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Fri 11 Oct 2013 10:42 AM

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Wolfe at the door: CEO Donna Imperato

Cohn & Wolfe is one of the America’s biggest public relations agencies, and with its recent acquisition of Bates Pan Gulf it is looking to extend its influence into the Middle East in a big way. CEO Donna Imperato reveals more

Wolfe at the door: CEO Donna Imperato

It is only two days into her first visit to Dubai, but Donna Imperato has already got the measure of the place. “It’s an exotic destination for us US folks, with enough of the home comforts that Americans like,” she says. “There’s also something a bit sexy about it because of where it’s located in the Middle East.”

As CEO of Cohn & Wolfe, one of America's largest and most successful public relations agencies, Imperato has built her career on rapidly delivering what clients need to boost their reputation or market visibility.

The New York-based firm, whose parent company is British advertising giant WPP, counts some of the US’s top brands among its client base, including Universal, Colgate, Ford and JM Smucker. Some of its most notable recent successes have been to help the latter two companies crack the Chinese market, where their brands were previously viewed as unfashionable.

Across its 55 offices worldwide, it was estimated that Cohn & Wolfe raked in more than $150m in revenue during 2012.

Imperato, who has led the company since 2002, says she is now setting her sights on emerging markets to fuel future expansion, with markets like the Middle East set to form a crucial pillar in this strategy.

“We’re very saturated in North America and Europe and so we’ve been very focused on expanding in Asia and the Middle East,” she explains. “It’s sort of completing my pie. We’re going to look at growing further in Asia, which we did a lot of expansion in last year and the Middle East, Africa, and probably going into the next couple of years, Latin America. But I see the real growth now as being in the Middle East and Asia.”

In order to expedite this growth in the region, Cohn & Wolfe in May this year dipped into its pockets and bought a minority stake in Bates Pan Gulf (BPG), one of the Middle East’s best-known home-grown PR agencies.

The partnership — now snazzily called BPG Cohn & Wolfe — is based in Dubai, with offices in Abu Dhabi, Baghdad, Doha, Jeddah and Kuwait, with affiliates in Cairo and Muscat. BPG’s existing clients in the region include Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, Visa International and the Alshaya Group.

Imperato explains that the tie-up with BPG will make it simpler for Cohn & Wolfe to offer its North American and European clients services in the Middle East, and made more sense for the agency to buy into the market than to start its own regional operation from the ground up.

“It started with a couple of clients asking if we had a presence in the Middle East, and we had some affiliates, and it became clear to me that if we’re going to win those big global clients, we have to have a real offering in the Middle East,” says Imperato. “What we want is a network, so we can say to our clients ‘we have a network here — people who know this region really, really well.’ So I talked to WPP, and they said to me you have to talk to BPG.”

Imperato says that Cohn & Wolfe’s strategy is dictated to a large extent by that of its clients. Many of the company’s big customers, she explains, have discovered that growth now comes at a premium in developed markets like Europe and North America, due to a combination of market saturation and recession economics. “I think the Middle East is going to be critically important. A lot of our clients — it’s similar to the Cohn & Wolfe situation — are saturated with a really strong presence across North America and Europe. So they think ‘where are we going to get our growth from?’ and they go to growth markets like Asia and the Middle East. That’s how our clients are thinking,” she believes.

It is not just in terms of geography that Cohn & Wolfe is branching out. Imperato says the industry is shifting so that clients are increasingly looking to PR agencies to provide them with an “integrated offering” of traditional media services and market research, as well as online content, such as video and social networking.

A major element of this, Imperato explains, is crisis communications and reputation management. That is, preventing a negative reaction from the public or media from spinning out of control, or extinguishing bad press before it spreads to other outlets.

One example of how not to do this was seen recently in the UAE, when a tasteless Facebook post by Subaru Emirates resulted in a slew of negative media attention worldwide. The status update, which appeared to blame women drivers for a real-life fatal car crash in the Gulf state, led to a local boycott of the car company, which later issued a public apology.

“I don’t think anyone would go out there and say ‘we want to make fun of women’ as a strategy, yet that’s what they’ve done on a tactical level,” Imperato says of the incident.

It’s this kind of public embarrassment that Cohn & Wolfe is paid to help its clients avoid at all costs, but given the nature of the work it is perhaps understandable that Imperato is tight-lipped when it comes to any high-profile examples of this the agency has worked on. “We can’t really talk about what they are. But if you haven’t read about them then that means it’s working,” she says.

Effective communications with consumers and the media has become even more of a minefield in the digital age, Imperato believes, particularly with the proliferation of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. On such platforms a negative reaction can spread like wildfire and quickly become uncontrollable.

Still, Cohn & Wolfe believes that social media is a low-hanging fruit when it comes to communicating with an audience, if done right. “The interesting piece is that digital, especially in terms of things like citizen journalism and individual complainants, it is becoming increasingly clear that companies need to have an authentic story,” Imperato explains. “This is actually very good for the PR discipline, because it’s so easy to raise an issue. If you’re eating a chocolate bar and you want to know where the chocolate’s being sourced from and the company cares about labour policies in West Africa, or whether the packaging has come from sustainable sources, you can just go online, and that plays hugely to the corporate communications challenge.”

It is for these reasons that clients are increasingly looking for agencies that can be a ‘one-stop shop’ for media services, from public relations to social networking, so that a brand can project one single, coherent message, Imperato claims.

“To me it makes the case for having integrated marketing. If there’s one agency leading integrated marketing, there’s consistent strategy. They won’t come up with this one-off commercial that doesn’t fit into the story you’re trying to tell. If you have different agencies doing that and it’s all online, it can be a disaster,” she says.

While Imperato’s current focus is on helping North American and European clients expand into the Middle East, she is also eager to provide her assessment on how regional brands have promoted themselves in her come country.

One of the most high-profile launches of a Gulf brand into the US has been that of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which began operations stateside in August this year. The station, which has garnered negative publicity in the past due to its association with Osama Bin Laden, was met with a tepid reaction by American audiences, with initial viewing figures paltry at best.

Imperato believes that the network will bring value to the US’s media landscape, but that its launch in the world’s biggest TV-viewing nation had not been handled as best it could. 

“I don’t think there was any sort of setting the stage. Before I would have launched it, I would have kind of seeded and got the messages out there before it just popped up,” she observes. “All of a sudden there was just Al Jazeera [America] and a lot of the [advertising] media came when it was up already. I think there should have been some kind of message beforehand on why it’s important for Americans.”

For all of the changes that the media and PR industries are currently experiencing, arguably the most significant is the ongoing merger of its two largest players. In July this year, New York’s Omnicom and Paris-based Publicis Groupe announced that they would combine in a “merger of equals” to create a firm with a market capitalisation of approximately $35bn. The new group will count some of planet’s top agencies, including Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett, under its umbrella.

Still, Imperato does not see the combined might of Omnicom and Publicis Groupe as a bolder threat to Cohn & Wolfe and parent firm WPP. Quite the opposite, in fact, as she predicts the fallout from the mega merger to actually benefit her operation in the long-run.

“It’s going to be positive for WPP. I think there will be client fallout and we’ve already seen some signs of that. We’ve also seen signs of some really good talent that is a little bit nervous,” Imperato claims. “You don’t do a merger of that size without wanting to find a lot of efficiencies and from a client standpoint, we know from a WPP perspective, Ford is one of our largest clients and we’re not allowed to work with any other car company. You have a lot of big brands and I don’t think they’re going to like it very much — so WPP is quite excited about that merger.”