Hint: A Can-Do Attitude and Great Heart are her Best Trade Secrets
By Vicki de Vries
What does a committed entrepreneur do for fun? If she’s Stacey Cohen, Founder and CEO of Co-Communications, Inc., it’s likely reading an historical novel. Not exactly what one might expect from someone used to negotiating contracts and high-powered PR and marketing campaigns for a five-star, full-service public relations and marketing agency with satellite offices in Hartford and Manhattan.
Then again, Stacey Cohen is accustomed to breaking molds, ever since starting her first business at age 14. When she and a girlfriend decided that babysitting did not pay so well, they created an at-home waitress service.
“We really learned a lot from that experience,” said Cohen. “We placed an ad in the local PennySaver, set up at clients’ homes, served guests, and cleaned up.” Wearing white shoes and uniforms, the girls made a lot more money than they could have from babysitting, which they still did on off-weekends.
The Building Blocks of Business
Business is definitely in Cohen’s blood. “Both of my parents were serial entrepreneurs, and I saw how hard they worked,” said Cohen, who has fond memories of her family discussing business issues around their dinner table in Brooklyn. When her father started a women’s sportswear company, Cohen enjoyed creating a logo for the new company.
Her father, who had lost both of his parents when he was a teenager, vowed that his future family would have it easier than he had. When he was able to move his family from their tight apartment to a roomy house in New City, Rockland County, Cohen and her two sisters, one of whom is her fraternal twin, were thrilled. After high school, Cohen attended Syracuse University and majored in family and community services with a strong focus on field studies.
“Working with all kinds of people–from young to old, poor to wealthy, emotionally stable to unstable–was a tremendous experience,” said Cohen. That kind of exposure to people and needs would become a vital ingredient in her future success.
After graduating from Syracuse, Cohen worked at an advertising agency in Manhattan, followed by several years in the international marketing department at CBS/Fox, then the world’s largest home video company.
Sensing the need for further education, Cohen enrolled in Fordham University’s evening MBA program. CBS paid 100% of the tuition, and she applied basic theory to her day-to-day business activities. In particular, her business policy course, which explored the real-life challenges and opportunities of various industries, gave her the added confidence to be a risk taker– basic to Entrepreneurship 101.
The next step in Cohen’s odyssey was “chance”–meeting the woman who had been the head of the PR department that CBS/Fox had just eliminated. She had started her own agency with CBS/Fox as a client and made Cohen an offer she could not refuse: “Please come work in my new venture as a senior account executive.” “I helped her start her business,” said Cohen, “and we made everyday, as well as long-term, decisions together. I learned first-hand at age 27 how to build an agency. It came naturally to me.”
Since learning what not to do can be just as important as knowing what to do, Cohen is grateful for a freelancing project during the mid-1990s that involved writing an annual report for a biotech company going public. The only hitch: no direct client contact.
Instead, she had to forward questions to the agency. That indirect form of communication struck Cohen as out of sync with maximizing service to a client.
The next logical career step for Cohen was starting her own business– Co-Communications, Inc., in December 1997.
In the early days, one of Stacey’s clients asked if she could run an advertising campaign, and her response was “Of course!” Lacking the experience, she sought help from a friend who was a New York Times ad rep and taught her all about column inches and frequency rates. Her moxie paid off.
And right from the beginning, Cohen involved her family in the business–just as her parents had years before. While her husband, a practicing attorney, reviewed news releases, their two daughters stuffed bags for special events. “I made sure the kids were part of the experience,” said Cohen, whose office soon moved to 295, then to 344, and finally to 332 Main Street in Mount Kisco.
Cohen worked long hours often starting at 7:15 a.m. and, during heavy event seasons, ending at 10 p.m. “My incredible husband pitched in, shared household and childcare responsibilities and even did the cooking!” Not about to sacrifice her close family to the corporate gods, she tackled her biggest personal challenge head on: creating boundaries for her work life and home life. “I realized I could get lost in the process of running a business,” said Cohen. “I couldn’t wait to get to the office, but I also enjoyed playgroups a few times during the week. It was all a matter of finding the right balance that would work for me and my family and the growing business.”
Looking back over the early years of her business, Cohen is so grateful her gamble worked out. “Our daughters are independent with a can-do attitude,” she said, in a justifiably proud tone, “and most important of all, they have great heart.”
Pinpointing resources and an attitude of constantly learning, along with a strong focus on excellent staff, creative strategies, unique solutions and superior results, would eventually lead to Co-Communications winning numerous industry awards.
To date, Co-Communications has received the “Best of Show” award by Gannett/The Journal News (2002, 2010, 2012), 48 Advertising Club awards and five Gold PRSA Mercury awards, among others. To Cohen’s delight, the company was also awarded the 2006 Forbes Enterprise award and was inducted into the Westchester County Business Hall of Fame in 2008. Westchester Magazine’s 914 Inc. recognized Cohen as one of Westchester county’s Most Accomplished Women Entrepreneurs.
Accolades aside, Cohen defines success as “a matter of constantly improving ourselves. Client success translates into our success.” The full-service agency has been able to attract and retain a diverse client base from a wide variety of industries–education, hospitality, IT, professional services, real estate and not-for-profits.
Clients as Partners
People often assume that the “Co” in the company name is from Cohen’s last name, but it’s actually from the Latin prefix meaning “with, or together.” The whole thrust of the company revolves around working with clients as partners. “Developing a true partnership takes time, but it’s worth it.”
A born optimist, Cohen believes that “in an economic downturn, there is opportunity. After all, in the depths of the Great Depression, the cosmetics industry was born!” During the recent recession, Co-Communications was down only 5% in terms of client retention, an enviable percentage Cohen does not leave to chance.
“We have great client retention, because we invest in our clients.” Given the current economic state of affairs, resiliency and a dedicated staff of fifteen professionals have also greatly contributed to the company’s ability to retain “client-partners.” Last but not least, Cohen said that understanding the current environment and innovation are key: “We work closely with our clients to develop innovative, hard-working marketing tactics that produce bottom-line results and bring them closer to their target audience. Fresh ideas lead to growth, so we continue to break out of our comfort zone and try new approaches.”
By the same token, the ideal client “sees us as their partner, not as a vendor,” said Cohen. A major focus of Co-Communications is helping companies see marketing as an investment, rather than as an expense. “We help them create a company-wide marketing culture. The company’s brand needs to be promoted internally, and the entire staff, who is often on the front lines, must play a role in marketing the company.”
Not-for-profits, such as the Boys and Girls Club of Northern Westchester, have brought Cohen a great deal of personal satisfaction: “They were our first client, and I’ve been blessed to have an ongoing relationship with them for fourteen years! In many ways, we’ve grown up together. I have enormous admiration for the Club’s dedication and positive impact on the youth and their families in the community.”
Cohen is also very pleased with helping the “Build the Bridge Now” campaign to raise awareness about replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge with a New Hudson River crossing, the largest public works project in state history. Working with the Construction Industry Council, the Business Council of Westchester, Rockland Business Association, and local/national media, Co-Communications has been instrumental in setting up press conferences, social media, and the website www.BuildTheBridgeNowNY.org.
What does the future hold for Cohen? “I want to create the agency of the future that will continue to be innovative and collaborative. The groundwork has already been laid, but we will continue to work hard to find new and different ways to help our clients grow and prosper.”
Spoken like a seasoned entrepreneur.
Vicki de Vries is a writer/editor/educator living in Westchester “country.”