next evolution of brand-building philosophy at Cone - big, deep, long-term, and credible," she says.

Cone knew Rob Sweetgall, a chemical engineer from DuPont, via her client Gore-Tex. He was going to walk around the US advocating health to schoolkids. "It took one second to think, 'Rockport will be your partner,'" Cone says.

The partnership was declined, but Cone believed in the opportunity. She went to another client, the Center for Health and Fitness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and informed the doctor that hired her that he was going to study Sweetgall during the walk. The doctor declined, but Cone remained steadfast.

"I'm very persistent and persuasive," Cone says. "I got them all together over dinner and let them all fall in love."

Cone's matchmaking would produce significant results, including staggering coverage, a book, a PBS film, a presidential proclamation, the Rockport Walking Institute, and a lot of folklore.

"Rockport created the market," Cone says. "Sales went from $20 million to over $250 million, and walking shoes became a $1 billion-plus category."

When Harrison was looking to buy Cone, he was "enamored" by its balance of cause branding, crisis work, and traditional PR. "We had no companies operating in cause branding," he says. "I realized it was something that would become incredibly important. We really wanted to have [Cone] in Omnicom to help us build around this practice of corporate responsibility."

As firm chairman, Cone's sole focus is now cause branding. Cone says, "In [this] transparent world, brands must live their values, demonstrate their humanity, and develop trust with their core stakeholders."

Cone calls the creation of the cause movement and the understanding that it is good business to live your values her greatest accomplishments. She's also pleased by the firm's commitment to professional development, interns (it has more than 45 a year), day-care, job sharing, and paid time off for good work. She is also proud that, in her 40s, she met and married her "Prince Charming," Harry Silverman.

At 55, Cone shines brighter than ever. Last year, she was third in the US in her horse-jumping division. Besides horses and work, she loves gardening, arranging flowers, and in-line skating. She laughs when retirement is mentioned.

"I get to integrate myself, think in strategic and creative ways, and we leave a legacy of good social works," Cone says. "I'm not retiring."

Carol Cone

Newsome & Co., account executive

Chairman, Cone

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