As a kid growing up during the early ’60s in Roxborough, a blue-collar neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia, Alan Cohen would write away to the big three networks for copies of their upcoming fall television schedules.
The networks, probably sensing what would today be called a brand enthusiast, would respond with not only their schedules but the accompanying swag that was given out at their upfront presentations.
“I’ve always been a person that stays up on pop culture and brands,” Cohen says.
That early enthusiasm for television — and how the networks deployed their schedules against one another in the battle for ratings supremacy — has served Cohen well. Today, as president of Initiative West and worldwide innovation, he spends his days advising clients on marketing and media strategies and bringing his marketing insights to Initiative’s global offices.
Cohen began his career in entertainment at NBC, where as an evp in the 1980s and 1990s, he worked to push NBC into online and nontraditional marketing. During his 14-year tenure, NBC launched its Web site and put Seinfeld star Jerry Seinfeld on a Wheaties box.
Cohen next moved to ABC, where he was evp of marketing, advertising and promotion for six years. During this time ABC infamously used talking pictures of series star Norm Macdonald placed atop urinals in bars in New York and Los Angeles to promote Norm and called people at home in the 10 biggest cities to inform them that Madigan Men was on.
In 2002, Cohen joined 20th Century Fox Film as the president of marketing. During his year on the job, he worked on the marketing for the animated hit Ice Age and Unfaithful. “I left Fox because there really wasn’t much for me to do,” he says.
Cohen has brought what he learned in the entertainment industry — namely how to market properties in an entertaining way — to media planning at Initiative West. Initially hired as evp at Initiative Innovations in 2005, Cohen was promoted to his current position in February.
“When I was hired a few years ago, [the job] was talking to marketers about breaking through the clutter. Now it’s developing marketing plans and media. A lot of our clients want that,” Cohen says from his car in Los Angeles, where he was preparing to keynote at last week’s OMMA conference on online media, marketing and advertising.
One of those clients is Showtime. For the season premiere of Weeds, a show about a suburban mom who deals marijuana, Initiative came up with the idea of having a scratch and sniff strip in Rolling Stone magazine that smelled like pot.
“They go off and develop their plans which will include the meat and potatoes and all the interesting things we can do,” says Len Fogge, Showtime’s New York-based evp, creative marketing research and digital media. “Alan’s ideas are always right for the business.”
The media business has changed a lot in Cohen’s time. “Ten years ago … you would have a PR agency, creative agency, media agency and so on,” he notes. “Now it’s 30 or more, with a viral agency, a digital agency, a digital agency that does creative and so on.”
As president of worldwide innovation, Cohen is tasked with making marketing part of Initiative’s standard client offering. “Alan gives the strategies he thinks about a marketing and entertaining angle,” says Richard Beaven, CEO, Initiative Worldwide. “That’s what we’re trying to do throughout the company: have people think about marketing solutions, not media solutions.”
Education: Graduated summa cum laude from Boston University in 1978 with a degree in communications. He received his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1982 and continues to teach a graduate-level class in entertainment promotion and advertising for BU’s Los Angeles program.
Background: Born in 1956 and raised in Northwest Philadelphia, Cohen is a staunch advocate of only eating Philly cheesesteaks in Philadelphia.
Awards: Named an Adweek Media All-Star and Advertising Age Media Maven in 2007; Entertainment Marketer of the Year, Advertising Age, 2000; Top 100 Marketing Executives, Advertising Age, 1994 and 2000; Marketer of the Year, Brandweek, 2000; Interactive Marketer of the Year, Advertising Age, 1995; 1997 Emmy for producing an ABC public service integrated programming and marketing campaign.