Zone chief on trading independence for client access with sale to Cognizant

James Freedman, chief executive of Zone

London-based digital agency Zone has exchanged its independence for access to some of the biggest boardrooms in the world according to its chief executive James Freedman, talking The Drum through its acquisition by booming US IT consultancy Cognizant.

On Thursday morning (26 October), the independent agency of 17 years announced that it had been bought by a US consultancy of considerable scale but hitherto little renown in the marketing industry. The deal, terms of which remain undisclosed, bring Zone's 220 staff into a family of almost 260,000 employees. However Freedman syas the agency's brand, staff, board and offices in London, Bristol and Cologne will remain and operate as “business as usual” following the takeover.

Freedman claims that in the last 12 months, the agency has had more acquisition offers levied at it than at any other time in its history. “Approaches have become more common, more frequent,” he says.

On the fit with a company best known for its technology services, Freedman says: “We are going through a massive time of digital disruption. Clients have to move really quickly to try and make better customer experience, they are worried about the future, there are all sort new competitors coming in and eating their lunch, so they are looking to find people that can help them better connect with customers.

“What better place to look than tech companies, they are why this disruption is happening.”

What is Cognizant?

Freedman is candid that before this deal came to fruition, he too was not fully aware of the heft of Cognizant, a New Jersey headquartered IT consultancy that reported $13.49bn revenue in 2016. Its clout is not to be underestimated, however: in the last 24 hours, it has not only announced the Zone acquisition but also confirmed a deal to buy Netcentric, another digital marketing player which works across the UK, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and more.

On top of this, the company ranked 17th on the New Fortune Future 50 list, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nvidia, Intercontinental Exchange and Monster Drinks.

Freedman says: “To be honest, when I first met the guys I had vaguely heard of them. I knew a little but what is nice about them is they are very self-deprecating about their success.

“We have been really impressed by the quality of their client work and the deep relationship they have clients across different sectors.”

But more vitally, Freedman believes the relationship can deliver clients to Zone. “Part of the reason we were won over is that they have access to the boardrooms of many of the leading companies in the world. We think that having those doors open and allowing us to share our expertise with those guys will be mutually beneficial. So hopefully we will be working with new clients as well as our current ones.”

While proud of the work of the agency throughout the years, Freedman admits “there was a ceiling to the size of engagement clients are willing to give us,” due to the stature of the agency. “With Cognizant’s backing we are hopeful that we are going to win big.

“We always wanted to be the best digital agency in Europe and with them as partners we can carry on competing with the big guys.”

After 17 years at the helm of the company, Freedman is ready for the next stage leading Zone, and says he has no plans to leave the company as a result of the changes. “I am here for the long term as long as they want to keep me. I like it here and what else am I going to do? My children have grown up now and I don’t like being on the beach.”

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John McCarthy

John is an entertainment marketing reporter at The Drum. He writes about the amazing marketing stories coming from the movie, TV, music and video game industries. He's also the hunt for the weirder trends in marketing and advertising.

Fuelled by tea.

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