🌐 C-Suite Conversations: Joe Cohen
Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, AXIS
In This Interview
✏️ Learn from opportunities to work with leadership
🙏🏽 Incorporate purpose into your portfolio
📊 Approach work with the mentality of a business strategist
Joe Cohen serves as Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at AXIS (NYSE: AXS), a global provider of specialty insurance and reinsurance with a presence that spans North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia-Pacific and Bermuda.
Mr. Cohen leads the Company’s global in-house marketing and communications team. He is responsible for guiding brand reputation, marketing and advertising, digital, financial communications, and internal/change management communications. Mr. Cohen is a member of the Company's Strategy Office, Digital Transformation Office, and its Corporate Citizenship Steering Committee. In 2016, he joined AXIS as the Company’s Chief Communications Officer, where he led global external and internal communications.
Prior to joining AXIS, Mr. Cohen served for two years as SVP of Communications for KIND Healthy Snacks. Previously, he spent 15 years at MWW where he rose to become a senior leader in the agency’s brand marketing and corporate communications practices. He is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University.
What sparked your professional path into Communications and Marketing?
The connective thread that runs through all of my career is that I'm a builder. I've always been drawn towards opportunities where I have a chance to help grow organizations and businesses.
This began in college. I went to Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Communications with the idea of being a journalist or creative writer. I decided to study broadcast journalism and was specifically interested in sports at first. The school is known for legendary sports broadcasters — Marv Albert, Mike Tirico, Bob Costas, among others. I was on the sports journalism track and had a coveted position at the WAER radio station. I faced what would be my first big career decision during my junior year when I had to choose whether or not to study abroad in London — which would require me to give up my spot at the radio station. Ultimately, I went to London — which became a life-changing experience.
When I came back, I began working at the college music radio station and eventually became a professional job as a DJ at the local hip-hop station. At the time, hip hop was just beginning to become mainstream — I was a fan of the genre and saw the opportunity to help be part of a station and a movement that was growing, which was very exciting to me.
My intention was to stay with the station post-college but I needed to go home during the summer after graduation to help with some family-related items. I wound up taking what I thought would be a temporary job at MWW. MWW was a growing firm with great clients and I thought I could learn about the field of branding, public relations, and marketing and bring what I learned back to the radio station.
What happened when you joined MWW?
The short story is that I stayed for 15 years and had an incredible professional experience. It was thrilling to be part of the team that grew MWW into a best-in-class midsize firm and along the way I had an opportunity to work across corporate communications, brand marketing, crisis management, non-profit and purpose work. A key moment was at the end of my first year, when I was noticed by the CEO Michael Kempner, and was assigned to be his publicist. Having an opportunity to work with and learn from Michael provided me with an education in leadership, business, management and life, in general.
During my time at MWW, I was also one of the team members who helped grow the brand/consumer marketing practice to become a pillar of the firm, which it still is today
From there, I was recruited to work at KIND, then a rapidly growing privately held company that was already establishing itself as a pioneer in both the snack food and purpose-driven space led by Daniel Lubetzky – who is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met or worked with. I loved Daniel’s vision, what the brand stood for, and am proud that I was part of a team that helped guide the company through a key period of growth, as well as in weathering periods of challenge
I was then recruited to become global Chief Communications Officer at AXIS, a publicly traded insurance and reinsurance company. This was again an opportunity to help build something and I absolutely love working with AXIS. I’ve now been with the firm for over five and a half years and become Chief Marketing & Communications Officer more than two years ago.
Many of my formative experiences have helped me in different ways at AXIS — working across both financial services and brand marketing at MWW, studying overseas in college and beginning to develop a global mindset. My experiences in the purpose space are also relevant as AXIS is a global leader in renewable energy and in recent years we’ve made exciting progress in growing the company’s corporate citizenship program. If there’s a takeaway for young professionals, it is to look at every professional experience as an opportunity — you may be surprised how it can help you later during your career.
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished over the years?
Since I began my career, purpose always resonated with me. In particular, I took an interest in work related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and environmental impact. In my agency days, I took on pro bono work with nonprofits and encouraged my for-profit clients to adopt purpose-driven programs and campaigns.
At AXIS, I immediately observed it was a company with strong values and a purpose-driven mindset, and that there was an opportunity to build upon that foundation. I'm very proud to be part of the leadership team that has built the company’s corporate citizenship program which includes DEI and the environment as key areas of focus
I’m a founding member of the global steering committee for the program and in recent years we’ve put forward a number of exciting initiatives. On the environment, we introduced a fossil fuel underwriting policy that earned us a top five rankings from Just Capital (#5 among insurance companies) and Unfriend Coal (#3 fossil fuel underwriting policy). For DEI, we've introduced measurable DEI goals that are being reviewed at the board level, introduced policies, training, performance management, a global council, and driving advocacy work within our industry.
To be clear, there’s much more work to be done on all fronts but the momentum that we’ve built has been exciting.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Communications?
It begins with mindset. I encourage professionals at every level to approach their work with the mentality of a business strategist — something that was instilled in me by MWW and Michael Kempner. This means developing an understanding of the business, how it makes money, the opportunities and challenges it faces, and how your work can directly impact the company’s bottom line objectives. You also need to be fluent in the language of the business so that you can communicate effectively and deliver counsel that will help make a business impact.
Of course, you need to also have the right tactical skills — a mastery of the craft, understanding of media and social media, writing and public speaking skills and so on, but this is really table-stakes. In addition, creative thinking is critical when it comes to ideas that help brands stand out and break through the noise.
Being analytical and practicing data-driven decision-making are very important. Given that Switchboard focuses on internal communications, I would be remiss if I did not emphasize that data and analytics are particularly important in these areas. To have the greatest impact, you need to be able to understand who are you reaching, how they are engaging with content, what approaches are and aren’t working, and ultimately how and if you are influencing their perceptions.
If there’s anything that the past few years have taught us, it’s the importance of being adaptive and having an ability to manage through change. There is incredible power in being the calm in the eye of the storm – and helping to guide organizations through periods of challenge — and identifying and capitalizing upon opportunities that arise during periods of change and disruption. Related to this is the importance of diplomacy — in many organizations, marketing and communications professionals are uniquely positioned in that they have the ability to bring different areas of the business together and, by helping colleagues find common ground and rally around priorities and programs.
In your role, how do you partner with Internal Communications?
We have an integrated marketing and communications function, and internal communications is closely synced with our external work.
Our internal colleagues also have external aspects to their work. Marketing, External Communications, and Internal Communications all need to be singing off the same song sheet. It's such an unusual time with the Great Resignation to keep employees engaged so it’s essential to communicate the culture, values, and policies of the organization collectively.
We also have a very strong relationship with HR. Part of our operating philosophy as a Marketing & Communications team is to e embrace the opportunity to work with cross-functional partners.
How do you continue learning about the field of Communications?
I believe it's important to have a strong sense of humility and an understanding that, at any level, you need to be constantly learning.
A benefit of being at an agency is that you are often presented with case studies, best practices and insights that cross a range of businesses. When you are in-house, you gain deep knowledge in certain business areas but you must work pro-actively to stay current with marketing and communications trends.
I learn in a few ways. First, through industry events and networking. I'm a member of the CMO Club, Page Society, trustee of the Institute for PR, and PRSA.
Second, I read a lot and try to get news from a diverse range of sources. I particularly love the daily e-newsletters. In a given day, I may read Fortune CEO Daily, The Wall Street Journal’s CMO Today, The Skimm, Ad Age, PRWeek, Campaign, Axios, and more. To do this job effectively, you need to know what’s happening in the world.
Third, I stay on top of trends by talking to my team, in particular young colleagues who are digital natives and have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening now and what’s next.
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☎️ Every edition of The Switchboard is personally curated by me — Julia Levy. This post is based on a live interview conversation and edited for publication. Learn more about why I write.