By Guest Columnist MITCH LEFF, owner of the Leff & Associates public relations agency who began his career with Cohn & Wolfe in 1988
In 1970, two ex-newspaper men – Bob Cohn and Norman Wolfe — started a public relations agency in Atlanta. That in itself perhaps wasn’t remarkable. There have been uncounted PR agencies launched here over the last 40 years.
What was remarkable is how that little agency, Cohn & Wolfe, grew from four account people and two secretaries into a national and global brand and in the process became an incubator that produced some of Atlanta’s top public relations professionals.
Earlier this year, 43 years after its founding, PR Week magazine selected Cohn & Wolfe as the No. 1 agency in the United States and in the world. What Bob and Norman started, and what hundreds of us contributed to over the years, became an agency with 62 offices around the globe; from London to Cairo to Abu Dhabi to Africa.
Harold Burson, co-founder of Burson-Marsteller, the agency that purchased Cohn & Wolfe in the ‘80s and kicked off its meteoric growth, wrote Bob Cohn congratulating him and saying of the recognition: “This is a high honor and, in my view, reflects the creative legacy that you instilled in the organization from the time you started the business. Congratulations are due you and Norman Wolfe and Jim Overstreet and Bob Hope and others whose names I cannot remember for planting the seed which has blossomed so beautifully.”
Bob Cohn marked this achievement with a gathering at his home Aug. 17, inviting many of the people who were a part of the company over the years. Almost 100 former staffers and spouses returned for what Bob called a celebration of Cohn & Wolfe’s formative years, the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
It was so much more than that. Those were indeed the “formative” years for C&W, when offices were opening across the country. But for hundreds of young public relations professionals like myself, who joined the agency just out of college or in their 20s or 30s, Cohn & Wolfe was the place where they built their professional and ethical foundations.
For decades, the agency was an incubator, where young people learned the skills that became the foundations of their careers. It wasn’t just how to write a press release or put together a press conference or learn how many napkins to buy for a cocktail party. It was the more intangible things, how to push beyond the ordinary and the expected, how to manage, motivate and inspire people.
We created programs that marketed our clients’ products and services in ways that were creative, strategic and above all went to the bottom line for every company. That meant we found ways to sell more chicken sandwiches for Chick-fil-A, fill more rooms for Courtyard by Marriott and bring more visitors to Coca-Cola Olympic City.
We learned what was possible from Bob and Norman and Jim Overstreet and Rob Baskin and Bob Hope and Donna Fleishman and Joe Donohue and Jerry Shields and Lance Hill and many more. We would sit in creative sessions and be amazed at the creative concepts that landed on the walls. It seemed to flow so effortlessly from Bob’s head.
We watched as Jim Overstreet and Norman Wolfe managed crisis situations with unmatched professionalism, skill and confidence. And we saw how they built relationships with their clients. Companies didn’t just stay with C&W for a year or two and then switch to another agency. They stayed for decades. There was a trust between agency and client that was incredible to see.
For me, the memories are as vibrant today as they were years ago: Standing out in front of Coca-Cola Olympic City at 3 a.m. during the 1996 Olympics waiting for an Australian TV crew, driving around Washington State in 1990 with a gigantic photo album (and “borrowing” a luggage cart from the hotel to get it into the Governor’s office), and of course the C&W holiday parties that were one of the hottest tickets of the season.
And the tradition lives on. Today, Cohn & Wolfe alumni are the senior communicators at some of the worlds’ top companies, including The Coca-Cola Company, The Home Depot, Wal-Mart and more. One of our alums is CEO of Young & Rubicam, one of the world’s top advertising agencies. A number of top advertising, marketing and public relations agencies, in Atlanta and across the country are led by people who started right here at Cohn & Wolfe Atlanta.
There are few companies that keep track of their employees for decades, let alone bring them all together 40 years later. Cohn & Wolfe was more than just a job. It was a family that worked hard together, celebrated its successes, and of course, partied hard together (seems we can’t do that as much anymore).
The PR Week recognition shows that spirit still lives. The formative years may be past, but there are plenty of great years still ahead!
Mitch Leff started at Cohn & Wolfe in 1988, three weeks out of college. After about 10 years at Cohn & Wolfe, he worked at Edelman Public Relations, GCI Group and Turner Broadcasting before, like Bob and Norman, he started his own agency, Leff & Associates, in 2003.