Cole & Weber United’s Elizabeth Rowny on Brand Relationships

Elizabeth Rowny Elizabeth Rowny was recently hired as Managing Director, Partner at Cole Weber United, a Seattle-based creativity company. Elizabeth was previously employed as Worldwide Managing Director at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, where she was the global network leader for two of GSK’s largest consumer brands, Nicorette/Niquitin and Aquafresh. The Makegood recently spoke with Elizabeth about her previous position, adjusting to the work-life in Seattle, and some of her goals at CWU.

The Makegood: Congratulations on your new position as Managing Director, Partner at Cole & Weber United. What was it about CWU that pulled you into joining their team?

First and foremost it was about shared ambition for the kind of work we want to do and the way in which each of us thinks about client business. We never had a conversation that was just about advertising. They are excellent marketers who know that understanding a client’s business is job number one.

The shop has also been a stalwart of the Seattle market for decades now, and yet it has remained restless in the best possible sense. It’s an interesting moment in their history – Seattle is continuing to morph as the home base to major national and global brands, and clients all over the country have accepted that big, business-transforming ideas can come from anywhere.

There’s a lot of talk about the power of holding companies now – what I see with Cole & Weber is the very best of what this model has to offer. They’re fiercely independent in spirit and practice, yet they’re situated in a building with the kind of collective expertise every client should want their team to have access to as they walk the halls. I spent a lot of time working at a holding company level – though have never experienced having a literal collective like this in place. Even if we don’t end up sharing business with each other, there is no reason we can’t share knowledge, ideas and inspiration. Not having to cross town, change buildings should make this a reality.

They have media in house. I’m a strong advocate of having media embedded from the very start – it makes every single piece of communication conceived, regardless of channel or medium, more powerful. It’s the kind of integration of thought which can elude larger shops where media is down the road, in a different company. I like that I’ll be able to see my media partner from my desk and they’ll be right there debating work with our strategy and creative partners.

And finally, it’s not broken. Mike Doherty has done a truly amazing job of leading this shop. His brief was to find another partner who could help build on its strong foundation – not re-imagine its proposition or overhaul the staff. There are some incredibly smart, talented folks in the building who are dedicated to his leadership which is a great place to start from.

The Makegood: What will your first order of business be at CWU?

To really get to know the whole team. There may be some amount of skepticism about a New Yorker coming in – so really it’s my job to ensure everyone very quickly understands I’m joining for the long game and I’m there to work shoulder to shoulder with them. It’s why I’m so excited to join a smaller shop again where colleagues can become friends with a collective mission. It’s a small, though mighty, team which is very exciting.

The Makegood: You have a diverse and varied background of work experience. Can you talk about some of that experience and how it has prepared you for this position? Specifically your work with Nicorette / Niquitin

Ultimately working on those brands underscored for me what I already knew as a consumer myself – relationships with brands aren’t made from a TV spot. No matter how great that spot might be.

My work on GSK’s smoking cessation brands was a real labor of love. My father smoked for 30 years and it was the biggest, deepest disagreement we had between us. I had a visceral understanding of this addiction and how a person quite literally fights with the force of their own willpower each time they try to quit smoking.

To know the product which your client manufactures will most likely not be what solves ‘the problem’ for a smoker creates a different kind of challenge. We would hear in focus groups all over the world about how smokers need more than nicotine replacement, they need emotional and behavioral support, whether it’s their first time quitting or their 10th. This meant everything the brand did, how it behaved so to speak, had to be in support of the smoker’s journey. This meant the team really had to think about the whole product experience as going beyond the gum or the patch in the box. Every one of us became ‘user experience’ experts in this regard.

From choosing media in places we knew smokers would struggle with a craving (a bus stop, driving in traffic, during the big game) to not choosing other placements, like airports because smokers found this to be insensitive since they were already captured in an environment where smoking is so frowned upon now. It also meant thinking about what ‘product’ we were selling – since the box from the shelf would never be enough, we had to continually ask ourselves how we could support a smoker changing their behavior. This is an amazing (and often humbling) lens to have all your NPD and marketing initiatives filter through. As I said at the beginning, it set a high bar for what a consumer brand relationship means to me as a marketer and how I look at any business/brand now.

The Makegood: As audiences disperse and become harder to reach, what challenges do you foresee arising in the advertising industry and how do you see CWU overcoming them?

I think we all know the challenges, as marketers and consumers. There is only so much share of mind any one person has for this kind of messaging, which is exacerbated by people toggling between devices so seamlessly. As a brand, if you don’t keep up with this dynamic then it’s likely you’ll not make into the cluttered sphere of choices facing us all every day. I’m shocked when I’m hunting to buy something from my laptop at home, can’t quite finish what I started, try to finish while riding the bus and find out the mobile version of a site doesn’t really exist. They lost me right there and it’s such a simple thing. If I told you the last [very big] service brand I noticed having this issue, you’d be shocked too.

During the process of getting to know the folks at CWU I was often impressed by how they talked in terms of creating ideas to solve business problems – it was never about creating just advertising. This combined with the fact that they have a truly integrated offering (UX, analytics, search, media planning) without competing P&L’s is how they will continue to do the kind of work which will move their clients’ businesses. It’s this combined horse power that will  ensure all those audience challenges we face will be met with the kind of strategic rigor which would never see a smart mobile strategy left behind.

The Makegood: How do you hope to help CWU grow while also leaving your mark on the advertising industry?

I honestly don’t think about leaving my mark on the industry. I do think about leaving a mark with my clients, their business, the teams I lead and the people I mentor. This is a true team sport, I really believe this. I will be able to help CWU continue to grow because as a team we’ll have great chemistry and we’ll be able to see our way through all we agree and disagree on – all in service of doing what’s right for our clients.

I do hope to add to their ambition of being a world-class agency. I’ve spent a long time working on global brands and have seen firsthand the most powerful of ideas come from a ‘local agency’ in an unexpected corner of the world. I fell in love with this shop because they didn’t talk about themselves as a local agency, rather a smart agency who happen to be in this wonderfully interesting, evolving, growing city of Seattle. So I’m truly excited to be inspired by the kind of energy happening in the city right now and how it can help shape the work we do for local clients as well as those in other corners of the country.

 The Makegood: Thank you, Elizabeth