From Decaying Church to Trend-Defining Brand

Norty Cohen, Moosylvania

est. 2003

In 2003 Norty Cohen was ready for the next big thing.

He’d left his position as COO at Zipatoni to found his own agency, starting by renting desk space from Eric Thoelke in Midtown, then, as the agency grew, renting out an entire floor in the office building where TOKY was then housed.

He knew he needed his own location, but he could never have anticipated the nearly 30,000 square foot space that had his name on it.

The Maplewood Baptist Church was built in the mid-1930s. When it came to Cohen’s attention it was still in use, but in desperate need of attention. The imposing redbrick church, along with the adjoining building which had once been used as an elementary school but was currently unoccupied, sprawled across an expanse of lush green lawn, dominating the corner lot and begging for tuck-pointing and a new roof. Inside it boasted the original HVAC system which was challenged even more by the state of the soaring stained glass windows which, although beautiful, were not effective at keeping outside air out or inside air in.  

In spite of the comprehensive repairs required and the fact that it was a much larger footprint than he had intended to take on, Cohen couldn’t stop thinking about the possibilities. Much like Westmeyer’s decision to refurbish a vintage gas station in Webster Groves a decade later, Cohen saw this depressed corner as a place to do more than establish a business. He believed that if the stately building were to be transformed into a St. Louis landmark it would provide his agency with a uniquely recognizable brand while having a have a significant impact on the neighborhood.

He began negotiations and finally completed the purchase of the church/school property in 2005. And that’s when the real work started.

Cohen’s intention was to preserve as much of the elegance of the building and its campus as possible, but even more important to him was that the space was set up to foster the highest levels of creativity and collaboration. In spite of (or because of) his experience with large marketing departments and agencies, Cohen says he’s always hated traditional offices. He didn’t want plush corner suites with doors that closed. He wanted an environment that was fluid, where people could take their work into the space that was most conducive for their personal preferences and for the job at hand.

In the end, he got everything he wanted. When you pass through the double doors into the reception area your eye is drawn up to the soaring cathedral ceiling and your first instinct as you come to the center of the vast room  is to turn around to take in the arched panels of stained glass above what once would have held the choir loft.  The original wooden floors gleam in natural light coming through more stained glass on each side of the space, yet the graceful twin curves of modern metal stairs leading to the old choir loft, don’t seem at all out of place. Nor does the sleek reception desk in front of the raised platform where a pulpit once stood. 

The moose appears everywhere, even in stuffed form, although Cohen is quick to debase any notion that he was the cause of the creature’s demise. That offers no incongruence either since this is clearly the “home of the moose” as much as it is the corporate offices of a successful marketing agency.

Once past the grandeur of the reception area you navigate the “back stairs” into bright workspace with open desks that invite “drop by” collaboration combined with secluded corners, perfect for those times when head-down concentration is required. Cohen's renovations included the old kitchen, which is now a professional Grade A certified, commercial kitchen, perfect for team building/baking, and the cafeteria, which has been turned into a coffee shop-vibed employee lounge with booths and round tables for kicking back for a conflab with a cup of joe.  

But it was the building he didn’t necessarily need, the old school annex, that surprisingly led to a new personal brand for Cohen as well as his latest enterprise.

Initially he was in a quandary about what the building would be suited for that would complement Moosylvania but provide a separate income stream. A believer in research and focus groups, he hit on the idea of converting the space into a research facility with meeting and observation rooms, and Hatch was born.

Hatch was launched in October of 2006 within the school part of the property.  This was about the same time that the world started caring about the buying power of the youngest generation; the Millennials. Cohen was diving deep into research about how this demographic interacted with brands, what they expected from brands, and ultimately what it took for a brand to earn their loyalty. He took his findings on the road and became an in-demand speaker on the topic and Moosylvania’s “The Top Brands Report” has been repeatedly featured in publications such as The New York TimesForbes, and Business Insider.

Not only has this research been a differentiator in what Moosylvania brings to the market, it’s also been a platform for Cohen to establish his personal brand as a thought leader. In the last two years Cohen has penned two booksThe Participation Game: How the Top 100 Brands Build Loyalty in a Skeptical World, in 2017 and Join the Brand: Building Loyal Communities and the Need for Belonging, in 2018.

Hatch is no longer housed at 7305 Marietta. It was sold in 2013, and Cohen converted the space into a community asset – a co-working space called Maplework, a combination of open desks and workstations, conference rooms, and private offices, which opened in 2018.

Cohen also has a “private brand” of sorts that I discovered quite by accident during our interview. I mentioned that I have an office at Covo in downtown St. Louis at Fourth and Pine and Cohen immediately responded with, “Really? I used to play there!” He must have seen my bafflement because he reminded me that that location used to be the hottest nightspot in the region. And when he said “play” he wasn’t referring to anything agency-related but rather his passion-gig of playing drums. He may not play at Fourth and Pine anymore, but he hasn’t given up the drums and occasionally plays with a 70’s style cover band.

Cohen's passion for music also inspired him to revive the choir loft space, where he set up a full stage, equipped with sounds system, lights, and video projection system. The space was recently launched as Rafters, which is available for private parties and open to non-profit groups for unique fundraisers. 

About that “uniquely recognizable brand” that Cohen was creating when he undertook the reclaiming of an aging behemoth? It helps to know that Cohen credits Jay Ward, the creator of the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle, with designing the first “mobile marketing campaign.”

Back in the early 1960’s Ward got a Bullwinkle (that’s right, the moose) costume and went around the country with a “petition” to gain statehood for the fictitious "Republic of Moosylvania". He took the signatures all the way to D.C., to the grounds of the White House, and proclaimed that Moosylvania should be recognized as a state. Cohen has a collection of Rocky and Bullwinkle memorabilia and Moosylvania has a line of swag all their own to commemorate the moose.

In that context it’s obvious why the imposing building was the perfect home for the Moosylvania brand. The façade looks more like an embassy than it does the home of a creative agency. If you didn’t know that the agency is housed in what once was a place of worship you might double-check the address before approaching the three-tiered rise of concrete steps and massive double doors. 

Banners hang on each side of the three-story stained glass window that rises above the doors, each banner bearing a circular seal that depicts the silhouette of a moose “trippant” or striding forward with one hoof raised. And, if you were paying attention, upon starting your climb you might have noticed a matching set of plaques on the brick columns at the base of the steps. One reads, “7303 Marietta” while the other reads, “Republic of Mooslyvania.” 

The Republic of Moosylvania may not have achieved statehood, but Cohen has achieved his vision of rescuing a decaying corner and turning it into a gracious campus, a community landmark, a thriving creative agency, and an unforgettable brand statement.