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Volume 21 No. 2
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CSE builds relationships and its business

There are agencies that thrive because the founder is well-connected from years in marketing, and there are agencies that succeed because of expertise in agency management or an early reputation for creative wizardry.

Atlanta’s CSE can’t point to any of those as reasons for its success.

Lonnie Cooper started CSE 27 years ago without any agency experience. But he had enough foresight to see that a sub-6-foot NBA player would be highly marketable, and he was a talented enough schmoozer to successfully cold call the player outside the Atlanta Hawks’ locker room in 1986. The result was a promotion tying together Coca-Cola, Church’s fried chicken and Spud Webb.

Lonnie Cooper (left), who started CSE 27 years ago, chats with marketing president Adam Zimmerman. Clients say the firm is good at anticipating their needs.
A mentor? “Never had one,” Cooper chuckles, sitting inside a conference room at the agency’s headquarters in Atlanta. “Maybe my mom. I never saw her in a bad mood, ever, and she always saw the glass as half full.”

From his mother, now 86, Cooper took some enduring values: “Treat people right, use your gut, and trust yourself.’’

Those words have been the foundation of a corporate culture that’s permeated the agency.

“They’re just smart,’’ said Daryl Evans, AT&T vice president of consumer advertising and marketing communications, about CSE. He’s been working with the agency since 2001. “Lonnie has a gift for growing and maintaining relationships, and you can see that’s permeated the company. He’s just as human as he can be and he hires that kind of people.”

Early on, Cooper gravitated from being in the scrap-metal business, to working as a DJ, to selling desk-blotter coupons. It’s the coalescing power of his personality that eventually allowed him to build up from running a coaches representation firm to having a multiservice marketing agency with brand clients that are household names, including AT&T, Aflac, Coke, Kellogg’s and The Home Depot.

Cooper is mum on billings for his privately held shop, but other indicators of growth are impressive. CSE has mushroomed from 52 to 186 employees over the past three years and next spring will move into a new space in Atlanta’s Cobb Galleria area that’s almost twice as large as the company’s current 31,000-square-foot office tower home.

The agency’s offerings have increased with client demand, especially in fertile areas like marketing analytics, content creation, social and digital — a sector that has grown to have a staff of 36 on its own.

The force of Cooper’s character was evident years before he was “The Boogie Man of Rock & Roll” on Georgia radio. Cooper’s leadership abilities and innate social talent boosted him to class president every year he was in high school.

So maybe CSE is best described as a cult of personality. In a marketing world where the attrition rate is only slightly less than what’s seen in the world of pro sports teams, with their annual roster overhauls, CSE’s continuity is an anomaly. Clients and employees are in it for the long haul.

Former MLB pitcher and current broadcaster John Smoltz has been represented by Cooper and CSE since 1991.

“Lonnie has this way of quickly and quietly building trust,” Smoltz said. “He’s not a guy that has a hammer and starts yelling; you see that in other places. Lonnie is always building for the long term.”

CSE started working on Aflac’s sports marketing around 10 years ago. Today, CSE handles a variety of marketing duties for the company, including events and some advertising.

“Lonnie’s an amazing judge of talent, which has made him a great team builder and leader,’’ said Aflac Chief Marketing Officer Michael Zuna. “That probably came from his days evaluating sports and coaching talent. I want my agency to think, create and execute; they do all three of those well. So many agencies can only do one or two of those things.”

Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark has done work with CSE since his days at NASCAR more than a decade ago. “They’re smart and great relationship people; all that comes from Lonnie,” Yormark said. “It’s not a typical agency/client relationship with them. They can anticipate the needs of their clients before the clients do.”

Over the years, an agency that started by representing Webb and NBA coaches like Mike Fratello — and counts among its current clients Kevin McHale, Doc Rivers, Frank Vogel and Randy Wittman — has flipped the businesses around to where marketing is more than 80 percent of total revenue. The feeling within is that CSE’s legacy as a representation firm built a strong foundation.

“We started with people and learned about relationships that way,” said CSE Marketing President Adam Zimmerman, a 15-year CSE veteran.

As sports and business in the Southeast have grown, so too has CSE’s marketing business. It’s become multifunctional to include multicultural, experiential campaigns — including work on Coke’s sponsorship of the Mexican national soccer team and AT&T’s ties to the historically black colleges and universities. It also boasts an impressive amount of media production/content, event management, brand identity and design development, along with advertising, hospitality, strategic consulting and analytics, one of the many fields in which Cooper tired of using talent from outside the agency.

“Lonnie’s entrepreneurial enough that whenever we hire some vendor three or four times, he always asks about bringing them in-house,” said Doug Manning, senior vice president of marketing and a former CSE intern who has been with the firm since 1997.

Even those moves are made with long-term vision. Such is the value of being independent: CSE’s size and independence work in tandem to provide a base of discipline, even in the face of what might appear to be a gravy train of new revenue.

“Mobile and digital marketing are catnip for clients right now,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a gold rush, and you are irrelevant if you don’t have it. Give Lonnie credit for seeing that the discipline of analytics will be a real strength here in the long term.”

CSE runs a mobile tour that travels with NBC’s weekly “Sunday Night Football” telecast.
Media clients are plentiful. This fall, CSE is running a mobile tour that travels with NBC’s weekly “Sunday Night Football” telecast and helps select four “‘SNF’ Fans of the Week,” chosen based on their social media activity, team pride and “SNF” fandom. Winners in each market get a VIP game experience that includes transportation on the “SNF” bus.

Other media clients include Turner Sports, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports and USA Today.

Down the road, Zimmerman sees continued growth in digital, social, mobile and multicultural areas. Cause marketing in general, and sustainability in particular, are areas in which he sees a growth in demand from corporate marketers and a likely melding of budgets.

“You see so much cause-related kept separate from the marketing side of many clients,” Zimmerman said. “We’re wondering how long that will continue.”

CSE recently hired Flo Bryan, former American Cancer Society managing director of corporate marketing alliances, as the agency’s first senior vice president of cause marketing. “Brands always wanted to be relevant to consumers; now they want to be likable,” Cooper said.

Cooper is an involved CEO, and he’s as enthusiastic about the three inter-CSE marriages as he is any other part of his business. His employees speak rhapsodically about a management style that allows employees an extra day off each month that doesn’t count against their vacation time, days known as Lonnie Days.

“I don’t want a ‘culture,’ but if I can create an atmosphere where people are excited to come to work, I’m happy,” Cooper said.

As one of the largest independent agencies in the business, CSE gets frequent inquiries from large agency holding companies seeking a beachhead in Atlanta. Usually those conversations are short, Cooper said, because the idea of relinquishing any interest in a company he owns 100 percent isn’t appealing.

“When you are building something, do you ever get to the point of, ‘I’ve done it?’” he said. “As an entrepreneur, I’m not there yet. I enjoy the business too much, and we’re still growing. This book’s not finished.”