Citizen names Nick Cowling CEO to lead global growth

The exec explains his new role, which will see him shift focus toward aggressive international growth and M&A.

Citizen Relations has promoted Nick Cowling into the role of CEO, tapping him in an increasingly international role as the agency looks to scale rapidly in other markets.

“I don’t think it’s much of a secret: my boss, Brett Marchand, has great aspirations to grow the company quickly and in part, that will be organic, but it will also be through mergers and acquisitions,” Cowling tells strategy. “I will be looking for agencies that are really going to help drive our strategy. In some cases, that will be sector experience, and in other cases it will be expanding our capabilities, whether it’s digital or analytics or adding value elsewhere.”

Citizen is aggressively pursuing the opportunity to scale because of its strong performance in recent quarters. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency had to adjust both to the initial stall and then the reality of “having to completely transform our operating model to forced remote working,” explains Cowling. But “by the end of 2020, we were roaring. It was an amazing third and fourth quarter, and in 2021, we had our best financial performance in Citizen’s history.”

However, “it wasn’t even just financial,” he adds. “Our product was noticeably the best it’s ever been, and we regularly measure employee engagement as a factor of how our people are doing and that was in amazing shape. Our client satisfaction was also through the roof. Really, we are firing on all cylinders.”

Cowling points to growth within the company – including the addition of a new social impact practice last June led by Shilpa Tiwari, EVP of social impact and sustainability, as well as the establishment of its integrated team The Hub and the appointment of Citizen’s first CCO, Josh Budd, last May – both as proof of its recent success and a driver of it. In 2022, the agency won recognition for work with SickKids, Loblaws and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

He says the goal now is for the company to scale internationally, with the U.S., Europe, and Asia as priority markets – in that order. That becomes his primary focus in the new role, while Citizen’s “formidable executive team” will be “driving the day-to-day with their teams in each market.”

“We’re pretty flush with great agencies in Canada, but the size of the market in the U.S. is so much bigger by scale and there’s more marketing spend there than probably anywhere else in the world,” he says. “But it’s not just about being great in those other markets – that will help Canada, too. The more strength we have in leading markets around the globe, the more opportunity it creates for us to work on global accounts, programs and campaigns.”

For Cowling, this is the next step in a natural progression. He joined the company in 2010 as VP and general manager before being promoted to president for Canada in 2015. A year later, he was named president for North America, before being tapped to lead innovation internationally in 2018.