Cohn & Wolfe: PRWeek Global Agency Business Report 2016

The firm saw strong growth in all regions and almost every market -- thanks to its integrated arsenal of digital, social, mobile, and content.

Donna Imperato, CEO, Cohn & Wolfe
Donna Imperato, CEO, Cohn & Wolfe

Principal: Donna Imperato, CEO; Scott Wilson, UK CEO and EMEA MD
Ownership: WPP
Subsidiaries: AxiCom and GCI Health
Offices: Global 56; US 13; UK 1
Revenue: Global $175m to $225; US $75m to $125m; UK £18.5m (estimate); APAC $20m (estimate)
Headcount: Global about 1,250; US about 600; UK about 175; APAC undisclosed


Cohn & Wolfe saw global revenue increase by 11.7% last year — marking the firm’s second consecutive year of double-digit growth. This nearly doubled CEO Donna Imperato’s goal of 5.9% global growth for the agency.

The consumer practice accounted for 32% of global revenue; 21% was due to corporate; 28% came from healthcare; and 19% came from tech. In addition, 32% of growth was from existing clients; while 68% of growth was due to new business.

The firm specifically saw a spike in creative corporate work in 2015, and "added a slew" of corporate clients, notes Imperato, but she declined to give more details. 

Cohn & Wolfe experienced strong growth in all regions and almost every market — growing nearly 40% in Germany; hitting its fifth consecutive year of double-digit growth in the U.K.; and achieving double-digit growth in key U.S. markets such as New York and Atlanta.

"Most of our growth is coming from [our] integrated marketing arsenal of digital, social, mobile, and content," Imperato explains.

The firm fell short of Imperato’s plan to capture double-digit growth in Asia last year. She chalks it up to underperformance in the firm’s Hong Kong office.

C&W claims no client losses in the U.S. Client wins included Ford brands Lincoln and Focus, 20th Century Fox, and travel app HelloGbye. Twenty percent of clients are on retainer.

Creative offerings
Campaign highlights for 2015 include a Nokia jaunt that consisted of a journey under the sea with Fabien Cousteau, grandson of legendary Jacques Cousteau. The mission was filmed on a Nokia Lumia 1020. The campaign earned 1.2 million video views and coverage from CNN, BBC, and The Weather Channel.

C&W also helped to transform Panasonic’s Toughpad tablet into a superhero in its own right with Unbreakable Valor, a limited edition, interactive comic book series, featuring original artwork from comic book writer Ron Marz. The series received more than 430,000 views over six weeks.

Imperato notes that Cohn & Wolfe’s digital media, content development and marketing, and mobile engagement offerings are key to the growth and success of the firm’s integrated marketing client work. The firm, for instance, created a mobile-to-digital wall gamification experience at a healthcare conference for a confidential client.

Mobile-based campaigns are the next big focus for C&W, says Imperato.

"Mobile is going to be the next kind of digital, because everything is mobile; it is becoming stronger in the U.S.," she notes.

The firm also acquired Grupo Máquina, one of Brazil’s largest PR agencies, with offices in São Paulo, Brasília, and Rio de Janeiro. It was rebranded as Máquina Cohn & Wolfe. Imperato says the firm is planning on making more strategic acquisitions this year, but she would not elaborate further.

Keeping up with — and managing growth — has been Cohn & Wolfe’s biggest challenge over the past year, she explains. To contend with this, Imperato plans on restructuring the business by adding a number of "very senior-level hires" in 2016 to help her manage the global business.

"In the past two years, we have grown 43%, including our acquisitions; that also means I have 43% more work," she shares.

A major hire for Cohn & Wolfe in 2015 was Laura Ryan, who was selected to head up the firm’s corporate practice for the U.S.

"We don’t want to be compared to Burson-Marsteller’s corporate, where it is heavy financial and crisis,"

states Imperato. "Our unit is more about corporate branding and it is attracting a lot of different clients and is heavily digital. We have grown our corporate business and want to focus it on integrated comms."

David Herrick was also brought on as president, U.S.; and Mary Conway was hired as MD, healthcare media, U.S. She is tasked with introducing new media initiatives to clients.

Globally, senior hires included Nicole Bezinski as CFO and COO.

The firm also saw a number of personnel changes. Stephanie Howley’s role was expanded to a global level, as she moved from SVP of HR, U.S., to EVP, global talent management.

Exits last year included global corporate practice leader Geoff Beattie, who went to APCO Worldwide; India CEO Rafi Khan, who joined Weber Shandwick; and Atlanta MD Stephen Brown. Staff turnover was 25.1% in the U.S. and "slightly higher globally," Imperato says.

As the firm expands globally, Imperato says she wants to "build the same culture" around the world. As part of this, last year Cohn & Wolfe embedded its internal process for program development Dig Deeper Imagine More globally, providing training on this process in every office around the world. The agency’s first global knowledge-sharing network, The X-Files, also launched last year.

Cohn & Wolfe’s strategic priority is to globalize and scale its internal resources and integrated marketing offering to drive the firm’s success. Imperato says the agency’s growth in 2015 was largely fueled by its progress on that front.

"I budgeted 6.5% growth going into this year, but I am hoping to make it double digits again," she says.


Cohn & Wolfe’s trend of upward growth has continued into its fifth consecutive year, UK CEO and MD, EMEA, Scott Wilson tells PRWeek, with growth of around 15 per cent year-on-year in the UK and seven per cent across Europe.

"We were one of the strongest WPP companies, globally," says Wilson. "Any growth is good in isolation but the real test is year-on-year growth and to achieve that for five years in a row is pretty good."

Wilson is particularly pleased with revenue growth in the UK and he details how all four practice areas in London have seen gains in the past 12 months, with digital growing by 143 per cent, followed by the healthcare practice on 29 per cent, consumer on 24 per cent, and corporate and public affairs on seven per cent. This year has seen major personnel changes in the UK consumer practice, with Diffusion head of consumer Tom Malcolm hired to head that division, replacing Rebecca Grant, who became UK MD in February.

Wilson says: "Growing is great but growing across all parts of the business is even better." 

There is a reason why all four practices are showing increases. Not only has the agency retained all its major clients into 2016; many are offering the agency new strands of work it was not getting before.

Putting the growth of the agency in a wider context, Wilson says it shows that agency businesses can buck the trend, even in European countries with a challenging economic climate.

Highlights within the European picture, says Wilson, are 39 per cent growth in Germany and 15.5 per cent in Spain.

Germany underperformed last year but has shown significant improvement in the past year. Wilson credits the leadership in Germany with the turnaround and describes growth in Spain as "really impressive" given the difficult macro-economic climate.

He adds: "Seven per cent growth in Europe is not double digits but, looking across the piste, it is not shoddy by any means."

A continuing challenge for the agency is recruitment and finding ways to equip the business for the expansion it is experiencing and replicate the quality of its services in markets such as Brazil and India.

Wilson says: "Our multi-market EMEA clients want consistency of service and delivering that at scale is a challenge for us." 

To service that need, Wilson says there has been a huge investment in training and skill-sets so that "we are as good in market ‘x’ as we are in London".

Wilson says there have been no "significant losses" of clients in UK and EMEA but says it has won some large accounts, such as Global Blue tax-free shopping, as well as growing existing accounts including Danone, Genzyme  and Pfizer.

Other notable wins include the Crop Protection Association and palm-oil firm GAR.

This is part of a trend that Wilson identifies as a growing need by clients for protection as well as promotion. 

He says: "They realise that when they are promoting they need to be protecting and vice versa. Many clients want both now so we are seeing a lot more of that. It’s a huge part of our growth."

Once again this brings its own set of challenges and Wilson says the agency has had to work hard to make the ‘joins’ between its various practices, for example consumer and corporate, invisible from a client point of view.

Wilson even thinks consumer agencies could begin to lose out to those that can offer protection as well as promotion.

He says: "All food and drink brands are dealing with issues, such as transparency, and that trend is not going away."

Plans for this year include the development of the agency’s Global Knowledge Management System, which Wilson describes as a "massive undertaking… if not very sexy, per se", as well as a global client programme.

He says: "If we’re trying to do more international work, we need people who can look beyond the impact of developments in one market to service global and regional clients." Although primarily aimed at larger clients, Wilson says this programme will eventually cascade down to every client the agency has.

Wilson says a lot of clients ask about Russia and that the country is "a market of interest". He has similar interest in Turkey.

But Wilson is also looking closer to home for expansion and says he has his eye on the North of England, perhaps Manchester, as a second UK home for Cohn & Wolfe.

There are several reasons for this, mainly strategic, but Wilson also points to the growing housing crisis in London and he wonders if the time is coming soon when his London staff will not be able to afford to live there, if they do not already own their own home.

It is a diversity issue, says Wilson.

He adds: "At the moment talent is self-selecting and people who already live in London or the South East have an advantage. How do we square this circle?"


As he surveys the performance for Cohn & Wolfe in Asia-Pacific during 2015, regional COO Lyle Closs is especially gratified by Cohn & Wolfe China’s accomplishment of the world’s first-ever WeChat press conference in the healthcare industry, for Boehringer Ingelheim.

"It’s something that has since been copied by many of our competitors. We’re extremely proud to be a market leader in digital communications innovations."

2015 was a strong year for the firm, with growth across the region supported by particularly impressive showings in China, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia’s capital Jakarta.

C&W Malaysia, led by newly promoted managing director Jonathan Tan, boasted a client retention rate of 90 percent, and a portfolio that includes Tetra Pak, 3M, AkzoNobel, Dulux and Nestlé Ice Cream. In Jakarta, new clients—either retained or on a project basis— included Puma and Red Bull.

"China continues to develop as the region’s economic powerhouse, and we expect demand for PR to further increase in line with the consumer purchasing power of the country’s booming middle class," Closs says.

To meet growing client demand in China, C&W opened a new office in the burgeoning market of Guangzhou in the fourth quarter, which Closs says "is already poised to become one of our fastest-growing offices in Asia". It became the agency’s 15th office to serve multi-market client Colgate-Palmolive.

There was also significant expansion in India with C&W’s acquisition of Six Degrees PR and its content and integrated marketing subsidiary Alphabet Consulting. Closs says this was the agency’s "biggest achievement in the region".

"It added a new market for us in Bangalore [the new office was opened in September 2015] and expanded our capabilities in Delhi and Mumbai."  

The company is also weighing up expansion into a new Southeast Asian market, with Myanmar on the radar in the next two to three years.

Procuring and keeping talent in Asia, Closs admits, is challenging, "as people tend to switch jobs more often here than in Europe and the Americas". The firm has increased its regional HR tools and employee offerings, with strengthened initiatives in professional development and knowledge sharing, among other areas.

The region witnessed its share of moving and shaking in 2015. Tiffany Bai joined Cohn & Wolfe to lead the mainland China team, opening the new Guangzhou office, and bringing on two new market leaders, Alex Zhu and Cyrus Young.

Tan was promoted to managing director in Malaysia, while Alison Teh and Elizabeth Winiartati were added as heads of digital in Hong Kong and Indonesia, respectively.

On the flip side, there were some very senior departures that C&W is still contending with. Angelina Ong vacated her role as president of Asia-Pacific, and other leavers included Rafi Khan (CEO, India), and Marina Leung (managing director, chief branding officer, Hong Kong).

Closs says Cohn & Wolfe "has been very diligent about putting the right talent in place across APAC" with strong leadership in local markets. There are plans to hire a regional leader "once we identify the right person to take our APAC network to the next level".

The company’s strongest fields were healthcare, technology, consumer and corporate, while the top three services used by clients were digital media, content development and marketing, and mobile engagement. Key APAC accounts include Dell, Carlsberg, Mandarin Oriental Hotels and Tourism Australia.

In 2015, the firm expanded its China portfolio with clients such as Alibaba’s AliCloud, HK Science & Technology Parks, Maserati, and Wyeth.

In Southeast Asia, similar strides were made with Shell in Indonesia; Tetra Pak, BMW, and Facebook in Malaysia; and IO, Amazon Lexus, VitaCoco and Sharp in Singapore, among others.

Dell, a b-to-b client for the last seven years in Singapore, hired the team for consumer social listening and social media community management across Southeast Asia, and expanded the account to include more in-country work with offices in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Integrated marketing has become a strong tool for C&W, "as companies across all sectors increasingly seek creative, digital solutions," says Closs.

"We continue to focus on generating innovative, groundbreaking ideas to meet this demand. In the years ahead, I expect communications and marketing roles to be much less separated, increasing client expectations that marketing programmes be integrated from press release to product purchase."

Cohn & Wolfe also launched The X-Files, the agency’s first global knowledge sharing network, which allows colleagues around the globe to find critical information and collaborate on new business pitches and client projects.

Digital continues to be a key driver for all practices, and the firm is increasingly focusing on campaigns across paid, owned, earned and shared media. "Our approach early on was to fully integrate our digital team across all practices in our Asia offices, and we look for individuals with strong digital backgrounds for all new hires," Closs explains.

"Every RFP now includes a digital component and that wasn’t the case in 2014."

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