For most of its 33 year history, Cohn & Wolfe was known as a creative hot-shop, even as it was acquired by Burson-Marsteller, and expanded beyond its Atlanta roots to become a national, and eventually an international, player. The creative positioning served to distinguish the firm from larger competitors, giving rise to a unique culture inside the agency, and creating a clear point of difference for clients.

But at sometime during the boom of the late 90s, Cohn & Wolfe decided it wanted to be play on the same field as the big boys. It wanted to be a top 10, full-service agency. And as it expanded from its consumer and sports marketing roots into other areas—healthcare, technology, corporate—it appeared to lose some of what made it special.

So at the dawn of the new millennium, Cohn & Wolfe found itself the fourth string public relations agency of the WPP Group, smaller than Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller and Ogilvy, but not necessarily different. In harsh economic times, it was not a good positioning. New chief executive Donna Imperato realized that right away, as she prepared for her first presentation to WPP’s management, when merging the firm with one its larger siblings was clearly an option on the table.

She recognized that Cohn & Wolfe’s creative reputation needed to be rebuilt—and in a way that clearly differentiated the firm from other large agencies.

“This has always been a very creative company,” says Doug Buemi, the firm’s vice chairman and head of its west coast operations, as well as the leader of the new creativity initiative. “Now we are looking for ways to make it more of a differentiator. I think we’re just as creative as we ever. But we have moved into some new areas where the definition of creativity is different.”

Buemi’s firm, Douglas Consulting Group, acquired by Cohn & Wolfe in the late 90s, has a long-standing relationship with Hilton Hotels, which includes working with the hospitality company on several internal communications assignments. It was during one those assignments that Buemi met up with organizational development trainer Martin Lowery.

“Hilton was doing some training that touched on issues like emotional intelligence,” says Buemi. “It was designed to help them leverage their full creative potential and to help them unleash creativity on a group level.”

Buemi took an interest in Lowery’s work, and immediately saw how it could be applied in a public relations agency setting.

“When you put people with different kinds of creativity together you get opposing ideas, and opposing ideas give rise to fresh thinking, fresh ideas,” Buemi says. “That’s the central idea behind brainstorming.”

There are two elements to the approach followed by Lowery and Colorado-based company Emergenetics, which studies patterns of thinking and different types of creativity and has updated the traditional left-brain, right-brain classifications to incorporate modern cognitive science. The first element involves assessing each individual’s “thought preferences,” the way they absorb information and solve problems. The second involves taking that information to design groups of people who complement each other, putting them into a stimulating creative environment, and letting them brainstorm.

Emergenetics focuses on four primary thinking attributes: analytical, structural, social and conceptual. “Because individuals are genetically and environmentally unique,” says the company, “not everyone has an equal aptitude or preference for using each thinking or behavioral attribute. Some people use more of their analytical processes, while others use more of their social processes; some are highly expressive, others are inflexible.”

Emergentics clients complete an online survey, which asks questions about the way they make decisions, their personal and work habits, goals and relationships, ultimately resulting in a unique “Emergenetics profile.” (Mine says I’m a conceptual thinker: “imaginative, intuitive about ideas, visionary, enjoys to be unusual, learns by experimenting. In fact, I’m 79 percent conceptual. I’m only 5 percent social: “intuitive about people, socially aware, sympathetic, empathic, learns from others.” My wife would agree.)

Cohn & Wolfe has encouraged all its people to take the Emergenetics questionnaire, despite some initial reservations. “We did find people were concerned about being labeled,” says Buemi. “We had to make it clear that people who are balanced in terms of their creative approach are just as creative as people at the extremes like me.”

There was also a concern that public relations would attract too many of the same kind of creative thinkers. It was soon dispelled.

“We were worried about the phenomenon that company leaders tend to hire in their own image,” says Buemi. “But one of the things about public relations is that we are very non-departmentalized. Unlike the advertising business for example, we don’t have creative people and account planners. Our people have to be creative people and sales people and media people and client relations people. So we have people of different types.”

What Buemi has found is differences between Cohn & Wolfe offices. In New York, for example, there’s a balance between conceptual and analytical thinkers, while the management team includes individuals strong in each quadrant, but in Los Angeles—his own office—the staff was much more weighted toward the conceptual end of the continuum, although it has become much more balanced since the test was first administered.

Now Cohn & Wolfe is using the Emergenetics tests as the starting point for a new brainstorming process, which not only brings together different kinds of thinkers but also aims to put them in an environment where they can all contribute.

“The classic brainstorming approach in this industry is what I call mindsuck,” says Buemi. “You get a bunch of people in a room and you try to pull ideas out of them. We wanted to get beyond that.”

There are at least four key elements to a successful brainstorming, says Buemi. The first is providing the right challenge, bringing together opposing ideas; the second is location, which can have a dramatic impact (“it doesn’t help that we often end up in a conference room with no outside windows,” says Buemi); the third is having the right surroundings, including creative stimuli; and the fourth is the process of broadening the ideas, building them out.

“The element that pulls all this together is trust,” he says. “If you trust the people you’re with, you won’t be afraid to use your inner child.”

While that term has unfortunate pop-psychology connotations, Buemi doesn’t use it casually. “If you take an ordinary household item to a group of kids and ask them what else it could be, they let their imaginations loose. One says it could be a rocket ship; another says it could be a submarine. They don’t care how silly it sounds. That’s something we lose as we get older. It’s why it’s more difficult to learn a new language when you’re older, because you’re afraid to mispronounce a word.

“People have to trust each other so they don’t care if they make a mistake.”

The process requires the commitment of top management, and Imperato and her leadership team are squarely behind it. “One of the problems is that people don’t invest enough time in brainstorming,” says Kathryn Metalfe, who runs the firm’s New York office. “There’s so much pressure to be billable.”

But the effort is underscored by a new professional development initiative that places a heavy emphasis on creativity. The training program includes a series of puzzles that are designed so they can only be solved optimally by a team of different creative thinkers. “They’re not necessarily public relations problems,” says Buemi. “They might be special problems or inventory problems. But what we find is that as we add people to the team or take people away the creative process either gains momentum and speeds up or it slows down.”

By the end of the year, Buemi says, 60 percent of the firm’s North American employees will have been through the training program.

“People are very excited first that we are making the investment and second that creativity is not just one person going from office to office sharing his or her thinking,” says Metcalfe. “Every agency says it’s creative, but this is us putting our money where our mouth is.”

People are excited because the initiative involves everyone in the organization. That wasn’t always the case. Says Metcalfe, “When you have a new business opportunity, for example, there’s often a feeling that the senior people are the ones responsible for coming up with the big ideas. They are supposed to have all the answers. But there’s a real advantage to drawing ideas from every level of the organization.”

“What we have found is that when you make creativity part of the culture and when you give people information about themselves, people get very excited,” says Buemi. “The idea that there are different forms of creativity in particular is very exciting to people, because it’s inclusive. That’s going to be a big source of advantage for us going forward.”