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Tom Coombes is the founder and CEO of Cognito. Tom’s experience is drawn from more than 15 years advising financial institutions and related businesses on improving their marketing, communications and brand strategies to make a direct impact on sales and profitability.
Tom’s client experience comes from working with leading financial sector brands around the globe including: Bloomberg, Western Union, CitiBank, JPMorgan, Intel, Oracle, JPMorgan and the London Stock Exchange, as well as numerous technology companies and consultancies that sell to the financial services market.
Cognito is a full-service communications agency focused exclusively on the finance and financial technology sectors. From global institutions to niche players, Cognito clients benefit from creative and strategic thinking, professional delivery and a commitment to exceeding expectations.
MO: What are some tips for growing an international business organically?
Tom: When I started Cognito in London in 2000, I knew I wanted to physically expand our global footprint, but didn’t do so without careful market research, planning and number crunching. Physical expansion isn’t always the best growth strategy; it’s the steps you take in getting there that make the difference.
As a communications expert in a very specific industry, I knew that it was exclusively about choosing the right people. If you get the right people on board, you will succeed. Here at Cognito, we have sent people to open new offices in all corners of the world, but only after working with them directly and knowing their drive and work ethic. Persistence is the key to success and I need to know my team has that.
Additionally, diversifying is an excellent growth strategy. It allows you to have multiple streams of income that can often fill seasonal voids and, of course, increase sales and profit margins. We’ve done that with Cognito by developing Cognito Analytics, a suite of online products that enable firms in the financial sector to improve their business through the more effective use of market, PR and competitive information. Not only do my clients receive topnotch consulting and market exposure byway of PR, but they also can track and monitor Cognito’s tangible results.
Because of these steps, twelve years later, Cognito has offices and partners located in London, New York City, Los Angeles, Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong.
MO: What is proactive public relations and how have you helped companies have the confidence to introduce the concept of using it in their organization?
Tom: Proactive PR can be defined as using communications to craft the reputation and brand image you want in the market – and going through the processes of defining who you want to be. At Cognito, it’s about helping companies do this. We understand that our clients’ reputations are extremely valuable and need the right collection of PR experts to help support the planning process – and continually adjusting those plans while anticipating and interpreting market needs.
Proactive public relations should play a vital role in any organization’s business as an opportunity to highlight products, achievements, personnel and news that will engage the public and ultimately result in increased public awareness, positive perception and profits.
MO: Cognito was recognized as one of 50 Most Engaged Workplaces™ in the United States. What are some of the factors that contributed this unique recognition?
Tom: We’ve always aimed to have people with a common proactive, “get stuff done” approach. We have a very strong work hard/play hard mentality here at Cognito and I think that’s because all of us want to succeed and want to see the business grow.
Additionally, there is nothing more important in the success of an organization than the dedication of a strong management team. As a smaller firm, it is easy to establish a flat structure across levels; however it is a true accomplishment to execute it at such a high level of success. Cognito’s low to minimal turn-over is a testament to the engagement that each employee experiences while working at the firm. Our positive work environment is further supported by the physical set-up of the office, an open plan, with management and account executives sharing not only their work space but verbal supportive exchanges throughout each work day.
As a PR firm, we eat, breathe and sleep healthy communication and are often tasked with helping our clients establish best communication practices. Therefore, it is our No. 1 priority to foster an environment where employee questions are encouraged and regularly addressed. In addition to yearly employee evaluations, each team member has weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with their respective manager to further develop skills. Weekly office meetings and quarterly companywide check-ins are also a hotbed of questions and inter-team exchange. Everyone here has a voice, and I want to hear it.
MO: What are three trends in your industry that you’re excited about?
Tom: Social media, the internationalization of communications and the convergence of the communications discipline. The business and opportunities these developments have brought have been remarkable. The craft of communications, and the PR houses that get it, have changed and being an agency with full service capabilities is a must.
With social media, there is now an understanding that the nature of corporate communications has changed forever. The prevalence of social media over recent years has ushered in a new era of openness, which firms can no longer escape. Everyone has a newswire with Twitter; new levels of transparency and communication are expected. With the right approach and tools like Cognito Analytics, the social media arena can be directly measurable and therefore quantifiable.
MO: What are some tips or strategies for attracting and retaining talent in a fiercely competitive industry?
Tom: You have got to challenge people. The people I work with are not just motivated by money but by accounts that interest them. Give your teams brands and people that excite them. Also crucial for retaining the top talent out there is the quality of the relationship between senior management and account staff. The relationship you have with your boss must be open, respected and relished.
Additionally, Cognito upholds three cultural pillars – a ‘no-politics’ policy, a deep commitment to continued education and building ownership at all levels.
No politics: Staff is rewarded/promoted based on individual performance, with yearly reviews/performance bonuses. In our New York office, we have a “Board-of-Awesome” located in the firm’s kitchen and dining room which allows peers to recognize others’ good work, whether it be clients’ praises, recent nationally published work, etc.
Investment in professional training with a clear career path: We send new staff on a two-day financial services workshop and offer monthly PR/Finance “Lunch & Learns.” Cognito also provides Series 7 training (the FINRA license for general securities representation), which has been unheard of outside of major powerhouse trading firms. As a specialist financial PR & Marketing firm, Cognito is dedicated to ensuring we are as knowledgeable as we can be about the industry we work in. This recent course is just one example of the financial training we are offering our staff as part of this ongoing effort.
Building ownership: The firm runs voluntary committees for Business Development, Pro-Bono PR, Journalist Networking, Social Events, and more. From our yearly “Forced Fun Days”, global off-sites, Kickball leagues and more – Cognito is a dynamic firm with standout retention rates, making us a competitive force in the market.