Cohn & Wolfe, GCI merge; entity to retain C&W name

NEW YORK: Cohn & Wolfe has merged with sister WPP Group agency GCI Group. The combined company will retain the name Cohn & Wolfe (C&W). C&W CEO Donna Imperato will remain CEO, and GCI Group CEO Jeff Hunt will remain president.

NEW YORK: Cohn & Wolfe has merged with sister WPP Group agency GCI Group. The combined company will retain the name Cohn & Wolfe (C&W). C&W CEO Donna Imperato will remain CEO, and GCI Group CEO Jeff Hunt will remain president. Hunt confirmed the details of the acquisition.

The agency will retain the name Cohn & Wolfe, but will be rebranded with a new logo and branding strategy.

The agency will also include a separate, global specialty healthcare firm called GCI Health that can compete with C&W's own healthcare practice.

"For a while, we thought keeping the two brands separate would be the right way to go, but we changed that because the communications landscape has changed. The world has gone global, and together we're much more of a forceful competitor globally," said C&W CEO Donna Imperato. "Cohn has heritage creativity – we're known as the creative agency – while GCI has been the leader in digital, and when you combine those, you become the agency that clients are looking for today.”

"We're taking the creative heritage of Cohn & Wolfe with the digital expertise of GCI and we're putting those two together to compete in the new world order brought on by the digital media revolution," Hunt told PRWeek. "The two firms are very synergistic being that there is very little overlap. It immediately catapults us into the top ten of PR firms on a combined basis. It also allows us to aggressively invest in new areas, like the Asia-Pacific region. "

The merged agencies will have about 1,000 employees. Cohn & Wolfe will remain based in New York. GCI Health will also be based in New York, but will include operations in Europe.

GCI Group joined WPP when the holding company announced it was acquiring Grey Global Group in September 2004. Cohn & Wolfe joined WPP in 2000, when the holding company acquired Y&R Brands. Neither brands disclosed revenues in PRWeek's last agency rankings report. The two agencies have been long-rumored as a merger opportunity for WPP.

Prior to the merger, the firms have operated conjunctively on occasion for business pitches, but have also competed for clients.

The merger will not result in layoffs, and has prompted the agency to hire senior-level positions in its sustainability and environment practice and digital media, according to Hunt.

"Everybody always wants efficiency and that's something we've independently strived for in both companies, but [efficiency isn't] driv[ing] the merger," he said.

When asked about client conflicts that emerged from the new venture, Hunt said the majority of conflicts were in the healthcare sector, but the creation of GCI Health largely resolved these issues.

The merger will not impact Enfatico, WPP's global marketing services firm being built with Dell as its first client. Dell was a major GCI Group client.

 "[GCI has] been helping to migrate the integrated resources into [Enfatico]," said Hunt. "While Dell was a big client for GCI, it now is a big client for Enfatico and most of that transition has already taken place."

The merged agency will support Enfatico in delivering services for Dell in some areas, such as with work in Mexico, Canada, and Latin American markets, he added.

"In some of the secondary markets where Enfatico won't be opening an office, Cohn &Wolfe and other WPP agencies will provide support," he said.

The merger will also result in a tighter alignment with two other WPP agencies: Quinn Gillespie & Associates and Schematic.

"We're not going to own [Quinn Gillespie] but they will be our preferred partner to build out our public affairs capability in Washington," he said.

Initially plans to announce the merger were slated for the end of the month, but media queries and industry rumors prompted the agencies to go public sooner.

"It was a tradeoff because there were some exciting things we were going to use to launch the brand with our employees," Hunt noted. "But I think the trade-off of keeping them well-informed was well worth it."
C&W and GCI management notified employees of the merger after a July 2 conference call among the agencies' offices, according to Imperato, who added that, within weeks, she and Hunt will visit offices and the combined agency will unveil a new logo.

The merged agency consulted Landor to construct its branding strategy.

“We contemplated a new name for the combined agency but felt like that end up costing us momentum,” he said. “While we're keeping the name, a lot is going to change. We told both of our employees - everyone is coming to work at a new company tomorrow.”

The new agency plans to implement “provocative” HR practices to recruit a new generation of PR professionals. Hunt said staffing projections will be determined by economic conditions.

"But the new company has ambitious growth goals and we want to grow faster than the industry average," he said.

Because the two agencies have worked closely for several years most the challenges of integrating senior teams and systems have mostly been addressed, he added.

"The biggest obstacles also come when you have a lot overlap but we don't have markets that overlap," he said. "Certainly they'll be challenges but the obvious ones aren't presenting themselves."

Cohn & Wolfe maintains five offices in the US: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto; GCI also has five US offices: New York; Atlanta; Austin, TX; San Francisco; and Chicago. GCI has 30 wholly-owned offices and 28 partly-owned offices outside of the US, and C&W has 11 international offices, according to PRWeek's Agency Business Report.

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