Partners+Napier Founder and New CEO Discuss the Agency’s Evolution

After 15 years, they're putting more of a focus on media companies now

Sharon Napier, founder of Partners+Napier, is stepping into a chair role with Courtney Cotrupe to take over the chief executive role. Partners + Napier
Headshot of Erik Oster

Earlier this week, Partners+Napier named Courtney Cotrupe as its new chief executive, as Sharon Napier steps into a chair role after 15 years leading the agency she founded. Napier will also take on a global leadership role for parent company Project Worldwide. At the same time, Cotrupe hired Rob Kottkamp as the agency’s chief creative.

Adweek spoke with Napier and Cotrupe about the succession.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Adweek: Why was now the right time for this transition?
Sharon Napier: Timing is everything in life. If you are going to especially make big pivotal leadership changes, the best time to do them is when things are really going well. It’s about leading our change instead of change leading us. It’s about doing the right thing for the agency.

As a founder for 15 years, I did not take it lightly at all, but Courtney and I have been working together for 15 years. You need different kinds of leaders for different life stages in a company. She was absolutely the right leader for today, and we waited until she found her creative partner.

Running an agency today is absolutely more complex than it’s ever been, so you need to be running on all cylinders.

Why is running an agency today so much more complicated?
When we started, we were branding, advertising and retail marketing. Today we have grown our capabilities based on our clients’ needs, so we’re a fully integrated agency. And we just added, under Courtney’s leadership, media planning and buying. But it’s not just having capabilities, it’s making sure they’re integrated. So you need more talent, you need to integrate it. And in today’s world where there are less AOR assignments and more projects, you have to really be able to do that in a way that’s efficient and effective and drives value for your client.

As you mentioned, you’ve been working with Courtney for 15 years. How long has this been the succession plan for the chief executive role?
Any good founder really has to think about the people who report underneath them. And I think the No. 1 responsibility of a good CEO is to make sure they’re thinking about their successor because it’s about building something that endures, not something that only lasts as long as the founder is around. Courtney moved from managing director to president over two years ago, and we were on a clear path to today.

Can you elaborate on what your new role will be at Project Worldwide?
I’ll play a strong role within the global senior leadership team. We meet quarterly and I kind of get to what I do best. What I’m really excited about is helping the agency grow in new and different ways, whether that’s by deepening client relationships, diversifying our talent, developing new prospects or elevating and raising our voice in the industry.

You mentioned things have been going well for Partners+Napier in recent years. To what do you attribute that at a time when many agencies are struggling?
I think we’ve always been an agency that has defined our own success. We’re aligned. We’re very focused. We know who we are. We’ve kept our name in the conversation. When we think about growth, it’s everything from search to awards to client retention to organic growth. We’ve made two acquisitions in the last four years or five years.

So we think about growth in so many dimensions. And I think many agencies think about growth as just new business. If you’re winning new business and you’re losing clients out the door, well, that’s not gonna help. So when we talk about adding capabilities like media planning and buying, that’s about really creating more value for our clients and keeping those clients.

What went into building up the media buying and planning capabilities at Partners+ Napier, and what is the next step in that evolution?
Courtney Cotrupe: We’ve been buying media for about two years. As a mid-size integrated agency, we found there was a unique sweet spot for the clients that we had, and we looked at growth to offer media and rebundle creative and media together because it’s really challenging for clients to be able to manage it all. Also, as a creative agency, we want to have the data and the insights to make the work stronger.

What’s really important when you’re building out a capability is that you invest in a strong leader of visionary talent. And we did that around two years ago with Jordan Murphy, who moved to Rochester from Universal McCann in New York, where he spent the last 10 years leading global media businesses at an integrated level.

Over the past two years, we’ve developed out our media capability within our engagement team both in terms of paid and earned as well as the owned channel that spans influencer, social, traditional and digital. Now we have a 13-person engagement team that includes media planning and buying within it.

This is our fastest growing capability right now, and it’s something that we see as a key dimension to our growth for the future.

What does integrating creative and the media allow you to do for clients? How many clients do you work with on both creative and media? Are there any that you’re working with exclusively on the media side?
We’re currently buying media for five or six clients. We are actually pursuing media-only clients right now.

Clients need their dollars to work really hard for them, and it doesn’t benefit them to have a digital agency, a media agency, a creative agency, an analytics agency. It’s more efficient for them to be working with one partner that really knows their business inside and out. And it’s also more effective because they’re able to react to the market and the way consumers are reacting to the communications with essentially one phone call.

What went into the process of identifying the right creative partner for you, and how long did that process take?
This was a very focused effort that I led. We made the decision as a senior management team in December last year, and we had Rob signed on and onboard in July or early August.

We were prepared that this was going to be a six to nine months search. This was the most important hire we’ve made in the history of the agency, and it started with a consultant that we hired to help us do this, knowing the importance of a cultural fit. It had to be someone who is able to inspire great work, motivate teams and really be able to bring the expertise from all of the client experience that they had to be able to elevate our product in a really positive way.

Where would you like to be the agency to be a year from now?
I think what makes me so proud about what we’re doing here is that we are coming from a position of strength and growth. So this is not a turnaround. This is not a dramatic overhaul. I think we’ve got something really, really good here, and our goal is to get better at it while remaining grounded in our values and our culture that makes us unique.

That said, I think we want to look back and say we’ve done better work than we did the year before, that we’ve gotten better results than we did the year before on behalf of our clients and we’ve amplified our culture.

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@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.