Profile: Donna Imperato - Straight-talking and self-aware

Donna Imperato might be busy overseeing the C&W/GCI merger, but she is still focused on the bigger PR picture, reports Kate Magee.

Donna Imperato's message for the UK PR industry is one of hope. The credit crunch is a 'great opportunity', and PROs should be hitting marketing managers with this line:

'Cutting out $2m from advertising is not going to hurt you, so put $1m into your PR instead,' she argues.

Imperato, 48, has had management oversight of both Cohn&Wolfe (C&W) and GCI since since 2005. She is based in New York, but frequently visits London to check how well her two agencies are integrating since their merger earlier this year.

When PRWeek broke the story in July, few were surprised, and Imperato admits it had been 'a long time coming'. She says she was asked, back in 2005, when WPP bought GCI, to head up and merge the two. But, owing to client conflict - C&W had Hewlett Packard, GCI had Dell - it was postponed. This year when Dell split with GCI, the wait was finally over.

Imperato is hoping the merger will reinvigorate C&W in the UK. It is no secret the agency has had a hard time of late, and she is characteristically frank when questioned on it. 'We needed tough changes here. The agency had lost its way a little bit and needed new leadership,' she says. But Imperato is working to a plan. Her first 'fix' was hiring former Freud Communications MD Fiona Noble as CEO. 'I know she's the right person for the job, because I know she can do what has to get done here,' she says. Geoff Beattie and Mark Cater were also promoted to senior roles across the global network.

Like other agency bosses, Imperato is looking at cutting costs in light of the economic uncertainty. She has not made any final decisions, but she is sure of one thing: 'The first thing people are going to look to cut next year is training and development. That will not be the case in C&W,' she says. This investment brings her results. With the exception of former UK CEO Jonathan Shore, Imperato says none of her most senior staff have left since 2005.

Diageo UK director of comms Stephen Doherty worked with Imperato for several years at C&W. He praises her personal approach. 'C&W was the most enjoyable of all my agency experiences,' he says. 'Donna is very visible. There's no ivory tower. She's a genuine straight shooter and if you are hard working, she rewards you.'

Imperato maybe straight-talking and ballsy, but she is self-aware. Six weeks ago she hired someone to 'do a 360' on her. 'He interviewed the 20 people in the organisation with whom I have most contact, asking where I can improve,' she says. She then shared the results with her senior team.

One of those interviewees, C&W's EMEA regional director Mark Cater, praises Imperato for being a 'warm, down to earth leader who listens'. 'She is not like other global agency bosses who do the overseas tour once or twice a year and treat everywhere outside the US as an outpost. She is in Europe often and without fuss,' he says.

Imperato lives in Manhattan with her family - a location she has picked for both its proximity to the airport and because she is a city girl. She has lived there for many years, holding several senior agency roles. But she believes the industry has changed dramatically with the onset of digital, which pits all the marketing and advertising agencies against each other.

PR, she believes, is at a disadvantage because the marketing agencies already speak to top marketing staff. 'Our future is in grabbing the marketing dollars. We're in a place now where we actually have credibility among ad agencies and among marketers. It's a beautiful time to go after that piece of the pie,' she explains.

She may be a good boss, but Imperato's real talent lies in her business nous, something that has not escaped WPP CEO Martin Sorrell. She speaks highly of the strict WPP culture, saying 'it forces you to take the PR business more seriously'.

Business acumen is where she believes the industry can occasionally fall behind. 'It's hard to find smart business people for our industry because it is a creative business. Meanwhile, the private agencies are going in and selling on cost because they don't have to worry about their margins,' she says. 'It's time we ran our business better. It's time for PR to demand bigger bucks.'

Now the C&W/GCI merge is near completion, Imperato believes the agency is ready to compete against the big global players. And she has set her sights high. Her goal is to be the best-run agency in any discipline across WPP. 'While we get our (merged) business set up our margins may won't be as high as they were in the past, but I know how to get there,' she says with fiery determination. 'The big idea always wins'.

2005: Assumed management oversight of GCI
2002: Global CEO, Cohn&Wolfe
2000-02: CEO New York, Cohn&Wolfe
1997: President of North American healthcare practice, Cohn&Wolfe
1995: Senior vice president/director of client services,
1991-94: Senior vice president, Creamer Dickson Basford
1985-91: Senior vice president, ABI
1982: Editor in chief, Westchester Illustrated

Donna Imperato's turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

I was offered a job in charge of the healthcare practice at Euro RSCG firm CDB (now Magnet) without any healthcare experience. A friend of mine was in that sector and I was intrigued by the industry. I took the job and built a strong group, with clients that are still with me today.

- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?

Know your strengths and let them dictate the direction of your career. Many folks make the mistake of pursuing positions that require skills they do not possess. Being a client leader is just as valuable as running a practice. The other advice is to never lose touch with staff or the clients.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

I've had great bosses who have taught me a lot. Jean Farinelli taught me the business of the business and Steve Aiello and Howard Paster have tried to teach me to be more patient and play the game.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

I am most dazzled by those with energy, passion and confidence.

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