PROFILE: Imperato's competitive spirit fuels C&W's growth

After Cohn & Wolfe was shaken by the dot-com bust, Donna Imperato, president and CEO, helped reinvigorate the firm by focusing on stability, while aggressively looking to diversify.

After Cohn & Wolfe was shaken by the dot-com bust, Donna Imperato, president and CEO, helped reinvigorate the firm by focusing on stability, while aggressively looking to diversify.

Donna Imperato plays to win. And while that quality might be a given for any agency CEO, few are so candid about it. Fewer still seem to radiate it from first meeting. But it might have been just what Cohn & Wolfe needed when Imperato was selected in 2002 to lead the struggling agency, which had seen revenues plummet after the dot-com bust. "She really helped resurrect the firm. Donna's attitude is that we should lead the charge - and it really is a charge," says Patricia Godefroy, EVP and GM of C&W's LA office. "She breeds that attitude throughout the organization." Imperato embraces the idea of a rebel agency fighting the industry stalwarts. "We are kind of maverick and entrepreneurial," she says. "We're very aggressive." Over the past two-and-a-half years, C&W has taken some risks, cutting the fat from the agency while diversifying its areas of expertise. In the six months before Imperato took over, her predecessor, Steve Aiello, announced that C&W would close its flagship Atlanta office and fold the DC business into the public affairs practice of sister firm Burson-Marsteller. Imperato created a focus for the firm, says Howard Paster, EVP for PR and public affairs at parent company WPP. That focus, he adds, was on healthcare and technology at a time when those two practices had the most stability. Pharma and tech business "went right to her sweet spot," he recalls. Imperato actually created C&W's healthcare practice, which would grow to encompass more than 70% of the work in New York. She would later run the entire New York office before stepping into the agency's top post. But rather than turning C&W into a one-note player, the agency has since gone after - and won - accounts in the consumer, food and beverage, and airline industries. "Everyone thinks I'm only healthcare," Imperato says, "but my goal is to double in size from a revenue standpoint." Today, about 35% of C&W's business is healthcare-related. Moreover, healthcare comprises less than half of the work coming out of New York. Another chunk, about 27%, comes from consumer accounts, but there is also a significant focus on tech and b-to-b clients, says Imperato. Collaboration among practices enables the agency to compete for clients with much larger firms, she notes. But Imperato doesn't necessarily want to operate like a larger entity. "I want to maintain a boutique feel," she says. "One thing I do is treat the US as one office. The market has to be treated as one market." Imperato is no stranger to the larger firms. She came to C&W after spending the first part of her career working for Burson and Creamer Dickson Basford (now Euro RSCG Magnet). "Big agency life was not for me," she says. But she always planned to end up at an agency, from the time she abandoned pre-law to major in PR at New York University. "I always loved the operational side of the agency world," she says. "I'm one of the few people who wanted to do PR." In 1992, after stints as a business editor and at a full-service marketing communications agency, Imperato started the healthcare practice at Creamer Dickson Basford, now Magnet. And although she is personally interested in the health sector, she's quick to emphasize that she's a generalist who's also done her share of consumer and corporate work. At C&W, Imperato stresses that people should work across specialty areas and locations. "I made things a lot more consistent through the office. Every single pitch has been cross-office," she says, adding that teamwork has improved as a result. "There are no layers here," she adds. "I take motivating my troops seriously. There's really a sense of camaraderie." The people who work with her echo that sentiment. "She's a ball of fire. [Her staff] benefits from her drive, energy, and hunger," says Michael O'Brien, president and GM of C&W's New York office. "She empowers her staffers so that [even] young people working for her go out and win business," Paster says. "Donna's not afraid of that." Imperato also fosters the agency's boutique sensibility by being heavily involved with accounts, particularly for longstanding clients, such as GlaxoSmithKline and Smucker's. "With Donna, there's an intense passion about it," notes Paster. "People know she'll walk through fire for client service, and the staff sees and picks up that attitude. It's a can-do approach." "She's not an administrator; she's a PR person who has risen through the ranks," O'Brien says. "She's clearly a person who has done the work." Imperato acknowledges that there's a difference between servicing clients and pandering to them. "My reputation is that I'm all about the client," she says, adding, "You have to give them the right counsel, but sometimes they just don't want to hear it." And although she's competitive, she will decline to take on client work that doesn't fit with the agency's goals. She takes a strong stance, for instance, on the increasing reliance on procurement. "It's making our business a commodity, and everyone else is giving in," she says. "We're not a commodity business. The only way around it is to say no and turn down the client." C&W has once again found itself in a position to be choosy. But the agency's next challenge will be to find new areas in which to grow. "The culture is so strong that the need is not to build the culture, but to protect the culture," Godefroy says. Imperato says she plans to grow C&W organically and through acquisitions. And she is fully confident that the firm will be able to take on the hurdles. "We're not for everyone, I like to say. We have a competitive style," she says. "We just love to win." --------- Donna Imperato September 2002-present President and CEO, Cohn & Wolfe April 2002-September 2002 COO, C&W 2000-2002 CEO, New York office, C&W 1997-2000 President, NA healthcare practice, C&W 1994-1997 SVP/director of client services, Burson 1991-1994 SVP, Creamer Dickson Basford

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